The festival of Gai Jatra is a day in which people mourn relatives who have died in the past year. It is similar to Halloween, in that it is a day for the dead and children dress up in costume. Specifically, they dress as cows, or paint on mustaches: “Gai Jatra” means “cow festival,” and it originated in the 17th century as the king’s attempt to console and amuse the queen after their son died. (In Hinduism, the cow is the symbol of motherhood.) The tradition caught on, and every year, children and their families parade through the streets carrying memorials of their loved ones while dressed in fun outfits.
In Kathmandu, Gai Jatra includes an additional Halloween-like tradition, in that the children receive gifts of food from festival attendees, presumably because a mourning family isn’t going to cook for itself. For some families, marching bands are also part of the cortege.
In Bhaktapur, it’s a whole different story. Instead of cows and kids, families build enormous towers bearing the portrait of the deceased, and young people parade through the city performing a dance, called ghintang ghisi, in which they arrange themselves in two long queues and hit sticks together. By the end of the day, the processions attract an enormous crowd.
Day 3 began at 4:45 AM when we woke up, pulled on our heaviest clothing, and began our hike up Poon Hill to catch the sunrise. Poon Hill rises to 10,531 feet above sea level. (Granted, we were starting at about 9,430 feet.) Abby remarked that, in Nepal, this is called a “hill,” while in the U.S. east of the Mississippi, people would call it a “mountain.” Maine’s Mount Katahdin is 5,269 feet high. Vermont’s Mount Snow is 3,586 feet. And Georgia’s Stone Mountain? A piddling 1,686 feet.
Come on, people.
Anyhow … as we neared the top, I turned around and saw this:
More photos, from the top:
Once we’d had our fill of the view, we went back down, ate, packed, and set off.
We arrived in Tadapani that evening. Tadapani is a tourist village built on the edge of the valley. There’s nothing to do there except eat and sleep, but it offers beautiful views of the sunrise if you get up early enough, which is what we did.
After that, we ate, descended the mountain, found our van, and went back to the airport to catch our flight home.
Back in November, we went hiking in the Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP), a mountainous area about 100 miles northwest of Kathmandu that borders China. We spent four days hiking through the mountain region, completing about 40 km.
We flew into Pokhara and took a van to the entrance of the ACAP, and began our hike.
The village at the entrance, Nayapool, is filled with guest houses, tea houses, and restaurants, and there are many more such businesses throughout the park. Because of COVID, however, nearly all of them were empty while we were there. Sadly, the government had launched a “Visit Nepal 2020” campaign which incentivized a lot of proprietors to sink all of their assets into their businesses right before the country closed down …
After walking about 8 km or so—the guide went easy on us for the first day—we spent the night in a village called Tikhe Dhunga. It was very quiet, given that most of the buildings there are guest houses. On the other side of the river, our guide told us, there had been a late-night landslide in 2006, in which 28 people were killed. The next morning’s trek out of the village was very steep—up 4,000 stone stairs to the next village—and the first part was dotted with memorials where houses had been.
In the evening, after about 11 km of hiking, we arrived at our next stop, Ghorepani. We settled into a mostly empty hotel to spend the night in anticipation of waking at 5:00 AM the next morning to watch the sun rise—from Poon Hill, 1,150 feet up.
Next: Trudging 1,150 feet up Poon Hill to watch the sun rise, and what we saw after that.
There in a festival in Bhaktapur called Madhav Narayan which celebrates one of the avatars of the Hindu god Vishnu. It is famous for the sight of male devotees rolling from the center of town down to the Hanuman River to show their devotion to Vishnu. The festival was nearing its close, so I went to Bhaktapur the day before to be at the riverside early in the morning.
It turned out that the city also is in the middle of its Navadurga festival. Navadurga is a mask dance ritual/street carnival. To celebrate Navadurga, dancers representing nine demonic avatars (durgas) of the goddess Parvati run around the city. I wasn’t aware of this until I wandered across a performance in one of the smaller squares of the city. The one in the red mask is one of the durgas; I assume the other is Shiva, since this appeared to be some kind of courtship dance.
After the show, I walked around the city for a few hours, and then returned to the same neighborhood on my way to dinner. As I passed, there was a loud commotion as young men rushed Shiva back into the square. They ran up and down, and then scampered off.
I continued up the road to a large square which I hadn’t visited before—Bhaktapur is much larger than I’d realized. At the main temple, there was a group of old men were singing and playing devotional songs, so I checked them out before finding some dinner.
After my meal, I was returning to my hotel when I heard another commotion. The street parade of durgas, drums and cymbals was heading toward me.
Naturally, I followed them. The revelers wound through some alleys and eventually ended at a temple where the musicians started pounding even louder. The dancers took off their masks and went inside, where they received offerings and more tips.
A few weeks back, I went to Kathmandu to take photos for a friend’s research project. She is examining the leadership roles—formal and informal—that women play in sukumbasis, informal settlements that have sprung up in Kathmandu as migrants have poured into the city. The sukumbasis we visited are on either side of the Bagmati river. The Bagmati is a holy river—the Ganges of Nepal, as it were—but is now heavily choked and polluted due to the unrestrained population growth of the city. Two generations ago, people swam in it; now it is full of untreated sewage.
A view of Jagritinagar from the footbridge running across the river.
The Bagmati running between Jagritinagar and Gairaigaun sukumbasis
Main road, Jagritinagar
Given that they come from outside Kathmandu, migrants who live in sukumbasis do so illegally: people have residency permits based on where they are from, so if they don’t move to the city through regular channels, they can’t get papers. As squatters, they don’t own their homes and can be evicted at any time; if they have electricity, they generally have to pay far more for it than legal residents do; and they get their water from wells, pumps and tankers.
Water collection for drinking, cooking and washing is an all-day activity. Most water buckets started out as containers for other things (food, paint, etc.).
This is Saraswati, one of the “local champions” we interviewed. She lives in Jagritinagar and runs a small shop, participates in activities of a local women’s empowerment NGO, and is someone seems to know how things get done. Others come to her when they have problems with the government, such as in obtaining residency papers. We spent a day shadowing her, to see how she spent her time.
Saraswati talks to a neighbor about her legal issues.
Another neighbor approaches Saraswati about her residency papers.
Saraswati at her shop.
Saraswati and her daughter at home, preparing the day’s meal.
Saraswati’s daughter gets her school uniform ready.
Saraswati meets with a lender to get a loan to expand her inventory.
This is Nirmala, another informal community leader, who lives in Gairaigaun, the sukumbasi across the river from Jagritinagar. She is a college student but is also trying to start a small business. We tracked her for a day as well.
Nirmala and her husband in the room they share in their family’s home.
We interview Nirmala and family members. Their home is right on the Bagwati.
Nirmala’s uncle shows the height of last year’s flood.
Nirmala at a neighborhood lending circle meeting.
Nirmala speaks at a women’s empowerment group.
Nirmala and community members clean the main street of Gairaigaun every weekend.
The research we did gave us some initial insight to the women’s roles, and how they balance their personal lives with their community positions and obligations. The project is ongoing.
I didn’t do much personal photography while I was there; in fact, I may have accidentally erased a card with most of those photos. This is about all I can find:
on day two, we visited bhaktapur, a historic town just outside kathmandu. it’s a living town, albeit a heavily touristed one, and a unesco world heritage site.
the architecture is remarkable. the entry to the historic town (just past the ticket booth) opens onto a wide square ringed with temples and administrative buildings. it looks almost artificial, like a theme park version of nepal. once past this, however, you will find the actual shops and houses.
now, i must admit that one problem of living in india is that i’ve seen so many amazing temples that i’m not eager to take photos of yet one more amazing temple, especially when the light is nearly overhead; the shadows are too harsh and they don’t give the buildings much depth. the two photos in the second row are more interesting to me: they show typical newari architecture, the newars being one of the early peoples of kathmandu. note the beautifully carved windows on even the simplest buildings.
the above disclaimer aside, a lot of the temples here and elsewhere had some of the naughtiest carvings i’ve ever seen, so i did photograph those – at heart, i’m still a 12-year-old. one website lists the possible reasons that the temple beams are carved with such graphic scenes: sex was not taboo in ancient times, and the carvings are a form of sex education; the carvings are a way of contrasting hinduism with buddhism, which preached abstinence; the carvings were meant to inspire people to have children, to increase the size of the workforce; the carvings denoted luxury and royal extravagance; or the carvings would keep the muslim invaders from destroying the temples, since they would be unwilling to come near depictions of nudity. i think this last one is pretty laughable, but you can decide for yourselves.
one website says that the erotic carvings on the temple exteriors were an early form of sex education. if that’s the case, the guys who carved the beam on the far right must have been teaching the advanced placement class.
bhaktapur was great for people-watching, particularly in the side streets.
the baby’s eyes are made up to ward off the evil eye.
there were a lot of men hanging out under covered platforms that dot the neighborhood. the kids above were playing “cellphone” with pieces of broken pottery, and, generally speaking, people seemed capable of making their own toys. and finally, the pause that refreshes (ba-da-bing!).
abby and i went to kathmandu this past weekend, to visit friends we’d made while serving in albania. it is a fascinating place, but first, i should clarify something: whatever bob seger was singing about in 1975, it certainly wasn’t this:
the first stop was swayambhunath temple, a major buddhist pilgrimage site atop a hill overlooking kathmandu. according to legend, the bodhisattva manjushri had a vision of a lotus floating in a lake on what is now the site of the temple. he drained the lake and the lotus grew into a hill, with the flower forming the stupa itself. as it happens, there is historical evidence that kathmandu valley once was a lake, so the legend has some element of truth to it; however, records also show that the temple was founded by king vṛsadeva at the start of the 5th century b.c.e. i wasn’t there, so i can’t say which story is the real one.
the temple complex is holy to hindus and buddhists alike – there is a shrine to harati, the hindu goddess of smallpox and other childhood diseases, next to the stupa – and the whole thing is so crowded with sculptures, buildings, and tourist tat, that it is difficult to get a good wide shot of the place.
on the neighboring hill is a monastery, lots of prayer flags, and the monkeys from which swayambhunath temple gets its nickname, “the monkey temple.”
we finished the day in durbar square, kathmandu (as opposed to the two other durbar squares in the area – “durbar” means “palace”), where there were lots of people trying to sell us things, and i took a few street shots.