Sunday, 28 September 2014

Sunset at Boudha


One of the most frequently used images of Nepal is that of the enormous stupa at Boudha in Kathmandu, another of the World Heritage sites situated in the Valley. It is so tall that it towers above the surrounding building and can be seen from many places in the city. As the largest stupa in Asia it is an important place of pilgrimage for thousands of Buddhists.

I spent an interesting afternoon there recently, with a friend who was visiting from the U.K.  The guide book suggested that sunrise or sunset were the best times to visit, so we made our way there during the afternoon.
This enormous stupa is most impressive.  Above the huge whitewashed dome there is a gilded central tower that has the all-seeing eyes of Buddha painted on all four sides. Representations of these eyes are found on many items throughout Nepal; t-shirts, cards, signs and book covers frequently have the eyes of Buddha on them. 

The dome is bedecked with long strings of fluttering prayer flags stretching from the top.  As a gust of wind catches these flags it carries the whole string soaring upward, then as the wind drops, the flags also slowly fall, to be caught as the string goes tight. Quite mesmerising to watch, and easy to imagine the prayers being blown away with the wind.

We were amused to see a couple of men, armed with just small rollers, painting the stupa – the resemblance to painting the Forth Bridge struck us!

Buddhists believe that the stupa is highly symbolic and serves as a three dimensional reminder of the Buddha’s path to enlightenment.  The plinth that the dome stands on represents the earth, the dome is water, the square tower is fire and the spire at the top is air.  The gold coloured umbrella at the very top represents the ether beyond space.  Stupas were built to contain holy relics but it is uncertain exactly whose remains this stupa contains.

People are allowed onto the first layer of the plinth during daylight hours. There are some very old looking carved figures set into the wall of the steps (bottom corner), and two ornate elephants guard the flight of steps up to the next layer.

Around the base of the plinth 147 prayer wheels, inscribed with the Buddhist mantra “Oom mani padmi hum”, are set into the wall.  Some pilgrims walking around the stupa, always in a clockwise direction, turn the wheels as they pass, to send the prayer spinning away.  There were also several very large prayer wheels, taller than a man, that were kept turning. 
Buddhists believe that sunrise and sunset are auspicious times when prayers are more likely to reach their destination.  As the sun sank lower in the sky we noticed the swelling crowd of pilgrims and worshippers.  We sat and watched with fascination as hundreds of people walked in a clockwise direction around the stupa. This walking mass comprised of a wide spectrum of people: maroon clothed monks and nuns with shaved heads, Tibetan men and women in their traditional clothes – the women in long skirts with multi-coloured striped woven aprons, older people holding grandchildren’s hands, groups of teenagers, young couples, women carrying babies on their backs, business men and women obviously straight from work in their work clothes, families and individuals.  

Tibetan woman teaching her grandson devotional behaviour

Many people handled strings of prayer beads as they walked and prayed, and we could hear their mumbled prayers.  We noticed some distinctive looking people pass us many times.  We, as watchers, were noticed too; many smiled and a few even came over to say “Namaste” to us as they passed.  What impressed us most was that this all seemed to be a very natural act, rather than something special, which so many people fitted into their daily routine.  There was a lovely atmosphere too – a combination of devotion, happiness, peace, contentment, and friendliness - none of those feelings quite describes this atmosphere.  
We felt inspired so joined the walkers and circled the stupa a couple of times!

The stupa itself is ringed with small shops selling many Tibetan and Buddhist items, some aimed at tourists, others at pilgrims and even monks.  Here it was possible to buy miniature prayer wheels, musical instruments, statues, spices, devotional beads, pictures, clothes of different styles and there was even a shop selling only clothes for Buddhist monks or nuns; saffron shirts and maroon robes. 

Thankas, Tibetan religious pictures, were displayed and for sale in some shops, and we noticed that above some of the shops there were Thanka Schools for training the artists.  These traditional pictures, extremely detailed, intricate and important in Buddhist culture are painted by hand. They were fascinating to look at, but we did not buy.

We ate supper in a roof top restaurant, watching the setting sun turn the white stupa to a golden colour.  Magic!  How peaceful and relaxing it felt.

Friday, 26 September 2014

One year past!

I have now been living in Nepal for just over a year.  What an interesting time this has been, and how much I have learnt and experienced. This page is a reflection of the things that have made the most impact on me during the year.
  • Lovely smiley Nepali people. The people who live near to me in Besisahar, greeting me with smiles and “Namaste” as I leave for work in the mornings.  The children on their way to school who love to say “Hi” or “Hello” or just occasionally “Good morning”.  The curious rural folk that I pass on my journeys to schools, who stop to ask who I am and what I am doing.  Although some stare because I’m a ‘biddeshi’ (foreigner) so many more smile and their faces light up. So many smiles, and I find myself smiling too.  A smile is so infectious!
  •  My warm-hearted colleagues at the Lamjung office of Global Action Nepal, who made me so welcome, have helped me and looked after me, not only when working but to settle here in Besisahar. I value the kindness and patience from this group of lovely young people, for someone older than many of their parents! 
    Cheers! Celebratory lunch in the office
    of momos and orange before Dashai holiday.
  • Emerald green rice paddies layered up the hillsides as far as the eye can see.  Each one planted, tended and harvested by hand – hours of manpower or more often women-power.  Even on the steeper slopes the land is utilised and often essential for a family’s survival. 
  • Rice terraces early in the season.     

  • The constant sound of running water during the monsoon time, as water drains down off the hillside, sometimes irrigating the paddies, sometimes spilling over ledges into spectacular waterfalls and sometimes eroding narrow gullies down through the earth and soft rock.

  • The amazing Annapurna mountains, so high and snow-capped, seen from many places around this area.  They excite me each time I see them; so impossibly tall, towering behind the nearby smaller hills (that we would call mountains if they were in the U.K.)
  • The view of Lamjung Annapurna from Besisahar.
  •  The festivals and celebrations.  Nepali people love festivals and there are many throughout the year, each one for a different reason and celebrated in a different way. 
    These are Gurung women in a parade in Besisahar
    to celebrate the birthday of Buddha.
  •   Colour!  Nepali women with their dark skin and beautiful black hair look fabulous in bright colours. They use colour combinations that in the west would be startling, but here they look so good.  Often the women are stunningly beautiful and their brightly coloured saris or kurtas just emphasise this.  
    A family in Kathmandu celebrating Teej
  • Walking long distances.  Many people in Nepal have to walk, as that is the only way to get to and from their isolated villages.  Some people daily walk for 2 hours to go to work, and then return in the evening.  Some walk for hours carrying large packages, baskets or bags on their backs.  If a person is sick or injured, he or she must be carried down from the hills, by friends or relations, in order to see a doctor or go to hospital.  I also walk far more than I did in UK to visit far away schools, and am much fitter.
    Hay for fodder being carried in the hills above Besisahar
  • Wonderful temples and palaces in the Kathmandu Valley.  Many of these are World Heritage sites and are on most “Must see” lists.  
    Patan Durbar Square, one of my favourite places in Kathmandu.
Beautifully painted stupa at Swayambu.


My first year in Nepal has, at times, not been easy, but what a catalogue of sights and experiences!

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Early morning classes

Part of the project I am working on, to encourage more girls to attend school, involves each school running Learning Support classes to help girls, who are finding the work difficult or have been absent from school, to catch up with their peers. These classes are funded by the project. A few months ago I helped to train the young women (Facilitators) who are teaching in these classes, and recently have been visiting some to see how they are working and help if needed.

The daily bus to the village we were visiting was unable to run, due to the condition of the track after recent heavy rains. Instead we had to walk to the school at the top of the hill; nearly 800 metres climb, in the monsoon afternoon the heat was punishing, and it took us over 3 hours.  We drank a litre of water each during the climb, but reached our destination feeling parched.  At least it was cooler at that height!

As we walked into the village, there was a shout from one of the nearby traditional houses.  Sobita, the Facilitator for the class seemed delighted to see us, insisting that we should eat at the house and stay overnight with her husband’s family.  What kindness!  We rested and drank water and chiyaa (Nepali tea). Then we were shown to the guest room where I was relieved to change out of my wet sweaty clothes into dry clean ones from my rucksack.
Guest rooms in a separate building.

Supper was a huge plate of dhal baat (rice and lentils) with vegetable curry (tarkari) made from home-grown vegetables and to drink was buffalo milk from the family animals. Delicious!  We were in bed by 8pm, as is the custom in rural Nepal, with an early start planned for the morning.

By 6am everyone was up and about.  Mother-in-law was churning butter and tending the fire, preparing to make the morning meal. She was amused that I wanted to photograph her!

After chiyaa, we left the house at 6.40am, walking to the school where the class is held from 7am. What a delight to see two little girls in school uniform, carrying their books, obviously waiting for their teacher, running down the hill to greet Sobita.  How much they must enjoy this special time!

I was surprised to meet other teachers already at school; this was 7am and school does not start until 10am, but was informed that they were teaching coaching sessions for older students. 

It was a beautiful clear morning with hardly a cloud in the sky.  The view from the school of the mountains was breath taking.  The people living in the village, seeing it so often, they must take it for granted, but to me it was very special.

The views were so good that Besisahar was  visible, far below in the valley.

The spare classroom where the classes are held is carpeted, and has low tables.  Students sit on the floor as is customary in Nepal.  After a brief greeting the students started work immediately, whilst Sobita moved around the class, sitting with small groups or individuals, teaching and helping them with their work.  Some were revising for an end of term exam that day, whilst others were working on Nepali grammar and later on social studies. The students all worked hard; there was no time-wasting or bad behaviour, and all seemed to appreciate this opportunity for extra help to improve their academic performance.

The class contained one older boy who had asked specially to attend.  He had dropped out of school several years ago and now wanted to return, but needed to catch up in order to work with his peers.  How hard he worked, and was not embarrassed to allow younger students to help him.   He deserves to succeed!

The class ended at 9am with a song from this older boy, to which several girls danced. The students also proudly showed me some delightful models they had made of Nepali people, from scrap material, during one of the earlier sessions.  I was very pleased to see these models, as this type of activity does not often take place in Nepali classrooms, but I had demonstrated similar things during the training.

There was a jeep due to return down to the valley that morning and Sobita had arranged for us to be picked up from her house.  Whilst we waited I was shown the animals; buffaloes and their calves and a small flock of goats tethered in a shed nearby. 

Unripe oranges

I asked about the fruit and crops that the family grew; trees full of oranges – still green and not ripe for a couple of months, bananas, guava and pomegranates on nearby trees.  Large marrow-like vegetables hung from the creeper with yellow flowers that had spread itself across the low roof, beans and other vegetables grew near the house and there were terraces of rice on the hillside below. 

I clambered into the back of the jeep for the ride down to the valley.  The track was so bumpy that I had to brace myself and hold on tightly.  However my companion in the back was an interesting young man Nabil, back to visit his family from his work in Qatar.  He spoke excellent English and we spent the journey discussing and comparing Nepal with UK.  
As the journey progressed the back was filled up with sacks of vegetables or grain, being transported down to be sold. Later a couple with two very large sacks of green bananas clambered in, and were very curious about me and what I was doing. Nabil translated and we all laughed together!

What an interesting 24 hours I had spent.  Here in Nepal I have learnt to view each day as an adventure, as it is impossible to predict what will take place!

Pheri beTaulha.