Kathmandu - little bit scary!


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March 15th 2008
Published: March 15th 2008
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Kumari BahalKumari BahalKumari Bahal

The house of the Living Goddess
Those of you who know my daughter Anya may recognise her little quote from the title of this post. When she was tiny she was taken to a huge fireworks display. She painted a lovely picture of orange and pink fireworks and gave it the title 'Fireworks - little bit scary!'.

That's a bit how I felt as I headed off out of the hotel into the streets of Kathmandu by myself this morning. Like fireworks it was exciting and scary all at the same time.

The day began back at the hotel sitting in the courtyard having a huge breakfast of cereal, pancakes, egg, spicy beans, potato and tomatoes all washed down with gallons of tea. Having left the UK shivering in a biting wind it was lovely to be able to have breakfast outdoors - without a coat on! Not that I usually have breakfast with a coat on at home, but you know what I mean!

It was with slight trepidation that I set off on my first outing - on my own - into the bustling streets of Kathmandu. I'm staying in the tourist district of Thamel which is a myriad of little streets all looking very similar and I was doubtful I would ever find my way back. It was a case of dodging all the honking motorbikes, cars, rickshaws and people mentioned in my previous post. I soon got into the swing of it and ignored the beeping too, otherwise I wouldn't have got anywhere. I was surrounded by new sights, smells and sounds and it was quite an experience for this Norwich girl. The shops were very similar to Head in the Clouds back home but the signs, the colourful flags festooned above the streets and the noise and bustle made it very different indeed. I was very concious of being a lone, white girl and felt eyes on me and was pestered by quite a few people along the way. I expect it's something I'll get used to but for my first day it 'a little bit scary'.

I was hoping to get as far as Durbar Square in the centre, a world heritage site and full of extremely old temples, and I knew from a map I'd downloaded from the internet (handily sitting at home on my computer printer!) if I headed straight down a main road it would lead to the square. Unfortunately the map made it look very simple, the reality was somewhat different. I decided to keep going down the road that most of the rickshaws were going up and down (using my little grey cells - thanks Poirot!) and the hunch paid off as I eventually made it. All tourists are nabbed before entering the square to pay a fee that is supposed to go towards the restoration and conservation of the buildings. Then I tried to have a saunter around. It's hard to do anything unobserved here and soon as one 'guide', street seller, beggar, the world and his mother, have stopped bothering you another starts. In the end one chap was very insistent on showing me the 'free' Kumari Bahal and as I've already learned to expect that free means 'pay me' I went in expecting to be fleeced. In the end I decided to let him be my guide for the morning as - as he put it - it will at least stop all the other people bothering me.

It turned out he was very good and I learnt loads about the political situation - there's elections coming up very soon in April to elect a government to replace the temporary one in place after the King was made to step down.

The 'free' look at the Kumari Bahal was interesting as it's the House of the Living Goddess or Kumari. She dutifully made an appearance for us and looked thoroughly bored, which isn't surprising as she only leaves the place once a year at a festival in October. She was chosen by satisfying 32 tests involving things like being from a specific family line (the Buddhist Sakya clan of Newar goldsmiths - I got that from a book - my memory's not that good!) having flawless skin (don't think they'd like my freckles then!), having a horoscope in harmony with the king, not being scared when put in a darkened room with gruesome noises shrieked at her, lots of other things, then finally picking out the clothes of the previous Kumari from a row of similar clothes. If she fails any task they go to the next girl put forward for the privilage of being made Living Goddess. The successful girl stays in the Kumari Bahal as the Kumari or Living Goddess, until she reaches puberty when she receives a kind of pension and can go on to lead a normal life. Don't think social services would be quite so keen on the idea back in the UK.

Another of the temples was named Kasthamandap (which means wooden house from Sanskrit) believed to have been built from a single tree. My guide reckoned it was teak and the special 'rub up against me to cure all ills' post was made from the black lentil tree. I'll be able to test my guide out against the one we have on my tour. There's a statue inside that people give offerings to. There was a lady giving it something to eat by squashing something in its mouth. Apparently this is believed to make it into blessed holy food that, if you nibble a bit, will make you blessed for the day. Or something like that.

Well after my 'free' tour, which incidentally also took me for a 'free' look around a Tantra paintings shop to buy a picture of the wheel of life painted by Tibetan monks! (I'm starting to get the hang of things and was expecting this - but did buy a painting as they were amazingly intricate) I set off to try and find my way back to the hotel. I was ok up to the first few turnings but then got hopelessly lost and had to ask. Each time I followed the directions given I seemed to end up somewhere looking exactly the same and equally lost! I was beginning to think people were just having a laugh when I eventually got back to my hotel.

So to sumarise - Kathmandu - little bit scary but ever so interesting, fascinating, noisy and colourful too!

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