Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Bhaktapur - lions, serpents and pottery


Originally until 1482 all of the Kathmandu valley was ruled from the city of Bhaktapur. The king then divided his kingdom between his three sons. The present Kathmandu city was thus made up of three separate city-states ruled by the three brother princes.  Each prince tried to outdo the others with the palaces and temples they each built in their own province.  Today these towns, Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur, have almost merged and are all part of Kathmandu proper, but each of the original towns has its own Durbar (palace) Square and accompanying temples and mandirs.  

We visited the old town of Bhaktapur, the best preserved and most separate of the three towns. The town seems much more traditional than the other two and has been pedestrianised, which has made it much more pleasant to visit. There are three famous squares filled with old buildings and statues, and I found myself awed by so much of interest to look at. 

Wherever you go in the town, beautiful intricate woodcarving was evident on many of the older buildings. Again this is testimony to the woodcarving skills of the Newar people; decorative windows and doors for most of the older houses. Even the peacock window, one of the town's famous sights, was situated on the first floor of a house down a narrow alley.

The magnificent palace in Durbar Square, the 'Palace of 55 windows', also now contains 5 chowks (courtyards) but was said to contain 99 before remodelling!!  This may be a slight exaggeration.  

However the Golden Gate into the palace and the chowks were certainly very photogenic.  I loved the chowk that had the bronze serpent head rearing out of the pond in the centre. 

I was intrigued by the stone animals many of which guard the temples and palaces; frequently lions but also dragons and other mythical creatures. 

One area of the city is renown for its pottery. This potter had made his wheel from an old car wheel which he worked with his feet. 

His pots were fired by piling them together, covering them with dry slow-burning combustible material and then allowing it to burn slowly, as if in a bonfire.
One firing was still smoking as we passed by and the red hot pots were being raked out carefully from the ashes.

Later they will be loaded onto the back of a bicycle to be delivered to shops and stalls ready to sell.

Bhaktapur is another place I shall be visiting time and again, as there is so much to see.

Ta ta. Pheri bheTaulaa (see you again)

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Pokhora - Lake and mountain views

Namaste! Sanchhai Chha? (How are you?)

Pokhora is the nearest Nepal gets to a seaside city. It is set beside a large lake and holiday makers can sit on sun loungers at the lakeside bars. The path beside the lake is crowded with tourists enjoying a pleasant stroll and enjoying the views.  What views? You may well ask.

Phew taal, the lake itself, is picturesque in a Lake District sort of way.  Boats can be hired to cross the lake or just to paddle around in, and even pedaloes are available.

On a small island in the lake is a temple, and early in the morning people take a boat to visit and make an offering at the temple.  The boats are rowed as no power-boats are allowed to disturb the tranquillity of the lake. 

The temple on the island Tal Barahi

Ring the bells to alert the gods to your prayers

Having crossed the lake, a stiff uphill walk of about 50 minutes, takes you to the World Peace Stupa.  Perched on top of the hill, with tranquil attractive gardens surrounding it, the white stupa was built and is maintained by a Japanese Buddhist organisation who run a nearby monastery.

However the best thing about this site is the panoramic views of the mountains 25 kilometres away. On a clear day some of the most impressive of the worlds highest mountains can be seen along the northern horizon.

Sadly the clouds obscured some of the mountains whilst we were on top, but the sheer height we could see was still impressive.
More impressive still was the panorama of the Annapurna Range that we were treated to, from a hotel garden beside the lake, just as the sun set that day. The mountains glowed golden in the evening light, and people near us just stood and stared at the beauty.


What a wonderful spectacle!
The trouble with being granted such views is that you then thirst for more! Our final morning in Pokhora we rode by taxi as high as we could towards a popular viewpoint for the mountains. A 30 minute uphill walk brought us to the top, to a viewing platform with a telescope! How close the mountains seemed through that; cliffs, glaciers, boulder-fields, seracs and snowfields felt almost close enough to touch. 
However the following photographs were not taken through the telescope but by my small point-and-shoot camera.

I can't wait to travel amongst these monsters, but don't think I'll be climbing them.
Ta ta. pheri bheTaulaa (see you again)

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Dashain - a Hindu celebration

Hindu people in Nepal celebrate Dashain (pronounced Day-sigh) rather like Western cultures celebrate Christmas.  It is a celebration in honour of the god Durga's slaying of the demons. In the days leading up to the start of Dashain, families travel back to their home villages to get together with their relations.  This year many roads had traffic jams and the long distance buses and even planes were packed with returning people. (There are no trains in Nepal)

We were fortunate to be invited to the family home of a young Nepali friend called Biny Chapagain, to join their special festivities on 14th October and they kindly explained all about their celebrations.
The men of the Chapagain family
Dashain is a two week festival held during October. On the first day barley seeds are planted in a container in the home, and these are watered and looked after for 10 days. 

Man carrying sprouted barley

On the next few days different things are blessed including vehicles, which are adorned with ribbons, garlands of marigolds and sprinkled with red powder on the front. We even saw dogs with red tikkas on their noses on another day.

On the eighth and ninth day after the barley planting, animals like yak, buffalo and goats are slaughtered and their blood is sacrificed to the god Durga. The Nepali people then eat the meat.  On these days we saw many animals tethered by the roadside waiting for slaughter, and large hunks of meat being chopped up with axes. This was quite disturbing to us westerners who never normally see this part of the process, only once the meat is in the butcher's shop or supermarket. (No photos of this!!)
The main family celebration starts on the 10th day. On this day families dress in their best clothes and do ‘puja’ (family prayers) with everyone sitting on the floor, even elderly people. Then at the auspicious time, around 9.40am this year, the oldest/most senior family member places on each member in turn, in order of seniority, a tikka (red paste mark) on the forehead and pieces of sprouted barley in their hair. 
Tikka ceremony with Mani and Gauri
Red tikkas on all foreheads and barley in the hair

There is a personal blessing murmured for each person whilst this is taking place, and then each is given a piece of fruit, something sweet like dates or chocolate and an envelope with money in it.  (I asked what was said for my blessing and Mani told me he was asking the gods to help me with the work of improving education for girls in Nepal.) The tikka paste is made from red vermilion powder, rice flour and yogurt.

Food and drinks are then offered to everyone after the ceremony. We were given a delicious meal of curried mushrooms, spiced meat, rice and spicy-hot pickle. We had chiyaa (Nepali sweet tea), coffee and water to drink.
Our Dashain feast
After lunch we went with our friends to visit their family members, including to the 90 year-old grandmother, who presented us with a tikka, despite her age.

Biny's 90 year old grandmother

During the day families go to visit all their relations in turn, and at each house the tikka ceremony takes place again, with more food and drink to follow. It is considered impolite to refuse the food, so you must try a small bit, even if you are already full.

Another tradition is for families to play cards, and to bet money with the hope of winning.  Gauri, the mother of the family we visited, played well/ was lucky and won a considerable pile of low value notes. It was very good-natured and we had been warned to take lots of low value notes for this purpose.
Gauri with her winnings from card gambling.
At every house we visited we were made welcome, although we were the first foreigners ever to have been to their homes.  One aunt and uncle actually wanted us to stay the night at their house, and went as far as to show us the bedroom! 
Gauri and her sister
By the end of the day, we didn’t leave until after 8pm, we had been given about five tikkas and eaten a great deal.  How lucky we were to have been included in this traditional celebration with such a kind and generous family.

Friday, 11 October 2013

Village life in the Kathmandu Valley

Bungmati is a traditional Newari village, untouched by tourism, about 6 miles from Kathmandu. The Newari tribe were the original inhabitants of Kathmandu, and are renowned for their wonderful craftsmanship, especially wood carving. All the old buildings in Kathmandu bear witness to this craft. This village was a fascinating change from the bustling city; calm and quiet, surrounded by rice fields, children playing in the lanes and people going about their daily work both inside and outside the houses. 

The village is near the edge of the Kathmandu valley, and close to the wooded hills surrounding it. There were lovely views across the terraced velvet-green rice fields. 

Most of the houses seem to be old traditional ones with carved windows, doorways and roof supports, with just a few modern concrete boxes mixed in. Heads of maize (sweetcorn) and strings of chili pods hanging outside, drying in the sun.

The lanes between the houses were a hive of activity; children playing, loose goats and a few tethered sheep scavenging for food, hundreds of ducks and some duckling families waddling around, and groups of men or women chatting (not mixed groups as this is culturally unacceptable).

A group of beautiful young girls, clothed in traditional Newari dresses and carrying large polished brass urns, stopped to enable us to photograph them. They said they were on their way to the temple to make offerings.

The village has a large stone-paved central square with a temple, which our guide told us, is used by both Hindu and Buddhist worshippers. The square is surrounded on all sides by old houses. 

When I visited, piles of rice grains were spread out to dry on large tarpaulins, with women raking them regularly to redistribute and dry the rice evenly.  Also laid out to dry was rice straw and maize husks, which when dry are used for fuel for cooking fires.  

Around the village there are numerous woodcarving workshops, and the one I visited had some beautiful ornate pieces being created by the four workmen, who sat on the floor working. There were also finished articles awaiting collection or delivery - devotional carved pictures and hangings that must have taken weeks to complete.

Another trade of the village is carpet weaving, which is done by the women. The hand looms take up a large part of the ground-floor room of the house, and the women operating them seem to know the pattern they are working on by heart, as they didn't seem to be following a paper pattern. Finished rugs were hung over rails outside, in the hope that they would be liked and purchased.

In the next village, Kholcana, a small hand mill was pressing mustard seed to extract the oil, which is prised here for it's flavour as a dressing to add to cooked food. The mill was dark, very hot and cramped, with it's stove for roasting the mustard seed close to the traditional wooden press.  The roasted mustard seed is put into flat baskets to contain it, before being squeezed between two huge wooden trunks, that are wound together with a hand wheel. The mustard oil dribbles out of a groove in the wood into a bowl below.

What a delight to witness these traditional Nepali crafts in this village.
Ta ta.