Nepal’s “Cultural Capital”

Transition day. After a morning stroll to the stupa for last-minute shopping, Max gets into a taxi and is off to the airport. About 30 minutes later, I get into another one and head to Bhakapur. The weather report convinced me that going to hill country outside KTM would only bring clouds and isolation, and after having a travel buddy for a week, that is not in my best interests.

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I made a reservation for the Heart of Bhaktapur guest house, a non-profit channeling lodging funds to help kids with handicaps of one kind or another. My driver knew how to get me close, and a woman from the front desk came to meet me and tote a bag. The back lanes we walk down are far from clean but they are definitely authentically Newar Nepal: the dominant culture until being overrun by Gurkhas from the mountains in the 17th century. The room itself is fine and on the fourth floor, looking over a cluster of fields. In the distance rise at least 15 tall chimneys where bricks are made.

That same afternoon, I’m told that a local festival will be held. I grab a camera and head uphill to one of the nine temples that surround the center and palace of the town. Two men are dressed as gods, the “Navadurga” which combine into one deity the eight that surround the center of Bhaktapur. The men are wearing large masks that are supported on a kind of frame resting on their shoulders. They also have many medallions, chains, and jewelry on their arms and legs.

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To my surprise, a large group of adolescent boys are taunting, whistling, and doing a kind of Indian war-cry to let the gods know they are not afraid of being caught. The gods are slow and act as if they are blind when they try to catch a victim and make them pay offerings to a portable shrine.

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Only a few people are standing around watching.  When I step up to take a photo, a man in his mid-twenties starts yelling at me, “No photos! No photos!  This my God!” I can see he is a bit off mentally, and other people are watching to see what I do.  I just step back, walk around him to the other side of the square, and take the photos I want.  He repeats his yelling when two Korean tourists show up and take out their cameras.  For some reason, I walk right up to him and say, “stop it.  Photos are ok!” and look him right in the eyes.  He puts his hands together and lowers his head as if to apologize, and is then quiet.

and, after getting a few photos, I return to the guest house for a rest and to settle in.

When I wake from a nap and hear the drums still going, I gather wits, supplies, extra layers, and head back to the action. This time, around 5 pm, a crowd of several hundred people are watching the silly god grope for victims and create a ruckus among the many boys whistling and yelling at them.  The young man I knocked heads with earlier is leading young boys in a kind of cheer that praises the gods.  He gives them a phrase and expects the boys to repeat with suitable fervor.  If he is not satisfied, he screams at them louder until an elder man comes over and pulls him aside, chastising him for creating a fuss.  Again, his hands come together and the situation relaxes.

When they are not chasing people, the god actors also dance in the center of the square. The masks appear to have blood smeared on them, no doubt from the two chickens I saw tethered to the portable shrine when I first watched the proceedings.

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The dancers/gods leave the square and scurry down a lane, out of sight.  Everyone relaxes a little, mills around, starts conversations with neighbors, and then suddenly, they’re back!  Somehow I’m on the front row as people move to the edge of the square, and the god comes right at me, arms outstretched and palms open!  Yikes!  I learned earlier in the day they don’t like cameras (or expect to be paid for photos), so I put my thin-man body to good use and slip between people quickly and thus escape being caught.

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They also chased a Russian woman carrying a big camera who was much braver than I was about standing her ground.  But she too turned and fled, although in the process she bumped her camera LED screen against a tripod sticking out of her backpack (worn in front so as to not get pickpocketed).  She was nearly in tears when we spoke a few minutes later, the screen badly scratched (but replaceable).

The gods don’t care.

 

 

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