Wednesday, November 26, 2008

What to do in Kathmandu?

Greetings from Kathmandu where I haven't seen even one "kat", nor for that matter hardly any dogs!  I hope the explanation doesn't lie in some exotic Nepalese cusine similar to that of their Chinese neigbors!  (but the Yak cheese here is great!)

Oman was exotic but Nepal is even more so.  How's this for exotic?

On Saturday afternoon my colleague and I spent several hours among Hindu mourners and ascetics in the Holy City of Pashupatinath observing several Hindu cremation ceremonies.  These take place daily along the Baghmadi River which is a tributary of the famous Ganges River of India.  Several fresh funeral pyres were lined up along the river and periodically, families arrived carrying a recently deceased relative all rolled up in plastic sheeting. After performing several rituals, they laid the body, wrapped in an ocre robe, onto a pyre. A male family member then circled the pyre three times and lit the pyre, starting near the head of the deceased.  After about 10 minutes, flames covered the pyre and smoke spread across the entire area.  And of course one couldn't help inhaling some of the smoke - a rather bizzare thought!  After the fire had fully consumed the body, the ashes were swept into the Baghmadi and slowly floated towards the Ganges.   Although it was all very surreal to me, the locals took it completely in stride.  Kids were even swimming in the river among the ashes. I saw one boy paddling in a casket which I was told was probably used to carry someone from a distant town to the cremation site.  People from nearby towns don't use caskets but only the yellow plastic sheeting.

Funeral pyre at Pashupati
Hindu ascetics at Pashupati

The ascetics, which probably included a few eunichs, were really an exotic lot, having spread ash and various color tones  over their faces and bodies.  They sustain themselves from alms and from donations from tourists who take their pictures.  They are outwardly friendly but completely otherworldly.  And I wouldn't be surprised if a little opium or other local narcotic didn't contribute to their state of mind.  As the Germans say "andere Laender, ander Sitten" -- other countries, other customs.  The world really does have great diversity!

 Pashupatinath was extremely interesting in its own right.  As a non-Hindu, I wasn't allowed to go into the temples but could walk through the streets and look into temples through the doorways.  Many pilgrims were present as were a few "holy cows."

Here are a couple of related links:

Over the weekend I visited two other UNESCO heritiage sites -- the ancient Hindu temple city of Bhaktapur ( and the large Buddhist Stupa of Bhudanat (( which is very close to my hotel. In the foregoing link, note the eyes staring down from all angles of the Stupa as well as from surrounding pinnacles and posts. These eyes are one of Nepals most endearing symbols and are common on hats, t-shirts, bumper stickers, etc.

Hindue temple in Bhaktapur

Street scene in Bhaktapur

Bhoudanat Stupa in festive mode
Buddhist Monks at Bohudanat Stupa

Here is an interesing post on the history/legend of BoudhaNath -- please note: there are many different English spellings from the Nepalese transliteration -- (

A few more general comments on Nepal:  it is one of the poorest countries in Asia and because it was never colonized inherited very little infrastructure.  Electricity goes out several times a day and all of Kathmandu's petroleum is brought in from India on large tanker trucks which must navigate the horrible Nepalese roads.  It is very isolated and has few resources.  The major source of income is the tourists that come to trek in the Himalayas or to climb Mt. Everest.  (I didn't get very close to the Himalayas during my time here but I could see the snow-capped peaks in the distance which are truly impressive).

I'm supposed to be traveling to Phnom Penh Cambodia via Bangkok on Thanksgiving Day but it looks like I may be stuck in Kathmandu a while longer. You may have heard that the Bangkok Airport has been closed due to major political demonstrations.  If I am unable to leave tomorrow I'll be looking for alternative ways out which won't be easy from this isolated country.  I may have to bypass Cambodia completely and fly to Jakarta via Hong Kong which would be my last stop before returning to the U.S.

Happy Thanksgiving and have lots of turkey for me.

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