Sunday, November 25, 2007

Baktapur, Nepal

The city gate:

A bell clangs, a hundred bells clang and the sound bounces over and around the chugging engines, beeping horns, chanting monks, bargaining shoppers and endless drums and flutes. In the far distance the dying day glows pink on mountain snow and over the valley a huge flock of white birds settles then explodes again into the air looking for a night roost.

Red and pink shawls warm shoulders of women buying, women selling, women walking with children tied to their backs and everywhere there is another sound, another movement and another temple toward which the sounds are offered. This is Bhaktapur, Nepal, the city that holds its heritage.

We came here with Jeff, the last member of our India tour we hugged good-by. Rick and I had a room for our last night in Nepal but Jeff came only to walk about and have lunch before returning to Kathmandu. Shortly he’ll leave for Tibet and we will head for home.

Inside the taxi was one century but outside time was braided: ancient history, middle ages and modern times. We found internet cafes and pottery smoldering in straw fired pits. Tarps on streets or temple steps were covered with rice drying in the sun while people talked on cell phones. At noon a live goat led a parade to the main temple where it was sacrificed leaving a large puddle of blood on cobblestones – all of it captured on digital movie cameras. It’s, as I sometimes say, not Kansas.

Baktapur is the most impressive of the World Heritage sites we have seen during this trip. A large, complex entity, the city is a living museum with hundreds of temples and wells (there is little indoor water service) and more carvings than a person could count in a decade. The wooden doorways, windows, balconies and roof tops are carved with Ganish, elephants, goddesses unknown, Garuda, birds, feathers, fruits, diamonds and flowers.

The main square has all of this but Rick and I also walked the back alleys peeking in a doorway where a woman cooked over an open fire while surrounded by as many people as the small floor would hold. Hens pecked at stray grains of rice between their fluttering chicks. A young girl jumped rope in a courtyard and an old man slept on a bit of burlap next to knitting women and sleeping babies.

Everywhere there is one more structure worthy of a photograph.

Once just a bit of a trading road to Tibet what is now Bhaktapur became a town under the efforts of King Ananda Malla 1080, more or less. For 200 years, from 1400 onward it was the most powerful city in the area. Most of the knock-your-yak-wool-socks-off architecture is from that period or from the 17th century. Apparently it would be even more dramatic but an earthquake in 1934 destroyed many ornate temples. It’s hard to believe that any were lost since they are everywhere but at the peak there were 172 temples and monasteries here as well as 172 pilgrim shelters, now used as shaded meeting areas for old men during the day. (Though this one is stacked with pots not people.)

It seems as if there must be 172 stores selling CDs of monks chanting or of Nepali music because one hears this everywhere. Our guidebook says that this city, the architecture and pace, is what Kathmandu was 30 years ago. As I write we are sitting on the roof of our hotel sipping tea, listening to all that is Baktapur while I type on the laptop by the light of a candle sheltered from the wind by the middle part of a plastic one liter water bottle. Gotta love recycling.

In the 1970s a German consortium decided to support Baktapur by building a sewage system and repaving the streets with cobblestone and brick and also began a continuing restoration of buildings and temples. Now one pays $10 to enter and the money is used to restore old buildings brick by brick and clay tile by clay tile. Only photos will do to explain this town wide party with momo steamers (a sort of dumpling stuffed with veggies or chicken or buffalo) on every block.

Part 2

One never knows what one will find on any street but when on a street in a foreign city he chances of seeing something outlandishly different increases. Baktapura’s streets are as foreign as they come and they have provided us with shock, amusement and fascination.

A three-year old girl’s toy was the creepiest thing though I can only say that because we missed the goat sacrifice in the afternoon. She was running and laughing while waving about a hypodermic needle. (Let’s reassess the danger level of “runs with scissors”.)The needle was huge, the holding several ml of what looked like very dirty water (sewage??) and brandishing a 2 inch long needle. Rick and I cleared out of her way. Can you imagine being stabbed with an old hypodermic needle with unknown fluid inside?

Later another tiny girl ran between us with a burning stick. She was among a group of 3-10 year olds who were burning bits of trash in the corner of a temple.
Their "clay store" was a series of large mounds under tarps and lean-tos left in such a condition that intense wedging was required and so they were intensely wedging the black clay.

The pots dry in sunny potter's square and is pit fired to a red and is finished with paints or some kind of clear coating and is sold directly to tourists (ie the elephant vases)

but most of their work is of functional vessels traded for rice.
In a safer part of our evening walk we went to Potter’s Square. We had been there in the afternoon when we saw pots being stacked on a straw bed, packed with more straw and layered with more pots and more straw. By evening the pots were covered in straw and buried in ash in preparation for a 3-day firing.

Another load of pots had been fired and another was in the process of firing with smoke leaking out all around it. This pit firing was being tended by a man who fed scraps of wood into each of the ports at the bottom. He would continue to do this all night.

We went to our hotel room for the night when I heard cymbals and drums and looked out the window. There was a dancing parade of the nine manifestations of Durga, living gods that are particularly revered and feared in Baktapura. During certain few occasions and particularly during the festival of Dasain (now), members of the cast of flower sellers are chosen to don the masks and parade through the street.

The masks are specially made and used for only one year. When on, the masks empower the wearer with the embodiment of the deity and so they are living gods. They dance throughout the city to of the major temples and then they disappear into the monastery where only they and initiates can go. I wanted a photo but was told that someone might smash my camera and beat me for photographing a living god so it's good that they ran inside a gate and that I didn't follow trying for a good shot but, again I ask, where do these ideas come from?

Part 3

Through the COLD night there were periodic bells clanging but the bells began in earnest at 4:30 and were ferocious for a while being joined by blaring horns and the occasional fire cracker. Dressed in every layer we had we ventured out, creeping down the stairs intending to go to the square for a closer look but the night clerk slept under a thick blanket in the lobby and the doors were closed and bared. We were locked in but in isn’t really the right word.

The hotel rooms are closed but the restaurant is in the open courtyard and the stairs lead to the roof-top café so the building is more open (cold) air than enclosed but without leaping over the outer walls or waking the guy on the sofa we were locked in.

Jen Brown, a new friend from the India tour, leaves today for base camp at Everest. We’re chilled to the bone here and can’t imagine what she will face. Rick particularly is feeling awful today, so awful he finds nothing of interest in the streets.

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