At the time when I visited Nepal in the eighties, Kathmandu was right on the cusp between the invasion of hippies in search of the Truth or ways to get high cheaply, and the high-trekking adrenalin junkies that have followed since then. The hippies left behind graffiti – pictures from Fat Freddie comics and the like – on the walls of the cheap guest house we stayed at in Freak Street, whilst the climbers leave behind their own mountain of waste (tents, climbing equipment and do-do) on the slopes of Mount Everest. The taxi from the airport (4 wheels on my wagon) deposited us near the guest house which was a stone’s throw from Durbar Square.
The road’s official name is Jhochhen Tole; it was the final destination of the hippies in the 60s and 70s, but it is still commonly known as Freak Street.
Arriving from Europe, Durbar square assaults the senses with an outlandish otherness. It is a series of intersecting squares where a collection of temples clusters, with tiered plinths and high steps up to graceful sanctuaries under graceful outward-curving roofs. Hippies, orange-robed monks with shaven heads, or dread-locked sadhus with skin the colour and texture of rust, sit around on the steep steps. In the mornings fresh vegetables sold by wrinkled women gift the air: a pungent aroma of carrots, radishes, cucumbers, peas, oranges, bananas and leafy greens. Others sell beautiful, intricate yak-bone carvings of Buddhas, lions and the like. And then there was the heavy waft of the food being served from the restaurants around the square. I never quite worked out what it was, but by the end of my trip to Nepal, I no longer wanted to eat in these restaurants – there was something that made all the dishes taste the same, whether this was attempts at Western food or local fare. What was it? As far as I can gather, you now have to pay to visit Durbar square. This may not be a bad thing, as many of these ancient structures were reduced to mounds of splintered timber and brick dust after the earthquake in 2015 and the government are promising to restore the area.
Spirituality is omnipresent in Kathmandu and Buddhism alongside Hinduism co-exist. There are many interesting holy places or deities to discover: even a living goddess, in the form of Kumari. Legend has it that King Jaya Prakash Malla under the influence of alcohol, while playing a game with the visiting Goddess Taleju in the form of a human, started lusting after her. This offended the goddess and she ordered the king to make an oath that he would select a virgin girl within whom she would always reside. The tradition has been continued to this day. This is where the practice of worshiping young prepubescent girls as manifestations of the divine female energy or devi in Hindu and Buddhist religious traditions came from. In Nepal, a Kumari is a prepubescent girl selected from the Shakya caste (of silver and goldsmiths) or Bajracharya clan of the Nepalese Newari Buddhist community. The Kumari is revered and worshiped by some of the country’s Hindus. While there are several Kumaris throughout Nepal, with some cities having several, the best known is the Royal Kumari of Kathmandu, and she lives in the Kumari Ghar, a palace in the centre of the city. The selection process for her is especially rigorous. She can be as young as four years old and must be in excellent health, never have shed blood or been afflicted by any diseases, be without blemish and must not have yet lost any teeth. Girls who pass these basic eligibility requirements are examined for the battis lakshanas, or thirty-two perfections of a goddess. So if you have a neck like a conch shell, a body like a banyan tree, eyelashes like a cow, thighs like a deer, chest like a lion and a voice soft and clear as a duck’s, along with hair and eyes which are black, and dainty hands and feet, small and well-recessed sexual organs and a set of twenty teeth, you may be eligible for further testing. You will be observed for signs of serenity and fearlessness, and your horoscope is examined to ensure that it is complementary to the king’s. It is important that there not be any conflicts, as you must confirm the king’s legitimacy each year of your divinity. Your family is also scrutinized to ensure its piety and devotion to the king.
Once the priests have chosen a candidate, she must undergo yet more rigorous tests to ensure that she indeed possesses the qualities necessary to be the living vessel of Durga. Her greatest test comes during the Hindu festival of Dashain. On the Kalratri, or “black night”, 108 buffaloes and goats are sacrificed to the goddess Kali. The young candidate is taken into the Taleju temple and released into the courtyard, where the severed heads of the animals are illuminated by candlelight and masked men are dancing about. If the candidate truly possesses the qualities of Taleju, she shows no fear during this experience. If she does, another candidate is brought in to attempt the same thing. When her first menstruation begins, it is believed that the goddess vacates her body. Serious illness or a major loss of blood from an injury also causes loss of deity. So now, in Kathmandu, you can visit the Kumari Ghar (Kumari’s House). Don’t expect her to come down and have a chin-wag with you though; her feet must never touch the ground and she will leave her residence only during certain festivals.
Many people attend to the Kumari’s needs. These people are known as the Kumarimi and are headed by the patron. Their job is very difficult. They must attend to the Kumari’s every need and desire while giving her instruction in her ceremonial duties. While they cannot directly order her to do anything, they must guide her through her life. They are responsible for bathing her, dressing her and attending to her makeup as well as preparing her for her visitors and for ceremonial occasions.
Traditionally, the Kumari received no education, as she was widely considered to be omniscient. However, modernisation has made it necessary for her to have an education once she re-enters mortal life. Kumaris are now allowed to attend public schools and have a life inside the classroom that is no different from that of other students. While many Kumaris, such as the Kumari of Bhaktapur, attend school, others, such as the main Kumari in Kathmandu, receive their education through private tutors.
Similarly, her limited playmates must learn to respect her. Since her every wish must be granted, they must learn to surrender to her whatever they have that she may want and to defer to her wishes in what games to play or activities to play. Once they lose their deity, the Kumaris can expect a pension — the municipality pays R10,000 a month and the government pays R6,000. But despite this, she may find it hard to marry. There is a belief that if an ex-Kumari marries, her husband will die shortly thereafter.
At the Buddhist monkey temple (Swayambhunath) we spun the prayer wheels under the stupa. The monkeys here were said to have morphed to their present form from lice living on the head of the monk Manjushri.
Despite tendencies towards the hippie rather than the trekkie side of things, we could not leave Kathmandu without a glimpse of the fabled mountain. OK, so it was rather small in the distance looking smaller than other peaks which were nearer, but we took a bus some four hours out of Kathmandu to Nagarkot to see Everest. Nargacot is widely famous for the incredible sunrises and sunsets along with the fantastic view of the whole Kathmandu valley. We got up at dawn to fulfil this need before heading back to the city and taking a bus west to Pokhara in the Annapurna range (up to six wheels on my wagon now!).
Here I loved coming out of the room in the mornings to the sinks on the terrace outside and looking at the fishtail mountain behind the reflection of my stubble. We managed the first day of the Annapurna trek guideless, leaving before dawn, to catch the sun rising over the Annapurna range before the clouds came down. It took about four hours to get up there. We just got the last view before the clouds took over. There was a café/guest house at the top. We asked for our drinks and the young boy was sent down into town and came back up with said drinks in a fraction of the time it had taken us to get up there. After this excursion into the trekkie side, we went boating on the lake.
Back in Kathmandu, it was our last day in the country. Just time to hire some bikes (two wheels on my wagon) to get out to Pashupatinath, a complex of Hindu temples, ashrams, statues and inscriptions centuries old and lying along the banks of the sacred Bagmati river. On the steps down to the water, bodies are burnt.
As non-Hindus we were not allowed in, but it was worth seeing the complex from the hill on the opposite bank. What a great way to spend the morning before our flight out… except for one thing… on the way back down the hill the front wheel spins off my bike, depositing me on my chin and leaving multiple grazes (one wheel on my wagon). We had spent almost all of our money and were more concerned about getting back to the city in time to get to the airport and not being charged by the bike shop than my injuries. How could we get back in time? We just had to take the chance that one of the rickshaw drivers would take us and two bikes in his vehicle. Eventually we found one that would (three wheels on my wagon), asking him to drop us a way from the bike shop so there were no witnesses to our crime.
Had I been 30 years older, I would have marched back into the bike shop and complained at the state of the bike he had rented out to me and shown him the injuries that he had caused… as a younger me, we snuck the bike back into the row of bicycles, with the front wheel loosely attached, then high-tailed it out of there for the airport. I had visions of the guys in the shop chasing after us, like that band of marauding Cherokee after that old wagon, when they discovered the non- attached wheel and bent front fork.
It is not necessarily the right order (four wheels, two wheels, one wheel, three wheels) for the wagon song, but at least you did get a bonus six-wheeler and a vicarious trip to Nepal. It was a great trip. We made the plane and I was a-singing a higgity, haggity, hoggety, high. And if you don’t understand that, then you are probably unfamiliar with the old song; here it is: