An emotional and inspiring two weeks in Delhi and Khatmandu, from the eyes of an American.
|India and Nepal
In 1993 climber Greg Mortenson was descending from K2 when he got off the trail after 70 days on the mountain. He found himself in the small village of Korphe and was nursed back to health by the locals. He ended up devoting his life to building a school for girls there, and in other parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan. He built a team around him of devoted nationals, all men, who work furiously and through great danger to promote this cause. I heard his story, read his book, and told Tami about it. In her indefatigable way, she said, "Lets go to Kabul."
June 27 - July 4, 2009
Though the action of the wheel of mysterious cosmos two weeks became one, Tami dropped out, and I ended up going to Delhi and Kathmandu. In preparation for the trip, I watched a movie called Milarepa: Magician, Murderer, Saint which I thought was Nepalese, but was actually made in Bhutan. In it, the main character leaves his family and while running away from the evil magicians, takes refuge with a lone Buddhist monk. He watches wide-eyed as the monk sits on his pillow and takes out ancient looking cards, one foot tall by three feet wide, and places them on a small desk before him. One by one he reads he picks them up from a pile on his left and places them in a pile on his right.
During the trip from the airport to hotel, I noticed several interesting things about driving in India. The first of which is the use of the horn. In most countries its use is considered disrespectful while in others it is considered a necessary, here it seems to be encouraged. Every truck has written on the back, in English, 'horn' on the left and 'please' on the right. Also of note is that all three-wheeled tuk-tuk and public buses are painted yellow and green and run on compressed natural gas. As a result, the air is pleasantly clean. Now, as in most places in the world, there are lines painted in the road to indicate the trajectory the vehicles should take down the road. But here their use seems to not be known; so much for painted lines in roads. Most interesting is the use of the 'dimmers.' The common practice most places is to comes up behind someone and vigorously flash on and off ones 'brights' indicating 'move out of my way.' Not so in India, it seems. Here my driver kept his 'hi beam' on all the time, and when he wanted someone to move he would come up behind them and flash his 'dimmers' violently on and off. That's the way to get them to move over.
Today my guide took me to various sites in both Old and New Delhi, both Muslim and Hindu. In fact, there is a wonderful co-existence of the two religions here. (Later, in Nepal, I was to see and even more syncretic union of Buddhism and Hinduism.) New Delhi (pop 300,000) is full of green fenced-in compounds of government buildings, embassies and residences. We drove into Old Delhi (pop 17 million) and the change was dramatic. My guide set me on a three-wheeled bicycle and we toured narrow streets jammed with people, overhead wiring and crowed shops - the 'real India.'
The historical places I visited were derived from a time of great and open leadership of the Mongol Dynasty. In 1526, Barbur became the first Mongol leader of India. During the Mongol Dynasty, there was great religious tolerance and architectural accomplishments.
We rejoined the car and toured Humayun's mausoleum; he was the second Mongol ruler. Built of red sandstone and marble in a combined Indian and Persian design, the main octagonal building is approached via multiple outer buildings. At the final gate, the mausoleum is first visible through the arches of one of these buildings, and as you approach, it seems to grow inside the arch until it is finally in view in its entirety. Shah Jahan is buried there.
Jama Masjid mosque, built in 1665 by Shah Jahan. It is the largest mosque in India, holding 25,000 worshipers in the wide courtyard. Wire arbors are used to support cloth for shade when it is really hot. This day it was only 41 Celsius, and the monsoon was now 4 days away. The reliquary apparently contains a copy of the Qu'ran written on dear skin, but we did not get there.
I was taken to Mohatma Gandhi's resting place, a large park with wide paths. In the center is a small hill, in a depression in the middle of which lies his ashes. As a Hindu holy site, shoes are not allowed, and mats are placed on the path for people's comfort.
My guide to took a place that was not on the itinerary. It was his own sacred place, the Shri Lakshmi Narian temple. Completed in 1939, it was inaugurated by Mahatama Gandhi - but only when, on his insistence, it was to be open to all faiths. In contrast to the older Muslim sites, this building is set on a busy street. The building is yellow and red with white and black borders and highlights. It has multiple elongated domes like so many soft ice-cream servings. I could take pictures from the outside, but not within. I learned the the god Shiva - the destroyer - is not like Satan; he is the destroyer of bad things. Within, there are alters to several of the gods, and people lined up at each one to get a chance to place their forehead on the banister around the the alter. There was a seated behind the barrier, whose job it was to wipe off their perspiration with a towel. I was told there are 13 million Hindu gods, and even this elaborate temple didn't have room for each one. We did see the one dedicated to Krishna. He is variously portrayed as a god-child, a prankster, a model lover, a divine hero and the Supreme Being. Here, his statue was a boy playing a lute and on three sides he was surrounded by mirrors. Leaning over the railing I could see Krishna playing his lute off into infinity. I was reminded me of the story, likely apocryphal, that appears in several of my books of the history of physics: A physicist has just finished giving a talk in the heyday of the 1920's on elementary forces, when a pleasant older lady in the back stands up. "Young man, what you say is very interesting but you have it all wrong." "How so?" the scientist inquires. "You see, the world is borne on the back of a turtle. And that turtle is on the back of another turtle." "Why, what's below that turtle?" And the lady responds, "Its turtles, my boy, all the way down." When we left I noticed that he went down the steep staircase, carefully, backwards.
Finally, we visited the impressive Parliament complex: Rashtrapati Bhawan and Secretariat buildings. My guide told me that people from America say it looks like Washington D.C. and people for Britain say it looks like Buckingham Palace, and indeed the grounds are more spacious than our capital and it is as elaborate as I imagine Buckingham to be. In the complex is also a large circular Supreme court. A long wide swath of park, the Rajpath, leads to All India War (WWI) Memorial or India Gate. Massive military parades of caparisoned camels and elephants take place on Republic Day, January 26th.
That night I read Plotinus (203-279 CE). The world is bounded by two realms. The Above-Being (the One) is supreme and unthinkable, hence ineffable. He likens the One to the center around which the circle travels. The non-being, matter, is "unstable, passive and always deficient. It is utterly poor. The lowest level (bathos) of every single existence is matter and is utterly dark." (from Jaspers, GP vol2) Between these two reside the lives of men and nature. Each object around us takes its form from a higher level (nous): the timeless life of the pure forms. This is true being. Thus, thinking and objects (below being), coinside in the forms man creates. Plotinus takes his metaphors from generativity, vision and love: "To see is to love. The lovers are the seers who strive towards the Ideals... Generation, the act of vision, is a drive to create many forms, to fill the universe. But every begotten creature yearns towards the begetter and loves him."
I woke up feeling queasy. At 7 am the driver picked me up and we began the 240 km drive to the town of Agra. The stop and go traffic continued well outside the limits of Delhi and but as the city dissolved into villages, for mile after mile the scenery did not change. Broken down huts and store fronts continued in an unending line of decrepitude. Bicyclists, pedestrians, truck drivers all looked the same: men in slacks and button down shirts and women in traditional outfits. Their faces had a similar appearance. The unending cycle of scrapping a living was expressed by their eyes, and the scene continued monotonously, honk after honk as the day grew hotter. My stomach started acting up. I told the driver to stop, and threw up on the side of the road. The ride was punctuated by two more such stops, until finally the density of humanity increased and we were in the town of Agra. We went to the office of the tourist agency to pick up a guide, and finally I got to a bathroom. I was pointed to the door and was driven back by the stench, but both pro- and ant-propulsive events in my body compelled me to enter. The dirty urinal was conveniently placed at face level when on the can and I heaved and expelled until the urge to evacuate myself could safely be heeded.
I was dehydrated and nauseated as the guide walked me through the long approach to the Taj Mahal. My guides voice was soft, articulate, and very heartfelt. He knew his dates and his dynasties, but what he really had a passion for was the personal elements of history. His voice, far from the plaint-ings of the hawkers that we passed, seemed to create a private island for just the two of us: myself, the honored guest and him, the devoted historian seeking a sympathetic ear for the tragedy behind the beauty he was about to show me. For 30 years Shah Jahan ruled one of the richest empires in the world, with an overflowing treasury, rubies and diamonds including the Peacock Throne. He encouraged and patronized merchants, jewellers, artisans, poets, musicians and artists. When he was 21, he married a 19 year old queen: Mumatz Hahal. She was proud, beautiful, and admired by her subjects. She was known for her beautiful apparel and jewelry and she was always at his side. She was compassionate, intelligent and deeply concerned with the happiness of her people. She also involved herself in matters of court. In the fourth year of Jahan's reign, he happend to be engaged - in battle. His wife was with him, and gave birth in his encampment. But due to the unsanitary conditions there, she died. The king was shattered and heartbroken.
As with the previous Muslim sites I visited, the Taj Mahal, gleaming white and far in the distance first, came into view under a massive red sandstone arch...soft and dreamlike. Behind it was the curving River Yamuna. A long perfectly rectilinear pool leads the eye to the cavernous vaulted orifice at the exact center of the queen's monument. Proud three-story phalanges, four of them (also of white marble), stand guard at the four corners of the massive plinth which elevates the structure above the level of the land. Half way to the monument the reflecting pool is interrupted by a marble viewing stand. It is referred to as the Diana's place, as that princess, when she visited, stopped there to stare at the Taj Mahal. The king sent for the best architects in Quatar who executed the plans according to Jahan's desire for "a monument peerless both in concept and beauty, which would symbolize their eternal love for each other." Construction was begun in one year. How could that have been accomplished. I was reminded of the anguish the building of my modest house on the Yakima River cost us. The building was finished in eleven years, my guide told me. It seemed to me one continuous event - her death, his commanding plans drawn up, and construction carried out. A twenty-two year period of morning. The description of the queen seemed suddenly to be concrete, not a mere sequence of words melodiously flowing from my guide's demure and handsome face.
The white marble was quarried in Rajastan and specially selected for its glittering and translucent properties. Gold, silver, diamonds, emeralds, rubies and sapphires were obtained from all over Asia and Europe. As I walked the final steps towards the vault, tears welled in my eyes. I looked up. The dome is 74.21 meters high, but as he ran his hands along the exterior wall, I could see it was intricately engraved. "This is one piece of marble," he said, and I scanned the wall. Indeed it was; a twenty-foot span on a single piece of white marble. But embedded in it was a mosaic of black marble and what looked like granite pieces. An intricate motif looking like chain link fence intricately formed with intertwined branches of white and grey. Tears welled up in my eyes. It was a study in topology with the tiniest pieces of stone, but it was flawless. "Many workers lost their fingers during the cutting of these pieces," and I cried. The building was massive, solid. But the act of its creation was of the stuff of blood, sweat and the tears of a king who lost his wife on his own field of battle. I thought of the love I have in myself and I felt it pales in comparison. There in front of my was proof of the inadequacy of my feelings, yet they tear me up inside. The thought of one finger being cut off during the expression of the love of one person for another, and then the multitude of hands that went into the construction left me unable to continue. "Are you alright, Mr. David?"
"It is hard for me to talk now." We started back. These thoughts welled up in me, but I could not process them at the time. It was as though the levels of reality of Plotinus suddenly magnified the size of the mausoleum, expanding it in the sky far above us and growing proportionately more massive as it entered the noetic realm of thought and becoming the Idea of which this structure was a "poor and deficient" imitation. "Let us go back, now."
"Are you alright, Mr. David?"
"It is so big; and I am so small," was all I could muster. We retraced our steps along the reflecting pool and out the main gate. All the while, he filled my eager ears with details of this magical period of art and excellent governance in this place, but long ago in time. I tried to block out the poverty and squalor I saw around me. We came across a young man who was quadrupedal. I gave him some money and the guide took a photo of me with him. I looked at it later. Why was I standing? Did I have no feelings for the man? Anybody with an ounce of blood in his heart would have squatted right down next to him, but I stood and kept my distance. Who is small?
After the emotions of the morning, we had lunch - I had a sip of soup and sparkling water. Outside the restaurant was a snake charmer. I saw him touch one of the cobras in his basket and it snapped at him, but didn't open its mouth. I sat down and hammed for the camera by putting a flute to my mouth and getting the snakes' attention. Not wanting to miss out on the 'real India experience,' I too touched a cobra. It didn't bite, fortunately. The only negative outcome was after gyrating with the instrument in my mouth like the old charmer I got sick again, but only once, riding the poverty gauntlet back to Delhi.
The next morning got up at 5 for the flight. Katmandu is situated on a saddle in the midst of steep verdant hills, a big contrast to Delhi. The city sprawls around several and between several small elevations, on one of which I could see a stupa. Driving here is similar but the roads are narrower and several via-ways are dirt, even in the city limits. The Hotel Malla (named after the dynasty which ruled form the 12th-17th centuries) is an older building in a busy section of town, with a lush garden. There was a ten-foot stupa in the middle of the grass, with two eyes, an upside-down question mark for a nose and a dot between the eyes. A set of wire-mesh cages housing peacocks across the lawn.
In Kathmandu my guide was Gyan, which means knowledge. After lunch he took me to our first temple, Patan, established in the Malla period. In contrast to the gaudy temple in Delhi, this was a square surrounded by weather-worn, intricately carved facades. Each doorway and overhanging eve was intricately carved dark, well-worn wood. Ancient looking brass Hindu statues stuck in brick walls Over one doorway was hung dried goat intestines: what a scene it must have been when placed there. In Delhi, people's expressions were fairly replaceable, one to the next. It was as though each set of eyes were set on some future where the land was not flat, the poverty would be less, and every face would come from the same emotionless cast. In Delhi all the men wore slacks and button -down shirts, but in Kathmandu the attire was more varied. I saw a couple relaxing on the steps of a Hindu temple. The man was wearing a black tee-shirt and khaki pants. He held his shoulders at a canted angle and crossed his arms in front of him. The woman had on faded jeans rolled up to her knees and a loose embroidered blouse. They looked relaxed with each other, and oblivious to the foreigner taking photos around the square. Here, as I would see many more places, stone steps lead down standing brackish water with gentle streams trickling from gargoyle-like orifices against the far side. These are used for both worship and cleansing.
In a narrow and crowded side street, I saw a young man slip past us on the left side and written on his back was the word NIRVANA. I thought it was the greatest of ironies. We made out way across town to a most interesting circular space called Boudhanath; actually an octagon, about fifty meters across. It was like a typical cobble-stone square in Europe. Every side was faced by a three-story building with store-front on the first floor and apartment on the other two. I had lunch on a third-storey balcony. Each building was a different color and style. Flowers hung in the windows. People sat on their door-steps and milled about casually. It would not be a remarkable site, except that in the middle of the space was a huge pure white round stupa. Saffron-robed monks mixed in with the crowd, which circulated around in a clockwise direction.
In the collective mind of Tami and David, there existed a place called the Buddha-room. It was, initially, a closet below the stairs of my first apartment where she and I went through my possessions one piece of paper at a time to decide if it should be thrown out or kept. Consistent in this place-of-whittling down are the artifacts of life that are truly essential, and these tend to be weaving's and carvings from far off lands. In Boudhanath, I stepped into a shop selling Thanka paintings, and in the narrow passageway up to the workshop I found myself in a space where every square inch was covered with Buddhist iconography. The collective mind of Tami and David may no longer exist but , I found our Buddha room. That night a wedding reception was held in the garden outside my room. A small band played the same dance song over and over. And over.
The final place of the day was Pashupatinath, the most sacred among the temples of Lord Shiva. Stone steps rise up both sides of a the dirty grey waters of the Bagmati river: the color of ashes. Indeed, along one side are a number of pyre platforms, one of which was fully ablaze and at another a man was heaping logs into a pile. My guide told me that ashes deposited in this river are believed to reach the Ganges. I could not quite get an answer from him as to whether the Bagmati actually flows into the Ganges River, but was left with the clear impression that conceptually such is the accepted wisdom of the people. That night on the garden outside my room there was a wedding reception with dancing. The small band played the same dance song over and over. And over.
The following day our driver took us on a two hour trip to the highest point of the foot hills to the North of the city. We drove through fields of rice and saw men and women bending low in the flooded paddies planting little shoots of rice. The women all wore colorful serape, even in the fields. As the road rose up the hill, the fields became terraced. Higher still, deciduous forest replaced cultivated fields. In the classic mountaineering tale Annapurna by Maurice Herzog, the climbing team hiked through thick rhododendrens, so I asked my guide if we would see these. When the road ended we were at a place called Nagarkot where there was a complex of hotel, restaurant, and bungalows that cascaded down the slope among the lush trees. My guide lead me around one building and across a brick walkway where he pointed into the woods. A rhododendron! I had lunch by a large window overlooking - clouds, it being the early monsoon season. After September or October, the snow-capped Himalaya would be visible from where I was, and there was a diorama showing the shapes of the peaks that would be identifiable from there. That was as close as I came.
After several hours in this Shangri-La in the clouds, we headed back down. At one point the driver let us off and my guide and I walked down a small path for half an hour. He wanted to take me this way to show me village life, and we did indeed walk past small groups of houses where families eek-ed out an existence on the steep slope of the hill. He talked about growing up in his village. There was a custom of never eating at the home of a butcher or a cobbler. "But in the city people have no time for this practice." When he finished school, he moved to the city: Katmandu. There he enrolled in a school for English. Oh, how he appreciated his English teachers. He now keeps his diploma in a frame in his apartment. Over and over he told me how he is thankful for those that taught him English, for that has allowed him to make a living as a guide - and to provide for his family.
On the drive back it rained, and we were stuck behind a small construction crew fixing the road. This gave me an opportunity to take some candid shots of people sitting by the side of the road. Then before we returned to the city we went to the oldest temple in the Katmandu valley, Changunarayan. The temple area was deep within a village. Here the statues were distinctly older and in fact, dated from 646 CE. Here my guide showed the most interest in pointing out the significance of the figurines we saw. One was a simple disk with a raised nob in the center. This represented male and female. While the icons here were much more weather worn than we had previously seem, my guide was particularly proud of Changunarayan. Once back in town, Gyan took me to an English language bookstore. I purchased several books. Knowledge and Freedom in Indian Philosophy. by Tara. Chatterjea is a study of epistemology. A Critical History of Western Philosophy by Y. Masih is a broad survey of Western thinkers from an Eastern perspective. Among other items, I picked up a set of Thangkas in the form of kitchen magnets.
As he dropped me off at my hotel, Gyan gave me walking directions to a barber shop in an interesting neighborhood just around the corner. I got a Nepalese hair-cut, and it included a head massage! When I got back to the hotel, Gyan had arrived with his two daughters, age 6 and 9. I went down to the lobby at 7 o'clock. Both girls were sitting on a couch in front of a low table, and Gyan was in a comfortable chair at the end. I stood across the table from them. I folded my hands in front of my chest and offered the traditional Nepalese greeting, "Namaste." The girls stood up and extended their hands to me saying, "Glad to meet you, Mr. David." They were very polite and respectful. I passed across the table to each of them a kitchen magnet, hoping this wasn't condescending to their culture. Do children this age know the names of the goddesses? I just hoped it was not inappropriate. I felt a bit unsure of myself. "Would you like to see the garden," I asked?
We stepped outside onto a grass enclosure surrounded by tall wide-leaved trees. I took them across to the far side where there was an aviary containing peacocks and pheasants. Gyan asked the older girl, "Do you recognize that bird?" She replied that she did, that it is the lophophors pheasant, and that it is the national bird of Nepal. I was impressed. Gyan and I talked as we strolled around the grounds and the two girls fussed between themselves. I asked what they were saying. The older one responded,
"My sister has taken both gifts and she won't give mine back." I guess I did the right thing.
The next morning Gyan picked me up and I told him I had two goals for the day: to find what I called a 'manuscript' (I described what I had seen in the Bhutan film) and to talk with a monk. I had some questions about Buddhism I needed to ask someone. Gyan then maded a decision, and went outside to dismiss our driver. I hopped on the back of his Honda 125 motorcycle and suddenly I was like a real Katmandu-ite. And I thought I was scared in the back of a car on these same streets. We headed West, straight for - I didn't know where. Somewhere up a hill we passed a monk in saffron robes, and we stopped. "You can talk with this monk, Mr. David." It turns out he was only 18 and didn't speak much English, but I got a photo of me talking to him and we continued up the hill. We got off the bike and entered the final historic site: Swayambhunath, or Monkey Temple. This was the temple on the hill I had seen from the airplane. Swayambhunath is second only to Boudhanath in sacred Buddhist sites in the Kathmandu Valley. It includes a stupa, a variety of shrines, and a Tibetan monastery.
There were several monks at the entrance, and Gyan talked to a few and then told me I could talk with this one. He had on saffron robes below the waist and was wearing a t-shirt with writing on it. He also had a nap sack and a motorcycle helmet. It turned out that he and his friends had gotten funding from a man in Hong Kong to produce a music video about the life of a monk, and was in the process of going around the city to show how he and ordinary people live and work in Kathmandu. His English was better, though when I asked him to discuss the Eight Fold Path, he said he was unable to communicate about that. Gyan took our photo.
The path to the Monkey Temple requires many steps up. When we finally reached the top we were in an amazing plaza of temples and shrines. There were also resturaunts and small stores full of small statues and engravings. Gyan took me into one which was accessed by going down a few steps. Inside, the owners, after a great deal of talk which I could not understand, brought out pieces of paper which looked like large monopoly money, with ancient writing on them. My 'manuscripts!' I bought three. Then, in a whisper, the proprietor asked me if I wanted to see ancient artifacts. He went to the rear of the shop and removed some hanging cloths. Behind them was a door. He pulled, but it didn't open. He yanked harder and I followed him into a small space crowded with shelves full of dusty, old looking statues and figurines. I didn't even ask the cost, as I was sure they were more than I had on me.
The Tibetan name for Swayambhunath means 'Sublime Trees,' and as we began our descent, Gyan asked me if I wanted to take the stairs back or if I wanted to take a side trip down a steep path through the forest. I immediately said yes. There were lots of monkeys playing in the underbrush as we hiked down a steep path. He identified them as Rhesus monkeys. We arrived at paved clearing with what looked like dormitory buildings on three sides. Gyan went inside. Presently, an older monk emerged with a small retinue of younger ones. Finally, I had met one who spoke adequate English. I was honored to speak with him. He was an adherent of the Theravāda (or 'Teaching of the Elder'), the oldest school of Buddhism. I asked him about the Eight Fold Path, and the Four Noble Truths, and we went discussed them thoroughly. I then asked him what I should learn beyond these to further my studies. His reply was to study a Thangka of Buddha's life. There is a set of ten lessons he went through on his way to enlightenment, and was kind enough to write down for me a list of sutras which should guide me in my further studies. It was an honor to spend time with him, and Gyan had finally fulfilled all my requests of him.
Initially my trip was inspired by the teaching of girls in Afghanistan. When the wheel of the voyage had turned its last, I found that there was a great need for Gyans two daughters to fulfill his desires to get a good English education. Now I am able sponsor them for a year. I am tremendously thankful to him for allowing one dream of mine to come true.