15 March 2016

The Mandala Painters

I am one very lucky boy.
OK - old man.
This morning I was most privileged to attend the Graduation Ceremony for students supported by the In Giving We Receive organisation.
Nice name huh?
A nice and true philosophy too.
IGWR are a group of Australians supporting a heap of Nepalese children achieve their dreams.
The delightful Raja and his wife run the show in Kathmandu.
We help IGWR a little as we can.
Today I witnessed the graduation of three nurses, two teachers and a young lady who has finished her PhD in Business Studies.
Graduation is no mean feat for any child but for these particular kids it is truly life changing. All of the IGWR children come from impoverished and remote communities where there would be no hope for education at all.
If you’ve got a few shekels to spare and you want to make an immediate and big difference it is easy. I would highly recommend you throw them their way.
The shekels.
Google them.
IGWR Nepal.
Their leader is an incredibly kind man named Peter Humphris.
I was also lucky as it was a day of many stories too.
Not all of them were happy stories but most had drama and intrigue, some tugged at the heartstrings and others were a little mystical.
This is Nepal.
It is the ways things are.
I was talking last week to my dear friend the Lama and Guru Rimpoche who is the patron of the Snowland School in Kathmandu. I mentioned the IGWR organisation and simultaneously we said to each other, “I like the name”.
We smiled at each other.
I told Guru, “We will soon be so on synch that we will complete”
“Each other’s sentences” he grinned.
We both roared in laughter.
I love the Guru.
I really do.
Before heading off to the Graduation I was taking my breakfast on the terrace of my modest accommodations here in Kathmandu.
It is just outside the bustling tourist district of Thamel.
Whilst sipping on my delicious orange and ginger chai an old Scottish bloke who was seated nearby alarmed me and all who were seated nearby - by pointing at a place above and behind me, and screaming,
“By fook – I think he’s gunny joomp”
I guess I was probably the only one who could actually understand what the Scottish man said – as the other patrons of the café were all Nepalese - but in unison we followed the old guy’s pointed finger.
On a balcony on an adjacent building a rather alarmed and very skinny Nepalese guy looked panic stricken.
He was topless and sweating and he appeared to be doing yoga.
“By fook – I think he’s gunny joomp”, the Scot repeated.
He was now standing and waving his arms about and seemingly appealing direct to me.
I looked again just to make sure.
“I don’t think he is mate” I informed the Scottish man.
“I think he’s just doing yoga”
“Are yez sure yen?”
I looked once more.
Just to be certain.
“Yes I’m pretty sure”
“I ken see very will wi’out me glasses”
“I really don’t think he’s going to jump”
He wasn’t completely mad it turned out.
Just a little edgy - and semi blind without his glasses.
The Scots name was John and he is a long time visitor to Nepal. John teaches at a school in Kathmandu and he has lived here almost permanently since he survived a plane crash in a place called Lukla in 2008. Fourteen of the twenty passengers were killed and John told me that he decided to remain in Nepal and use the insurance and compensation that he received to support local schools and hospitals.
John told me that he thought that he would die here in Nepal but hopefully not anytime soon.
I told John that I knew what he meant and I too would like to die here.
Also not anytime soon though.
When I asked the Scot what it was like surviving an air crash he told me that it was pretty good.
He told me that it was a lot better than not surviving.
I asked John whether he had any ill after effects he just laughed and told me that he sometimes imagines young men jumping from terraces.
Only without his glasses on though.
At the Graduation ceremony for the IGWR kids I was most fortunate to meet Ayu and his brother and sister.
I first heard about them a long time ago.
Here is Ayu and me:
He's the handsome one.
Raja is the one who ‘found’ Ayu.
He found him begging in the Pashmupati Temple complex.
As he often is – Raja was curious. He wanted to know where this boy was from and why he was so badly burned. 
This was a number of years ago when Ayu was probably only five or six years of age.
Many of the burns on his face and neck and his feet were terribly infected.
I wont dwell on the story for it is a horrific tale. Suffice to say that his alcoholic father threw Ayu into a fire when he was an infant.
This was done solely to increase his begging prospects.
His mother was dead.
Raja and IGWR took Ayu in and discovered he had an elder sister and a younger brother but he didn’t know where they were.
Raja found them and they now live altogether in one of the IGWR houses.
Ayu has had a number of surgeries already and many more are required and planned to rebuild his ear and his foot and to better heal all of his scars.
I have never before met a child so strong and so brave.
The mystical part came this evening when I received the Mandala I had ordered from my village friend the Teacher.
All Mandala are mystical.
The Teacher lives in the remote village of Arubot where he oversees ninety children. He is only twenty-five years old and he appears to have become the BFF of the boyfriend of my daughter.
He teaches English and Computers and Nepalese History.
The Teacher and the BOMD have bonded strongly and instantly.
The Teacher told me that they are both the boys of a pair of twins – each with an identical sister. Both Teacher and the BOMD have two elder brothers too.
The Teacher thinks this is no coincidence and he refers now to the BOMD as “dai”.
“Dai” means “little brother”.
The BOMD refers to the Teacher as bhai.
“Bhai” means “big brother”.
“Babus” are “little boys and “Nanus” are little girls.
I often tease my seventy-year-old friend Babu that he is still a little boy and he beams every time.
I am grateful that the Nepalese children mostly refer to me as “kaka” – or “uncle” rather than “baaje” or “hajurbabu” – which means grandfather.
I’m not that old.
In his spare time the Teacher paints Mandala at the local mountain Thangka school.
A Thangka is not a large vessel used to transport bulk liquids.
That is a tanker.
Thangkas are beautiful and delicate Tibetan Buddhist paintings done by hand on silk or cotton scrolls.
Sometimes they are made with coloured sands - taking hundreds of hours of incredible steady hands and patience my Buddhist monks.
Then they are washed away.
Beauty is often superficial and rarely is it permanent. 
Mandala were originally very important teaching materials on Buddhism and historical recordings of important philosophies and lessons.
The Bhavachakra – or what we westerners call ‘the tree of life’ is a very common Thank. 
It is a visual representation of the ancient Abhidharma teachings.
The Art of Enlightenment.
A Mandala is a Thangka that is both spiritual and ritualistic.
All Mandala are squares within circles.
Or is it circles within squares?
They represent the universe.
There are four gates within each circle and then there are intricate patterns and symbols and stories painted within each circle.
One can stare at a Mandala and some use it as a focus point in meditation.
Gazing at Mandala can be hypnotic.
To me they are simply beautiful works of art.
I ordered a couple of Mandala from the Teacher a while ago.
I wanted one each for my son and daughter.
This evening he delivered them to me.
They are flawless and stunning and each took the Teacher one hundred hours or so to complete.
Whilst admiring them I asked him what happened if he made the tinniest mistake when he was painting.
He smilingly told me that the Mandala had to then be thrown away and another one started.
I asked him if this had happened before and he laughed and told me many times. 
The Teacher is always laughing and smiling.
He told me that Thangka is itself a type of practice of patience and meditation.
The Mandala painted by the Teacher are invaluable to me simply because they were painted by him.
My children will cherish them forever.
So too will I.

12 March 2016

Roads Less Trod

I am beaten and bruised and bedraggled.
I am battered.
I am content though.
Very content.
For six hours I have endured a bone rattling drive up through the Kathmandu valley to the village of Arubot.
Arubot is in the Kavrepalanchok district of Nepal. It is the home village of my dear and old friend Kumar Lama. Both the district and the village took a hammering in last year’s earthquakes with nearly a thousand killed, fifteen thousand injured and up to one hundred thousand villagers displaced. Many buildings were destroyed.
The road to the village was only constructed ten years ago and it is drivable only a few months each year. During the monsoons it is mostly washed away. The only way in and out of Arubot before the road was built and during the monsoon months is by walking.
Steep walking.
The road is rutted and pitted and it is only one vehicle wide. It cuts and snakes its way up mountains and through valleys with thousand feet precipices and drop offs for most of the way.
I learned long ago that the best destinations are reached through the hardest of journeys.
Hakuna Matata.
I have come to Arubot to commence the rebuilding of the Sunkoshoi Lower School and to deposit the boyfriend of my daughter here. The BOMD has come to Nepal on a journey of discovery of self and a search for the meaning of life and he expressed a desire to help how he could in a remote village.
So here we are.
It is spectacularly beautiful here in the village.
I am writing this sitting beneath a Bodhi tree, which is adjacent to my home for a couple of nights and the BOMD’s home for a few months. The sun is setting a pale orange and I all around me is the Himalayan mountains.
I am on the roof of the world.
The village home that the BOMD and I are staying in belongs to one of the teacher’s family members and chickens and goats meander around the neat stone terrace. The terrace looks down the steep valley into which are carved tiers for the growing of rice and lentils. Crops have been grown this way for nearly 2000 years.
I envy that the BOMD is staying here for so long.
My daughter is flying here to joining him for a couple of weeks and my brother will also be here soon. My wayward son comes here when he can and he loves the country and the people.
I love that my family loves Nepal.
I really do.
It is written that the Lord Buddha sat beneath a Bodhi tree and for 3 months he ate nothing but a drop of water and a grain of rice as he meditated.
He nearly died.
He claims that this discovery of his own mortality was an essential part of his learning on the path of enlightenment.
There are Bodhi trees scattered across the mountains and most have small Buddhist shrines beneath them. The thick boughs provide great shade and they are an excellent place to just sit and contemplate.
Or to write stuff down.
Clickety clack.
There are eighty students at the Sunkoshi School and it accommodates little ‘uns up until year eight. Like most mountain villages, kids generally have to then walk long distances to study beyond year eight or to go to a boarding school in Kathmandu.
For the Arubot kids they have to endure a six-hour trek each day – six days a week - to finish the final four years of their secondary schooling.
The resilience, perseverance and endurance of the Nepalese never ceases to amaze me.
The BOMD and I have attended a number of local festivals although in Kathmandu I mostly left him to his own devices.
I do not want to get in the way of his search for self.
It’s getting cool now and there is just a hint of sun now on the horizon.
The mountains look as if they have been dipped in gold.
After a few days in Nepal and still then in Kathmandu - the BOMD went to a local barber and had his shoulder length locks shorn from his head in his first haircut in several years. The event was quite a spectacle for an excited audience.
Here we are at the Boudenath temple:
Chill out Mum.
We have not been shot in the forehead.
They are Tilakas.
Sorry I haven’t written in a while too.
Same excuse.

None really.
A Tilaka is a ceremonial mark placed upon the forehead by many people of the Hindu faith.
Worshippers of Shiva call the marking a Tripundra and rather than being a blob on the forehead it is three horizontal lines with a circle in the middle.
The Tilaka are made from ash or clay paste mixed with sandalwood and most are orange or red.
Bindis are a jeweled version of the Tilaka that is only worn by women. A Bindi may be worn to signify that a woman is married or purely as a decorative item but a Tilaka is only applied as a welcoming or during religious festivals.
In Australia a Bindi is a sharp seed thing that sticks into your bare feet in Summer time.
Bindi is a native Australian aboriginal word that means ‘little spear’.
The BOMD has not asked for my thoughts on the meaning of life or self.
For this I am grateful.
For I have not a single clue.
I long ago ceased my search for self and I am content with who I am.
I think though that he will quickly discover a sense of perspective here in the mountains and living with the Nepalese they will teach him the value of kindness and goodness and consideration.
He will learn the importance of decency and empathy.
He will see for himself the significance of family and how true communities really look after the frailest and most vulnerable.
The BOMD has already told me that he misses his mobile phone and his Facebook account as much as he misses his hair.
Which is not at all.
He told me that he misses my baby girl though.
So too do I.
I like the BOMD a lot.
I can see that Kumar has arrived back at the house with his two brothers. Cousins and aunties and uncles are arriving from neighboring villages and we will sip on local beer and laugh and chat while we eat a delicious cauliflower curry.
Later we will sing and dance.
It doesn’t really get much better than this.

7 March 2016

Little Goddesses

Today I attended the Pashupati temple with about a million and a half other people for the festival of Maha Shivaratri. I met a former goddess yesterday. 
She was my first.
Former Goddess.
I have been to Maha Shivarati once before.
Both were brilliant.
I’m back in Nepal.
It is excellent.
The Maha Shivaratri festival is a celebration of the Hindu God Shiva who on this day saved the universe from darkness and ignorance and he married the goddess Parvati.
Shiva is considered to be the god of all gods. He is the oldest of all religious deities and he apparently appeared long before Hinduism began. 2300 years before the Christian God was written about he appeared in India as a Lord named Pashupati.
The name of the very temple where the festival is conducted.
Pashupati is the main temple in Kathmandu where the Hindu dead are cremated. Their ashes are cast into the Bagmati river which eventually flows into the holy Ganga river. 
Here in the Himalaya there are a number of girl-child goddesses who are revered by both the Hindi and the Buddhist populations. These girls are handpicked from birth and are known as kumari. They are believed to be incarnations of the Hindu Goddess Kali.
 I caught a glimpse once of the Patan kumari a few years ago when there was a festival on and I was quite shocked at how little the girl was.
This was back in 2011.
2066 in Nepali time.
I have explained the 55-year discrepancy between western and Nepali time before and I am not Wikipedia.
Look up the reason why for yourself.
I didn’t know anything about the kumari at the time but I have learned much since.
The little girl’s name at the Patan Durbar was Samita Bajracharya.
She was nine years old when I saw her.
Samita was chosen as the new kumari of Patan after former kumari, Chanira Bajracharya, reached puberty.
I have been back in Nepal for a while now and I have settled back into the rhythm of the place.
Life is still tough.
Not for me - for the Nepalese.
My purpose here is to assist with the rebuilding after the earthquakes of last year.
I was here for the second one and I thought then that my number was up.
Mercifully it wasn’t.
The record low price of oil is inconsequential to most Nepalese.
It has been hard to get since the blockade of fuel at the India border commenced 8 months ago.
It is a political protest by an Indian ethnic minority group against Nepal’s constitution in the Terai region. This region abuts the border with India and through which nearly all goods to Nepal flow. The constitution was only formed last year after a decade of dispute.
There are more than 100 different ethnic groups here in Nepal and a caste system prevails. Many are fearful that their already diminished rights will cease to exist.
The majority and the most needy are of course the ones who suffer the most. There is little cooking gas to be had so fires must be used and the cost of everything has doubled or trebled. There are still lines of cars and motorcycles that are three miles and a two-day wait long.
With the earthquakes and then the fuel blockade 2015 (or 2071 for the Nepalese) was a very tough year.
It ain’t easy being Nepalese
From the moment they are chosen for their role, and they pass a rigorous 32-stage test administered by a panel of monks, these living goddesses are propelled to an immortal-like status.
Despite being the tiny children that they are - they are deemed to be protectors from evil by hundreds of thousands of adoring Hindus and Buddhists – particularly from the Newar community.
The kumari - which literally means both ‘virgin’ and ‘princess” in Nepalese - are taken from their homes and they are secreted away in temples. They are regarded as a living deity and they are only able to leave the temple when they are required to attend festivals and processions.
They are subjects of abject worship.
These kumari are considered too special to walk and they are instead carried around by hand or in mobile thrones. Their divinity is such that their feet must not touch the ground and often these girls do not learn to walk until they retire.
They retire as soon as they start to menstruate.
It is mandatory.
Whilst they are kumari the girls do not attend school or interact with any other children at all and they only appear in public thirteen times a year.
Once the kumari reach puberty and menstruation starts, the girls are put through a 12-day ritual known as 'Gufa', after which their life as a kumari suddenly ends. They are then returned to their families where they are expected to return to an ‘ordinary’ life that they have never before experienced.
It must be very difficult.
“Purpose” appears to be the latest buzzword for the New Year.
There will be plenty more.
A purpose is not a cute marine animal that resembles a small dolphin.
That is a porpoise.
I mention this because I had the great misfortune to be seated next to a hyperactive and incredibly annoying “Purpose Consultant” on the longest leg of my flight to Kathmandu.
His name was Dwayne.
Dwayne was a twenty something hipster American and when he told me he was a “Purpose Consultant” - I first thought he said “Porpoise Consultant”.
That would have been far more interesting.
Although I chatted with the hipster purpose dude for a couple of hours – they were amongst the longest of my life. 
He was loud and boring and he had an accumulation of foodstuff in his incredibly annoying hipster beard.
The desire to set the consultant on fire was as powerful as it was compelling.
I resisted.
Dwayne told me that a clearly defined corporate purpose is now essential for all organisations. He told me that there are three that are essential for any brand.
He was very passionate.
The three purposes that are now fundamental are apparently financial, customer and social.
The concise version of the Oxford dictionary defines Purpose as being: “The reason for which something is done or created or for which something exists”
Financial survival is of course a necessity for any business but it is very heartening to now hear that the “Purpose” that is being talked about in the corporate world is a lot deeper.
I told the consultant thus.
He grinned manically and flashed his perfect and pure white teeth at me and told me that he lives now to assist companies improving the lives of their customers and being of benefit to society as a whole.
Dwayne said that Companies are beginning to determine what really matters to their employees, customers and stakeholders and they are developing business models based on a concept and platform of actual care.
Nice huh?
I told Dwayne that I though that the concept of balancing profit with purpose was a very fine thing that has no downside at all and plenty of upside.
I told him that I used to work for an Investment Bank whose purpose I think was to dominate the world.
By any means possible.
“What about mission statements?” I asked of the hipster.
“Separate and redundant” he retorted.
I have been out of corporate life for a while now.
Dwayne told me that there are many companies and organisations around the world that operate with a very defined purpose.
He mentioned the Body Shop and told me that they have operated with a mission of “Enrichment” as their purpose for many years. The hipster told me that the mission of the Body Shop is to manufacture products and packaging in such a manner that they not harm the environment. Their purpose is the intent to regenerate 75 million meters of land and build bio-bridges for at-risk communities by the year 2020. He told me that the company also instills its values on its substantial supply chain.
I asked Dwayne if the Body Shop were a client of his and he told me they were not.
I didn't write any of these facts about the Body Shop down. 
I Googled them a few minutes ago.
Quite annoyingly the automatic spell check function of LinkedIn is changing some words to the American way of mis-spelling. Interestingly though it has accepted the word "Googled". 
I told Dwayne that the Body Shop was an Australian company.
It’s not.
I felt a sudden rush of patriotism.
I don't know why.
The Founder – Anita Roddick – is British.
Most Americans don’t know the difference.
Dwayne didn’t.
The British Chef Jamie Oliver’s purpose for his “15” brand of restaurants is to provide opportunity – through cooking and Food & Beverage services – to assist disadvantaged youth. I would think that most NGO's have a very clearly defined purpose.
When I asked what might the purpose of a company like Phillip Morris be – Dwayne told me that they might declare that they produce tobacco in an environmentally sustainable manner and they provide employment, education and healthcare in the countries they operate. Phillip Morris is an enormous multi-national cigarette-manufacturing organisation
Their products have killed millions.
When I asked the purpose of an armament manufacturer might be Dwayne started down the road of providing materials to ‘Fight for Liberty”.
I avoided the diatribe by going to the bathroom then on return to my seat I immediately lay back the seat and feigned sleep.
I have asked many Nepalese friends what would they think if their daughter was selected as a kumari and whether this was considered to be a great honour.
Most didn’t think there was any honour involved.
In a manner that is typically Nepalese – they told me that they would just accept that was the way things are.
Things are changing though.
Knowing my interest in the kumari and my curiosity about happens to the little girls when their life as kumari ends - one of my friends sent me some articles about Samita.
A Nepalese photojournalist followed her life since she was first identified and gave the world the first ever glimpse into the life of the kumari.
Samita returned to her family and went to school for the first time aged fourteen. The transition period was described as being ‘very difficult” however Samita is reported to be doing very well now and she has learned to play the sarod – a guitar-like Indian stringed instrument.
She is devoted to her music and she does not talk much about her time as kumari.
Other to say that she felt she lost her childhood but it was worth it in service to her faith.
She thought that being kumari was her purpose in life.
That’s kind of sad but very beautiful.
The first kumari to speak out was a girl named Rashmila Shakya, who is now 38-years-old.
She is the lady I met yesterday.
I have met her several times before and I like her a lot.
Shakya was a kumari more than 20 years ago and in 2005 she wrote and published a memoir that I have read several times over.
It is called “From Goddess to Mortal”
It is enthralling reading.
Shakya describes being selected when she was four years old.
"I don't remember much from the beginning because I was so young,"
"By the time you're around 6 or 7, you start realizing you're the living goddess and you get used to being worshiped."
Once selected Shakya was whisked off to a palace-temple where eight attendants waited upon her for the next eight years.
She stayed indoors except for 13 annual festivals when she appeared in public on a chariot.
The feet of a kumari must never touch the ground.
I may have mentioned this before.
I often repeat myself.
I often repeat myself.
Like all kumari before her, Shakya was fed specially prepared meals that she ate while seated alone on a raised platform.
She received almost no education.
A goddess already knows everything.
"I was left with nothing but a gold brocade dress and my memories," she wrote in her memoir.
"I was virtually illiterate."
“When I look back it was a very lonely existence but I knew nothing else at the time. All the wise and devout around me believed I was a goddess – so I was a goddess.”
“I knew nothing else”
Even though Shakya’s parents and siblings were able to visit her freely at the temple, they could do so only during the day and living together again was a difficult transition for everyone.
Shakya jokes that they "worshiped" her for a few days but she was soon required to help out with the cooking and cleaning ad other housework - skills she had never before learned.
I could tell by the way that she looked as she reflected on these times - that there was great difficulty in the adjustment.
I could see some despair in her eyes.
Shakya told me that she recalled the shock of sharing a bedroom with her sisters, coping without attendants, and being out in public. She had difficulty even walking at first and she had not shared anything with anyone before. As Kumari her attendants catered to her every whim.
She told me that she had absolutely no social skills and no idea how to even make friends.
It is to her absolute credit that Shakya was determined not to waste her life and she commenced her school sitting with 5-year-olds learning everything from scratch.
She caught up rapidly though and she went on to not only became the first former kumari to travel abroad and to graduate from college, but she was also instrumental in endeavouring to ‘modernize’ the kumari process to make sure that future kumari received a proper education. Now the kumari receive tutoring in their temple life to prepare them for life as mere mortals.
Shakya is now a software developer who still lives in the family home. She likes shopping and watching Bollywood movies in her spare time.
There is some obscurity as to when the kumari system commenced with some scholars believing it commenced in the year 769 however others believe it may have been as late as 1768.
There is agreement though that the kumari are a link between god and king and they are undoubtedly revered now as much as they have been in the past.
Keep in mind that Nepal has only been a democracy for less than 30 years following thousands of years as a monarchy where there has always been a connection between royalty and deities.
To a beef-eating outsider such as me it would appear that Nepali society has not fully resolved how to handle the royal kumari system in this Maoist post-royal age.
This is a country steeped in tradition and some Ministers in Nepalese parliament today still solicit the kumari for her blessing for successful rule - despite them representing a secular state.
As the twenty first century has seeped into the mountain kingdom there are a few more younger people who are questioning the institution's viability and fewer parents are offering up their daughters for this life. I understand there has been refusals in some cases.
The Maoists have publicly condemned it as a “relic of feudalism”, the former defense minister for the country termed it “child exploitation”, and in 2014 Nepal's Supreme Court ordered the government to safeguard kumari health and human rights.
The Kumari Ghar, or palace-temple in central Katmandu is a spectacular five-story red brick courtyard building with dark wood inlay. It was built in 1757 and mercifully survived last year’s earthquakes mostly intact.
The building has high walls surrounding it with signs warning we foreigners not to enter the kumari's living quarters or to take pictures of her if she peeks out.
We eaters of beef are considered to be unclean.
Perhaps due in part to the age of the institution or the child goddess' colorful presence at Nepal's many festivals, the kumari tradition remains popular amid residual belief that she does connect Nepal's leadership and the gods.
“What is the purpose?” I’m sure someone like Dwayne might ask.
"There's a belief the kumari gives the state more legitimacy," says Suresh Dhakal, an anthropologist with Katmandu's Tribhuvan University.
"So even under a republic, it will continue for some time."
Other Nepalese, like sociologist Sanjeev Pokhrel, expect the kumari to gradually lose its meaning and eventually evolving into little more than a cultural sideshow and tourist attraction.
"Like the panda for China" is his comparison.
Shakya told me that she doesn’t remember being unhappy when she was kumari but she said that she feels happy now.
She hopes to one day design environmentally friendly houses for Nepalese villages.
Like most past kumari she remains a minor celebrity around Kathmandu. People stopped and stared at her and some came over and smiled and touched her as we talked.
"People still recognize me on the street, which is a good feeling," she told me.
"They don't ever ask me about 'descending from heaven,' but they are curious."
The possibly still ignorant pessimist in me might ask if the whole kumari process is one of child exploitation.
A ritualistic function to placate devotees.
I don’t think so but who am I though to make such a judgment?
The child goddesses may in fact be divine and the reverence in which they are held may be warranted and they don’t need any other purpose.

7 November 2015

The Festival of lights

The Indians know it as Deepavali or Diwali.

Here in Nepal it is the Tihar.

It is a happy time.

It is a party time.

With all the lights – it is also a very bright time.

I am back in Nepal and all is good in my world.

Not so much for the Nepalese.

A blockade of all petrol that arrives by land from India has crippled the country for the past month. I saw a queue of motorbikes and cars waiting for their weekly ten litres ration that had more than 6000 vehicles.

My friend Babu says he waits three days for his ration and he has also bought petrol on the black market. Fuel prices fluctuate wildly in Nepal but about one hundred and eighty rupees a litre is about the norm. The black market rate in Kathmandu is six hundred rupees.

The gangsters are really cashing in.

Driving is Babu’s sole business.

He is suffering badly.

So too are the post-earthquake re-construction projects which commenced with earnest last month when the monsoons subsided but most have now all ground to a halt because of the fuel crisis.

Tens of thousands of Nepali still live in tents in their villages and throughout the Kathmandu valley.

More than one hundred Nepalese villages were completely destroyed in the two earthquakes and only a handful has commenced rebuilding.

Hundreds of schools and health centres and public buildings need to be constructed.

With winter fast approaching the situation is becoming direr.

The situation in Nepal is often dire. As is always the case, it is the disadvantaged that suffer the most.

The young and the elderly.

The resilience of the Nepali people is astounding.

It really is.

As far as I can ascertain, the reason for the fuel blockade by the Indians is political.

They don’t like the new constitution.

Nearly everything in Nepal comes from India and much of what little is produced here goes to India.

Particularly the electricity that is generated by the large hydro dams in the Himalaya.

Very little – if any of that seems to stay in Nepal.

Black outs and load shedding are the norm.

The price of kerosene and cooking gas has also trebled in the last month and many people have reverted to cooking using wood fuel.

It is much cheaper.

Cylinders of gas that would normally cost 1500 rupee now cost 6500.

Few households can afford it.

Regardless - next week in the mountain villages and across the Kathmandu Valley clay lamps the Nepali call diyas will be lit in households and businesses. These lamps will often burn gee. These are known locally and appropriately as butter lamps and the smell permeates in Kathmandu and all throughout Nepal.

The smell of gee lamps always reminds me of the Tihar festival in Nepal.

It is nice.

Brass diyas burn in all the Temples.

In those that are still standing after the earthquakes.

In Patan – where I am right now - beautiful Rangoli are now appearing in courtyards and in building foyers. These are gorgeous and intricate patterns made from coloured rice and flower petals as homage to the Hindu gods and Goddesses.

On the weekend families will start their own Rangoli on the floors of their living rooms of their homes.

It is a welcoming invitation to the Hindu deity.

It is a come-on-in.

There are five days in the Tihar festival.

The first is called Kaag Tihar or Kwah Puja and it is the worship of both crows and ravens. The craws of these birds symbolize sadness and grief in Hinduism so devotees make offerings to keep such emotions away from their homes.

Offerings of sweets are placed on the roofs of houses.

The second day is called Kukur Tihar or Khicha Puja – and sometimes Narka Chaturdashi - and it is the day of the dog. In Nepali Hinduism dogs are the messengers of the God of Death, Lord Yamaraj. On this day the pooches of Nepal are given great treats and are treated with much reverence.

The night noises of Kathmandu for me are the barking of the street dogs and the crawing of the crows.

When I arrive back as I lay in bed waiting for sleep to take me I always know I am here by these sounds.

Like the pre-dawn morning chants of monks they are comforting to me.

They bring me peace.

The morning of the third day of the Tihar festival is called Gai Tihar – and it is worship of the cow time.

Cows are symbols of prosperity and wealth and the Nepali Hindus make garlands of marigolds that the locals call Sayapatri – and they glam up all of the cows.

The evening of the third day of the festival the Goddess of Wealth – whose name is Laxmi, is thanked for her gift of prosperity and this is where all the lights are lit up in thanks and the partying starts.

There is much singing and dancing.

On the fourth day of Tihar, there are a couple of varieties of pujas depending on the people's specific cultural background. It is mostly observed as Goru Tihar or Goru Puja – which is the worship of the oxen. However people who follow Vaishnavism Hinduism perform something called Govardhan Puja, which is the worship of the holy Goverdhan Mountain.

Cow dung is taken as representative of the mountain and it is bowed to and worshiped.

I shit you not.

On this day the majority of the Newar community perform something called Mha Puja – which is basically a worship of one’s self.

Think self contemplation.

This day is also seen as the beginning of the new Nepal Sambat calendar year.

In the Nepal calendar it is currently the year 2072.

There is a reason why and I have written about it before.

Look it up if you want.

I am not Wikipedia.

The fifth and last day of Tihar is called Bhai Tika or Kija Puja and it commences with sisters applying tika to the foreheads of their brothers.

This is to ensure a long life and to thank them for the protection that they provide.

Being a big brother is serious stuff in Nepal.

Hindus believe that Yamraj, the God of Death, visited his sister, the Goddess Yamuna, on this day and she applied the tika on his forehead and she garlanded him and fed him special dishes.

Together, they ate sweets, talked and enjoyed themselves to their hearts' content.

Upon departing, Yamraj gave Yamuna a special gift as a token of his affection and, in return, Yamuna gave him a lovely gift that she had made with her own hands.

That day Yamraj announced that anyone who receives tilak from his sister would never die on that day.

So - sisters make a special garland for their brothers from a flower that takes months to wilt, symbolizing the sister's prayer for her brother's long life.

Brothers sit on the floor while their sisters perform their puja.

The puja follows a traditional ritual in which sisters circle their brothers, dripping oil on the floor from a copper pitcher and applying oil to their brother's hair. They then apply a seven-colour tika on the brother's foreheads. Next, brothers give tikas to their sisters in the same fashion along with an exchange of gifts.

This ritual is practiced regardless of whether the brother is younger or older than the sister.

Those without a sister or brother join relatives or friends for tika.

This festival strengthens the close relationship between brothers and sisters. In addition to these, the Newar people make colourful Ashtamangala mandalas and recite chants in accordance with ancient Tantric rituals. Along with the seven-coloured tika, sisters provide brothers with sweets and a special Makhamali garland, as well as a sacred cotton thread that is similar to Janai thread. It is worn on the wrist and is meant to protect their bodies.

The Tihar festival is very much a family affair.

Many of the Hindu festivals involve a reunion with families and they are wonderfully colorful and particularly nice.

Family stuff normally is.

The five nights of the light festival of the Tihar in Nepal and Deepavali across India are as spectacular as they are beautiful.

I can’t think of any other place I would rather be.