Swayambhunath, The Monkey Temple
Our first lecture here was given at Tribhuvan University in Kirtipur by Dr. Mukta S. Tamang, who provided a sweeping history of Nepal, as well as a look at the current state of government. It’s far too long and complicated for this tiny(“sano") little blog post, but here are just a few major points:
The government used to enforce a caste system based on birth, which, although outlawed in 1962, still plays a big role in Nepali society today.
Nepal is very diverse for a country roughly the size of Arkansas. Over 120 different ethnic groups/nationalities and 60 different languages make up the population of almost 30 million.
Although a new constitution was completed last year to unify the nation, it remains highly contentious with several issues being debated including women’s rights and linguistic rights (to allow people to speak their own language/dialect in places like government buildings)
After the lecture we left for Swayambhunath, also known as the Monkey Temple. After a (painfully) long wait for lunch we were energized to get going up the long steps to the top of the temple, where a group was playing loud, percussive music. People of all ages and ethnicities were walking around the temple (clockwise) and spinning these ornate prayer wheels, which are said to release prayers and improve one’s karma. The carvings were worn from the millions of hands that have probably spun them over the years, but I could still feel the characters like braille and I felt a pang of regret that I couldn’t read them.
Monkeys and dogs were running around everywhere and a few seemed to stop and pose for me. Tourists from every ethnicity (especially, it seemed, China and India) were interspersed with locals. At the top of the temple above, Buddha eyes (or Wisdom Eyes) looked down at the whole proceeding and, indeed at the whole of Kathmandu Valley. The view from the temple was astounding, with rays of sunshine peaking out from the cloud coverage. Mountains, or hills as the locals call them, edged the boarder of the valley in the distance.
On Tuesday we took a bus to Kathmandu Durbar Square, located by the old royal palace. It was one of the many places that took a big hit from last year’s 7.8 earthquake, and although most of the rubble has been cleared by now there were visible cracks in many of the walls. A few temples had been decimated or severely destroyed, and were still being rebuilt.
South of Durbar Square was Freak Street, which was made famous by the hippies of the 60’s and 70’s who came to smoke weed all day. I took People riding motorcycles wove in and out of the foot traffic, often narrowly avoiding collisions. Men sat on steps or in shops, watching people as they walked by. A few glanced at me, but for the most part I was ignored. There were no hippies to be found.
A few things I’ve been noticing over the past few days:
Women tend to wear brightly colored traditional clothing, while men tend to be much more casually dressed in t-shirts and jeans.
Few people can be seen rushing around, most seem to walk casually from place to place.
Shop owners try very hard to appeal to all nationalities and faiths with various flags hanging in their storefronts. Tour guides do the same, and I’ve been approached several times with a loud “ni-hao!”, which threw me off guard.
Stray dogs can be seen everywhere, especially in urban areas.
Almost every square inch of land not covered by road or building is green, either with potted plants or harvestable crops.
Rooftops are very utilitarian, and most have laundry drying, plants growing, and any number of items hanging from them. Most buildings have water storage on the roof as well. They also serve as a place to socialize and relax (I'm sitting on one right now).
Despite the huge amount of water that comes from rain and the Himalayas, it seems that most of Nepal has an inconsistent water supply at best.
We've been doing and seeing a lot, and there's much more to come.