This is, more or less, how the story goes. Maya Devi, a pregnant queen living in what is now the Terai region of Nepal, was strolling along one day some 2700 years ago when she went into labor. Soon after, she gave birth to a son as she stood with her arms around the branch of a bodhi tree. It turns out that this child, named Siddhartha, would emerge some 30 years later from his protected and privileged existence behind his father’s palace walls to seek the meaning of life. He succeeded in his quest and is now known as the Buddha. Several centuries after his birth, King Ashoka identified the Buddha’s bodhi birth tree in the area of Lumbini Village. He placed a stone to mark the exact location of the birth, and knocked the tax burden of the Lumbini villagers down to one-eighth of its previous levels. Not a bad windfall for living near a tree. I should mention that Siddhartha is thought to have emerged from his mother’s armpit, which might explain her death seven days later.
We had the opportunity to visit the birthplace of the Buddha, and to observe that the armpit theme is alive and well in both the village of Lumbini and in the sprawling Lumbini Development Zone that surrounds the spot demarcated by King Ashoka many centuries ago.
The village consists of a mosquito infested, one block dirt road lined with dark, flea bag hostels and a few trinket shops. During our stay a “dharma story” consisting of spoken word, ‘singing’ and musical accompaniment (that reminded me of my children’s pre-school winter concerts) was blasting through a village-wide PA system of speakers starting at dawn and continuing into the night. Static, distortion and an overly long and wandering storyline seemed to be the main thrusts, but, not being able to speak Nepali, this was difficult to confirm. We spent two sleepless nights swatting at buzzing, pesky, blood sucking bastards, and we have resumed our anti-malarial intake.
The Lumbini Development Zone is a walled compound of several hundred acres that encompasses the “birthplace” (now covered by a dark building meant to preserve the exact spot); a long, narrow reflecting pool (in which two speedboats sat ready to buzz passengers up and down its length); which divides the western monastic zone (in which massive monasteries have been built by countries practicing the crimson-robed, Mahayana branch of Buddhism (eg, China and Korea)) from the eastern monastic zone (in which only slightly less massive monasteries have been built by the saffron-robed Theravada countries (eg, Thailand and Sri Lanka)); and, amidst a maze of road and path construction, appropriately placed in the center of this armpit, sits a bizarre statue meant to depict the Buddha and the pose he struck immediately upon being born (see photo below).
One cannot help but wonder what our friend might do, or say, if he returned to this spot today. WWBD? Probably, say WTF?!?!
After leaving Bardia, the adventures continued when we set out for Lumbini (via Butwal), the birth place of the Buddha, on a local Nepali bus. We piled our bags onto the roof and packed ourselves in like sardines for one long, hot, sweaty, dusty ride, in seats not big enough for our legs, passing slower vehicles, dodging oncoming traffic, swerving, breaking, and of course honking, to avoid cows, goats, chickens, bikes, buses, cars, children, and water buffaloes all to the loud beat of a Hindi soundtrack playing in a repetitive loop. At one pitstop I was honked at by the driver who was very annoyed with me for taking too long during our bathroom break (in the woods). As bad as it sounds, this ride was an improvement over riding on the roof of the bus, which Coalter and I both did in Nepal when we were younger (sorry Mom, I never wanted to tell you that!).
Throughout this trip we have been trying to strike a balance between using the cheap and culturally interesting local transportation and preserving our lives. Private transportation, which is much more costly, allows you to ask the driver to slow down, point out to him that he’s going to kill a child if he doesn’t cool it, and to stop when GI distress and motion sickness strike suddenly, which they do with some frequency. With our children in tow, we have chosen the private option for most of our overland travel in Nepal.
We had the opportunity to observe Nepalese village life close up during our time in Betahani just outside the Bardia park boundary. Our other observations of village life have been in the high altitude areas of Langtang and from the windows of various vehicles as we whiz by on the roads. From what we can see, village life in Nepal revolves around food production and preparation.
In the Terai, the lentil and wheat harvests are in full swing. In other regions, the wet rice crop is in the ground in anticipation of the coming monsoon rains required to irrigate this water-intensive crop. All of these staples require drying and hulling to remove husks and make the grains ready for consumption.
We’ve observed three methods of hulling. Mechanized hulling is rare, but it is available for those farmers who can afford to pay the itinerant hulling machine operator who hauls his rig from village to village this time of year. (Other forms of mechanized farming, such as the use of tractors or rototillers to prepare the soil, are equally rare in Nepal and every other country we’ve visited with the exception of Thailand.) It is less expensive to have a pair of oxen stomp over your rice, wheat or lentils for hours until the grains have been broken loose from their hulls. We observed this method in several villages. Dried lentil stalks are piled on the hard-packed earth while the beasts tread a slow, tight, repetitive circle. When that stage is finished, the husk-less grains must be gathered up by hand and separated from various non-grain items and debris. The resulting small basket of lentils looks paltry against the effort required, and makes one thankful for the rice and beans aisles in our grocery stores. The final hulling method is the “road hull” in which sheaves of wheat are placed on the road in anticipation of large trucks and buses passing by to do the work. The heavy vehicles provide a free hulling service, but it is a dangerous technique (especially for the woman [yes, this is women’s work here] tasked with gathering up the grains at the end of the day), and it makes you wonder about the “natural” ingredients you might find in your bread.
Having seen the ox and truck methods in action I will no longer wonder “how did this rock get in my rice?”, and I will take more seriously the suggested first step in most lentil recipes: rinse lentils.
(As a side note, one hazard of growing crops next to a huge protected area full of elephants, like Bardia National Park, is that elephants love to eat those crops. Twice during our time in Betahani we heard large crowds yelling and screaming in the middle of the night. The entire village had come out to scare off a rogue elephant who’d found his way into the wheat fields. The next day we noticed a list of warnings posted in our room, all of which addressed the dangers of wandering outside at night to see what the commotion was about.)
Food preparation, which often requires a heat source, is another oft-observed activity. Not just the cooking, but the acquisition of fuel. Coming across a shambling pile of sticks and branches is a regular occurrence on the roads and trails of Nepal. These turn out to be either very young or very old people hauling bundles of firewood back to the cook stoves. Firewood is scarce in most parts of the country, so alternative fuel sources have been developed. On the Terai we saw what looked like long mud bricks in regular stacks drying along the side of the road. These turned out to be the Nepalese version of Duraflame firelogs consisting of animal dung and the chaff extracted from the hulling processes described earlier. In other places, straight dung (yak chips) augments firewood as fuel for heating and cooking. But our favorite fuel source is the up and coming use of biogas. Animal and human waste are stirred up and placed in a digester under an airtight dome (usually buried underground). As these wastes decompose, gases are released and captured in the dome. Enough pressure is created by the gravitational push of additional dung coming down the shoot to push the gas out a valve at the top of the dome and to an efficient, single burner cook stove. These systems are being installed at the household level throughout the country. Of course the use of poop to create gas to cook food is intriguing, especially for a 9 and 12 year old boy, and the talk of developing other ways to generate and capture biogas has been seemingly endless.
A final note on the importance of food in village life has to do with livestock. Animals are everywhere in Nepal: in the countryside and in the cities. Water buffalo are used for traction (hauling carts and tilling fields), donkeys and horses as pack animals (especially in the roadless mountain areas), cows and cow/yak hybrids are sources of milk, goats are also sources of milk and of meat, pigs are here (although they are less common in Nepal than in Southeast Asia), and chickens run wild (in fact the domesticated chicken has its origins in the wild chicken of northern India and the Terai) as do dogs (which don’t appear to be a food source here, unlike other countries we’ve visited on this trip). Tending these creatures is a focal point in the life of many villagers.
Bardia National Park is a 1000 square kilometer protected area in the low-lying Terai region of Nepal, on the border with India, where we spent several days in search of the big five: Bengal tiger, Asian elephant, one-horned rhinoceros, leopard, and sloth bear.
The main goal in the Bardia wildlife safari competition is to spot and to photograph the most large mammals, with the grandaddy being the elusive Bengal tiger, and of course to talk about it later in the lodge and boast with your photographs. There are winners — like the French couple who saw a tiger five times the day before we got there, or the lady from Chicago and her son who only had one day in the park and managed to see a large herd of elephants, several rhinos, and a tiger — and there are losers . . .
We knew the challenge would be tough from the beginning after being introduced to our competition and taking in their safari wear, their cool European accents, and their cameras weighing almost as much as our children.
Day one consisted of a full day expedition by jeep. We were so excited driving through grassy fields, crossing shallow rivers, enjoying the early morning jungle sounds. We were rewarded immediately. Within 15 minutes at our first stop there was an explosion of excitement as our guide spotted a tiger at a distance lying in the tall grass. After 15 to 20 minutes of greedily snatching the binoculars from each other and whispering “amazing”, “spectacular” and “unbelievable”, our “tiger” stood up on two feet and walked towards the forest carrying his large camera. A photographer lying in the grass! A truly memorable moment with a hearty cross-cultural laugh.
Following is an overview of the rest of our day:
Hour 1. We arrive at a bank overlooking a wide, grassy and sandy expanse where two rivers converge providing a popular spot for wildlife to come during the heat of the day to drink water. We are glued to the binoculars in excited anticipation of the tiger who was about to come. A furry swamp deer rests in the foreground.
Hour 2. The deer is still there. We entertain ourselves commenting with the hushed whispers of narrators of a TV nature program. We enjoy the sheer beauty of this peaceful spot. We wonder if something is wrong with the deer.
Hour 3. Forgetting about the tiger for a while, he’s probably going to wake up soon, our attention turns to the surrounding jungle and the banks, which suddenly come alive. We watch a brilliant kingfisher bird for a while, “beautiful enough to name a beer after” says Coalter referring to the same-named Indian lager. The “log” that it was hovering near for so long suddenly grew legs and stood up to amble back into the water, a mugger crocodile. A male peacock appears fanning his feathers and doing his incredible, over-the-top dance which resembles a solo salsa, and a female peacock appears as well, apparently buying the whole number. Is something wrong with that deer? It’s becoming a little harder to focus.
Hour 4. That deer is so stupid, it’s right in the open, doesn’t it know there is a tiger lurking in the grass, go away you stupid deer, you’re going to die.
Hour 6. After hours of quiet contemplation, deep thoughts and revelations set in like… maybe we could all learn from that calm and composed deer because isn’t there always a tiger lurking nearby in the grass, and… I had no idea my kids could sit still for so long without a screen.
Hour 7. “Show yourself you black and orange striped devil” hisses Coalter. An inconsiderate tourist group with obnoxious cameras and video equipment noisily tramp in wearing bright colors (a safari no-no), preparing to set up their equipment, including bright lights, for the night. We hate them and it’s all their fault we didn’t see anything.
Well, you get the picture and you probably guessed that even after two whole days in the jungle we never did see that tiger. But there were so many other delights and excitements. We crossed a rickety bridge that looked like it belonged in a state fair fun-house, bouncy and tilted a little bit to one side with no handrails and a few missing planks here and there, over a river where we had seen a crocodile a ways back (that sounds really bad as I write it, I don’t think they eat people). We saw langur and rhesus macaque monkeys, incredible birds like the wooly-necked stork and the crested hawk eagle, swamp deer, barking deer, hog deer, spotted deer, mugger and gharial crocodiles, mongoose, a herd of wild boar, and lets not forget the tiger man. We saw tiger paw prints everywhere and had exciting moments when the jungle animals let out their loud warning cries that a tiger was in the vicinity. We decided we would become birders. We had wonderful drives through the grasses and airy jungle watching two amazing sunsets. Mother Nature finally gave us our large game consolation prize and offered up a spectacular rhino show for us. We watched three one-horned rhinos, including a mother and baby, bathe in the river with the baby nuzzling alongside its mother and climbing on her back (to the delight of the mother spectators), and the two big rhinos getting in a little fight (to the delight of almost everyone else). And, as the parting gift, we came upon a lone, white-tusked bull elephant ambling through the tall grass at the edge of the jungle under a bright orange sunset, just as an elephant should be, with 10 minutes left to spare in our safari. Although we were not the top contenders in the Bardia wildlife game, and our competitors saw tigers the following day while we were back at the lodge doing our laundry, it was pretty darned incredible.
Temples, other sacred structures and religious iconography are everywhere in Nepal. It would take months of determined sightseeing just to visit all of the temples in the Kathmandu Valley and many years of study to understand them fully. It would be easy to overdose on religious studies and temple touring, so we’ve engaged in both on only a limited basis. But religion plays such a central role in this society that, not only is it an unavoidable part of any trip to Nepal, one cannot understand Nepal without first trying to understand the two main religions here: Hinduism and Buddhism. This entry tries to give an account of some of what we’ve seen of these religions in the architecture and statuary in the Kathmandu Valley.
We started our time in Kathmandu Valley in the Tibetan Buddhist neighborhood of Boudha within sight of the huge Bodhnath Stupa. This stupa has attracted Tibetan refugees and travelers over many centuries and is a centerpiece of the exiled Tibetan Buddhist community in this country. For us it was a first introduction to the religious foundations of Nepal.
Two things became immediately apparent as we walked around this stupa in the late afternoon of our first day (always clockwise with the stupa on our right!). The stupa (originally constructed around AD 600) is still a focal point of current religious practice. Unlike many of our European churches which have been abandoned by the faithful even while swarmed by tourists, this stupa, and all of the other temples we visited, are in daily use by their respective adherents. The other thing that struck us was the incorporation of icons that we did not understand as being “purely” Buddhist. The Buddha eyes on the tower below the spire and the five-colored prayer flags blowing in the breeze are both identifiable to even the minimally initiated as Buddhist icons or objects. But there at the base of the stupa, in fact incorporated into the structure of the stupa, was a temple dedicated to Hariti. Who is this Hariti? we wondered. The goddess of smallpox, we were told. When we ran into Hariti several weeks later at the Swayambhunath Stupa we were told she is the goddess of fertility and a protector of children. Upon further investigation, it turns out that the story of Hariti (aka Ajimadya or Sitalamaju) is a long one starting in what is now Iran, and her relationship with Buddhism is complex. (We’ve come to find that long, complex stories are the norm here!)
The next question that came to mind was whose goddess of smallpox and fertility? Hariti, it turns out, was a non-Buddhist who was instructed by Buddha about the value of compassion. As a result, she changed her evil ways (killing children) and became a guardian of the Buddha’s doctrine. And yet there at the base of one of the largest and most important Buddhist structures in Asia, Hindus, among others, were praying to Hariti. This same scene repeated itself several weeks later when we visited the Swayambhunath temple complex, a chaotic jumble of Hindu and Buddhist structures and iconography (centered on the Buddhist Swayambhunath Stupa but also including a prominent Hariti Temple) at the top of a high hill west of central Kathmandu.
In this last photo, one might expect a Shiva lingam (a Hindu symbol) atop the yoni, but there sits Buddha.
These two initial impressions — religious structures in regular daily use and a complex intermixing of Buddhist and Hindu iconography and architecture — became enduring themes as we visited or came across the artifacts of religion throughout our first month in Nepal.
The Bodhnath Stupa was just the beginning. The next day we visited the Pashupatinath temple complex as the Hindu faithful prepared for the Maha Shivaratri festival (about which we reported briefly in an earlier post), and here too the intermixing of the two religions was apparent with Buddhist icons appearing here and there and a few of the hermit meditation caves set aside for Buddhist devotees.
The notion of daily use, the deep incorporation of religion into the regular routine of the Nepalese and the mixing of Hinduism and Buddhism were on display during a stroll through a residential/commercial district of old Kathmandu during which we encountered a 15th Century Buddhist stupa across from a temple dedicated to Shiva. One block on we hit another stupa before passing an altar to Ganesh and then a 9th Century stone relief of Shiva and Parvati, then another Hindu temple with a carved Garuda, and, turning the corner, a short, unremarkable 5th Century standing Buddha statue tucked inconspicuously between a hardware store and the neighboring business. All this in the first five minutes of a casual stroll through busy, narrow streets with secular life churning around the ancient and the sacred. We walked on for another 30 minutes through a similar landscape before being driven inside by an unusual cloudburst for a cup of milk tea.
The constant presence of religious objects repeats itself throughout the Kathmandu Valley, an area stretching approximately 15 km north to south and 30 km east to west and consisting of many smaller towns and neighborhoods. Boudha and Dhulikhel are two we’ve written about. We also visited Panauti at the confluence of the sacred Roshi and Pungamati Rivers (yes, more sacred rivers) and Swayambhunath, the “Monkey Temple”, mentioned above. Finally, we spent one night in the former city state kingdom of Bhaktapur with its famous Durbar (or Palace) Square and its many other plazas surrounded by temples to the various gods. Our travels within the Kathmandu Valley only scratched the surface in this densely populated and historically rich part of Nepal. In all of these places it is difficult to walk ten feet without passing a Ganesh figure smeared with red paste, or a Buddhist stupa surrounded by prayer flags. And with the panoply of gods and other characters (demons, various incarnations of each god, their children and consorts, and their animal companions or vehicles [vahana]), it is often difficult to understand who is being worshiped and for what purpose. Some gods are well-known and the obvious object of worship if you know what to look for (a trident is Shiva’s weapon of choice, a Garuda is Vishnu’s vahana), but others are a bit more obscure. For example, the toothache god hiding in an old snag of wood covered with coins that had been nailed to the misshapen tree trunk. The fact that his little shrine was located in a district with lots of dentist offices didn’t make his purpose that much more obvious to the uninitiated. For what is, in some sense, a one-man show, the Buddhist system also includes a surprisingly large number of characters, many of them borrowed from the older Hindu system. (This intermingling includes the belief among some Hindus that Buddha is the ninth incarnation or avatar of Vishnu.)
Below are a few more photos of religious buildings and objects.
And here are a couple that capture secular life in the Kathmandu Valley.
But notice the white stupa structure on the left side of the last photo under which this youngster is bathing.
This is an entry about a man who has made a real difference in his community over the course of his lifetime, and who attributes his successes to a year spent in the United States.
We had the pleasure of meeting Mr. B.P. Shresta of Dhulikhel, Nepal during a two-day visit to his hometown set on the eastern rim of the Kathmandu Valley. We were introduced to B.P. by our family member, Dr. Jerry Bunker, who spent some time in Dhulikhel practicing medicine. “Bunker” (as B.P. fondly calls Jerry) and B.P. became friends and have maintained that friendship over the years and distances. We benefited greatly from the Bunker-B.P. connection when we contacted B.P. and were invited to spend time with him and his family at their hotel, the Himalayan Horizon, named for the magnificent mountain views from the rim of the valley. Clouds obscured the views most of the time we were in Dhulikhel, but meeting B.P. and hearing his story more than made up for the mountain-less scenery.
B.P., never before having left Nepal, traveled to Davis, California in the late 1960s for one year to teach the Nepali language to outbound Peace Corps volunteers. B.P. claims that while in the United States he observed a mentality, an approach to problem solving, and a “can do” attitude that contrasted sharply with what he grew up with in Nepal: an attitude of fatalism (his word). B.P. marveled at the freedom and defiance of the hippy culture and at other new ideas that were in the air including individualism, entrepreneurialism, and civic engagement. He also absorbed these ideas and transported them back to Dhulikhel where he returned after his year abroad. In the subsequent 45 years Dhulikhel has been the beneficiary of B.P. and his American experience. (B.P. claims it was his visit to the United States that set his wheels in motion.)
Upon his return, B.P., seeing that those same hippies were starting to visit Nepal and needed lodging, started a four-room guesthouse with no indoor plumbing. By the time we visited Dhulikhel, he’d built the Himalayan Horizon, a four-building compound with a conference center and 60 high quality guestrooms (the nicest we’ve stayed in on this trip). But B.P.’s commercial activities were only the beginning of his contribution to Dhulikhel.
A true visionary, B.P. has been able to see things both as they are and as they could be.
He started with a municipal water system. In the country with the second largest reserve of freshwater in the world, Nepal’s water distribution system is abominable. In the pre-B.P. Dhulikhel water was hauled in buckets up from the valley. In post-B.P. Dhulikhel a German-engineered water system brings water from a spring 14 kilometers to the south supplying the townspeople with water at the twist of a tap. Around this same time, B.P. began to engage in politics, serving as the mayor of Dhulikhel for 14 years.
During Bunker’s time in Dhulikhel, the absence of regular health care services was noted and quickly remedied by the establishment of a small clinic. It soon became clear that the clinic was not sufficient to fill the health care needs of the community and B.P. set out to organize and seek funding for the building of what now stands on the slopes of Dhulikhel: the state-of-the-art Dhulikhel Hospital. The service area for this hospital stretches across a quarter of the country, and it (along with the water system) has come to be regarded as a model for other communities in Nepal. Not only does Dhulikhel Hospital serve patients, but it is also a teaching hospital for the training of health care providers pursuing their degrees at yet another B.P. institution.
Yes, you may have guessed it, B.P. was also a primary mover behind the establishment of Kathmandu University: a 3,500 student, Dhulikhel-based university [despite the name] offering undergraduate and graduate degrees mostly in science and technology, areas specifically chosen to fill recognized gaps in the offerings at other universities in the country.
After Kathmandu University had been up and running for several years, B.P. realized that very few students coming out of the Dhulikhel secondary schools were being accepted to Kathmandu University. Those students were simply not prepared for college, the director of admissions told B.P. B.P.’s next stop was improving the elementary and secondary school system of Dhulikhel enough so that some of those students could advance to Kathmandu University. Not surprisingly, given his previous track record, B.P. succeeded again.
We toured several of B.P.’s favorite successes and enjoyed his stories of how they came to be and of what was next on his to-do list. His determination, perseverance and patience were impressive. For us, the important lesson was that with vision, commitment and follow through real change can be made, even in a country as poor as Nepal (per capita GDP approximately $600, lower than Haiti, slightly better than Afghanistan, but worse off than every other country in the world outside of Africa).