This photo essay explores how the old and the modern, traditional and international come together on the vibrant city streets of Kathmandu.
High above northern India the Gulf Air Boeing begins its descent to Kathmandu; now an urban sprawl of almost 700,000 people spreading out along the valley from its medieval heart. Through the window I can see Himalayan peaks slipping in and out of the monsoon clouds, below the foothills of Nepal rise steeply from the Indian plain.
Nepal is embedded in the western imagination as a land of mountains, temples, exotic peoples, adventure and daring do. It is also one of the world’s poorest countries, where the King has suspended democracy and rules as a virtual dictator, where one of the last Maoist movements is fighting a civil war, a place of medieval towns where tourists can send email and buy the latest Nikon cameras.
I am met at the airport and climb into an enormous but ancient Toyota saloon that chugs its way slowly into Kathmandu leaving a trail of blue smoke in its wake. We exit the main highway that encircles the city and drive into the web of twisting back streets. It is early evening and Kathmandu is pulsating with life. White shirted office and shop workers are making their way home, young women some dressed in the local bright red saris, others in more western dress, fill the streets. Cars, motorbikes, cycles and rickshaws compete for space. Neon signs advertise Nike, Fuji, Tuborg; other shop fronts advertise fresh baguettes, pastries, burgers, rafting adventures, treks to the mountains and trips to Everest. Groups of children, disabled men and women holding babies are begging on the street. Tourists run the gauntlet of shopkeepers and touts. The roads are rutted and as we leave the centre of the city the neon glow fades and the streets become darker, but no less busy. Eventually, the car swings into the courtyard of the International Guest House. It’s nice to be back.
Each morning I eat breakfast in the peace of the hotel garden and read the local English language newspapers. Self improvement is the main theme as the papers are full of advertisements for educational courses. The main news is the civil war. The BBC estimates that there are over 10,000 guerillas committed to establishing a Marxist peasant regime. In Kathmandu there are daily reports of strikes, arrests and protests but to the average visitor this is all but invisible. Each day I look for events, posters or wall slogans to photograph but apart from small groups of solders lounging around at major intersections, find nothing. Most tourists I speak to are unaware that anything is happening. Shopkeepers talk about loss of trade and a desire for a negotiated settlement.Most tourists head for Thamel, the centre of the action since the old hippy communes in Freak Street were cleared out by the government. Thamel is a series of streets where everything you need is available. Tourist goods, handicrafts, T shirts, climbing and adventure gear; to bakeries, the inevitable Irish Pub, restaurants selling Indian, Tibetan, Chinese, Mexican and the ubiquitous International Cuisine are all here.
Venturing further on, the architecture shifts from the new brick buildings of Thamel back to the traditional wooden structures. Street life reflects the needs the local community. For example the areas around Indra Chowk and Asan Tole sell basic clothing and household goods. Interspersed with the shop fronts are street shrines daubed in auspicious red powder and dedicated to manifestations of Shiva (both the creator and destroyer), Vishnu (preserver of the universe) as well Hanuman the monkey god, and the elephant headed Ganesh the god of prosperity and wisdom. Stone carvings depict the complete range of all possible existence from sexual acts to child eating demons. Small squares open out to the side of the main routes. Many of these squares contain further Hindu and Buddhist religious sites. They are also spaces for children to play, for cricket and soccer matches, where elderly people sit and talk and teenagers strut and pose.
Along the inappropriately named New Road shops sell more modern goods. Electrical stores sit next to street displays of women’s underwear. Huge racks hold western style consumer magazines. Young women browse the magazines and flirt with teenage boys. At the end of the road a left turn takes you along the Kantipath, the main route linking the exhibition and parade grounds to the Royal Place. The road is jammed with new cars, scooters and shoppers. At the major intersection a huge banner crosses the road advertising a television with goldfish flying from the screen.
The traditional centre of the city is Durbar Square. In Nepali durbar means palace, so its no surprise that this is where the Royal Family traditionally lived. They now reside in modern security but the square continues house the Kumari Devi a living goddess. To meet the criteria of a goddess the young woman must meet 32 physical requirements and have the correct horoscope. She leaves ‘office’ at the first sign of puberty. Other goddesses live around the Kathmandu Valley. Tour groups pay their money and queue for the opportunity to catch a glimpse of the Kumari. After all it’s not everyday an authentic goddess waves to you.
The square is filled with Hindu temples. I climb the steps of Maju Deval a 17th century temple devoted to Shiva and shelter from the rain. Around me local teenage girls in western school dress drink coke and chatter into mobile phones. At another temple across the square a man presenting himself as a sadhu, or holy man, is negotiating a price for his photograph with a western couple toting large Canon SLR’s. Below a Hindu novice is laying on the stone floor reading a holy text. Outside in the rain freelance tour guides and itinerant trinket venders are scouting for custom.
On the edge of the city flows the Bagmati River, a tributary of the Ganges and therefore a holy river to Hindus. On its western bank stands Pashupatinath one of the most important Shiva temples in the sub continent. At the southern end of the temple complex is the Bachhareshwari Temple, where according to tradition human sacrifice took place. It is a festival day for women and the temple is a sea of red saris. Women and some children are ritually washing themselves in the river. Many of these women are the same people who read the western style consumer magazines and attend business and computing classes; seemingly able to balance custom, religion and modern aspirations as an integrated lifestyle.
Just downstream are the burning ghats where bodies are cremated with the ashes being deposited in the river. As is the custom, people sit and watch the cremations. I can’t work out if this is out of respect or curiosity. A cow, a holy animal, wanders along and sits amongst the crowd and observes the funeral like a messenger from the gods. I appear to be the only person who finds the presence of a cow in the proceedings to be strange.
Close by is the Tibetan community living around the Bodhnath Stupa. The original stupa may have been built some 1400 years ago to celebrate the bringing of Buddhism to Tibet by the Nepalese Princess Bhrikuti (celebrated ever since in Tibetan iconography as the Green Tara). The design of the stupa represents earth, water, fire and air, with the 13 steps of the spire reflecting the stages of the journey to nirvana. From the spire the eyes of the Buddha look out in all directions. Merit can be gained from circling the stupa in a clockwise direction.
Some 30,000 Tibetans live in Kathmandu. In part this reflects the historical links between the two countries. However, the majority have come as refugees since the Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1951. Many have no official papers and in the current situation of heightened security and with pressure from the Chinese, there is increasing feeling of insecurity within the local community. Lost in a different set of thoughts tourists stroll around on the upper walkway. Monks and the devout take the more holy route at ground level. Encircling the stupa is a ring of shops owned by the very entrepreneurial Tibetans. Tourists are busy haggling over carpets, Buddha’s and thankas. Within the ring there is a feeling of calm in contrast to the frenzy of the city.
Kathmandu is a place where it is easy to feel at home, where all your needs can be met, where hanging out is so obviously the right thing to do. It is also a city in the process of change, where the past and the future are working out a new arrangement before your eyes. It’s a place of friendly and welcoming people. Visit if you can.