January 19. After leaving Paris, our Air India flight shows a film on basic w.c. behavior, evidently for the enlightenment of people who have never been in one: how toilets are flushed, how hot and cold water can be conjured from a faucet, how to use a wash basin, how hands and faces are dried with towels.
January 20. New Delhi. A stultifying, soul-corroding airport. Older men squat on their haunches near the walls, while young ones in ill-fitting red denims go through motions of sweeping the floor. During a seven-hour wait for a constantly delayed Royal Nepal plane, we can do little in the dim light except watch the ebb and flow of other arriving and departing herds. “Have patience, have patience,” a ticket agent says, joining his palms together (the namaste) as if to pray. Most of the people in the boarding-area “lounge” have Mongoloid features, but turbanned Sikhs are here, too, Hindu women in saris clutching strings of “rosary” beads, and American hippie counterculture types, with backpacks and trekking gear. An alluring young woman, long braid, bangle bracelets, suckles her baby on the floor in the lotus position.
Launchings of new Nepali airplanes are accompanied by the ritual sacrifice of animals. Mercifully not detained for such ceremonies, our Caravelle rises steeply over sprawling tenements and parched, rutted land intersected by irrigation ditches. The stewardesses—violet saris, flowers in their hair, the vermilion tikka on their foreheads, collyrium on their eyelids—remind us to advance our watches fifteen minutes, an odd, Through the Looking Glass differentiation; but, then, today in the Nepali calendar is the seventh in the month of Magh in the year 2046.
Halfway to the Nepal capital, the Himalayas burst into view, the white top of the world. In reddish late afternoon light we descend over green hills, terraced rice paddies, and—surprisingly, since Katmandu is southeast, not north, of Delhi, but also appropriately, since the form originated here—a pagoda. Tribhuvan terminal is new, but the brown filigreed woodwork is in traditional Nepalese style. We buy rupees and surrender our bags at Customs where they are ransacked, a consequence, no doubt, of yesterday’s interception of a cache of heroin from Hong Kong. Five rapacious porters, one per bag and two dollars each, push their way toward a small taxi, leaving us to scrimmage against a wall of outstretched hands, like those of tantric Buddhist gods with a superhuman multiplicity of arms.
Theoretically, traffic is to the left, but the road is indivisibly narrow and we encounter only one other automobile. The city streets are unpaved, dust-clouded, choked with people and animals—sacred cows (given wide berth), goats, pigs, chickens, dogs (but no cats: they embody evil spirits)—through which Hondas honk and bicycles weave like figure skaters. In the absence of street lights, the driver takes bearings from cooking fires and the candles of the small shrines and temples that are on every block. The doorman at the Yak and Yeti Hotel brings Gunga Din to mind, perhaps because of his fondness for saluting.
The furnishings in our teak-paneled rooms—mini-bar, telephones, TV (one channel, but with a news program in English)—are Japanese. The windows are permanently locked, probably because of a rich entomological activity—fly whisks are a fixture in Nepalese genre painting, even in depictions of life in heaven—and the outside sills are beds of nails, not for fakirs but against the noisy pigeons that nevertheless roost there during the night. In the restaurant, five booths surrounding an open wood fire with brass funnel chimney, we drink Pol Roget and eat Boris’s beetless borscht; Boris Lissanevitch—his life is recounted in Michael Peissel’s Tigers for Breakfast—is a White Russian who danced for Diaghilev before emigrating to Nepal. The waiters, white livery with red sashes and Nehru-type topis—the national headgear for men—bring what we point to on the English side of the menu with almost no verbal exchanges. By ten o’clock the streets are totally dark, and, except for a taxi stand of three-wheeled bicycle rickshaws, deserted—a curfew, perhaps, because of political tensions. We walk in the hotel garden among small statues of elephants. Ganesh, the elephant-headed son of Shiva and Parvati, is the god of “auspiciousness,” whatever that means.
I go to bed in a state of high expectancy. Ever since New York’s Asia House exhibition in 1975, Nepal: Where the Gods Are Young, ancient Nepali statuette sculpture has seemed to me the most perfect in the representation of human form, except that these figurines represent deities (albeit in the image of man), are venerated as icons, and are not primarily works of art at all; nor do they merely “represent,” since the spirit of the god is believed to reside in its image. I am thinking above all of a numinous ninth-century Bodhisattva Maitreya (the future Buddha) and, of the same period, an incomparably graceful Parvati with “blossoming breasts” (in a word, abhinavayauvanodbhinnakuchabhara), both in gilt-copper; an exquisitely modeled twelfth-century Indra with jeweled diadem; and a fifteenth-century silver image of embracing tantric gods: locked in each other’s eyes, arms, legs (and locking out all thoughts of the separation of mind and matter, of “I” and “Thou,” subject and object), their bodies melt together in an eidolon of Buddhist nonduality.
I am elated, too, to be in the land of the birthplace of Siddhartha Gautama—at Lumbini, in elephant and tiger country: “Here the Buddha Sakyamuni was born” is the inscription on a column from the third century BC, excavated in 1896. (Or should it be “Buddha,” in view of the succession of his rebirths? His predecessors remind us of the Essene role model, and the description “the god who has appeared on earth and undergone the fate of man” sounds Christian.) Here in Nepal he may already have begun to dispute with the subtle Brahmin sages about the irrelevance, in a world of human suffering, of preachments on the origins and meanings of the Universe, of how the Infinite could produce the Finite. And here he may have put forth his belief that “within this mortal body, conscious and endowed with a mind, is the world and its origins, and its passing away.”
And I am curious about the phallocentric culture—including tantric erotic practices, largely stamped out in India by the Raj, but living on here—the social institutions, and the ingrown mores of a landlocked, high, and remote state that isolated itself still further in fear of annexation by British India and closed its borders from 1816 to 1950; left entirely to its own resources, Nepal must have developed an eccentric character. I am not a little frightened, however, of a country in which men still volunteer to have their tongues pierced with a steel spike to ensure direct ascent to heaven when they die; and of a country in which animals are still slaughtered on feast days to propitiate gods: in the annual celebration of the Durga deity’s victory over the buffalo demon, Mahasisura, 1,008 buffaloes are beheaded with the kharga sword in a temple courtyard, in which the executioners stand ankledeep in blood. And what of a country whose king must receive yearly permission to continue his rule from a four-year-old “living goddess”? More Lewis Carroll fantastication.
January 21. By mid-morning the fog has burned off and the mountains and the skyline of spires and tridents (Shiva’s weapon) begin to emerge. Katmandu’s only entirely paved; reasonably smooth, and comparatively negotiable road extends from the Royal Palace along Durbah Marg (Palace Way), which has side-walks, shops with plate-glass windows, even street lights. Here, as everywhere else, buses and trucks trail smoke-screens more suitable to chemical warfare. Here, too, traffic is regulated by the scrawny cows that amble into the middle of the road and sometimes settle there for a nap. Road signs, billboards, store-front advertisements, and the bizarre slogans proclaimed on posters—“Mother and Motherhood are Greater than Heaven”—are in English.
Patan, thought to be the oldest Buddhist city in the world, is a peerless aggregation of palace, pagoda, and temple architecture, a museum of the art of carving in stone, teak, and tusk, and a medieval world of indescribable misery and squalor. The Archeological Garden possesses many steles with limestone reliefs and some detached wood sculpture, but no example of the jeweled silver and gold figurines shown fifteen years ago in New York. Even so, some of the craftsmanship of those ancient image makers survives, however debased the art. A few families in the Bincha Bahal neighborhood still carve the life of Buddha in ivory, and Newari men, descendants of the oldest inhabitants, still cast bronzes that Newari women still file smooth.
A nineteenth-century engraving of Patan’s Durbah Square reveals only minor differences with the same perspective today. All but one of the eight temples crowded together here are in the Indian “steeple” style, but the exception, Krishna Mandir, in the Mogul tradition and constructed entirely of stone, is more memorable, partly because of the pillar in front of it, which has a gilded statue of Garuda, the bird-god and Vishnu’s aerial vehicle, here in human form kneeling on top. This, and another pillar surmounted by an enthroned king with the hovering hood of a cobra as protective panoply, stand in about the same relation as the St. Theodore and Lion of St. Mark’s columns in the Piazzetta in Venice—the only Orient–Occident parallel that makes any sense to me thus far.
In the food market, dried fish, betel leaves, oranges, giant cauliflower, radishes, and leeks are stacked on the ground, while salt crystals, chillies and grain, ginger, orange turmeric, cardamom, and buckets of curds are piled on tables. Goats, sacred monkeys, and untouchable cows mingle with a teeming humanity of, mostly, barefoot children, many of them young girls with still younger brothers and sisters strapped to their backs; Katmandu valley is one of the most densely populated regions in the world. The women, dark eyes outlined in black kohl, are remarkably beautiful. Many of them carry head loads, which accounts for their erect, regal bearing without them.
The center of the seventeenth-century Sundari Chowk (courtyard) is the Malla king Siddhi Narsingh’s octagonal bath, Tusha Hiti, celebrated for its ornately carved stone walls (depicting the Nagas—sacred serpents—rain goddesses, and Asta Matrikas—mother-earth goddesses) and sculptures of aquatic animals, fish, turtles, crocodiles; but only the conch-shaped basin, a yoni symbol, has escaped mutilation (or been restored). On the walls of the adjoining temple of Degu Talle, the personal deity of the Malla dynasty (1350–1769), nature has gnawed away some of the decorative intricacies of the wooden struts.
While we are trying to imagine the place as it must have been, a small boy asks in good English where we come from. When I confess, he responds with “Albany is the capital,” with which we become more interested in him than in the history he begins to relate. Handsome, shining with intelligence, this fourteen-year-old is fluent in English, French, Italian, German, and Japanese. (He has lived in Japan, but can he have learned his grammatically correct versions of the other languages from tourists?) Nor is he simply reciting factual information by rote, since he answers questions unrelated to his work as a guide, provides reasoned explanations, and sustains conversations. I am reminded of the untutored mathematical prodigy in Huxley’s “Young Archimedes” who draws Pythagoras’ theorem in squares and triangles with the char-coal end of a stick.
We follow our prodigy to the eleventh-century Buddhist monastery, Uku Bakal, and to the Temple of the Thousand Buddhas, as he expounds on the significances of symbols. Of these, the ubiquitous lingam-and-yoni looks like a juicer, a dome in a circular strainer with a spout to drain the liquid, and was used in something of the same way, since liquids were poured over it in ritual bathing. Unlike these Hindu phalluses, some of the Buddhist images are erotic, even to contemporary sensibilities, above all the dancing damsels carved in wooden temple struts—“admirably formed for amorous dalliance,” to borrow Boswell’s phrase—who shake trees to shower the Buddha’s pathway with scented petals.
Patan’s side-by-side Hindu and Buddhist temples serve the devotees of both, a natural syncretism. Some shrines of Shiva-as-Bhairava (his most fearsome form) include both the Shiva lingam and toylike images of Buddhist shrines (stupas), and in painting and manuscript illumination stylistic differentiations between the art of the two religions are often impossible to discern. Yet the same god is identified by Buddhists as the bodhisattva of compassion and by Hindus as the lord of death.
The glossy, glamorizing, and romanticizing photographs in travel books are no preparation for the wretchedness of the human condition in Patan. Plumbing seems to be unheard of, though it existed centuries ago in the drainage systems of temples, and even latrine ditches are apparently nonexistent: human as well as animal feces litter the streets and alleys (the Durga goddess decreed that only a man found defecating in the direction of the sun could kill the buffalo demon), and the whole city is an open toilet reeking of excrement and urine. A hill of garbage on which pigs are feasting and children scavenging rises directly behind a row of primitive dwellings in the middle of the city. An old stone bath near it, the size of Tusha Hiti, has become a cesspool in which, despite the filth and slime, a young girl is wading to her knees trying to find a clean patch of water in which to wash.
On the path to the sacred Bagmati River, a tributary of the Ganges (Benares is less than one hundred miles away), bicycles, motorcycles, and men and women balancing bamboo shoulder poles force their way through the ragged populace, stirring the nauseating, dust-filled air; no wonder most people are coughing, expectorating, blowing noses into hands. Many faces are vacant and imbecilic, no doubt from prenatal and all-other-age malnutrition, but also from incest, which must be common. Medical and dental care is totally unknown, and whatever the ratio of doctors to population in Patan, it is reputedly one per 300,000 in the provinces.
At the river bank, cremation fires are stoked high on two of the ghats, the funeral-pyre platforms, and the air is laden with the stomach-turning stench of burning human flesh. Across the river, women in bright saris labor in minutely segmented fields, much as their Iron Age ancestors did and with similar implements.
Driving to Swayambhunath (the primordial Buddha), now a Tibetan refugee center, we climb the 330 steps to the top of the mountain where Siddhartha Gautama is thought to have preached among the monkeys and pines. On a terrace guarded by a mythic leonine creature is the statue of a thunderbolt (symbol of the Absolute, a male instrument), not Jovian-jagged but in the shape of a dagger. The two-thousand-year-old white-domed shrine at the summit, reproduced on page 22, is renowned for its painted pairs of lotus-shaped eyes and inverted-question-mark noses (representing dharma, virtue), a device peculiar to Nepal and the country’s most famous landmark—what the Eiffel Tower is to Paris. Above the all-seeing eyes, which survey the world from the four cardinal directions, the stupa is crowned by thirteen upward-tapering, ramplike, Guggenheim Museum-like coils, for the thirteen stages to Enlightenment. Shaven-headed and saffron-robed monks circumambulate the stupa clockwise, chanting the mantra “om mani padme hum” and spinning prayer wheels in eternal supplication of heaven. In an adjoining shrine, priests with topis like tea cozies are reverently placing the evening meal in front of a golden Buddha with curly hair, bow-shaped brows, and elongated ear lobes. Outside, monkeys scamper over the dome and swing from vines and trees, while ten-foot horns groan a Tibetan version of “Taps.” TV antennas sprout from two smaller buildings below the temple compound, while at the foot of the mountain women inch their way around the perimeter on their stomachs.
Back in the Yak and Yeti, I forego the Nepalese version of Sesame Street on local TV and finish Siegfried Lienhard’s Songs of Nepal, an anthology of verse in Newari, the state language of Nepal before the Gurkha conquest in the eighteenth century. Much of the subject matter, and all of it from the five centuries of the medieval period, derives from Sanskrit literature; but a general history of Newari chronicles (Puranas), late Buddhist sutras, manuals on dharma, stotras, dramas, epics (the Mahabharata, the Ramayana) has yet to be written. If I have understood Lienhard, the chief difference between classical and modern Newari is the alteration produced by apocope, the contraction of the last two syllables of most words. What Songs of Nepal lacks, the verse being sound primarily, is a table giving both pronunciation and translation, as in Garma Chang’s translations of The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa.
The love poetry is more engaging than the religious, at least in English prose. I learn from it that in sexual union (Yab-Yum) between deities, the goddess sits astride and facing the god (in the lap of the gods?), what The joy of Sex calls the pompoir position. “He crossed his legs and made me sit in his lap,” Gopi tattles on Krishna, and in the poem “Krishna and Sudamen,” the line, “One embraces one’s wife on one’s lap,” is a refrain. (As represented in art, mortals, like most mammals, practice the rear entry.) I also learn that a wife who wishes to show deep affection for her spouse sleeps with her head adjacent to his feet, the reverse of Leopold, vis-à-vis Molly, Bloom. (Not necessarily from affection but according to Hindu law a bride must wash her husband’s feet and then drink the water.) In both Newari and Hindu poetry the body of the beloved is described from toe to top, her heels compared to eggshells, hips to pillows, vulva to an oil-lamp, breasts to the water outlets in a fountain, hairknot to a spinning spool.
Lienhard includes songs in music type transcribed by the ethnomusicologist Inge Skog. When both the vocal and the instrumental versions of a piece are given, the differences between them greatly outnumber the resemblances. While the rhythms are primitive, especially of the cymbal and drum “tabla” (an hourglass-shaped drum is common in Nepalese genre painting), the microtonal inflections and the embellishments—as in Nepalese wood carving—are complex beyond the resources of notation. (The bamboo flutes tooted and touted in Katmandu streets sound the “Western”-export pentatonic scale.) But if I have been unable to form an appreciation of the totally foreign reality of Nepali music, I must declare an even greater barrier with regard to pre-eighteenth-century Nepali painting. Without knowing the stories in what is essentially an art of pictorial narration, I am lost in a jungle of symbols. Moreover, the disregard of perspective and laws of gravity makes me dizzy.
January 22. The activities of the royal family occupy most of The Rising Nepal’s front page. King Birendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev is not only the world’s unique Hindu monarch but also a reincarnation of Vishnu, a ruler, therefore, by divine right, a god-king quite literally. But everything in Nepal, where Hindu theological texts mention three million deities, is related to religion. The recent coming of age (eighteen) of Crown Prince Dipendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev was observed by a procession from temple to temple, the heir-apparent riding in a carriage accompanied by Gurkha foot guards armed with kukri knives and wearing Scottish-style tartan-draped uniforms—another Lewis Carroll touch. Each September the king must call on the “Living Goddess” Kumara (the word means “virgin,” but the name is that of Shiva’s daughter-in-law) to receive the red bindi on his forehead from this four-or five-year-old, and with it her permission to continue his reign. The Kumara is chosen from a Newari Buddhist family. Like Mozart’s Pamina, she must undergo tests for bravery, in the child’s case by betraying no fear in a dark room in which demons howl and the bloody heads of (real) sacrificial animals are displayed. On occasion she is borne in a palankeen through the city. Her divinity ceases at the onset of puberty.
The Rising Nepal extols the glories and virtues of the monarchy, and a feature of each issue is the king’s own “thought for the day.” Item: “All of us should concentrate our energies on the task of national construction and economic development, steering clear of useless political polemics.” But the first benefits of the national economic development, referred to locally as 75 percent tourism and 25 percent drugs, have been channeled to the construction of a vast new Royal Palace and the purchase of royal black Mercedes limousines—whose passage halts all traffic including ambulation. Every room, shop wall, lobby in Katmandu displays a portrait of the king and queen, who rarely remove their dark glasses even when enthroned.
Today’s feature article claims that the present king’s father, Mahendra, son of King Tribhuvan, “farsightedly banned the party system in order to safeguard national identity;…it is under the institution of the Crown that the Nepalese are enjoying democratic rights and justice.” One can only say that the widespread enjoyment of Mahendra’s democratic rights is far from evident. The phrase “partyless democratic system of the panchayats” (district legislative organizations) is so mindlessly repeated that the reader begins to overlook the contradiction in terms. In actuality, when a social democratic party won a substantial majority in the 1959 national election, Mahendra jailed the prime minister and the cabinet and announced his own direct rule. Among his not-so-notable building projects was the erection of an obelisk at the Buddha’s birthplace in Lumbini inscribed with a list of his own achievements.
Birendra, succeeding his father in 1972, blamed the government’s failure to improve living standards on the corruption of the panchayats. When violence erupted in 1979, he agreed to hold a referendum on a democratic system, whose results were overturned in a rigged election the following year. While royal proclamations were granting more freedom, in actuality every vestige of representative government disappeared. This oppressive, archaic system was fully supported by Indira and Rajiv Gandhi.
Birendra has the reputation of being remote and wholly unconcerned with public relations. After a high-toll earthquake two years ago, he put off visiting the area for two months. Last year, he purchased anti-aircraft weapons from China, thereby provoking an economic blockade from India. Student demonstrators appeared in Katmandu’s streets, but to protest the Indian action rather than Birendra’s highhandedness. The king saw the movement as a rebellion, however, shut down the universities, and jailed the students. Today, Birendra is the absolute monarch of an unreconstructed feudal society, and one of the richest men in the world. So much for an Eton education, and a year at Harvard reading political science, not to mention the lessons that might have been learned back home in Nepal from the gods of compassion.
With a yearly per capita income of $150, Nepal ranks as the fourth poorest country in the world. Until a few years ago, only 4 percent of the population was literate, and, even now, only 100,000 in a country of 18 million are able to read the “wall newspaper” distributed monthly to seventy rural districts. Far more terrible, the rate of infant and child mortality is such that the average age of the population is under twenty-one, life expectancy under forty. Not only the gods are young in Nepal: the lives of most mortals are cruelly, or in some circumstances perhaps mercifully, abbreviated. According to artistic convention, the elderly and death are never portrayed, but only serenity and youthful charm. Today’s Rising Nepal announces that “an effort is being made to provide hospitals with modern equipment including X-ray machines.” Nepal still does not have an X-ray!
Among the mammoth sculptures of toothy lions with long, well-groomed manes in the Durbah Square of Bhaktapur is a Narasimba, the angry man-lion incarnation of Vishnu; for some reason angry deities are more corpulent than those in benevolent moods; less mysteriously, the god of wealth is pot-bellied. As a result of the devastating 1934 earthquake, the Square is much wider and more open than the one in Patan. The streets are cleaner, too, and the inhabitants appear to be marginally less indigent, as well as more industrious. Potters are at their huge wheels—the potter caste is the city’s largest—weavers are at their looms, wood carvers ply their jigsaws, stone carvers their hammers and chisels, and one man pedals a foot-powered sewing machine in the middle of the street.
The vendors display yak-hide boots; chowries (yak-tail whisks); the life-size Nava Durga puppets (bulging black eyes like those in eighth-century heads of Bhairava); and the saranghi, a kind of rebec that emits a faint, squeaky sound. A stele in the Patan Archeological Garden depicts Naranda, lord of heavenly musicians (but portrayed as an emaciated, every-rib-showing penitent), playing a four-stringed instrument similar to but larger than this one and plucked rather than bowed; a still larger member of the same family appears in an eighteenth-century cloth painting, an apparition of music-making in heaven, in the Bhaktapur Art Gallery.
Having shown interest in the saranghi, I cannot escape its salesman. “Two hundred dollars.” “Too much.” “Fifty dollars.” “Too much.” “Ten dollars.” I do not purchase it—my baggage is already bursting—but I feel guilty all day; the man was not offering a fake antique but the product of an artisan tradition. Moreover, one musician should always help another. Stravinsky never refused a street fiddler no matter how painful the music.
With its five-tier roof, Bhaktapur’s Nyatapola Temple, walls of baked bricks, a roof structure of wood, is the tallest pagoda in Nepal. Stone sculptures in pairs—muscled and mustachioed wrestlers (malla means wrestler), elephants, lions (in Nepal without ruffs), dragons—flank the outside Palenque-style staircase. Legend says that Devi, the temple’s resident deity, can be seen only at night and only by Brahmin priests, but supposedly the door has not been opened since 1702, when the temple was consecrated. The Peacock Window, a masterpiece of carved woodwork exposed to the elements in a nearby alley, will not survive much longer unless placed behind glass and protected by climate controls. The golden gate, a masterpiece of gildedmetal sculpture, is compared to Ghiberti’s Baptistery doors, but this is farfetched. Bhaktapur boasts one of the country’s sacred sixty-four lingams as well as its largest, an eighty-foot pole erected in a stone yoni and decorated with greenery and banners.
What I dislike about Bhaktapur is its devotion to Vishnu in his manifestation as Ganesh, wisdom and prudence with an elephant’s head. But then, I am repelled by Hindu zoomorphism, the grafting of human thoughts and feelings onto partly animal-shaped stand-ins, the female body with a boar’s head (which reminds me of A Midsummer Night’s Dream), even more than men with the trunks and pendulous ears of elephants. (Nor do I care for gods with more than the normal quota of heads and arms.) Of living animals, goats are the most common here, some of them tethered in upstairs rooms. Non-Hindus are not allowed inside the Teleju Temple, and a soldier stops us from photographing the outside, waving us away with his rifle. Why are soldiers, everywhere so conspicuous in Nepal, guarding places of worship?
Pashupatinath—Shiva as Pashupati is Nepal’s national god—is 2,500 years old. For Shiva worshipers it is one of the three most important pilgrimage sites in Asia. For Westerners with no experience of India, it could register a ten on the Richter scale of cultural shock.
Buddhists were expelled long ago from this Hindu holy ground, and the temples are open only to Hindus. Much longer ago still, when the gods inhabited the earth, Shiva, a god of deed rather than of thought, took the form of a gazelle for an amorous frolic, thereby incurring the wrath of higher-up gods who broke off one of the animal’s horns. This lingam, as it became, was lost in a forest until a wandering cow indicated its whereabouts by miraculously gushing milk on the sacred place. Duly excavated, the lingam was installed behind silver doors in a golden pagoda as Nepal’s top icon. Outside the doors is a larger-than-life image of Nandi, Shiva’s bull, with eyes of diamonds, tail of solid gold, hooves of solid silver. Hindu holy men touch its testicles, then walk around the temple chanting “om nama shivaya” (“I bow to Shiva”). The lingam itself (vajra), a three-foot black stone set in a red yoni (Padma, lotus), can be touched only by an India-born Brahmin priest. The daily ritual of this phallicfetish worship, 4 AM to 8 PM, includes the lustral bathing of the lingam, priestly hymn-singing to it, exposing it to mirrors for self-contemplation, dressing it in golden cloth, serving it lunch (rice with chutney).
Unlike the metamorphosed gazelle horn, many of Pashupatinath’s sculptured lingams are remarkably realistic. In one temple, barren women try to induce fertility by rubbing the phallus of a Shiva-Bhairava with their sex organs. In the erotic unification with the deity, “consciousness of what is outward or what is inward” dissolves, as the Upanishad says, and so it might during mahasukha (orgasm), which, on one plane, even the comparatively puritanical Buddhists, with their celibate clergy, equate with nirvana.
Pashupatinath is Nepal’s holiest cremation site, but an aura of death hangs over it above and beyond the sickening smell of burning bodies. The ghats on the west bank of the Bagmati look like launching pads—which they are, for the journey, or transmigration, of the soul (atman) to a better life. Death, for the Hindu, means relief from suffering, liberation from the bondage of rebirth, the tyranny of the Karmic cycle, “the weary wheel of endless becoming.” “You go to your god and so do not have to come to this life again,” the funeral chant begins. As we walk across the river on the ancient stone bridge, five young men, bare to the waist and wearing white cotton trousers (white signifying the pollution brought by a death in the family), are fanning a fire on a ghat directly below.
The sinister part of the ceremony is the treatment of the moribund. Brought here from all over Nepal, they are carried to the river where, to ensure the peaceful afterlife of the spirit, their feet are dipped into the water. After this baptism of death, they are placed in a house adjoining the ghats, from which their cries and moans are plainly, gruesomely audible. The corpse is also taken to the river, and washed. A piece of camphor is then lighted in the mouth, flowers are placed on the forehead, and a yellow shroud is spread over the upper body before it is lifted to the pyre of burning logs. Unless the cremation is performed by a son—female relatives are not allowed to witness it—the spirit is condemned to wander eternally. Hinduism should have a god of merciful oblivion.
A hundred yards or so downstream from the scattering of the ashes, children play in the shallow water and women wash clothes; at other times ablutions for the expiation of sins take place here. On the opposite side of the river, a stone staircase mounts a steep, wooded hill. At the end of the bridge is a yogi, legs crossed behind his head, body raised and balanced on his hands—the “peacock” asana position (Mayurasana), I think, but the contortion looks more spider- than bird-like. Sadhus, Hindu ascetics, are here too, naked except for wooden chastity belts, and, in one case—for extra mortification—a weight attached to the end of the penis. They have smeared the white ash of cow dung on their bodies, painted their foreheads, and, to symbolize the chaos of the world, tousled their long and greased hair. Their eyes turn inward as in the samadhi trance, but however that may be, their state of consciousness is not normal. One expects them to froth at the mouth.
Monkeys cavort around the ghats and shrines and flocks of vultures perch on the temple roofs. The droppings of the sacred cows are scooped up by hand, pounded into patties, and placed in the sun to dry. The mendicants here are more tenacious than in Katmandu and Patan. To escape them, the specter of the Hindu holies, and the odors of the unwashed living as well as the burning dead, we depart, swooning. Pashupatinath is only two miles from Katmandu’s jet airport. I hope never to return to it in my dreams.
The more I read in the two recondite tomes of Benjamin Walker’s Hindu World, the less I understand of Hindu Reality (Brahman). It is inexpressible, has no qualities, cannot be defined, yet is experienced as concretely as pain. The faculty of reason, at the same time, is as precious in the scheme of Hindu intellectualism as it is in that of “humanistic” Buddhism.
January 23. The great white stupa at Bodhanath, built in the same hemispherical form as Swayambhunath and with the same four pairs of peering eyes and the quizzical noses on the plinth above the dome, is the largest Buddhist shrine in Asia. Bright-colored pennant-shaped streamers flutter around the stupa, suspended from the top. At its base, Tibetan pilgrims turn the 108 prayer wheels with great fervor. An arcade of shops, with carved-woodwork door and window frames, surrounds the shrine, some of them with signs: “VIP Furniture,” “Hollywood Tailors,” “West Point English,” “Siddhartha Pharmacy.” But the throngs of souvenir hawkers (brass Buddhas, daggers, turquoise) are so dense that we are soon fighting our way out.
A tank would be the best means of conveyance for the three miles of gullies and loose stone that comprise the road from Katmandu to Kirtipur, and the city itself, on the summits of twin mountains, is so cratered and rubble-strewn that our automobile cannot enter it. The nearly deserted streets are lined by dilapidated three- and four-storied brick houses with overhanging roofs and carved wooden balconies and window frames. The triple-tiered Bhairava temple, used by Hindus and Buddhists alike, is in even more decrepit condition. People of low caste live outside and beneath the fortifications of the ancient citadel, but the only inhabitants of this tumbledown town that we see are beggars and ragged, barefoot children. “Michael Jackson,” the children say, over and over, like a mantra.
From Kirtipur we take the Arnika Highway—at any rate the map calls it a highway—to a viewing point for Mount Everest and the (only) road to Tibet. The sporadic and rudimentary paving soon deteriorates still further and we bump along as if we had lost not only our tires but also the fellies on the wheels and were riding on the spokes. In a region with brick kilns, an in-construction apartment building has glass windows, which are rare even in Katmandu. The hill houses, thereafter, are mud-masonry huts with thatched roofs. In one village, women winnow the chaff from drying piles of unhusked rice with large, disc-like bamboo nanglos. Farm machinery does not exist.
After an hour or so on the steepest, most vertiginous incline I have ever experienced, on a narrow dirt ledge with only a few brambles between our sputtering car and the bottom of a ravine, we reach a dry stream-bed and manage to turn around in it. Not hiding his disappointment in me, the driver says that we are at an altitude of 12,000 feet and only a few miles from the Tibetan border; but I am short of breath and unable to bring myself to look out of the window. In a few moments, and though the last visible habitation was at least a mile below, several half-clothed urchins appear and a man, carrying what looks like a cudgel, comes running down the road ahead begging rupees.
Back in Katmandu (4,000 feet), the driver deposits us at the residence of a Kumara goddess, Dil Kumari Sakya, who is now a tourist attraction. But after reading the description of her and her pet tortoise in Patricia Roberts’s guidebook Katmandu, “a thin…old woman with…receeding gums,…eyes recessed in deep sockets,…nails lined with dirt,” we decide not to pay our respects.
The driver tries to convince us to watch the sacrifice of 108 animals in the festival of Basanta Panchami, now in full butchery, a thrilling spectacle, he says, not to be missed. But since I have never forgotten the only corrida I ever attended, and became a vegetarian (temporarily) after seeing the slaughter-house sequences in Fassbinder’s In a Year With 13 Moons, I do not want to know more about the celebration. The only Severed Heads I can bear to think of are those of the Australian industrial rock group with that name.
I spend the evening packing—and thinking that while cremation is the best way, inhumation gave us Etruscan art and most of our archaeology; and that the number of people who have realized that God is dead before and after Nietzsche said so is infinitesimal compared to the number of people who have not.
January 24. After a few minutes air-borne en route to Thailand, Everest is in view, or a mountain that seems higher than any of the others.
February 20. New York. The news from Katmandu: a “Movement to Restore Democracy and Human Rights” launched a protest two days ago, Nepal’s “Democracy Day,” and was met by guns and clubs. The government’s sanitized report says that seventeen were killed, scores injured, and hundreds jailed, meaning that a carnage took place, unarmed people shot down in the street. A UN political observer says that some members of the king’s family have fled the country and that Birendra will have to go. But this seems unlikely. The only real help can come from India’s Congress Party, which Nepal’s longingrained nationalism would oppose.
March 21. Pompano Beach. An editorial in today’s Christian Science Monitor by Barbara Nimri Aziz, an anthropologist who lived for twenty years in Nepal, tells the horrifying story of a Nepali girl who had demonstrated at a provincial university and been raped by the police. Queen Aishwarya came to visit her in a hospital but was greeted by shouts of hatred for the regime and a spit of contempt, whereupon the Queen ordered the girl’s execution. “Off with their heads.” This time not in the realm of Lewis Carroll, but in that of the Reverend Dodgson.
March 30. The editorial page of today’s New York Times publishes an attack by the director of the International Rights Law group on Bush’s support of Nepal, which in the past eight years has received about one million dollars in US military aid and 200 million dollars in economic aid, but which has one of the world’s worst records on human rights. Since the demonstrations last month, more than seven thousand people have been arrested, fifty have been killed, and female students have been “gang-raped by the police in front of police crowds.” Yet on March 6 a Bush spokesman told Congress that the administration was “pleased” with the “restraint” exercised by the Nepal government in handling the February 18 and 19 disruptions.
April 3. The coming revolution in Nepal has reached page two of The New York Times, and The Washington Post prints an action photo. Fifteen protest marchers were killed on April 1, the government says, though the dissidents put the number at more than double that. No official was available for comment, of course, and the police are forbidden to talk to reporters. A crowd of four thousand near Tribhuvan University and uncounted others in downtown Katmandu, some of them barefoot people in rags, faced guns and tear gas supplied to the brutal regime by the United States.
The good news is that pilots and one hundred staff members of the Royal Nepal Airline have held a day-long work stoppage at the airport and that two thousand Hindus at the Pashupati Temple shouted, “We want democracy” at the end of prayers for the victims. But meanwhile, Birendra’s police have murdered eleven more people.
April 5. The valiant people of Patan are trying to barricade themselves behind their beautiful stone lions, supplemented with heaps of rubble and garbage. They have dug a two-foot-deep trench blocking the road to their city, but the police have raided, nevertheless, and left more dead.
April 7. New York. Two hundred thousand demonstrated in Katmandu yesterday, according to the front pages of both the Times and the Washington Post, but as many as 100 were killed—the Press Trust of India puts the number at 150—and hundreds more were beaten with heavy sticks of bamboo and iron. Other sources say that photographs of the king and queen were hung around the necks of dogs, and that photo-montage posters portrayed the monarchs standing next to the late Ceausescus. Regicide seems to be in the air. A curfew has been imposed with only a two-hour suspension in the afternoons, and violators are to be shot on sight. As a sop, Birendra has made a speech promising to dismiss his Council of Ministers. A cordon of paratroopers armed with Uzi submachine-guns surrounds the Royal Palace.
April 8. The news from Shangri-La is that the king has capitulated and is offering a multi-party electoral system.
April 15. Newsday reports that the opposition Nepali Congress Party has accused Birendra of trying to stall the transition to the democratic process in order to preserve his power, and has threatened new eruptions unless he moves more quickly on reform.
April 16. According to the Times, Birendra has bowed to increasingly angry protests over the slow pace of change and dissolved the Parliament. The seventy-five-year-old Ganesh Man Singh has bravely insisted that the interim government be led by an opposition leader. Protesters have laid siege to the Royal Nepal Academy, where cabinet officials were meeting, and blocked the exits for fifteen hours. Birendra claims that he is acting on the recommendation of Prime Minister Lokendra Chand, who is reported to have agreed to the repeal of antidemocratic clauses in Nepal’s constitution, and even to an independent inquiry into official conduct during the “unrest” that now appears to have been the start of a revolution.
April 17. Yesterday was New Year’s Day, 2047 in Nepal. Krishna Prasad Bhattarai, who, like Václav Havel, spent many years in prison, is the Congress Party’s unanimous choice to become prime minister, which is to say the designate of the older but ailing Singh and of Sahana Pradhan, the woman who heads the United Left Front. But one wishes that the sans-cu-lottes had stormed the palace ten days ago and exiled the king, bundling him off to Estoril or St. Moritz. One wonders, too, whether his concessions to the opposition go far enough, and whether he will be able to adjust to a lower level of venality, let alone to being only a constitutional figurehead….
May 17, 1990