Saturday, 30 November 2013

Dream of a Garden

In the centre of Kathmandu city, tucked away from the roar and hooting of the traffic, behind a high brick wall, is a small oasis of green tranquility.  This beautiful place is called the 'Garden of Dreams'.
The garden was built by Field Marshal Kaiser Shamser next to his palace in the 1920s. He had visited England and was impressed by the Edwardian gardens and estates that he saw, so created his own private garden in that style in Kathmandu. It is said that he financed it with money he won from his father, who was then the Prime Minister, in a game of cowrie shells.

This garden became completely neglected after his death; the vegetation totally overgrown and many of the structures and buildings dilapidated and unsafe. A restoration project financed from Austria spent 6 years reconstructing the parts that had not been completely destroyed, rebuilding and replanting.  About a third of the original garden now remains, with only three out of the six pavilions that adorned it. When built, each of the six pavilions was named after and dedicated to one of the Nepali seasons.

A visitor there can stroll through many 'garden rooms' and secluded areas, one leading into the next, each with a different vista.  There are beautiful statues, fountains, ponds and running water, with landscaped tiers and small walls changing the ground level.

Carefully chosen plants, shrubs and trees compliment the hard landscaping, giving a serene and calm atmosphere to this delightful garden. It is a beautiful place to sit, contemplate and relax; to get away from the noise and clamour of the city.

In one of the pavilions is an exhibition of photographs showing the original garden, along with before and after scenes of the reconstruction.  Of course the garden also has a cafe for refreshments.

It is wonderful green retreat in the midst of a busy city and many people use it as a peaceful place to relax with friends, read a book, or even bring a picnic.

Pheri bheTaulaa!

Saturday, 23 November 2013

Dates and seasons Nepali style

Nepal works on the Hindu Lunar calendar, a completely different calendar to the Gregorian one that is used in Europe.
At the time of writing it is 24th November 2013, but in Nepal it is 7th day of Mangsir 2070. This calendar is called the 'Bikram Sambat' which, when writing, is abbreviated to B.S. It is named after King Bikramaditya of Ujjyan, who introduced the present era in the Gregorian year of 56-57 B.C. However, this Nepali date can be converted into the corresponding Christian year by subtracting 56 years and 8 and half months. Easy!!

There are seven days in the week; aaitabaar, sombaar, mangelbaar, budhabaar, bihibaar, sukrabaar, sanibaar (Sunday to Saturday). Sunday is a working day and is the first day of the week for schools and businesses, which seems strange to us, especially as VSO work on a Monday to Friday week. Christian churches in Nepal often hold their services on Saturdays rather than Sundays so that their congregations can attend.

There are still 12 months in each year, however there is not of a fixed number of days in each month, and the number varies from year to year according to the phases of the moon. There can be up to 32 days in a month. So, each year is different and Nepalis have to rely on their printed diaries or calendars to know how the  months go.
The Nepali new year starts on 14th or 15th April with the month of 'baisaakh'. Each month in the Nepali calendar goes from the middle of one of our months through to the middle of the next month. For example 'baisaakh' goes from mid April to mid May in our calendar. Then comes 'jeTh' from mid May to mid June, and so on.
(Ed: No, it's not grammatical error, Nepalis do not use capital letters for names of days or months! Watch out for a future blog page about the Nepali language, once I'm more confident about using it.) 

I am sure this system will be problematic when I am arranging dates for visits to schools and appointments to speak to the District Education Officer, so I need to learn to adapt to this different calendar. Fortunately most calendars and diaries available in Nepal are printed with both dates, unfortunately the Nepali part is in Nepali script which I cannot read!  I can now read the Nepali numbers so that is a start!

Seasons in Nepal are another matter! Officially there are 6 seasons, basanta (Spring), grishma (Summer), barsha (monsoon, rain), sharad (Autumn), hemant (winter) and shirshir (early Spring). However this is now considered old fashioned and these names are no longer used very much.  Instead the Nepali people have adopted a three season year;

  • jaaDo mahinaa  - (literally) cold months
  • garmi mahinaa -  (literally) hot months
  • paani parne mahinaa - (literally) rainy months.
This seems to be much simpler and fits the weather and temperature changes in the Nepali year.

Nepal is now going into jaarDo mahinaa, so everyone is wrapping up in coats and shawls.

Pheri bheTaulaa.

Friday, 22 November 2013

Guard dogs - or elephants, lions and mythical animals

The entrances or doors to temples, squares, palaces and other important buildings in the Kathmandu valley frequently seem to be guarded by pairs of animals made of stone.  These can be either mythical or real animals, and range from actual size in real life to enormous.

One of a pair of lions guarding Kathmandu Durbar Square.
Notice the man selling Nepali flags in the background.
Brass animal, possibly a lion perched on top of a high pillar

Mythical animals guarding a main door to the
palace in Kathmandu Durbar Square

Pair of huge elephants guarding a temple in Bhaktapur

Lions in Bhaktapur Durbar Square

Lions guarding the palace at Patan

In Bhaktapur two flights of temple steps are adorned with a whole range of animals to act as guardians.

Pairs of animals, guardians of the entrance 
to Nyatapola Temple.
Jayamel, carrying a mace, one of a pair of wrestlers at 
the bottom of the steps at Nyatapola Temple.

At the bottom of the flight of steps leading to Nyataploa Temple in Taumadhi Tole, Bhaktapur is a huge pair of legendary Rajput wrestlers, Jayamel and Phattu.  Then come pairs of elephants  with floral saddles, lions adorned with bells, griffons and finally at the top the Goddesses Baghini and Singhini.  Each of these figures is thought to be 10 times as strong as the ones on the level below.

Shiva Parvati Temple with pairs of animals guarding the steps.

Rarely do the animals seem to be painted, but this pair of lions in Kathmandu Durbar Square, guarding the palace of the Kumari, the young girl with the status of living goddess, are particularly colourful.

Sometimes these statues are so much part of daily life that people living nearby almost ignore them, as in the following photo of the washing draped across very old lions at the temple entrance in Kirtipur!

My time in Kathmandu has educated me to look with new eyes at the entrances to peoples properties, and how they are guarded.
Pheri bheTaolaa.

Saturday, 16 November 2013

A little bit of shopping

Kathmandu, like any city is full of shops and markets. There are some larger, more expensive shops in the city centre, similar to in Europe, with window manikins clothed in their wares. Of course as in any city in the world, you also find the ubiquitous supermarkets, and Kathmandu has a few large ones and many small ones on street corners. However the small traders are to be seen everywhere. They need to be supported or they will just disappear, as they have almost done in Britain.

In parts of the city the pavements of the narrow streets are filled with traders displaying their wares.  The shops behind are so small and dark that the traders need to spill out into the open air.  Items for purchase are hung on every available surface, and spread out on the pavement outside the tiny shop, filling the narrow alleys with multicoloured wares. The salesmen will often stand outside hoping to encourage passersby to stop and browse.

Brass pots shining in an alley in Thamel, Kathmandu.
Sacks of rice in front of the next door shop. Notice the carved pillars.
Green vegetables for sale outside this tiny shop.
Tibetan masks and souvenirs catch the eye.

Some sales men have no shop at all, but carry their goods for sale in large baskets, mounted on their bicycles, both front and back, or suspended from a pole across their shoulders.  These men are frequently selling fruit or vegetables, one or two types only, and will tour the residential streets and alleys, shouting to encourage people to buy their wares. We have bought potatoes, apples, oranges and cucumber from these bicycle salesmen in the lane outside our accommodation.
Cucumbers and garlic for sale!
This man has green vegetables in his baskets.

By the sides of busy streets and main thoroughfares men and women will frequently be found, sitting on the ground with goods for sale spread out on tarpaulins, displayed on boxes or in baskets. In Kathmandu Mall, in the city centre, beside where the majority of buses drop their passengers, the pavements are crammed full of these traders, selling clothes, stationary and books, small toys and a multitude of other things. However more common to see outside the city centre are the traders selling fruit and vegetables.
Coloured powder for making street decorations before Tihir
Chillies, limes and grapefruit in these baskets. 

Garlands of marigolds alongside vegetables for sale
on these pavements.
Finally, the smallest scale of sales person are those who carry their wares with them.  In tourist areas many are to be found selling souvenirs; Nepali flutes, jewellery, small bags and purses, and, strangely, miniature chess sets. These people will wander the tourist hot spots, accosting anyone who looks like a 'bideshi' in the hope of making a quick sale, often at a vastly inflated price.
This lady is selling beautiful little bags to
tourists in Durbar Square.
The range of shops and traders found in Kathmandu makes shopping quite a different experience from the weekly journey to the supermarket in Britain.
Pheri BheTaulaa!

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Rice - how it is produced in Nepal

Rice is the staple food of most Nepali people. Daal Bhaat is the meal most eaten, sometimes twice a day, and is Daal - lentils cooked into a soup/sauce and Bhaat - boiled rice. Of course curry and rice are also frequently eaten. Nepalis also eat 'beaten rice' as a snack and use rice flour for cooking breads and biscuits. The country needs more rice than can be grown, so has to import rice from surrounding countries.  However many people who live in rural areas grow their own, rather than have to spend money buying it to feed their families.

All around the Kathmandu Valley, beyond the city limits, rice is grown in terraces and small fields. This crop is planted, tended and harvested by hand - very labour intensive and much of this work seems to be done by women.

Small rice plants need to be hand planted into very wet soil, and the women wade, calf deep in mud, along the rows, bending to plant the young seedlings. This must be back-breaking work. Some women are experts and can plant up to 100 in a minute! Sadly I have no photographs to show this planting time, as it happened this year before I arrived in Nepal.

Come September the first of the rice is ready to harvest. Rows of people, men and women, anyone available it seems, move across the terraces cutting the plants just above root level. They are then put into small stooks to dry, either balanced upright or leaning against the terrace wall.

The next stage, removing the grains from the stem, I have seen done by a small machine powered by a generator. However the rice stalks have to be fed, a few at a time, into the machine, and there are a number of people needed just to keep the machine fed with a steady supply.
In this picture a small machine is removing the grains which then run into sacks.
Many people are needed to supply the machine.
The rice stalks, the straw, are now left to dry thoroughly, so that it can later be used for animal bedding or tinder for fire lighting during the colder months.
Rice straw drying against the wall of the house. In top
right of photo maize heads can be seen drying too.

The grain is spread on large tarpaulins to dry.  I have seen whole village/town squares filled with drying rice, watched over by women who periodically rake the rice to turn it and allow all grains to dry evenly. The village square seems to be a good place as the stone surface holds the warmth and is not damp, but other places are also used. Many houses have rice drying around them, on terraces or paths.

Winnowing seems to be also done by hand by women.  This is when the chaff, the hard but light cases that surround the grain are removed. A small amount of rice grains are scooped into a flat round basket, then shaken gently so that the lighter husks fall or are blown out. Sometimes small electric fans are used to blow the chaff away, just leaving the useable rice grains.
Next time you eat a bowl of rice, think about the amount of work that goes into growing and preparing it in some parts of the world; I know I shall.
pheri bheTaulaa! (see you again)

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Jillimilli batti at Tihir

In Nepal the Hindu festival of Tihir takes place around the start of November. Tihir is the Nepali version of Divali, the festival of lights, and is a celebration dedicated to the Goddess Laxmi, the Goddess of wealth and Yamraj, God of death. Although the festival is longer, there are three days of public holiday and most Hindu families celebrate. I went with some colleagues to the ancient city of Bhaktapur (see last blog page) to watch the festivities.

Different animals are honoured on different days of the festival, starting with crows (thought to be messengers of Yamraj) on the first day, who are fed rice and pieces of meat from special plates made from leaves. Dogs are honoured on the second day and I saw several dogs walking around with red tikkas smeared on their heads and noses and garlands of marigolds around their necks. Dogs are honoured as they are believed to help conduct the soul from death.

Cows, which are sacred in the Hindu religion, get a similar treatment on the third day, with tikkas and garlands, and the ones I saw had been given large quantities of green vegetables to eat too. Small oil lamps had been placed near where the cattle were tied, outside a Hindu temple, along with rice and petals as offerings. Many people visit to bring offerings, or just to touch the cattle for good luck.

By 7am on the morning of the third day the market square, with many stalls selling garlands and offerings alongside the usual vegetables and fruit, was buzzing, packed with excited people. The atmosphere was similar to city centres in the UK on Christmas Eve; purposeful, bustling and happy.
This early morning stall has marigold garlands, and in the forefront you can see a woman selling coloured powders for the pavement decorations.
Special sweet treats being prepared and sold.

During this third day families decorate their house or shop fronts with strings of golden marigolds, tiny clay oil lamps and coloured twinkling lights, which in Nepali are called ‘jillimilli batti’.
The lights and lamps are lit as dark descends, and the tiny pin-points of colour transform everything, making the streets and temples look magical.


The lights are to guide and encourage the Goddess Laxmi, the Goddess of wealth, to visit the establishment. 

Intricate Hindu signs and patterns are also laid out on the pavement in front of houses, using many brightly coloured powders, flower petals and rice flour. Small lamps and floral offerings may be added to the patterns. A trail is laid from this decoration into the house for the Goddess to follow, when on entering she blesses the household and hopefully bestows wealth on its members.

In the evening small groups of young girls dressed up in their best clothes, go from door to door carrying large flat round baskets filled with pieces of fruit, rice and flower petals. Rather like carol singers, the girls sing and may dance in order to earn small change, sweets or fruit as a treat.

We did see groups of boys too, but they were disappointing in that they hadn’t bothered to dress up and expected treats for very little.

The following morning, the start of the Newari New Year, we watched from a rooftop cafĂ© as a long procession of bands wound it’s way through the square below. Many players were in traditional clothes and their instruments were mostly drums and Nepali flutes, with occasional tambourine or Indian bells.

I was excited to see amongst the bands, a group of boys with bells strapped to their legs, who were clashing sticks as they danced. Newari Morris dancers maybe!

The lamps and lights continue to be lit each evening at almost every house during this festival. On the fifth day of the festival sisters give their brothers seven-coloured tikkas and garlands of purple everlasting flowers, to signify their love for them. The brothers, in return, give their sisters tikkas and also presents.

It has been such a great experience to see this special celebration of the Nepali people, memories which will remain with me for a long time.