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The Kathmandu Valley

1986 with Cornelius + 1989 with Barbara

 

 Most people travel to Nepal to trek in the mountains. I have been more interested in the life and art in the three cities and the many shrines of the Kathmandu Valley, which are not so well known, very colorful, and highly mystical.... John Sanday, during his stint as director of the Getty Foundation restoration department in Los Angeles, introduced me to the Valley's secrets, when he asked me to deliver his manuscript for a guide to the area at a Hong-Kong publishing house. Later, in 1999, Pamela and Kurt Meyer, the Los Angeles architect friend who worked in Kathmandu for many years, invited us to Nepal. On this occasion Barbara and Pamela went on a short trek in the hills east of Pokhara, the pictures of which have not been included in this collection as yet.

It was Cornelius who first lured me to Kathmandu in June 1986. Cornelius and his friend Marc Hermans from Holland had spent four weeks trekking along the Kali Ghandaki river by themselves after they had traveled all over India for eight weeks in the winter of 1985-86..

Pappi's arrival at Kathmandu Airport. I had never seen this picture before until Cornelius sent it in June 2003. Marc must have taken it, because the person at right looks like Cornelius.

 A week later Marc had to fly home at which time this last picture of the couple was taken. Marc was leaving for Holland and Cornelius and I flew to Srinagar and Ladakh a week later

 

Cornelius took me to all their favorite places. In the thirteen years between 1986 and 199I have been in Kathmandu four more times with Barbara — during which time Kathmandu hardly changed. Inhabited by exceptionally charming people, Kathmandu was the most enchanting dump in the world: holy cows on the streets feeding on trash, taxi drivers trying to cheat the foreigner, processions singing and drumming on any of the many religious holy days, extreme dirt in the squatters camps by the river, immeasurable treasures of antique, gilded bronzes in Patan, prayer flags fluttering over the white Buddhist stupa of Bodnath, the twice-weekly whole-sale ritual slaughtering of goats in Daksinkali, Swayambunath's temples floating over the city and its monkeys robbing you, forgotten foreign kids in its medieval jail — and the eyes of Buddha watched you and this colorful life from the bumpas of the stupas.... Every time I left, I swore never to return and every time I came back to be enchanted anew....

This timeless Wheel of Life only counts the sacred moons of Hindus and Buddhists, it knows no dates and years, and so I will abandon our Western linear time frame and freely mix Cornelius's, Barbara's and my pictures to follow the local pilgrims from place to place.

It is not entirely true that nothing changed in Kathmandu, the pedal rickshaws of 1986 had nearly all been replaced by belching Indian Diesel tuk-tuks in 1995, and on our last visit these had been replaced with a fleet of environmentally "clean" gasoline conveyances — the winter smog in the Valley had become suffocating....   

And vanished have the languishing sacred cows from the streets of town. But the restless, jobless youth have increased a hundred-fold since 1986, now held down by a ruthless government. Eventually the good-natured, but ineffective King and his family was assassinated by his own drugged heir, and "Maoists" control the remote countryside.... Our Nepalese dream has come to an end, the 21st century has arrived.....

 But the dogs still roam the streets at night and sleep during the day.....

 

 ... and a lost Australian kid is trying to support himself and his habit by selling kerosene stoves on the steps of a temple.

 

  Mothers adorning their children with tikka powder. The standing woman is pregnant again, she carries her last child on her back. As a novelty the Northern-Indian tribal vendor also sells stick-on dots in place of the red powder. — In Kathmandu the population is predominantly Hindu. A very "backwards" form of Hinduism complain educated Indians with screwed up eyes. At almost every festival animals are slaughtered as "Red Sacrifices," a practice abolished in India, under Buddhist influence, millennia ago. Bakhtapur and Patan, the other two towns in the Valley are nominally Buddhist, but in Nepal the two faiths are difficult to differentiate for the outsider, except in such places as Bodnath-Boudha, where many Tibetan refugee monks have settled.

A woman in an elegant silk-sari and an old shopkeeper in her dark hole wiping her itching nose.....

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Four girls resting in front of a jewelry shop. Because of their dark skin, they may also be from India, which has an agreement of free exchange of workers and citizens with Nepal. The living standards of the poorest is higher in Nepal, and the cast system is much less rigid in Kathmandu — for outsiders.

Women at a fountain (1986).

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 The deep-throated twang of the instrument the man is holding, a kind of "harp," can be heard for blocks. He is carding the wool from the bed covers of the better citizen, to fluff it after the damp winter

 Durbar Square, the center of Kathmandu, is a favorite place to hang out in the evening. In 1989 we met Dilip there, who took us to a highly cultivated thangka dealer from whom we bought our first thangka, a classical Milarepa painting. — A thangka is a Tibetan Buddhist scroll-painting depicting deities or saints, which can be carried along by the nomads on their migrations. Milarepa (11th century AD) was Tibet's foremost poet. — One evening ten years later we spent another evening there and met him again — much emaciated by drink and tuberculosis.

 The 10th century image of Kali, who gives and takes life, is housed in a special shrine on Durbar Square. Like other sacred Hindu images she is anointed with tikka powder and gaily painted. I always have to remind myself that this is exactly the way the revered Greek images looked in antiquity!

Hanuman Doka, bordering Durbar Square, is the traditional palace of the Nepalese Kings. Its entrance is flanked by a pair of lions. Here you see the heavily painted she-lion, and the Hindu priest of the Doka is splashing more tikka powder on the already unrecognizable statue of Hanuman, the Monkey King.

 An adjurvedic herbalist is taking notes on his medicines among the sacred, mythical animals surrounding a temple in Kathmandu. — The wealth of bronze and stone sculptures in Kathmandu Valley, some dating to the 6th century AD, is overwhelming and their preservation is an ardent task.

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Swayambunath

 On a hill above Kathmandu floats the holy city of Swayambunath in the early morning mist — here seen from the roof of the Kathmandu Guest House, my favorite place in Kathmandu. It is Kathmandu's prominent Buddhist sanctuary connected with the mythical birth of Avalokiteshvara, the Buddha of Mercy who arose on a lotus flower floating on a lake that once filled the Valley.

Steep are the stairs to Swayambunath and many are the sacred rhesus monkeys who will snatch anything from you, a bottle of water, a cookie, an ice-cream cone, or your purse.

The narrow square on top of the hill is crowed with burial chörten and gilded temples surrounding the golden stupa with the eyes of the Buddha. 

Like on all Buddhist temples in the Valley the eyes of the Buddha, his nose forming the first letter of the Nepalese alphabet, one in each direction of the compass, watch the faithful from a square construction crowning the bumpa — the semi-spherical dome of the stupa.

 The torana, a gilded quintangle shows the five Djani-Buddhas of Mahayana Buddhism each exhibiting his characteristic mudra — hand position.

Two girls resting at the feet of the Buddha at the bottom of the stairs.

On our return, three school children were attacked by a horde of monkeys. I finally carried the crying youngest down the stairs, but the monkey snatched my plastic water bottle, bit into it and emptied its contents.

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Tibetan Monks from Ladakh staying at Swayambunath (1986). I met the one next to me again at the Hemis Festival.

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Two monks looking at Kathmandu from the terrace at Swayambunath (1986)

 

 A Tibetan wedding in Thole

A Tibetan wedding in Chetrapati the Buddhist part of town (1989). On the left is the still very young groom. The bride has to lower her head so her face remains hidden. Two bride's maids have to lead her. Notice the fabulous Tibetan dresses they wear.  

The parents of the bride tell the rest of the story, they are rich and successful Tibetan refugees, who own a hotel, a tangka or a carpet factory. Many members of the Tibetan nobility fled to Kathmandu in the late 1950s.

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Bhaktapur

 The Hills above Bhaktapur (1989). Sometimes, in winter one can catch a glimpse of the Himalayan chain (Langtang), which during the summer months is hidden behind haze and smog.

The Newar town of Bhaktapur can be reached by way of a Chinese trolley bus half-an-hour east of Kathmandu. The Newars are a caste or ethnic group who have been architects and master builders in Nepal and Tibet for many centuries. Hence Bhaktapur is a true town with solid brick buildings, which are comparable to those in the Italian hill-towns.

Typical street life on Bhaktapur's main thoroughfare, school girls, a fruit vendor, a Tibetan monk, a man in narrow, white Newar pants, a couple of sacred cows, someone burning trash.... On the right is the entrance to a temple.  In 1989 German foreign aid was installing a modern sewage system in Bhaktapur and paving its streets with bricks. The town is now a model of cleanliness and order, and the city council charges foreign visitors an entrance fee....

Sunday in front of one of the larger temples (1989). The sculptures represent Malla Kings. 

Bhaktapur also harbors a large number of potters who have their shops surroundings a square south of the center of town.

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 This incomparable group of children greeted us in 1986. Look at the snooty beauty in the red skirt in front - not to mention her bottomless brother.

Delousing. Bhaktapur 1986

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Patan

Patan's Durbar Square on an early foggy morning in February 1989. - Our Indian Airlines Flight to Varanasi had not materialized after waiting most of a day, and we were given a room in a first-class hotel in Patan. I had never been to this town. Next morning we woke in deep fog — there was no chance the plane could land until the fog had burned off. So I took the singular opportunity to photograph the town in the fog. - The resident saddhu — a Shivaite, as his trident indicates — was quite indignant that I refused to pay him the dollar he demanded for this photo.

Early morning washing rituals at the Patan city fountain. 

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 A man carrying straw to the ghats, where it will be used to cremate the corpses of the night.

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 A couple sells marigold chains in front of the entrance to the Kwa Bahal — the Golden Temple. The temple priest waits between the two lions at the entrance.

 People performing their morning puja in the Kwa Bahal (1989). As the name implies the temple is crowded with a multitude of gilded brass sculptures from bells to monkeys, kings and Buddhas. Patan is the city of artisans, thangka painters, wood carvers and above all brass casters who have produced excellent Buddhist images for centuries.

 A lonely man performing a complicated purification ritual with grains and food items as "white sacrifices" in the Buddhist fashion. — My taking photos was not welcomed by the priest, and we decided to quietly slip away. Brian, a very knowledgeable Indian-Catholic friend of Pamela's and Kurt's who took us around Patan on our next visit (1999) had unfortunately never heard of this place — I never saw it again. 

 But Kurt and Brian introduced us to the exquisite Patan city museum which is now housed in the former royal palace on Durbar Square. The golden torana above its entrance is one of the most precious pieces in Patan.

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Daksinkali

 Daksinkali is only a short distance from Patan through terraced hills, but the bus can take an hour or more....

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Saddhus along the steep stairs into the gorge of Daksinkali (1986). Cornelius squats under the tree on the left. 

Daksinkali means "Southern Kali," because it is sacred to a particularly fierce incarnation of Kali, which came from Southern India centuries ago. It's arguably the most antiquated Hindu sanctuary on the Subcontinent.

Twice every week (Tuesdays and Fridays) hundreds of villagers from all parts of the Valley congregate here to celebrate an age-old ritual involving the sacrifice of he-goats, or if one cannot afford a goat a cock will also do. The Brahmins and women sacrifice flowers to a sacred fire. The men form a line dragging the resigned animals to their slaughter, the women line up separately to circle and throw their flowers into the fire.

 The place is not for queasy foreign souls (1989). Next to the flower fire — behind the photographer's back — a young priest, standing in an enclosure to over his ankles in a puddle of blood, slices off the heads of the goats and roosters with one powerful stroke of a sword. He then swings the bloody head over a row of religious statues. The decapitated corpses are quickly washed, skinned and roasted on open fires and eaten in the side valleys of the sanctuary.

I did not feel like photographing the details of this procedure, not because of revulsion, but because of piety. — I have witnessed exactly the same ritual in the Christian lands of Georgia and Armenia. The practice dates back at least to the pastoral mountain tribes of Abraham's time. But Cornelius took pictures in 1986 — which in due time will be incorporated into this tale.

And Barbara in 1989 took two images, which describe her perception of this place in more subtle, poetic ways.

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 Panauti 

In several day hikes in 1989, suggested by John Sanday, we explored the Valley: along the ridge to Nagarkot east of the temple of Changu Narayan, from the village of Nagarkot to Sankhu, up a steep hill to Naga Gompa— Snake Monastery, a Buddhist nunnery, and through the fields and villages to the Newar town of Panauti with its exquisite shrine sitting, like Mtskheta in Georgia, at the confluence of two rivers.

 Panauti in the Spring

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The old temple at Panauti 

 

 

Chabahil

The 7th-century Buddhist Stupa at Chabahil, one of the oldest sanctuaries in the Valley is located at a cross road above Pashupatinath.

 

Pashupatinath 

Cornelius first took me to Pashupatinath in 1986 on bicycles. We spent most of the day there.

The sanctuary of Pashupatinath seen from the upstream gorge of the Bagmati river (1989) — Kathmandu international airport is hidden by the hill on the left, a mile south of here....   Pashupatinath is, after Varanasi in India, the most sacred Hindu cremation ground on the Subcontinent. If one dies here many life-times of one's karma will be erased. Once, in mythical times blue Shiva played his flute in the meadow above the sanctuary and seduced the girls herding the cows there. A somber and holy place with a confounding ambience.

 A woman and a flower vendor on the main ghat. — The ghats of Pashupatinath, where the corpses are cremated before sunrise every morning and their ashes are swept into the holy Bagmati river, line its banks for a mile. This one is below the main Shiva Temple — which is inaccessible to non-Hindus. But there is a terrace on a hill across the river — just below Shiva's meadow — from where one can observe the life at the ghats and even peer into the temple enclosure without disturbing anyone. A long-focus telephoto helps.

 A dying man has been brought by his relatives to a building right above the ghat. His daughter chases the flies away, her husband reads the scriptures to him.

 Standing between light and darkness a lonely old man awaits his death (1986).

 

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 At noon, after the caretaker has swept the ashes of the dead into the river (1986) — he is just leaving for home, the stones are still warm from the pyre —four little girls prepare to jump into the river to take a bath.

 

Cornelius and I walked up the hill in 1986 to visit Shiva's meadow where two strange maidens prepared milk tea for us and.... 

 

 ....an itinerant saddhu was hashing from his cupped hands (1986). I had a long serious conversation with him about his past — he claimed to come from a well-to-do family in India — and the rigors and pleasures of his life as a saddhu.

 

Shiva Ratri — The Festival on the Night of Shiva

In February-March 1989, after Barbara I had been in Ladakh, we returned to Pashupatinath very early before sunrise to watch the pilgrims celebrating Shiva Ratri. For days the pilgrims, mostly Indians, had been migrating to Kathmandu by bus or on foot. A huge crowd clogged the access roads to the sanctuary. The Nepali military police tried to keep order. We were not made welcome by the police, and as non-Hindus would not be allowed to enter the sanctuary proper. We tried to cut across the meadows below Pashupatinath where thousands had camped during that night.

 Pilgrim campers huddling in the morning cold, a smoking fire, and two stray dogs copulating.... Walking to the left bank a daunting task — despite of numerous of lime-pit toilets the ground was covered with piles of human excrements a few feet apart....

...Finally we crossed the river by way of the bridge to the airport and reached the "visitors gallery" across from the sanctuary, where we found ourselves surrounded by young Nepali as curious about the ritual as we were.

   When the sun rose in the hazy muck the great purification began. Everyone tried to secure a spot by the sacred water.  The military had dammed the Bagmati and created a lake below the ghats.

I left Barbara behind on our balcony and ventured into the crowd below. 

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 The left bank turned out to be the campground of the Saddhus, old and young, in blankets and stark naked, huddling around fires,...

 

 ...cooking,...

 

 ...and daubing themselves with ashes, tikka, and white paint.

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When I returned I found Barbara bravely sketching the scene below, surrounded by dark men about to rifle her shoulder-bag.... I had seen enough. We took a tuk-tuk and fled the place to find an uncrowded, clean spot at the white Buddhist stupa of

Bodnath

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One evening on Durbar Square in 1989 we met Dilip, an intelligent alcoholic who first involved me in a disputation on Ayurvedic medicine — about which I knew little — and then proposed to take us to a friend who dealt in thangkas. I had wanted to bring back a Thai Buddha from Bangkok, but that search had run into insurmountable difficulties with the weight of such a brass sculpture and the necessary export license.... As an alternative we had looked at thangkas in the Kathmandu shops and found them poorly executed and of little subject interest. So, we decided to follow Dilip, and made the acquaintance of Ram Gupta a highly sophisticated thangka dealer, who was in no rush to sell us anything and even spoke a little German. After tea and cookies he took us to his storage room where he spread dozens of thangkas at our feet. Anything from small mandalas to huge images which would have required a small gompa. Besides their subjects were mostly obscure. In those days I had no intention of meditating in front of a complicated mandala. Somewhere a Milarepa thangka turned up, well painted using stone-ground mineral pigments, many hidden details, depicting the Tibetan arch-poet and Saint surrounded by the story of the hunter, his fierce dog, and the deer which he had been pursuing before Milarepa converted him to Buddhism. It seemed the right, first thangka for us — a "guru" of sufficiently unorthodox mind-set who would be able to teach me.

We carried him home by hand, rolled up and hung him in every hotel room we stayed in on the rest of our journey. Since then he hangs, covered with a yellow cloth, except when the "right" people are visiting us, over our dining table. (1989)