Hit by Enlightenment (India Report #2)

23 11 2010
Mahabodhi Temple – day and night

Day and night at Mahabodhi Temple

I’m a little slow on my India follow-up. It’s been an exhausting week of finding out that the worsening “Kathmandu cough” I’ve had is actually bronchitis, probably brought on by the enormous amount of pollution in this city (since I’ve never had bronchitis in my life). In addition, I was working on a presentation on the influence of the “East” on American art for an upcoming international arts conference. Now that some of the more dramatic moments of my Nepal life have been temporarily settled, I can finally sit down to post about Bodhgaya, India.

Bodhgaya is where Buddha supposedly attained enlightenment while sitting under a bodhi (pipal) tree. The town is a major pilgrimage destination for Buddhists and others alike, and every nation with a healthy number of Buddhists has erected their own temple and/or monastery. First, we had to get to Bodhgaya from Varanasi, about 6 hours away, with our trusty driver Ram. We had tour guides within each town, city or at major tourist destinations but between each of those, we had Ram. He and my husband chattered away in Hindi and from Ram we learned probably more than we did from any of the guides. He told us about local customs, which industries were big in certain areas, and food. Did you know that Indian chapati bread tastes best when cooked over a fire fueled by dried cow dung patties? I know some are thinking, “Oh, that’s gross,” but somewhere in the world, someone probably thinks it’s weird that Americans enjoy hickory-smoked bar-b-que.

We did have a good guide in Bodhgaya, because he was actually interested in the topic of Buddhism on a personal level. When I have hired travel guides (not just in India, but in other parts of the world including the U.S.) I’ve found that 60% of the time you get someone who just rattles off a list of facts they’ve memorized from a book. (Being a professor on the lookout for plagiarized papers/presentations, I’m pretty good at spotting this trend). When someone isn’t invested in a topic and they don’t really know it in-depth, it makes it difficult to follow their delivery, and asking follow-up questions is nearly impossible because they’re unprepared. But our Bodhgaya guide had informally studied Buddhism with various monks and was excitedly planning to take part in a 10-day meditation retreat next year. So, his delivery of the material was passionate and based on both factual information and his own experiences. He was actually happy when we asked questions!

The major Enlightenment sites are clustered around the Mahabodhi Temple and document each stage of Buddha’s final quest for enlightenment. He didn’t just attain enlightenment and head immediately to Sarnath to preach about it, but stuck around for a while to meditate upon his spiritual journey. Surrounding the temple complex are wooden planks that people can rent in order to prostrate or meditate upon holy ground. It’s even possible to meditate all night within the complex so long as you purchase a ticket before they lock the gates, and local vendors were selling mosquito tents for those wishing to meditate more comfortably throughout the night and day.

Monks under shade of Buddha's bodhi tree

Monks under shade of Buddha's bodhi tree

The bodhi tree itself is huge. You can’t actually sit against it since a stone fence surrounds it, but the long branches extend far enough out that you can sit in their shade, as you see the saffron-robed monks doing in this photograph. This isn’t Buddha’s original tree. Emperor Ashoka’s wife, so the story goes, jealously killed that tree, because Ashoka devoted himself to Buddhism after converting in the 2nd century BCE. Before she killed it, a cutting from the original tree was planted in Sri Lanka and the Bodhgaya tree is a cutting from the Sri Lanka tree.

As I was photographing the tree, a small branch fell and hit me on the head. Maybe I was too “in the moment” to be anything but annoyed and should’ve realized that any branches or leaves from Buddha’s tree would be highly sought after, but within seconds, several people dove toward my feet (including a couple monks and my husband) to collect the leaves and now broken bits of branch that hit me. Does getting hit by a sacred tree branch mean I’m blessed? I sure hope so. At least, that’s how I’m interpreting it.

I was able to photograph some nice water images as part of my ongoing water series. During our Bodhgaya tour, we drove across the Falgu River, to the spot where Buddha, in one of his pre-Buddha moments of frustration, threw a metal bowl into the river and said something to the effect, “If I am to reach the highest spiritual plain, let this bowl float upriver against the current. If it floats downriver, I’ll give up my quest.” Well guess what? The bowl did the impossible and floated upriver, pointing the way to the bodhi tree. Hence, the story and symbolism of this place made it the perfect spot for me to be creating splashes, as I’m sure Buddha’s bowl would have done.

My photography assistants on Falgu River near Bodhgaya

My photography assistants on Falgu River near Bodhgaya

During the photographic process, we attracted some attention from the local village children. They became my helpers and you can see them in this image. The oldest, whom you see in the front, was very interested from a scientific perspective and told us about his studies into nature and the human body. He’s very hopeful of one day becoming a doctor and asked if we could send him books about brains (the mind) and lungs and the diseases that affect them. So, any of you Mount Mercy nursing and biology students reading this blog: if you have entry-level science materials that we could send in a care package, please pass them along to Jane Gilmor and my husband will FedEx them to our curious young friend in order to encourage him toward achieving his dream. My husband was once a small boy in a village home with dirt floor and no electricity or running water. With the help of family, friends and complete strangers who extended their kindnesses (like the Catholic nun who gave him some money for the last little bit of money he needed for his plane ticket to America, or the volunteers from English-speaking countries who helped him improve his English) he made it to the United States. Now, he’s one of those immigrant success stories you read about all the time. When we met this studious boy who clearly could succeed if given the chance, I thought of my husband and all the other people like him who just need a break.

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Varanasi, Benares or Kashi – take your pick (India report #1)

11 11 2010
Ganges sign

No caption necessary

Okay, finally a post on our recent trip to India. I’m breaking the trip into segments beginning with the biggie: Varanasi. Varanasi is the city’s official name but it seems most residents call it Benares because, as our driver informed us, Varanasi is a tongue twister. The city was historically/religiously known as Kashi, or “city of light”. How fitting, coming on the tails of my “festival of lights” post. Of Varanasi, the Lonely Planet guidebook says,

  • “Brace yourself. You’re about to enter one of the most blindingly colorful, unrelentingly chaotic and unapologetically indiscreet places on earth. Varanasi takes no prisoners. But if you’re ready for it, this may just turn out to be your favorite stop of all.”

They speak truth.

I’ll throw in a few images here and there, but you can see the majority on the Flickr link at right. It was really difficult deciding which images to include after photographing a colorful, chaotic and unapologetically indiscreet place! Either it’s impossible to take a bad photo here or I’m becoming a really good photographer. I suspect the former.

Altogether, we spent a week there between the couple days at the beginning and the few days at the end of our India tour. I packed for 70-degree weather but in most of our India itinerary it was 90 degrees. The trip might have been even more chaotic were it not for the fact that my husband Suresh is fluent in Hindi (in addition to English, his native Nepali and a smattering of Bengali and Urdu…doesn’t it make you sick?). Because even the northern part of India, where they predominantly speak Hindi, is so vast, he could pretend to be Indian. So even though he had me, the Westerner, in tow, we were still able to navigate the city and score much better prices for goods and services. And let’s face it, Americans buy most everything at fixed cost so we’re terrible at bargaining. Being from a part of the world where bargaining is common, Suresh is good at it so I let him do all the talking. The only problem we encountered with our travel together is that at every hotel, they kept giving us rooms with 2 single beds. We finally came to the conclusion that everyone assumed Suresh was my local guide instead of my life partner. I don’t know what that says about me if they assumed I’d be sharing a hotel room with my guide, but we got a kick out of it.

Ganges View

Parlor of Ganges View Hotel

Here’s an image of one of our hotels, the Ganges View, which was amazing! We had extra excellent service to boot because half the hotel staff are Nepali! The hotel is the former home of the Indian version of a princess and passed down to family over generations until the current family converted part of it into a guesthouse. It still retains a palatial air and they home-cooked delicious vegetarian dinners for guests in the spirit of this holy city. What made this place even more special is the attitude of the owners toward art and culture. The current owner studied art in school and maintains a large collection of artworks and books in every nook and cranny of the hotel. He and his family are true patrons of the arts in the traditional sense because they host a cultural lecture/peformance series, actively buy artwork, and employ 3 generations of artists on commission (where the transaction occurs before the artwork is created) rather than on speculation (where the artist finds a buyer after creating the artwork). The grandfather artist has been coming to the hotel to paint nearly everyday for 20 years, and now his son and grandson accompany him. They copy historical works, Indian miniature painting and the like, which are displayed in the hotel and (I’m sure) sold for profit to gullible tourists like me. So picture me drinking sweetened milk chai on the rooftop garden of our hotel with a river view while enjoying artists paint and monkeys scamper on the railings. Here’s an image of the grandfather artist copying a painting:Copy art

Part of the overwhelmingness of Varanasi is its association with the cycle of life and death. To die in Varanasi and especially along the banks of the Ganges River is most auspicious for Hindus and an almost guaranteed way to achieve moksha (release from rebirth). I’m sure you know that Hindus believe in reincarnation after death, but the whole goal is to escape that cycle of rebirth and achieve true union with God. So even though we think of Hinduism as polytheistic, at its core is monotheism. Those who want to achieve that spiritual union come to Varanasi to die in “death hostels” along the riverbank so they’ll be that much closer to the cremation ghats. This could be why there’s such a distinction here between hotels for Hindus and hotels for non-Hindus and foreigners. We were told that Varanasi has 84 ghats (access stairs or platforms at river’s edge) but only a few are reserved for cremations. However since this city is the beating heart and soul of Hinduism, cremations occur 24/7 with at least 30,000 cremations every year (around 100/day). These are done in open air and in public view, hence the overwhelmingness of the city. The same plein-air cremations occur in Nepal and the rest of India, but not to the same extent. The air is constantly thick with smoke and I’ve discovered that I’m allergic to cremating bodies…not exactly something I’ll report on my next doctor’s visit. The bodies of the deceased are prepared and carried through the small lanes to the water. In fact the morning we left, we were walking through the lanes to catch a rickshaw to our hotel when we saw a body just laying in the middle of the walkway as it was prepared and wrapped for the final journey. Seconds later, I was accosted by an overly aggressive postcard vendor who, when I told him to leave me alone and have some respect for the dead, barked, “Varanasi is a nice city and people like you aren’t welcome here and shouldn’t return.” This little story is probably a good example of the “take-no-prisoners” guidebook quote.

Prayag Ghat

Varanasi Ghats


Despite the emotional rollercoaster complete with guilt trip sales pitch, I still had a wonderful time. We went on several dawn boat rides to watch the sunrise on the Ganges. We visited a copy of Kathmandu’s Pashupati Temple for visiting Nepalis, where I could actually go inside to view the garba griha (temple’s inner sanctum) unlike the original Pashupati in Kathmandu, which is reserved for Hindus. We saw the evening aarti (river worship) ceremony and it was great even if it’s performed primarily for tourists. The food we ate was delicious and I took advantage of the range of Indian food that doesn’t really exist at Indian restaurants in the United States, where the fare is mostly Punjabi. I love Indian breads dipped into different dhaals (lentils), vegetables, or dairy products such as yogurt or paneer (cheese) and let me tell you, there’s more than just naan bread in India. Plain or potato parantha is my current favorite but chapati is a simpler but equally delicious flatbread. South Indian breads and snacks are very popular throughout India and I ate my share of idli, a fermented dhaal/rice bread, and paper-thin dosa breads scooped into or covered in rich sambars. Bread and sambar makes a perfect breakfast comfort food that may replace my American egg and hashbrown breakfast cravings! Thank god there are a few good South Indian snack shops in Kathmandu where I can continue to indulge my taste buds for the next couple months. Yum!

Varanasi is particularly renowned for their silks and brocades, so you can bet I took advantage of the silk factories and markets! If my “sis” is reading this, she can look forward to a fancy new silk outfit for next year. Varanasi’s silk industry is entirely run by its large Muslim population. Despite being a Hindi epicenter, upwards of 40% of the population is Muslim, which reminds me of the old Delhi Muslim neighborhoods. Close to Varanasi are several of the major Buddhist pilgrimage sites such as Sarnath, Kushinagar and Bodhgaya. I guess all that cosmic energy attracts a diverse crowd.

The cosmic energy on a holy water site was good for my art karma, and I was able to create a slew of new artworks in my water series. I still have a lot of work to do, but I’m very excited about the the new body of work! Here’s a taste of images to come…

Kathryn Hagy splash

In process splash image from Varanasi's Scindhia Ghat

Festival of Lights

7 11 2010

This week is, believe it or not, another Nepal holiday – the festival of lights – known as Tihar, Diwali or Dipawali here. I’ll quote/paraphrase from Mary Anderson’s The Festivals of Nepal in order to somewhat explain Tihar. Anderson states that “Tihar literally means ‘a row of lamps’ and lighting displays are traditional, but this festival is actually a succession of significant holidays celebrated for a variety of reasons.” Whereas Dashain ushered in the beginning of harvest season, Tihar ends it and an ancient New Year begins again. Laxmi, goddess of wealth and good fortune,  is Tihar’s primary deity. “Nepalese adore this beautiful goddess, make gifts and offerings to her, worship her idols and propitiate her, especially at Tihar festival, when she circles the earth on an owl, inspecting the homes to see that they have been scrupulously cleansed and a light left burning in her honour. For if she is pleased she will protect the money box and grain stores of each family, and grant prosperity throughout the coming year.” Laxmi sounds a little like Santa Claus, don’t you think?

The 5 days of Tihar begin with crow worship and people set out small bowls made from sewn green leaves filled with food for the crows. Actually, in my walks around Kathmandu, I’ve noticed these small offerings here and there so people leave offerings for crows on other days as well. In the Hindu pantheon, crows foretell of death and disaster. However, I read a recent article that crows rank in intelligence with dolphins and primates so maybe regular crow offerings to avoid ill omens aren’t such a bad idea?

Tihar’s 2nd day is dog puja (dog worship). There are so many stray and ill-treated dogs in Kathmandu that I wish everyday was dog puja. On this day, dogs are garlanded with flowers, given a tika mark (blessing) on their foreheads, and fed special treats. Dogs mythically guard the gates of death and honoring dogs on this day might help your soul pass lightly into the next world. I typically carry around a bag of doggy biscuits but even the stray dogs won’t eat them so they must taste horrible. Or, the street dogs are so suspicious from their harsh life that they won’t eat food from human hands. My last theory, after seeing many dogs kindly receiving butcher scraps is that, after a life of fresh raw meat, dog biscuits just don’t cut it.

The third day is Laxmi puja and the day that cows are worshipped in the same way dogs are (tika, flower garlands, favorite food). Laxmi puja is one of the biggest days and it seems everyone was out lighting firecrackers, singing and dancing, and preparing light displays to guide Laxmi to their front doors. I walked around and took pictures of all the great displays in my neighborhood and you can see in the rangoli designs below how the cow dung mixed with red ochre and holy water and covered with powdered pigments, flowers and candles decorate the entryways of people’s homes. I love all the different democratic artworks to attract Laxmi, and the swastika you’ll see below originates in Hinduism (and is utilized in Buddhism/Jainism as well) as a sign of good luck or well-being. Swastikas were only later corrupted by the Nazis, but are still everywhere in Nepal and some other Asian countries. Note the ‘tika’ in ‘swastika’ bestowed as a blessing mark of colored powder/paste on the forehead of Hindus during worship or on auspicious days.

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Yesterday was Mha puja, or worship of one’s body or self. I know a few people who act like everyday is Mha puja, but that’s beside the point! “Mha puja purifies the heart and soul for the coming New Year and asks for enlightenment in sacred, ancient rites which strengthen the perpetual bonds of kinship in families.” The head of the house makes a mandala (Intro to Art students: you should know what a mandala is by now) for each family member. The mandalas can be made of pigments and food such as rice and small beans. A series of tika blessings are bestowed upon each family member, oldest to youngest, and the family feasts afterwards. My husband says Mha puja is mostly celebrated by Nepal’s Newar ethnic group (indigenous people of Kathmandu Valley), some of whom are Hindu and some of whom are Buddhist.

Today is Bhai tika, which, for my husband’s family and many Hindus, is the most important day besides Laxmi puja. The word ‘bhai’ (pronounced ‘bye’) literally means younger brother but all brothers, younger or older, are worshipped by their sisters, “…thus being assured of increased prosperity for the coming year, and a long and healthy life. So important is Bhai tika that if a man has no sisters a close female relative or friend is honoured to bestow this benediction.”  I hope my brothers aren’t reading my blog. However, brothers are supposed to buy gifts for their sisters or give them money, so if my brothers are reading this, God bless you and send me a check! 😉 This whole bhai tika thing is so culturally entrenched that I’ve been confused when introduced to female friend’s brothers (after thinking they had no blood brothers)  only to be told that these are ‘bhai tika’ brothers. A couple Bhai tika oddities are that menstruating women aren’t allowed to participate in tika because they’re considered impure during their cycle. Actually, menstruating women are forbidden from doing many things in Hinduism because of this bogus impurity belief, which is one aspect of Hinduism I detest. The second Bhai tika oddity is that the extended family of a woman who has just given birth aren’t allowed to give or receive tika if the birth occurred within the past 9 days. I asked my husband’s family why and they had no firm answer except that they believed a family should be doubly blessed after a birth. I agree. My mother-in-law sarcastically mentioned that the “recent birth” excuse is followed by people who don’t want to spend the money on Tihar decorations and gifts. Who knows. I’ll have to ask a Brahmin priest for the religious root of this tradition.

Throughout Tihar and especially during these great feasts that culminate in Bhai tika, people eat sweets. A Nepalese favorite during Tihar is sel roti, a type of donut-like sweetbread made of rice flour and flavored with sugar and light spices such as cardamon. I’ve eaten far too many today but part of Nepalese kindness is forcing food onto guests so no matter how much I ate, it never seemed to satisfy anyone. Here’s a short video of a street vendor cooking sel roti.


As I write this, Kathmandu citizens are sucking as much life out of this holiday as they can and I suspect that the firecrackers, loud music and dancing, gambling (as the Goddess of wealth, Laxmi loves gambling) and drunken revelry will continue into the night. But by being here in Nepal instead of the U.S. at this time of year, I’m saved from the post-Halloween Christmas frenzy, and I’m thinking in particular of a local Iowa radio station that plays Christmas carols from the day after Halloween (way too soon) through Christmas. I was thinking all this as I walked through my Kathmandu neighborhood the other day, with weather still in the mid to high 70s, when suddenly I heard snippets of “Jingle Bells” and “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”.  Someone had musical Tihar lights that were actually musical Christmas lights. So Laxmi and Santa are forcibly  intertwined for me.

P.S. India pics and that Indra Jatra video I promised are coming soon.

India bound

20 10 2010


1922 photograph of Varanasi


Suresh and I are heading to India for the next week for a part art research, part vacation, part religious pilgrimage trip. I’ll try to post along the way but that might be unlikely to happen. We’ll spend a few days in the sacred city of Varanasi, also known as Kashi or Benares and situated on the Ganges River. As many of you know, my art focuses on water and images of water, making Varanasi a must-see. It’s one of the most sacred pilgrimage sites for Hindus, and according to many sources, is one of the oldest continuously inhabited places in the world.

While we’re in Varanasi, we’ll visit nearby Sarnath, where Gautama Buddha gave his first sermon at Deer Park. Sarnath has an archeological museum containing the Lion Capital of Emperor Ashok (the national symbol of India and one of the images MMU Intro to Art students learn about in class). Next, we’ll spend a couple days in Bodhgaya, where Buddha attained enlightenment sitting under a Bodhi tree. Supposedly, the Bodhi tree there is a sapling from the original tree under which Buddha sat. Bodhgaya, as well as Sarnath, are major pilgrimage sites for Buddhists as you can imagine. Another major site is Lumbini in Nepal, where Buddha was born. Hopefully we’ll get to Lumbini next month because it’s very near my husband’s ancestral village.

Then it’s on to Allahabad for more watery art research. Sangam at Allahabad is the confluence of two visible sacred rivers and one invisible sacred river, thought to run underneath the other two. Jawaharlal Nehru, Gandhi’s right-hand-man, was originally from Allahabad and there’s a Nehru Museum there as well.

Lastly, before flying back to Varanasi, we’ll visit Khajuraho, known for it’s medieval Hindu and Jain temples covered with erotic sculpture. I’m sure you’ll be eagerly awaiting the photo uploads from Khajuraho. The eroticism depicts the sacred union of the gods and goddesses as a metaphor for the spiritual love and union believers should have with their god(s), so keep your pants on!

Stay tuned for trip updates.

Vijaya Dashami (Happy Dashain)

17 10 2010


Tika puja accoutrements, including the jamara barley sprouts

Tika puja accoutrements, including the jamara barley sprouts


Today is the 10th day and culmination of the Dashain festival, or what I like to call “Nepalese Christmas”. The holiday is also referred to as Durga Puja because people worship the Goddess Durga in her many avatars or manifestations. Dashain is the most auspicious time of the year in Nepal and it’s a much bigger holiday for Nepali Hindus than it is for Indian Hindus for whom Diwali/Dipawali is even bigger. For Nepalis, the last night of tika is most important, whereas in other Hindu cultures other auspicious days within the holiday may be more important. For example, the 9th night of Durga Puja, when animals are sacrificed, is most important for Hindu Bengalis because Durga is an important Goddess to them. One of Durga’s manifestations is the Goddess Kali, and she is quite bloodthirsty. Animal rights activists do not like Dashain because on the 9th day thousands of male animals are sacrificed to appease Kali/Durga, and then eaten that night or the next day during the final celebrations. Hindus only kill and eat male animals because females replenish life through birth. The parade of animals into Kathmandu markets began last week and it’s been a painful week of walking streets lined with cute goats ready for slaughter. Not all the animals are killed in religious  sacrifices. After all, people need to eat, too (especially during big family holidays). For animals that are being religiously sacrificed, a priest conducts the sacrifice at a temple. For those who just want to eat the animal, the eldest male relative, another respected male family member, or whoever is least turned off by killing animals would slit the animal’s neck.

The type of animal you sacrifice in temple depends on which gods are most important to you and your family as well as what you can afford. Non-religious slaughters depend on what you like to eat, as well as what you can afford. Durga/Kali likes water buffaloes, but she’s bloodthirsty so she’ll take what she can get. Other gods might require other animals such as ducks, roosters, pigeons, goats and others. And the gods don’t need the whole sacrificed animal or whatever food you offer them. You get to take the “leftovers” home as prasad because your offerings retain the blessings of the gods. Getting back to animals, the going rate for live roosters from Kathmandu’s Durbar Square was 1500 rupees, or about $21. I have no idea how much buffaloes cost, but you can probably take a guess based on the rooster price. By the way, buffalo meat is called “buff” here and when you order a burger in a restaurant, you’re probably getting buff meat since cows are sacred to Nepal’s Hindus. I don’t eat red meat so I stay away from buff and goat meat. However, when I’m traveling and living abroad (or even when I’m at someone’s house for dinner back in the U.S. and don’t want to appear rude) I eat more adventurously. So yes, I’ve tried both buff and goat.

During Dashain, many return to their ancestral homes or wherever their families live for tika (blessing of powdered pigment and rice on forehead), feasts, and gambling to honor Laxmi, the Hindu Goddess of wealth. This week, Kathmandu is actually quiet and pollution-free since at least one-third of the population returned to their villages for the final celebrations. My husband arrived in Kathmandu from Iowa last week and he’s been busy conducting the daily puja (worship) of planting and watering the barley seeds that grew, by today, into the sacred sprouts of jamara given by elders to younger family members as a token of Durga’s blessing during the family tika ceremony. There are several important days during Dashain when certain pujas must be performed at astrologically auspicious times determined by Hindu priests.

If I’m not doing the best job of explaining the holiday, I apologize. Dashain’s origins come from different accounts in the Ramayana Hindu holy text. It’s very complicated and you’ll hear a different version from nearly each person you ask. I’ll quote an explanation from Mary Anderson’s 1988 edition of “The Festivals of Nepal”:


Dashain goat

Goat being taken home for Dashain sacrifice and/or meal


The festivities of these two weeks glorify the ultimate and inevitable triumph of Virtue over the forces of Evil, commemorating a great victory of the gods over the wicked demons and devils who harassed mankind in ancient times. The Ramayana story is retold of the righteous King Rama, deified in Hindu mythology as an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, or again as God himself, who after epic struggles slaughtered Ravana, the fiendish king of the demon hordes from Lanka, a legendary country believed by many to have been Ceylon [modern day Sri Lanka]. Some say Lord Rama was successful in his battle with the demon only when he evoked Shakti, or Supreme Energy vested in Goddess Durga, the Divine Mother of the Universe. Others have it that Rama’s saintly wife Sita, having been kidnapped by the demon Ravana, assumed the form of the Terrible Destructress, Goddess Kali – otherwise known as Durga – and destroyed this thousand-headed King of the Demons.

Greatly celebrated during Dashain, again glorifying the triumph of Good over Evil, is Goddess Durga’s slaying of the terrible demon Mahisasura, who roamed the earth, terrorizing the population in the guise of a ferocious water buffalo. Other accounts reveal how Lord Rama, having sworn to kill the evil Mahisasura of the Underworld, enlisted the Divine Energy of Goddess Taleju – still another of Durga’s many forms – promising to take her to his Indian capital of Ayodhya and erect there a temple in her honor…No matter how the story is told, victory is celebrated during Dashain fortnight with great rejoicing, and Goddess Durga is adored throughout the land as the Divine Mother Goddess who liberated the suffering people from the miseries of Evil.

After reading this excerpt, you can understand why an easy explanation is impossible! And lest you think the holiday season is over, there’s another 5-day holiday in early November: the Diwali/Dipawali festival that I referred to earlier, or Tihar as it’s called in Nepali.

In late-breaking news as I finish this post, I could swear I just felt a small earthquake. It’s 2:00am here. Hopefully there will be something in the news about it tomorrow. If not, it’s my imagination and I’ve had too much cold medicine.



Dashain tika

I decided to have a little fun while giving my nephew tika. The tika paste really belongs on the forehead. Note the jamara sprouts behind his ears.


Tuk-tuk goose? No, tuk-tuk rooster.

21 09 2010
Kathmandu Bus Map

Bus Map for two of Kathmandu Valley's cities: Kathmandu proper and Patan

I wouldn’t say I’ve mastered the transportation system here – not even close – but let’s just say I’m becoming more confident with it.  The first few weeks I was walking A LOT everyday. I love walking but now that I’ve settled in and life is busier, I can’t always spend 30 minutes walking to nearby destinations. The monsoon rains are lessening, but that 30 minutes meant my legs were covered in mud by the time I arrived anywhere. And it’s not like I can just throw my clothes into the washing machine when I get home. Taxis are fine too and it’s possible, even with “foreigner charges” to get from one end of town to the other for about 200 rupees ($2.75) but do that a few times everyday and it adds up quick. So, I started investigating public transportation, which is actually one of the best ways to get to know a culture. Plus, riding public transportation helps reinforce my knowledge of Devanagari script numerals.

I found a bus route map on another Nepal travel blog and decided to tackle the challenge. I’d been warned that women are sometimes sexually harassed on buses and that it was better to sit up front and/or near other women, so my first ventures were on smaller tuk-tuks instead of the bigger buses. Besides, the name ‘tuk-tuk’ is so fun to say, who wouldn’t want to ride one? They run on cooking gas and don’t travel very fast, so I figured in the worst case scenario I could always jump out the open back door and catch a taxi. Most shorter distance routes, whether tuk-tuk, tempo or bus, cost about 10 rupees (15 cents), which sure beats taxi fare.

Kathmandu tuk tuk

Kathmandu tuk-tuk

Next I tried the tempos. These are the equivalent of 12-15-passenger American vans, though they fit WAY more people in here. I rode a tempo during rush hour last week and counted at least 26 people. And it felt like 26 people, too. The advantage of the tempos and  buses is they’re faster and less bumpy than the tuk-tuks. Sometimes, they’re a little too fast and that can be a problem, too!

I’ve been riding public transportation as much as possible the last two weeks but still walking a fair amount because it’s rare for buses to arrive at your exact location. Tuk-tuks, tempos and buses stop running at night, so I reserve taxis for my evening excursions, when I’m in a hurry or when I need to be somewhere complicated requiring multiple bus transfers (though I’m getting the hang of transfers, too).

Even though it’s a large capital city, there just isn’t a late night scene here. Partly because Nepal is semi-feudal, it’s early to bed and early to rise. My neighborhood quiets by 11:00pm and the rooster (yes, there are chickens outside my apartment) starts crowing at 5:00am. People rise to bathe at neighborhood water taps at 4:30am or to worship, so there is a soft chanting of mantras every morning, sounds of people at their morning toilet, and the trusty rooster out back.

Kathmandu Bus

Friendly Kathmandu bus

16 09 2010
Sundarijal on the Bagmati River

Sundarijal on the Bagmati River

Last time I visited Nepal, I was dying to see a place called Sundarijal, but we never made it for various reasons. The name Sundarijal means “beautiful waters” and if you’ve seen my artwork, you’d understand why I wanted to go there. Located in Shivapuri National Park, Sundarijal is a watershed for Kathmandu Valley where several tributaries of the Bagmati River converge and cascade down the hills and mountains into raging waterfalls that are especially forceful right now because of the monsoon rains. I finally went this week! Through a Facebook chat session, I recruited my bhanja (nephew) Bharat to be my guide, translator and body guard. Bharat’s older brother Dilip is currently an art major at Kirkwood Community College in Iowa. Bharat had never been to Sundarijal so he was just as excited as I was.

The trailhead was an hour from downtown by bus and the official park entrance was another hour walk (uphill). Nepali citizens pay an entrance fee of 10 rupees and foreigners pay 250 rupees – a pretty steep markup! Still, that only translates to about $3.50 for me, so I can’t complain. Bharat talked to one man who told him about a place on the trail called Chisopani where we’d have a view of the entire Kathmandu Valley. He said it wasn’t far. Everyone we talked to along the way said, Yeah, yeah, keep walking and you’ll get there, it’s not far. The problem is that Nepali people don’t like to give  “I don’t know” answers because they lose face. They were telling the truth when they said we’d get there if we kept walking. But it turns out that Chisopani is a full day’s hike. In Nepali, Chisopani means “cold water” and we didn’t have enough chiso pani to get to Chisopani! Bharat was crestfallen, but I was secretly glad to find out we’d have to turn back because my poor knees were dying after walking 2+ hours uphill. Plus, it was about 80 degrees that day.

But I have to say, the pain was worth it because the sights were amazing! We walked beyond the riverbank to terraced rice fields. Bharat, originally from rural Nepal, decided we could shortcut through the rice paddies on farmer’s footpaths and along farmhouses where we’d occasionally stop for directions. Corn cobs hung from balconies. Corn kernels dried on blankets in the sun. Cute little goats were everywhere. We didn’t make it to Chisopani but there was still a valley view from our highest point. I’ll shut up now and share some images.

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