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Pagodas, Pubs and Prayers

Landlocked and veiled by a curtain of mist, with winds whispering hushed chants of a prayer reverberated by the rotating prayer wheels and fluttering prayer flags accenting the landscape in vibrant hues, every nook and corner in the mountains resonates with a meditative energy that bestows this land with its aura and mysticism.

My friend buzzed me late in the evening when I had just dragged myself from work and shot out: “Why don’t the three of us travel to Nepal?”  It took me a moment before I could react to what she said. I was gob smacked at her choice of destination, because Nepal was just recovering from a massive earthquake. Also, I could pretty much gauge my parents’ reaction when I pitched my half-baked plan to them and the rigmarole that would follow it.

However, I had decided to go and all that was left was to broach the topic to my parents. Nevertheless, I did get them to agree, though reluctantly, for the trip.

It wasn’t one of those planned trips where we had an itinerary with everything chalked out, save for the route. Our trip was to start from Chennai to Kathmandu via Bhagdogra, to Badrapur to Kakkarvitha to Siliguri to Darjeeling to nearby llamahatta and Ghum and back to Chennai. This was ideal for us because you don’t need a visa to travel to Nepal so we were saved the hassle of pursuing one.

As our flight prepared to land, we could see white glistening peaks of the Himalayas in the distance, beyond a sea of clouds. For landlocked Nepal, these mountains form a crucial part of the cultural tapestry and way of life of the people here.

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The Kathmandu airport was crammed and chaotic, perhaps an aftermath of the devastating earthquake. We were whisked out of the airport before we could figure out the immigration process. Or, was there even one?

There wasn’t much to do there because the city was still recuperating. So we stuck to the mainland, exploring century-old temples and stupas, a careful combination of Hindu and Buddhist architecture with an eclectic mix of religious customs such as lighting candles and incense sticks, making votive offerings and being whacked on the back by an old gnarled lady to chase away all the negative energy. We stuck mainly to the Boudha stupa and the Pashupathinath temple.

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Pashupatinath temple, a sprawling temple complex, dedicated to Shiva, displays an aesthetic blend of Hindu and Buddhist temple architecture. It has the pagoda in copper and gold atop the main temple structure, numerous shrines dedicated to different deities, wide pradakshinapathas; the usual circular ones and the labyrinthine ones with prayer drums found in stupas, quarters for people to stay and the ghat by the river Bhagmati to perform various rituals. It took us an hour to cover the whole complex spread out over acres. A riot of colours from the flowers, prayer flags, amulets and sacred threads, the heady fragrance of flowers, incense and flickering diyas colour the way to the temple.  Clad in bright orange, reds and yellows, lot of priests and sadhus with hoary manes sitting against the red stone of the temple walls made a pretty frame.

Nepal5Entry into the Boudha stupa was limited then due to construction to repair the golden spire crowning the stupa. Surrounded by prayer drums built into the compound wall, people who circumambulate the stupa are expected to spin these drums hoping the prayers will ring through the surroundings. The market around the stupa was buzzing with people haggling for the colourful display of souvenirs, prayer drums, music bowls, prayer beads, flags and much more; similar to Thamel, a market which is a haven for shopaholics.

Adorned with Chinese lanterns, the entry to Thamel is capable of luring anyone into its warren of lanes buzzing with activity.  It has window displays showcasing traditional Tibetan jewelry, kukris of various sizes, hand painted postcards, fridge magnets, trekking equipment, local merchandise and accessories like bags, footwear etc.

Nepal6One unique handicraft from this area would be the Thangka paintings and carpets mostly inspired by Tibetan Buddhism. They flaunt Oriental Buddhist motifs and different manifestations of the Buddha, Goddess Tara and Avalokiteshwara, all crafted with a loving eye for detail, be it in the process of crafting the spools of yarn to dying and weaving them, and finally trimming them. There are the traditional ones with the typical intricate Budddhist motifs, the more westernized ones in geometric patterns in a subdued palette as compared to the vibrant one in Tibetan paintings and other variants to cater to the huge global market. As I watched the craftsmen silently going about their work I wondered to myself whether these people were aware of how sought after their work was especially after I learnt that these carpets are exported all over the world for interiors of domestic spaces, hotels and resorts.

Nepal too has its own share of luxury hotels, pizzerias, pubs and other eat-outs. The cuisine here is similar to that of northeastern India. A staple Nepalese thaali comprises rice, dal, saag (bland dish of palak or other leafy vegies steamed with salt), fish curry, radish pickle, some vegies, a curry and pappad. This basic meal can be supplemented with other add-ons. A pizzeria I recommend would be the Fire and Ice Pizzeria, which doles out mouth-watering pizzas topped with home-made tomato sauce and fresh ingredients alongside other continental delights.

Nepal8Apart from the regular dine-ins, Nepal also has pubs and hotels that boast a popular nightlife with scrumptious food, an array of beverages and young bands performing. We were at one such pub to celebrate my friend’s parents’ anniversary. It was a fun evening with lots of new faces, laughter, good music, dancing and food. To add some zing to the evening Sabin Rai, a popular singer, touted as the Bryan Adams of the East, had dropped by. Hooting, cheering and requests to sing greeted him.

As the crowd thinned and the energy levels dipped, my friends and I huddled round a table enjoying our beer and dried pork chops when suddenly Sabin Rai walked over and started talking to us.  My friend who knew him was on cloud nine and the rest of us were just as excited because we were aware this was a popular singer who had sauntered to our table to talk to us. I don’t remember our conversation, but it was a pleasant one.

People I met were resilient, fun loving, cultured, laidback and always ready to break into a song or dance, even children I met at a school that we went to. The school was fully functional despite the faint tremors. We had a rather cheerful start to the day at the school. An intriguing display, the walls of the stairway had photographs of the various tribes, artwork by popular artists and a bit of history on the Doon school in India. I learnt later during the course of our conversation with the Principal of the school that most of the teachers at the school were educated in India and I remember them reminiscing the colonial architecture, quality of education, discipline and etiquette at these schools when they still had British tutors.

Our last night at Kathmandu was yet another dine out in the company of friends and family that went late into the night at the Shangri La, spruced up elegantly for its guests in amber lighting, lilting music in the background and a delicious spread.

The next morning we rushed to the airport to board one of the local flights, Yeti Airlines, that would take us to Bhadrapur. After another hasty check in process, we boarded the flight and in less than an hour we landed in the middle of a grassland with a narrow strip trimmed with wild flowers for a landing. This was the Bhadrapur airport. I was so fascinated by the unpretentious lone little shanty structure in the middle of nowhere where all the passengers gathered to collect their luggage.

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After a five-minute wait, our luggage came in a rusty old wheelbarrow pushed by a scrawny guy. All of us scrambled for our luggage and after some pulling and tugging, we managed to pull ourselves out of the mess. We boarded our cab and soon we were on our way to Kakkarvitha, the Nepal – India border along the river Mechi.

The little bridge that serves as the crossover from Nepal to India was packed with bullock carts, buses, cycles and four-wheelers. After a quick round of checking by the border cops who peered at us girls suspiciously through the window, we were on our way to Siliguri, a two- hour drive through the rustic north eastern countryside, reminiscent of rural Kerala.

And, we were back in India!