Kathmandu Magic: Land Of Enchanted Tibetan Stupas, Land Of A Revered Living Child Goddess

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Kathmandu . . . the name itself seems to connote an enchanted land. Perhaps my moody, pastel image of the Buddhist stupa at Bodhnath might invoke a hint into the ethereal nature of this deeply religious and historic city.

Nepal, Kathmandu Valley, Bodhnath, Bodhnath stupa

But all great cultures have endured struggle. In past years Nepalese society was burdened with frequent Maoist uprisings and blockades. Today it's more peaceful but in 2001 eight members of the royal family, including the revered king and his wife, were ruthlessly murdered by a drunken, disgruntled prince.

He was upset that his future bride wasn't on the approved list of his possibilities--or so the official word was put out. He had no defense because they say he turned the gun on himself shortly after his nefarious escapade. Be that as it may, virtually the entire royal legacy of the past couple hundred years was wiped out in an instant--except for an heir who was conveniently in the northern city of Pokhara at the time of the incident. No autopsies were allowed, the royal dead were immediately cremated, and that particular palace was burned to the ground in short order.

So, lingering doubts as to what really happened still persist. Of course, there are local perceptions about other possibilities such as a CIA conspiracy, or the Indian government's interference, or a Maoist plot or whatever ones imagination might conjure up when these kinds of national tragedies occur.

Today the country has moved forward from this recent bleak history . . . well, almost. Maoist officials have now been elected into parliament and they espouse peace but during the last decade or so they wreaked havoc across the land.

The new king Birendra (the prince who conveniently found himself in Pokhara when the royal tragedy occurred) was democratically relieved of his power in 2008 by a national referendum and he now resides in a humble two-bedroom house on the outskirts of Kathmandu. The word "royal" was shortly thereafter stripped from the name of the national airline and the former royal palace has become a museum. Today there is virtual calm in the land and a burgeoning, vibrant democracy is at hand.

On my first day in Nepal I journeyed to the imposing Swayambhunath Stupa perched high on a hilltop overlooking the Kathmandu Valley but, alas, I found the stupa shrouded in scaffolding for renovation. I trudged down the hill feeling a bit disappointed and left with only a photo of the Buddha's footprints sprinkled with flower petals, red tikka powder and a few grains of rice placed there as offerings.

On my second day in this magical city, the Maoists brought the entire country to an abrupt halt with a three-day nationwide strike because they were disgruntled and unsatisfied with the progress of political reform--there was too much corruption and there was still extreme poverty in rural areas. No vehicles moved, no shops were open, no restaurants served food. Nothing inched along. That is . . . unless one decided to walk.

Allaying my fears of an ongoing nationwide renovation of heritage sites, I was relieved to find nearby Bodhnath Stupa not covered in scaffolding. This is one of the few places in the world where unfettered Tibetan Buddhist culture still exists. My visit came with a prize when I discovered the stupa was draped in festive night lighting that would offer a photo not frequently seen--something we travel photographers love to encounter.

So I found a pleasant rooftop restaurant with the best angle of view, set up my tripod and indulged in a big glass of beer while waiting for that magic moment of twilight when the night lighting would perfectly balance with the lingering deep blue of a diminishing sky. Hopefully the decorative lights would be turned on before the sky went black. If not, my plan was to use a tripod and shoot an exposure when the sky was rich in cobalt hues then afterwards sandwich that frame in Photoshop perfectly aligned with a later exposure that recorded the twinkling lights when the sky was dark.

But as the sky started to wane someone flipped the switch and the stupa was suddenly awash in light--well, half of it, which would have made my post-production Photoshop efforts quite exhaustive in trying to clone half the lights in perspective to the other side of the stupa. Oh well, another sip of beer. My computer work would be cut out for me later that night. But after two or three more swigs of Nepali brew the other half of the monument charged to life just in the nick of time before the last color in the sky slipped away.

Nepal, Kathmandu Valley, Bodhnath Stupa, the Buddha's eyes

The purity of line in the design of Bodhnath Stupa is not replicated with such grace anywhere else in Nepal. Watchful eyes of the Buddha are painted on four sides of the gilded tower above the stupa dome. Thousands of devotees circumnavigate the stupa clockwise each day in a surging, ritual procession as they chant mantras and spin prayer wheels embedded in the 147 niches of the surrounding wall. Nearby vendors offer their wares: Gurkha knives, Nepalese jewelry, butter lamps, incense containers.

And the Buddha's eyes from above keep watching . . . perhaps disconcerted by such flagrant displays of commercialism.

Nepal, Kathmandu Valley, Bodhnath Stupa, Buddha eyes

Not far away on the banks of the holy, though extremely murky, Bagmati River is the golden Hindu temple of Pashupatinath dedicated to Lord Shiva. Here he is celebrated in his form as Pashupati, the lord of the beasts. Non-Hindus may not enter, which prevented my taking photographs inside.

Hindu devotees and sadhus flock here from across the Indian sub-continent and many Nepalis choose to be cremated on the banks of the nearby Bagmati where funeral pyres smolder around the clock. Shooting closeup photos of the burning bodies at the cremation ghats is disrespectful--not that many people would want images of gory, sizzling flesh as souvenir photos to take home in fond memory of their travels.

The nearby Kathmandu suburb of Patan is blessed with Nepal's most spectacular collection of towering, multi-tiered temples and pagodas adorned with lavish carvings and decoration. One temple is dedicated to the god of trade and business, which might explain why thriving shops in the neighborhood are filled with expensive treasures for tourists. Street-level vantage points make it difficult to encompass the entire scene in one view so I climbed the stairs of every rooftop restaurant in town seeking the best angle for a photo.

The Kathmandu Valley is filled with magical places. The former medieval city-state of Bhaktapur is crammed with crooked, cobbled-stone streets, towering temples and teetering red brick buildings. Symbolizing the architectural whimsy of ancient times there's even a Shiva temple with roof struts carved in scenes of camels and horses and elephants in various positions of carnal pose.

The grandeur of Bhaktapur's temples is accentuated by a backdrop of distant, snow-covered Himalayan peaks and old men with nothing to do gather in the town's numerous market squares to lament glorious times of the past. One could spend days wandering Bhaktapur's narrow back streets and quaint alleyways discovering small market squares carpeted with clay pottery bowls baking in the sun or stacks of hand-hammered brass milk cans piled high. You can browse through endless racks of exquisite Nepalese jewelry or fit yourself with colorful hand-woven mittens if your fingers get cold in winter.

And occasionally one might encounter outlandishly dressed sadhu ascetics who seem to have forsaken their vows of shedding earthly wealth to seek the "way." Some of these aesthetic ascetics lavishly adorn themselves with jewelry and seem more focused on monetary gain from the tipping tourists with camera in hand. At least I got a signed model release in return for my token remuneration though I kept wondering how much his jewelry might have cost.

Nepal has a living child goddess, the Kumari Devi, who lives in the center of Kathmandu in an ornately carved wooden house 250 years old. One legend has it that the tradition began centuries ago when a randy pedophile king had rather energetic sex with a prepubescent girl who died shortly thereafter. In penance he started the practice of venerating a young virgin as a living goddess. Whatever the history, each new Kumari chosen today must be from a particular caste of Newari gold- or silversmiths.

She must be no younger than four and, of course, not have reached the ripe age of puberty. Thirty-two strict physical characteristics must be met including the shape of her teeth, the color of her eyes and the sound of her voice. Gee, those kings of old must have been picky. The potential candidate is then subjected to a scary dance by men wearing horrific masks who surround her with 108 gruesome buffalo heads.

If she doesn't get frightened, she's the new Kumari goddess until the day of her first menstrual cycle or some other accidental loss of a huge amount of blood. Then she reverts to a common mortal and can one day marry a mortal man. In the interim she lives a very pampered existence and each year makes only a few ceremonial forays through the city riding high on a huge temple chariot to offer her blessings.

In the past she conducted a royal ceremony once each year to bless the king. But democracy came and the king departed. Today she blesses the president. It's considered extremely unlucky for a man to marry a former Kumari goddess--most likely, they say, because he must cater to the whims of an extremely spoiled brat, who's had life served to her on a silver platter.

I've never seen a real live goddess. So on my last morning in Nepal I strolled past the Kumari Bahal where the young girl resides but was unable to get a glimpse of her peeking out one of the tiny windows. I sighed and watched my breath slowly evaporate into the chill dawn air of a brisk Nepali winter. I put my camera away, snugged my hands deep into my brand new mittens . . . and bid the magic of Kathmandu farewell. 

Copyright © Glen Allison ALL RIGHTS RESERVED 

The fine art imagery of visual artist, Glen Allison, has been published more than 60,000 times in a majority of the world's leading travel magazines and guide books. He's a vagabond photographer and writer presently embarked on a nonstop, ten-year marathon odyssey around the globe to capture the world's most extraordinary destinations in dramatic light.

He never returns home; he has no home.

If you'd like to see more magical images from Glen's journey to Kathmandu, you can view the original blog post "Kathmandu Magic". Indulge yourself by navigating around his website to vicariously join the ride. His images are available for stock photo licenses and fine art prints.


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