Saddle up, dear Reader, because today you are in for a whirlwind of culture à la Kathmandu. I am especially excited about our first stop, a Buddhist place of worship, called Boudhanath Stupa. Our bus is currently stuck in traffic – a new norm during our stay in Nepal’s capital. I am surprised to find very few paved streets in this well-known city; it is not uncommon for livestock or people to wander into the dusty thoroughfares and hold up traffic.
Just outside of my window there are several vendors selling fish and red meat. It is warm today and the fish give off a formidable odor. The meat vendor looks bored as he mindlessly waves a fly swatter over his pile of meat. A fly lands on the meat and – whack! – the vendor squashes it. Bonus protein, I suppose. (Note: it pays to be picky about your food choices in countries where proper sanitation is a bit dodgy).
But Back To The Stupa…
Boudhanath Stupa is one of the largest stupas in Nepal and is also considered one of the holiest stupas outside of Tibet. You and I could talk quite a while about the structure and symbolism of the stupa, but instead I’ll give you the big highlight: from above, the Boudhanath Stupa resembles a giant mandala. Great. What’s a mandala? A mandala is a diagram of the Buddhist and/or Hindu cosmos or universe. As we stroll through the grounds, we come across several monks painting mandalas to aid in their meditation. It is careful and precise work.
You’ve heard me say it before and I’m going to say it again – I just love a Buddhist house of worship! Colorful prayer flags dance in the breeze above me as I circumambulate the stupa. White walls and open spaces are a welcome reprieve from the dusty and chaotic landscape outside the gates. I can hear some faint chanting but mostly it’s quiet, a show of deep reverence for the Buddha. I greatly appreciate this since I happen to have a deep reverence for quiet time in general. Overhead the omnipresent eyes of Buddha look on as I give a prayer wheel a good spin.
I Don’t Love That Dirty Water
Our next stop is Pashupatinath Temple, a sacred Hindu temple located on both banks of the Bagmati River. Only Hindus are allowed inside the temple itself, but we foreigners are free to wander the grounds. Pashupatinath is perhaps one of the most interesting, or at least thought-provoking, places I have been to in all my travels. The temple was built in honor of the Hindu god Shiva, The Destroyer, so it is here along the river that families cremate their loved ones on funeral pyres while the poor and elderly seek the temple grounds to await the end of their days.
Suffice it to say, the vibe is eerie. The water level of the river is low and monkeys wade into it hoping to find scraps of food among the garbage. Nearby a poor man washes his clothes in the river – the same river that accepts the ashes of the dead. Further down the path a family solemnly tends to a funeral pyre. I avert my eyes, ashamed to be an onlooker during such a personal moment. Though normally an intensely private person, I can understand – briefly anyway – how liberating it must be to show your grief so openly. What a different place the world would be if people were sharing, and not avoiding, their pain.
So right about now you’re probably thinking, “Jeez Malia, your vacation totally sucks!” But the news isn’t all grim, dear Reader. Shiva is not just the destroyer of life. Shiva is not simply some menacing harbinger of death. Without endings there can be no beginnings; it is more accurate to consider Shiva an agent of change. A destroyer of ego, unhealthy attachments, and the mental scripts that prevent us from seeing ourselves, and the world around us, more clearly. Now… that’s pretty cool.
We return to our hotel and find the lobby unlit and the concierge staff dutifully at their post. Throughout Nepal there are regular power cuts that seem to occur in the late afternoon and early evening for several hours at a time. At first it was a little unnerving and confusing, but now it has come to symbolize the end of the day’s explorations. I have just enough time for a quick shower and some journaling before I meet the remainder of our Habitat for Humanity group at the welcome dinner this evening.
**UPDATE: Both of these historical sites have suffered damage as a result of the earthquake in April 2015. On a more personal note, one of our Habitat for Humanity representatives (you’ll meet him soon) suffered terrible losses during this time. If you would like to donate to Narayan and his family you can do so here.