Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Ancient City

There is something about the heat in Kathmandu that pierces right through the skin, and if you stay too long unprotected under the naked sun, then it starts to sting.  It is still in April, supposedly the spring month, and yet the temperature is already in the thirties and the dust hangs heavy and tangible in the air. 

I ask the driver of the car in which I travel to close the window.  He complies.  Immediately the car becomes a rank smelling aquarium.  I politely ask him to turn on the air conditioning.  It doesn’t work.  My guide tells me they rarely use air conditioning as there really is no need.  I lower down my window and allow the sun to envelope my face in a hot and burning kiss, and the dust to settle on my lids, giving me itchy eyes throughout the trip.

We’re leaving Kathmandu for the day.  I’m not sure if I like the place, though the name rings exotic in my traveller’s ears, like Shangrila, and evokes the exciting adventures of Tintin.  So far, my impressions have been one messy city made of unsightly bare-bricked buildings, criss-crossed with dirt-streets pockmarked with holes and the entire place disfigured by a million ugly billboards from above, and littered with piles of rubbish on the ground.  Disappointment settles in the pit of my stomach as if after eating half a dozen of stodgy momo dumplings.

I feel whatever soul and spirituality the city has, is drowned by the endless noise of motorbikes and old bangers that honk and push their way on uneven narrow streets.  From above the Monkey Temple, where a view of the Kathmandu Valley can be seen spread out below, the city sprawls like a hideous rash amidst the green of the trees and the dark blue outlines of the Himalayas in the horizon.

Even the Temple, where red-bottomed monkeys roam and rummage for food, sometimes in the bags of unsuspecting visitors, is a shrine not just to the deities, but to the tourist dollar.  Here, surrounding the towering stupa with its painted eyes and prayer wheels, are shops and tables offering a cornucopia of prayer beads, bangles and cheap baubles and necklaces made of jade, turquoise and red coral stones.  In the background is the haunting sound of the mantra, Om mani padme hum.  It comes from a music shop selling meditational CDs and songs from Buddha Bar.

Today, we leave for Bhaktapur, 20km away from Kathmandu.  The bumpy road gives way to a smoother highway recently built by the Japanese.  The redbrick eye sores that pass for buildings in Kathmandu give way to rice terraces and forests on mountain slopes.  We pass a gigantic bronze statue of the Kailashnath Mahadev, the tallest Lord Shiva statue in the world, perched on top of a hill at a 143 feet high.  It gleams under the cloudless blue sky.  My escort tells me every year, during the Lord Shiva festival in June, people and devotees gather to celebrate him.  On this day, everybody smokes weed.  Pity we are still in April. 

To get into the city of Bhaktapur we have to pay.  It is an ancient city going back to the 12th century and is a UNESCO world heritage site due to its rich culture, temples and original stone, metal and wood artwork and architecture.  The city is testimony to wealth and prosperity when it played an important role once upon a time when trade between Tibet and India created a route with their caravans of merchandise.

Here, the cobbled main street, free from the noise, dust and congestion of motor vehicles, is flanked by ancient Nepali houses with magnificent jutting, crafted windows and stone carvings.  The city is home to numerous Hindu and Buddhist temples and religious sites with ponds and squares whose charming and ornate architecture hark back to the time when Bhaktapur was a royal city and the capital of Nepal during the great Malla Kingdom until the 15th century.

We arrive at Bhaktapur just as the sun leans to the west, bathing the wooden and stone facades of this beautiful ancient city in gold.  Immediately the visitor is smitten.  How can they not be.  Everything is old, aesthetically pleasing and dignified.  Even the rows of old men sitting around under the shade of spacious gazebos that you find on the sides of the street and in the inner courtyards.

Here, in their caps, waistcoats and tunics, these old men while away the time, waiting for sundown, in gentle idleness and in the delight of each others‘ company.  Some play a kind of betting game with wooden sticks which they throw on the floor with much zest and noise.  Most are quite content with sitting shoulder to shoulder, quietly amused at the sight of tourists that come in groups to soak in a bit of ancient culture and tradition.

The delight that I find at the entrance gate to the city turns to heady excitement as more and more architectural treasures are found as we enter the heart of the place.  By the time we reach Durbar Square, the gem of the city’s treasure, I have run out of battery in my camera and my excitement metamorphoses into the numbness of one offered too much of a good thing. 

To be sure, entering the low archway between streets that open onto courtyards where the people live, I see much dilapidated and neglected buildings with their ubiquitous rubbish.  And in this city, the people still rely on ancient wells, old ponds and fountain areas for their daily water.

But here in Bhaktapur, I finally find that embodiment of mystery, beauty, majesty and history that I search for, and that travels to this part of the world evoke.
(Desi Anwar:  First published in The Jakarta Globe)

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