04 Jan 2015

Nepal by findingmomo

14/18

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The most famous local market in Nepal is located in Thamel at Asan Tole, a busy square where six streets converge. It sits on one of two historical trade routes linking India and Tibet that pass through Kathmandu, and dates back to 500-600 B.C.

What adds an extra layer of awesome to this place is that these aren't some ruins preserved for tourists. This place was a market 2600 years ago, and it continues to be a market today. Mindblowing.

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I could spend a whole day wandering Asan Tole and not run out of things to see. Ingredients that are difficult to procure back home are commonplace and dirt cheap here. Makes the most gourmet of supermarkets look like a joke.

Rarely will you find more colors than in cuisines where spices are a primary feature, and Nepali cooking thrives on them. Cardamom, saffron, turmeric, anise, cumin, cinnamon - their exotic names run off the tongue beautifully. Large blocks of Himalayan rock salt sit in sacks, their pinkish crystals giving off an unassuming, almost exquisite charm. Food is so fascinating even in its raw form.

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Time to start preparing the dal bhat! Super exciting to cook what I've been eating for days. To recap, it's THE national dish of Nepal and consists of lentil soup (dal) with rice (bhat) and a variety of other vegetable dishes like sautéed spinach (saag) and different types of pickles (achar). Sudesna lets me try a tangy achar made with plums I haven't had before.

I pound spices using a pestle and mortar carved out of stone that Sudesna brought to Kathmandu from her village years ago. Cool stuff.

To end the meal we cook a sweet rice pudding called kheer, which is flavoured with milk, cardamom and raisins. Delicious.

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What's a trip to Kathmandu without visiting its treasures?

On my itinerary for the day are three UNESCO World Heritage Sites - here I am at the first one.

The Boudhanath Stupa was constructed between 400 to 600 A.D. and is said to contain the remains of the Kashyapa Buddha. The square surrounding the stupa is home to a number of Tibetan monasteries and of course, restaurants and souvenir shops.

Incredibly lucky that my visit coincided with an event organized by one of the monasteries. The usually empty mandala surrounding the dome of the stupa was crowded with monks, nuns, pilgrims and a few nosy people like me.

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Each part of the architecture in this place has a symbolic significance. Take, for example, the eyes on all four sides of the tower, which represent the wisdom, compassion and omnipresence of Buddha. The symbol for the nose is the Nepali character for "1", which signifies unity and the one way to reach enlightenment - through the teachings of Buddhism.

Everyone here is walking in a clockwise direction around the stupa. The Boudhanath Stupa is also known as "The Stupa that Answers All Prayers", and it's believed that circumambulation will lead to the fulfilment of wishes. I didn't do it because I'm not Buddhist, but I thought the ritual was an enchanting one.

As some of the pilgrims walk they spin prayer wheels. These wheels bear an inscription reading "Om Mani Padme Hum", the mantra of the bodhisattva embodying compassion.

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Conveniently enough Pashupatinath is located by the banks of the Bagmati River, where I could drown myself if I wanted to. After seeing what the people sitting on the stone steps across the river are watching I think I'll look for another venue to do that.

Cremation takes place daily outside Pashupatinath along the Bagmati. Bodies are swathed in bright orange cloth, before garlands are laid over the deceased and prayers said. I am told that those covered in plastic sheets are accident victims, poor guy in the foreground.

Macabre as this may seem, it's actually a part of life for most Nepalis, 81% of whom are Hindu. I sat on the steps on the opposite bank for a long time, watching corpses smoulder and relatives wail. Just slightly upstream was an uncle washing his face in the same river. It was a strange scene to witness.

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The temple grounds contain several shrines built to preserve some artefacts belonging to a select few people who died a very long time ago. Must have been some wealthy and important folks.

Near the ruins of a temple (no photography allowed in there) there are vendors hawking snacks. The quiet compound is softly lit by the rays of the afternoon sun streaming in through the branches of tall trees.

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Walking along the Bagmati to exit the temple grounds, I notice more pyres on the opposite bank. Foreigners aren't allowed on that bank in order to respect the privacy of the deceased and his relatives.

Outside the temple are a line of shops selling artwork and boxes of colorful powder known as tikka. These tikka are used by Hindus for making tilaka, a mark on the forehead or other parts of the body.

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Last stop for the day and third UNESCO World Heritage Site - Swayambunath Stupa aka Monkey Temple aka the stuff nightmares are made of.

At the end of a flight of steps leading up to where the stupa is located I see a Buddha carved out of a single slab of stone in 700 A.D. Even with modern machinery I would not be able to do this, I can maybe give you a man made of ice cream sticks wow I would have been worthless as a person living in 700 A.D.

But anyway, here's a brief story on how Swayambunath Stupa came to be:

Thousands of years ago, there used to be a huge lake where modern-day Kathmandu is.

Legend has it that one day a vedic saint, Rishimuni, came to visit the lake and planted a lotus seed. A giant lotus flower bloomed in the middle of the lake, and when the lake was eventually drained by the bodhisattva Manjusri to form Kathmandu Valley, it was discovered that the flower sat on a hillock. The lotus flower was then covered by a king with a huge stone in order to protect it from calamities and human misdeeds.

That stone eventually became Swayambhunath Stupa, which sits atop 312 steps.

Mythology aside, it's believed that this place is about 2,000 years old. Amazing.

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Blocked ears, a warm forehead and an itchy throat. I feel the beginnings of a flu and my first instinct is to make a run for unhealthy food. I won't be able to eat it even if I want to for the next few days. My choices in life totally scream mature adult.

So it's butter chicken masala and fries at Gaia Restaurant for dinner. I try to start working on my postcards but don't get very far. Dang these fries are so good.