2011 Spring External Programs Nepal Sierra Gladfelter

A History in Texture (Dunbar Square, Kathmandu)

Nothing in this ancient square has died. I am surrounded by palaces over 1,500 years old, and rearing stone elephants grander than life size. Stray children clambering up their trunks and ride their great gray ears. When the children see us, they slip down and beg for candy. They follow us whimpering worse than the monkeys. Women with bright teeth and gold in their hair, sweep by in beat rubber flip flops and long skirts. This is the palace from Seven Years in Tibet. It is ironic because when you enter there is a sign for tourists to step aside and pay. We are easy to identify. But everyone else just lives here: sleeping against ancient walls, crouching by a small smoked pot of peanuts, scattering stray dogs.

Our guide gathers us in the shadow of a rising temple. He waves a hand at the grand roofs flaring up into the blue sky. “Kings did not build this,” he exclaims proudly, “the people did.”
As we wander the labyrinth of ancient palaces and alleys, we duck into courtyards where the trade barrens of the Himalayas who ran the yak caravans across the great snow wall had built their homes. Our guide informs us that Tibet was not always a land-locked country, in fact until the 1860’s and the severing of the trade arteries between India and China, Tibetans were at the heart of Asia, and they controlled the great doorstep between two of the greatest empires: India and China. Tibet was, quite literally, land-linked.

Our guide keeps talking about resilience: how history is not dead, but constantly being invented by people. We duck into a palace, part of a museum now for elite concerts and venues. Its restoration was funded by Austria, and many foreign donors contribute to the restoration of this ancient city that is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. However, foreign dollar signs tend to come with lots of strings, ways of doing things. “If you only have a few hours to look at culture in a box then we could stay here and look at a dead museum,” our guide states, “But you are living in Nepal, so we must go out to where there are people.”

I wonder if here history is allowed to keep living because time is cyclical and not linear to the Tibetans. No one tries to cut the past off, place it behind glass and stare at it. Buildings are allowed to rot away and be rebuilt, the riddled texture of an intricately carved door becoming porous, like a beehive sucked dry of its dripping wisdom. Some of these shrines are hidden in the shadows of narrow alleys. Stepped around a thousand times by people passing in the street, yet they are not forgotten. Ghosts or beggars perhaps, tend to these sacred cracks of the city, for someone comes daily to smudge the tiny Buddha’s brow with red and saffron powder, sprinkle kernels of rice and marigolds at his feet.

Our guide leads us to a sunken fountain where women and children are lined up in two parallel lines, standing beside their yellow and blue jugs and buckets. A few are gold (yes, real gold), a bit dulled with use and likely salvaged from the palace, but still waiting to be filled with water. They are lined up equally with the plastic buckets of mothers hoping for a trickle to take home and cook their children dinner.

The fountains head is the flexed head of a snake, one of the great Naags that according to Tibetan beliefs are the creatures that control the rain. A bow of water arcs out of his mouth, for his tongue has been running into the pails and cups of the people of this city for a consistent 1,500 years. It is ironic, perhaps, that our modern systems and grids of pipes have failed. The city of Kathmandu is without stable water, and yet the fountains in the oldest square are still flowing from the same terracotta pipes, draining the distant valleys charged by the natural system of water and rebirth.

I am coming to realize that the animals, the symbols, every shape and creature carved into this ancient city tells a story. The Buddha is seated on the petals of a floating lotus flower, rooted deep in the bed of earth. This corresponds to the Buddhist belief that attachment is the root of our sorrow. But as the lotus grows up through the lake and waters of disillusionment, it finally reaches the ether of air where it blooms in its enlightenment. The Buddha too, was able to transcend his worldly attachment, see through the mirage of desire and reach nirvana and so he deserves to sit on the gathered petals. Apparently any Buddha who touches earth will always be facing East (in case I am ever lost while wandering the Stupa, these shrines can be my compass.). The streets may be wrong, the maps may be wrong, but the Buddha with his hand on the ground will always be facing the sunrise.

Our guide turns to us before we leave, “There is a saying that goes, ‘Nothing is written in stone,’ but in Kathmandu, everything is written in stone.”

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