You ready to climb aboard the bookmobile express for a trip to Nepal?
A few years ago, when Borders broke my heart by going belly up, I softened the blow just a tad by randomly grabbing books from the travel section, one of which was Snake Lake by Jeff Greenwald. At that time, I had no idea the book was about Nepal. Not only that, but the thought of visiting Nepal never crossed my mind. I didn’t even have the vaguest idea of where it was. As I mentioned in the last post, elementary school KILLED any interest in geography. Good thing I’m a firm believer in lifelong learning!
Snake Lake is about Nepal’s political turmoil, starting with the student riots in 1979, thru India’s 1989 trade embargo, ending with the April 6, 2000 protest at Ratna Park. It’s about more than just politics, though. This very personal account has it all— romance, loss, and a spiritual journey that allows you to view Buddhism through Greenwald’s American eyes.
Two Australian writers, Amy Wilsee and Mark Whittaker, were fascinated by the 2001 murders and suicide of Nepal’s royal family. Their quest for the back story leading to that gory night is documented in Life and Death in Kathmandu. What I found most compelling, however, wasn’t the main event, but two of their interviews: one with a former Kumari (a living goddess- more on that later) and the other with a Maoist guerilla. Initially, the Maoists were a group of committed idealists, focused on stopping the corruption and violence inflicted on villagers by the power structure. Over time, as more joined the movement, the Maoists devolved into an unruly mob that inflicted as much violence and terror as they had initially fought against.
Although Jeff Rasley’s book Bringing Progress to Paradise raises some interesting questions about the ethics of culture change and the impact first world intrusion into third world has on these remote villages, I don’t recommend the book. Much of it chronicled his trek to the remote village of Basa and quite honestly, I thought he was a bit of a jerk to the friends that made the trek with him.
Little Princes by Conor Grennan, is a better choice if you want to learn how good intentions can sometimes lead to undesirable consequences. After graduating from college, Conor decided to volunteer in an orphanage outside of Kathmandu. Over time, he was surprised to discover that the children actually weren’t orphans at all.
During the political turmoil, the Maoists had been entering the villages, abducting children and forcing them to fight. When approached by a man who offered to bring their child to safety, families scraped together money, selling what little they had. Unfortunately, the man who promised to care for their children was a trafficker who either sold them to be servants, or forced them to beg on the streets of Kathmandu. The children were told that their families had all been killed. Little Princes describes Conor’s efforts to return the children to their remote villages so they could be reunited with their families. The book also made it clear that well-meaning tourists can inadvertently contribute to the problem by giving money and clothing to the child beggars. Many times the children are forced to turn everything over to a trafficker, so the tourists are unwittingly contributing to child trafficking, making it profitable for the trafficker to continue. Little Princes was a thought-provoking book that gets to the heart of the issue that many travelers to third world countries face–how to help without creating unintended negative consequences.
So, what did I learn from my Nepali reading? Well, I’ll share 10 of my discoveries now, again, not in any particular order–just random facts that caught my attention. There’s much more, but like my Bhutan post, I will save the rest for when we are on site.
- Nepalis believe the goddess Taleju takes up residence in a young girl (who then becomes known as a Kumari ), until the girl reaches puberty. At that time, the goddess moves on to inhabit the body of another pre-pubescent girl. What happens to the dethroned goddess, the young child, who had been taken from her family, placed in a palace, her feet not allowed to touch the ground, carried through the streets during festivals, decked out in red, with a third eye painted on her forehead? Why she becomes mortal again, returns to her family and is expected to live a normal life, happily (?) ever after.
- What are the job specifications to become a goddess, you might ask? Well, for starters, this 2 or 3 year old girl needs to have: a neck like a conch shell, a body like a banyan tree, eyelashes like a cow, thighs like a deer, a chest like a lion, a voice soft and clear as a duck’s…there’s more, but you get the idea.
- While in the Kathmandu area, we will be staying at the Gokarna Forest Resort. Gokarna Forest used to be the hunting reserve for the Nepali royal family. Not only that, but at the entrance to the Resort, there is a 200 year old pipal tree, where, in the very sappy movie, Little Buddha, under that very tree, Keanu Reeves was tempted by the demon Mara.
- Yes, I did indeed borrow the Little Buddha DVD from the library, and sat through the whole thing, including Keneau Reeves portrayal of Buddha, complete with his pre-enlightenment long, stringy hair. What can I say? It was a cold gray day. I had nothing better to do. The sad part? I didn’t learn about the pipal tree until AFTER I had seen the movie, and trust me, I wasn’t going to go back to look for it.
- Swayanbhunath, also known as the Monkey Temple, is one of the oldest Buddhist sites in Nepal. As you might guess, wild monkeys have inhabited the temple complex for many years. And why not? The food offerings that the pilgrims leave are mighty attractive. Unfortunately,the temple was damaged by the 2015 earthquake, so I don’t know whether we will have the opportunity to visit it when we are in Kathmandu.
- Speaking of offerings at Swayvanbhunath pilgrims always leave a portion for Hariti, the world’s grandmother and protector of children. Legend has it that Hariti originally was an ogress who lived during Buddha’s time. To feed her 500 children, she kidnapped other people’s children and turned them into dinner. Buddha decided to teach her what it felt like to lose a child, so he kidnapped her youngest. (With 500 kids, I wonder how she realized one was missing–but maybe that’s just me?) After Hariti learned her lesson about compassion, Buddha returned the child, then helped Hariti with her food problem by sharing with her the offerings from his followers, the start of the practice that continues to this day.
- Another Buddhist legend tells the story of the birth of Padmasambhava, who was also known also known as Guru Rinpoche. Padmasambhava means “lotus born” because he emerged fully formed from a red lotus blossom that appeared in the center of a lake. The Lotus is the symbol of enlightenment. Preview of coming attractions: You will hear about Padmasambhava again when we get to Bhutan.
- The oldest Hindu Temple, Pashupatinath, fortunately was not damaged by the earthquake, so if we visit it, I’ll be sure to look for the magnificent sculpture of Nandi, the bull that Shiva rides. Hindus come to this temple when they are ready to die, believing that dying on this sacred site guarantees that they will be reborn as a human. Cremations take place on banks of the Bagmati River, which flows by the temple.
- The royal family’s palace is now open to the public. It is a rather dismal abode, with lots of animal heads hanging from the walls. (Most likely the animals they killed in their royal preserve at Gokarna Forest, which would seem to be a violation of Hindu–and Buddhist beliefs.) Anyway, the palace sounds like a major disappointment–sorta like Graceland, not at all what you would imagine– which may be why it didn’t make it into our itinerary.
- Chez Caroline’s, a restaurant that was mentioned in one of the books I read (I can’t for the life of me remember which one), still exists. According to the internet, the restaurant is in a “historic Rana Palace”. I sure hope it isn’t the one with all the stuffed dead animals! Who knows, maybe on one of “dinner on own” evenings, we’ll venture there. If we do, I’ll be sure to report back.
Well, I warned you these were random facts that caught my fancy.
Our last and final stop along the yellow brick road will be Tibet. Hope you come along!