The alluring mysteries of Kathmandu

December 6, 2020

A trip down memory lane to a land of colour, diversity and hospitality

A temple’s portal. --- Photos by Shueyb Gandapur

Had it not been for the shutting down of Egypt due to the violence resulting from the brutal suppression of protests at Cairo’s Tahrir Square, I wouldn’t have made the trip to Nepal. It’s not that Nepal was not on my radar, but the timing of my visit was determined by factors other than the signals transmitted and received by my radar. I had to cancel my holiday to Egypt at the last minute, and not having the luxury of time to go through the lengthy visa application processes, my choice of alternatives was limited to the countries that didn’t require Pakistani visitors to meet any prerequisites before arriving at their borders. Such countries, as we all know, can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Luckily, Nepal was one of them.

Thus I found myself at Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan International Airport one fine afternoon, within a couple of days of the thwarting of my previous holiday arrangements. Observing the lack of order and facilities, I thought that maybe that was one airport that could give the then Islamabad Airport a run for its money in the worst airport of the world contest.

This was the year 2013.

A year later, both airports appeared on the list of top ten worst airports of the world and I had no objection to the inclusion of either. Regardless, I had the most pleasant experience at Kathmandu Airport, as I quickly picked up my luggage and whizzed through immigration without being asked any questions about the reasons for my existence.

The address I was given by my host was of an area called Kamal Pokhari, meaning Lotus Pond. A man-made lake, dug up a long time ago, for the preservation of rainwater, lent its name to the neighbourhood. Several of Kathmandu’s areas are similarly named after man-made lakes built by the kings of yore. The names remain but the ponds have mostly disappeared.

Hanuman Dhoka.

My hosts were a group of young folks that ran an establishment by the name of Youth Cafe. The profits they made from catering services were used to provide meals to street children, that the city had plenty of. On arrival, I sat down with Hiransh and Neelum of Youth Cafe, and as is common for newly meeting people to look for familiar references, the name of Manisha Koirala was dropped by someone into the conversation. My hosts told me about their encounters with the famous actress in connection with charity work, and I responded with a confession about the intensity of emotions I had experienced for her in my teenage years. Once that was out of the way, we moved on to plan about how my first evening in the city should be spent.

Shortly afterwards, while we were out exploring the city on foot, we came across a huge mosque. Neelum said she had never been inside a mosque, so I borrowed the guide’s cap from her, put it on and inside the mosque we went. The three-storey building was painted in white and green. I found it surprising that the name of the mosque, Kashmiri Jami’ Masjid, was written in Urdu at its entrance. Inside all the notices and signs were in Urdu as well.

We climbed up the staircase leading to the roof, which had an enclosure for prayer congregations. There, I found a group of four or five men wearing shalwar kamees, with the shalwars well above their ankles. Lo and behold, I heard them conversing in Pashto. I proceeded to exchange greetings with them and they looked more surprised to see a Pashtun brother than I was to see them. As I had guessed, they turned out to be a touring band of Tablighi Jama’at, sent to Kathmandu for the salvation of common Nepali souls. I had to cut short my interaction with them because I was accompanied by a girl dressed in a sleeveless top and capris, which could soon become the reason for the launch of an admonishing sermon, as the critical look in the eyes of those pious bearded men indicated.

Streets of Kathmandu.

Exiting the mosque, I saw a wall on the opposite side of the road covered in political slogans in red paint, exhorting the workers of the world to unite (as translated by Neelum) and hammer and sickle symbols (that didn’t need any translation), confirming that Nepal remains a bastion of communist politics in South Asia. We walked on towards the Basantapur district, but as the night fell, things became quieter and most streetlights didn’t function. I learned that Nepal also called its power outages by the good old name of “load shedding” as we did in Pakistan. The difference was that they received the timetable for power cuts by SMS, while Pakistani power companies seemed to believe in surprising their customers every day.

We stopped for chai at a ramshackle roadside stall run by a woman with the help of her three children. I found them staring at me and trying to suppress their giggles. Neelum and I sat there on stools, drinking the sweet and strong milky chai. When I asked them what it was that they found so funny, they said it was my nose – too long and pointed, like a Brahmin’s. They burst into laughter and I couldn’t help joining them. On our walk back to the Youth Cafe, we passed by a nightclub. Nazia Hasan’s Disco Deewanay was playing inside and its sound poured out into the street. Neelum confirmed that she knew the song and its origin, and went on to inform me that her favourite contemporary Pakistani artist was Atif Aslam.

The valley of Kathmandu has three magnificent squares, called Durbar Squares because they are built around old royal palaces. Unfortunately, all of them suffered extensive damage during the 2015 earthquake, but they stood in all their glory back in 2013 at the time of my visit. The squares consisted of palaces, temples, fountains, courtyards and statues of various deities. Next morning, I started my tour with the one located in central Kathmandu, not too far from where I was staying. The spectacular architecture of temples around the square vividly showcased the unique craftsmanship of Newar artists from centuries ago. Most buildings made extensive use of woodwork. Several of them were multi-storey structures, built on elevated platforms, having tiered pyramid-like roofs.

I learned that Nepal also called its power outages by the good old name of “load shedding” as we did in Pakistan. The difference was that they received the timetable for power cuts by SMS, while Pakistani power companies seemed to believe in surprising their customers every day.

It was the first time I was visiting a country to the east of Pakistan, where places of worship did not belong to Christian or Muslim faith. What I found striking was that the representation of divine figures didn’t always show a pristine and innocent look. Most statues of deities were grotesque, ferocious or scary-looking as if meant to invoke fear and awe in the hearts of the worshippers. Inside the dark and ancient temples, woodwork and carvings were covered in layers upon layers of varnish mixed with the grime and dust of time. Sunlight found its way in through openings in the walls to create beams of light that illuminated particles and smoke from incense sticks, the smell of which was mixed with that of marigold flowers, fruits and other offerings brought by devotees.

A red-brick three-storey building located on one end of Kathmandu’s Durbar Square was the home of Kumari, a living Hindu goddess, who was carried on her throne and brought to the window every morning. I joined the throngs of worshippers lining up to bow to the Kumari and felt blessed after getting a glimpse of her face. She was wearing a red dress and a big crown rested on her little head. She had a third eye painted on her forehead and thick kohl around her eyes extended to her temples. Sacred to both Buddhists and Hindus, Kumaris are prepubescent girls, chosen to represent divine female energy. Once the sitting Kumari starts menstruating, she loses her godly status and a rigorous search for a new Kumari begins.

I came out of Kumari Ghar, appreciating its lavish wood carvings when I was approached by a tout selling guided tours to the Himalayan base camps. He asked me where I was from. On hearing my answer, he said he used to watch Pakistani drama serials like Tanhaiyaan and Dhoop Kinaray when they were shown on Nepal’s national TV as part of SAARC cultural exchange programmes. He also expressed his fondness for the qawwalis of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.

It looked like Nepal still took the organisation of SAARC quite seriously. Ticket prices at most tourist places were cheaper for SAARC citizens. Part of it could be explained by the fact that Kathmandu hosts the secretariat of SAARC in a plain-looking building on Trivedi Sadak. Opposite the SAARC Secretariat was located the Garden of Dreams – a lush manicured garden with pavilions and fountains, tucked within high walls and thus shielded from the surrounding hubbub. Inside the Garden of Dreams, I saw many young couples sitting in the corners and behind pillars holding hands and whispering sweet little things to each other. I reminded myself that it was only a matter of time before most of them would be each other’s exes, for such is often the fate of youthful romance.

The busy lanes of old Kathmandu sometimes appeared to be living in an earlier period. There was an aura of antiquity and mystery in the air. The streets were lined with small shops having wooden doors, inside which vendors sitting on the ground looked at passers-by from behind their stacks of goods to be sold. Some shops sold traditional Buddhist paintings, depicting various stages from the life of Buddha in intricate detail. One could see artists working on their creations inside those shops. Vegetable and spice merchants pushed their carts, while cycle-rickshaws, two-wheelers and motorcars sped past and turned into streets. Near the steps of a store sat a young long-haired European man, covered in dust. He seemed to have been left behind, to live the life of a beggar, by his hippie friends, who had returned to their countries a long time ago. The alluring maze of old Kathmandu drew one deeper and deeper into its recesses.

In later days, I visited the other two Durbar Squares around Kathmandu, which had similarly spectacular architecture in the form of temples, statues, palaces and courtyards. Patan’s square was more atmospheric and orderly, and I thanked my fortune for having found a window seat in a second-story cafe, from which one could have a splendid view of the temples and their red-tiled roofs. There were so many temples in and around Patan that I lost count. In the holy pond of one temple, young boys and girls jumped and played in the water.

Having explored the central zone of the town, I ventured out to the edges and found myself face to face with Patan’s Jami’ Masjid. I went in and found the imam of the mosque sitting on a charpoy, in the mood for a chat. He spoke chaste Urdu. I told him that I could not have expected to find signs and notices in Urdu in the mosques of Nepal. He replied, “Bhai, ham musalman log hain, Urdu hamari zubaan hai, kaisay chhorr dein?” (Being Muslims, Urdu is our language, how can we abandon it?).

Holy statues one often comes across.

The last one of the Durbar Squares was in Bhaktapur, which, I was told, would be the most tranquil of the three. But the day I reached there, it was at its most boisterous. Unbeknownst to me, my visit happened to be on the day of Gai Jatra (a festival in the name of the Hindu holy cow). The whole town had an electric vibe that day. Crowds took out jolly processions to commemorate their dead, with photos of deceased family members hanging on chariots. Some processions carried statues of the Hindu cow goddess placed atop four-legged cots, with each leg held on the shoulder of a dancing member of the entourage.

People, young and old, were dressed colourfully as Hindu deities and in every open space, there were groups performing zestful dances with sticks in their hands. In one street a subtly sensual dance display was on: a girl would move receptively to the flirtatious advances of a boy but would recoil just when it would seem like she was falling into his lap. The whole cycle would then be repeated. Perhaps it depicted the flirting of Lord Krishna with a gopi, but what do I know.

Of particular interest in Bhaktapur were wooden carvings on a temple depicting scenes from Kamasutra. Equally fascinating was venturing into the side streets of Patan and Bhaktapur to see the slow pace of life. Most houses were of ancient construction with low roofs and latticed windows. In their porticos, one found old women stringing red chillies and other vegetables on wires and hanging them from the ceilings and pillars to let them dry.

Despite its underdeveloped infrastructure and abysmal standard of cleanliness, the old towns, squares and bazaars of Kathmandu valley have an incredible charm about them, as they seem to exist in another time. I found it surprising that Nepal, a country so close in the neighbourhood, presented such an exotic and surreal cultural experience to a visitor from Pakistan. It was reflective of how we in Pakistan have remained aloof from the cultural influences of not only our neighbourhood but also our own past, rich in Buddhist and Hindu cultural traditions that have been sadly erased from the national discourse.

The writer is a finance professional based in    London and a prolific traveller. He occasionally writes stories about his travels that he shares on his Instagram handle @shueyb1

The alluring mysteries of Nepal's Kathmandu