Standing by a colleague’s office door, sweat runs down my back for several minutes after I’ve come into the air conditioned building. It doesn’t bother me. I have fully surrendered to the ways of the monsoon and of Kathmandu, Nepal. Whichever way I look at it, Kathmandu is an enthralling place. I first visited it at the end of August 2010. Now, four years later, I find it again under the influence of sizzling temperatures and rains. This time, though, I am going nowhere else and I can give it my undivided attention. In turn, it absorbs me, elegant and diligent, even if a touch chaotic to my unaccustomed eyes. 2000 years of history precede today’s Kathmandu. They express themselves through a multitude of symbols and collective ways of going about life. I am attracted to the ancient image of the lotus flower, popping up again and again at different places, quietly bearing countless uplifting meanings: purity, spiritual enlightenment, wisdom, awakening, prosperity, fertility, eternity, love and compassion. In contrast with Kathmandu’s mind-boggling traffic, this icon reminds me of harmony. It is ingrained in both the Buddhist and Hindu traditions and speaks to me about the peaceful co-existence of multiple religions and spiritual orientations in Nepal. How refreshing! Yet, no matter how seductive the idea of a spiritual and peaceful Nepal can be to the traveler, some remind us that it hasn’t always been the case. In Forget Kathmandu: An Elegy for Democracy, Manjushree Thapa recounts the Maoist insurgency that overthrew the monarchy in a conflict now known as the Nepalese Civil War. I find it so difficult to imagine that violence could have erupted among this people whose expressive faces I look at as I walk to work in the morning. But yes, the armed conflict between government forces and Maoist fighters lasted from 1996 until 2006, forcefully leading the country into a new government. With its 2nd Constituent Assembly elected in 2013, Nepal is now hopeful it will soon have its Constitution.
Such a variety of elements cohabit this bowl-shaped valley that contains Kathmandu and its sister cities, Laliptur, Patan and Bhaktapur. One of them is the constant presence above it, of course, of the awe-inspiring Himalayas and Mount Everest, the highest mountain on Earth. In painting and in photography, it is common to see visual references to the great Sagarmatha. I can’t avoid noticing too, the strong cultural and economic influence neighboring India has over Nepal. Indian television and Bollywood productions dominate my TV screen in Kathmandu, and the front page of the local papers repeatedly refer to a controversial agreement between Nepal and India for the production of hydroelectric power. This city, with its magnificent temples, monasteries and thangka art schools, is also the stage of Nepal’s national and international politics, as I am made well aware by the note slipped under my door one morning: “If you have a flight tomorrow before noon, be aware that the airport will be closed for the arrival of the Indian Prime Minister”. Perhaps the note should have read ” If you had a flight tomorrow before noon”?
Otherwise, it is the less noticeable aspects of life in Kathmandu that draw my attention this time. I enjoy the quaint narrow streets off of the main avenues, the old, intricately carved wooden doors, banana bunches hanging from the ceiling of little stores, terraced gardens, children in their school uniforms…
Check out the Jawalakhel Handicraft Center, where Tibetan refugees weave the most beautiful carpets in a variety of traditional styles.
Make a visit to Kopan Monastery, where you can, if so inclined, take classes on Buddhism and meditation or participate in a retreat.
Learn about ancient thangka art in one of the many art schools around the Boudhanath stupa. Pieces produced by the students are very affordable and make a beautiful reminder of Nepal’s refined artistic sense.
Witness Nepal’s religious syncretism at the Pashupatinath temple, where Lord Shiva is revered harmoniously by both Hindus and Buddhists.
See Kathmandu from the hill-top where the Swayambhunath stupa(also known as Monkey Temple) stands.
Should you wish to venture outside Kathmandu, talk to my friend Jagat Lama, founder of the Independent Trekking Guide Cooperative. He is sure to be able to assist you.