In Kathmandu, the gods are part of ordinary life

October 23, 1994|By Jim Lo Scalzo | Jim Lo Scalzo,Special to The Sun

On the wall next to the customs check at Nepal's international airport,there is a poster that reads, "Kathmandu -- Where Gods mingle with mortals." This maxim, I soon discover, exemplifies the mystique behind this capital city. In Kathmandu, there are more gods than people. They live in temples and monasteries, on street corners and in shopkeeper's windows. They live in the minds of the pious and in the body of a young virgin named Kumari, "the living goddess," whose period of aristocratic splendor ends at puberty, when she is replaced by another pre-adolescent girl.

The deities that adorn Kathmandu are still largely unknown to the outside world. For they, like the rest of the city, were concealed under a reign of political isolationism for hundreds of years. By the time Kathmandu finally opened its doors to foreign travelers in 1951, open worship had become a dominant characteristic of local life. I first notice this when browsing the city's cobblestone streets. Around every corner rise pagoda-style temples where worshipers clang bells and mumble sutras. Barefoot children peddle chunks of turquoise, prayer wheels made from yak bone and stone lions that pour sweet incense from their nostrils. There are multicolored gods hanging from alley walls, and Buddhist monks conversing with ragged hippies who smoke long wooden pipes. Everywhere I turn there are more alleys and crooked temples, more gods and pie shops.

Kathmandu possesses a wondrous allure, the kind that draws children to magic. Like many first-time visitors, I had expectations based on a sprinkling of common lore. I knew it was in the homeland of mighty Mount Everest, and the elusive Abominable Snowman. I knew Indiana Jones ventured here to save his sweetheart, and I knew Bob Seger was always crooning of coming here, too. But until the moment I catch my first glimpse of this ancient Himalayan city, I never knew there would be so many gods.

For 3,000 years Kathmandu Valley has lured mystics and philosophers seeking both seclusion and spiritual enlightenment. Cradled on all sides by the Himalayan mountain range, the valley is proprietor to three urban districts: Kathmandu, the oldest and most populous; Patan of Lalitpur, "the beautiful city," just to the south; and Bhaktapur, several miles to the east.

Walking through downtown Kathmandu, I enter the famed temple complex known as Durbar Square. There are more than 50 Hindu temples here, most crammed so tightly together that one is indistinguishable from the next. Vendors are here too, garnishing the steps of the red-brick temples with fruits and fabrics. An elderly worshiper holding a leaf of saffron paste stops quietly in front of me. Using his thumb, he paints three vertical lines across my forehead. I bow in thanks, and he smiles a toothless smile and continues on his way.

After leaving Durbar Square I cross a small footbridge into a highly revered Hindu temple called Pashupatinath. The temple is built on the bank of Nepal's sacred river, the Bagmati, where worshipers come from hundreds of miles away to bathe and offer puja (prayer). Hindus believe that dipping both feet in the river before you die cleanses your spirit of sin. And to have your body burned on one of the cremation ghats is to let your spirit travel with your ashes -- up the Bagmati and directly to the gods.

I sit down next to a statue of Ganesha (the elephant-headed son of Shiva, the creator)) and watch Hindu devotees engage in a perpetual variety of worship. Brahmans rotate burning corpses on cremation ghats while, a few feet away, Hindu pilgrims immerse themselves in the sacred river. Indian sadhus (holy men who practice asceticism) smoke hashish from chillums as they perform improbable feats of yoga. Vendors sell garlands to religious devotees who move from temple to temple, leaving offerings of flowers, rice and rupees.

There are gods here too. Thousands of them. I can feel them here, concealed among the temples, watching this timeless scene, from chiseled faces ad erotic carvings, from bronze statues and gilded towers. They are in every niche of Pashupatinath, in every crevice of Kathmandu, thousands of gods with thousands of eyes.

The next morning I climb a green hillock to Swayambunnath, a 2,000-year-old Buddhist shrine called a stupa. A young monk approaches me and asks why I haven't entered his monastery. "Am I allowed?" I ask. He frowns at my question and leads me in by the hand. For an hour I watch 50 monks pray and chant and blow numbing sounds from 6-foot-long copper horns. Four teen-age monks then serve me yak-butter tea and lead me outside, eager to have me help shave their heads. They are so excited to be with me that to someone watching I would seem an old friend.

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