Sunday, December 31, 2006

Turning the wheel

Who was that masked biker?
Bodh Gaya, Bihar, India

I got a bike! Man, it has been more than three years since I rented a bike back in Mysore. Indian rental bikes are just standard cheapo upright "push-bikes," but they have an ingenious locking device. A steel ring locks into place round the back tire (here it's spelt "tyre") so it can't be moved when you park the bike. Of course, this would never work in Manhattan - guys would just come along with a van and load all the bikes inside. In nine years, I never did figure out a way to outwit Manhattan bike thieves.

This bike is 25Rs a day (about 50 cents) and is perfect for flat, dusty Bodh Gaya. It's fun chiming the bell as I weave through traffic. I do have to wear a mask - that is, an emissions mask. It's so common to see people wearing them here (elastic straps, fabric guard fitted over nose and face) that it seems positively normal now. People even sit around tables indoors having conversations wearing them, and never remove them. Between the burning garbage, the vehicle pollution and all the nasty smells, I think masks (or maybe the full burqa) are now mandatory in Indian cities.

I had to go to the bike place four times before I actually got a bike. First time (at 10AM) Satish said "no bike now, come back in one hour." I came back at 12.30 and still there was "no bike, come back after some time." I returned at 5.30. Satish said, "Oh, bike was here but you did not come, so he went away," - and told some totally irrevelant story about his brother going to the market to buy vegetables. "Come back after one half hour." Fourth time was the charm.

Better than champagne or confetti

See my n
ew story about the Tibetan vegetarian movement, on, the premier Tibetan news service.

Turn your scars into stars

It's Day Five of the 24th annual Kagyu Monlam, a nine-day world peace prayer festival here in Bodh Gaya, where the original Buddha gained enlightenment.
Each evening, His Holiness the 17th Karmapa has been delivering teachings at his newly inaugurated (and rather sumptuous) monastery. The usual enormous crowd showed up more than one hour early to go through security clearance and bag checks. Tonight's message was advice for the coming New Year.

Transform troubles into treasure
“The painful difficulties we have experienced in the past year are not to be put aside as too painful to be considered, nor to be ignored. Rather, difficulties and challenges should shape the contours of one’s life and character, and define the quality and vision of one’s life.

"For example, I personally have faced difficult and critical times in my life – particularly in the period from 1
999 to 2000," he said, referring to the time of his dramatic and dangerous escape from Chinese-occupied Tibet into exile in India. "Decisions and activities undertaken at that time were challenging and difficult - needless to say - as many of you are aware. Yet, looking back, the challenges I faced have become the adornment of my life. Maybe, if I had not gone through these difficulties, I would be more anonymous, less distinguished in my character. "So in this way, each one of us, if we face difficulties, must embrace difficulties in our lives as a blessing in disguise, so to speak – as lessons, things to be learned from. Then only the difficulties and hard times can adorn one’s life – only when one can find beneficial lessons in them.

"Ideally, your problems experienced in the past year should be used as fuel for greater development in the coming years, so they become attributes - so that they add to the expression of your human dignity, fullness, and repleteness. In that way, you are decorated and ornamented by learning from your difficulties.

"If you could take this approach to the past year’s problems, this would indeed be very precious.

Leave the past behind

"If you fail to do so - if you cannot transform your troubles - the next best approach is to put aside, to let go of problems of the past. Don’t bring them into the New Year. Do not let all old the baggage, burdens and problems come trailing you into the New Year. Come with a fresh start. In my own case, in 2006, guiding the Kagyu Monlam has had its own share of difficulties and challenges. But tonight, I come to you afresh – cleansed and crystal fresh.

"It’s my hope that you will resonate with that freshness, and preferably learn to make use of those difficulties to dignify and decorate your life. But if not, at least, say “goodbye” to them. You need room for the new events of the coming year. Do not enter the New Year already filled with things you can’t say goodbye to.

"We need to realize clearly that time does not control us, nor customs. The time and custom of the New Year is not going to dictate the change in our lives. That would be a very mistaken approach. Our own willingness, that we feel inspired and motivated to change – will bring the change from within ourselves. We can change any time we choose.

The reason for Dharma practice

"The principal purpose of Dharma practice, and the reason for the Buddha’s teachings, is to change our conditioned, habitual views. Our conditioned view is a fanatical fixation to whatever illusion or notion of reality we have. The Buddha’s teaching is to undo this – to help us understand the danger of that rigidity, that fixation. Do not use your Dharma practice to develop yet another view, and then become fixated on that view. Gradually, on our path, we go beyond any view. "In this way, when we approach Dharma practice and everyday activity, we should approach with attitude free of extreme fixations. In life we face challenges and difficulties. We should be conscious of the fact that there is room for flexibility, room for movement in each situation. We do not have to be stuck with the problem. By not becoming fixated or rigid, we begin to see room for possibilities.

"It is important to know, for Dharma practice, that we are not particularly trying to promote this view or that view. We already have enough views and enough opinions – we don’t need more. Especially, we don’t need to learn or have a new view that becomes fixated and concrete.

"We actually need a genuine experience of peace of mind, experience of state of stability of mind. We need greater mental capacity for what is good and authentic. This is not dependent on how long you’ve been practicing Dharma – rather, it depends on what, on a daily basis, is going on with one’s life and outlook. It depends on the attitude you are developing on a day to day, week to week, month to month basis. What depth and profundity of loving kindness and compassion have we been able to develop?

Take responsibility

"There are two very important things: First is proper guidance. Second, examples – examples of wholesome and virtuous activities and attitudes to be embraced. But direction and examples are not enough. These come from outside. One must recognize one’s
own pressing responsibility of embracing what must be embraced, and giving up what must be given up. "In terms of self-help, what to do? We literally feed ourselves three times a day, but even the food that we think is for ourselves feeds countless other living organisms. Seen this way, the sense of 'I' has no fixed reference that we can put our fingers on. That being so, maybe we should instead feed our minds three times a day - or at least, twice a day, for sustenance of mind, and maturity. Maybe we need mental vitamins!

Buddhas from abroad

"In conclusion, I would like to say that I’ve heard there are some 1,000 of you here from abroad. To me, you are like 1,000 Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. Actually, I don’t know what Buddhas are supposed to look like, but this time, the Buddhas have different shades of hair, some have golden hair; some are tall, some are short. I am so amazed with the varieties of the Buddhas, and the variety of ways the Buddha can manifest. That you have all come here, and participated sincerely and genuinely in the Kagyu Monlam, I feel strengthened by all your presence. I feel invigorated by your presence. I feel that because of you all, I must do more.

"For this show of strength and unity, I would like to thank you all. We are inseparably linked. You all are a source of benefit for me. In that spirit and on the eve of the New Year, I extend to you whole-hearted wishes of happiness, well-being and that we remain connected. If we experience happiness, we will do it together. If we experience suffering, we will do it together.

And with this, I wish you all the best.
Tashi Delek to all."

To the delight of the crowd, His Holiness said, “Happy New Year” in English. He bowed his head with hands pressed together in traditional "Namaste" salute, stood up, and strode off the stage waving "bye-bye" playfully like a small child.

Everyone poured out the giant red front doors, to be greeted by a surprise fireworks display. The red, blue, green and gold fireworks mingled with the red, blue, green and gold Tibetan archway. Under a near-full winter moon, Buddhas of all nations exchanged embraces and wishes for a Happy New Year.
This romantic scene was eventually disrupted by the reality of having to get out of the monastery - an Indian traffic jam of cycle rickshaws, mammoth tour buses, auto-rickshaws, pedestrians and beggars.

I hung back for a bit, circling the monastery clockwise on my new bike for good merit. When a space appeared, I weaved my way through the stalled vehicles and clouds of diesel fumes, down the unpaved road back to town.

HH the Karmapa photo courtesy of Kagyu Office website.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Buddha Boy's Back! (Again)

Return of the Votive
Bara District, Nepal

It's been a star week - seeing both the Dalai Lama and the Karmapa. Now, to cap it all off, Ram Bomjom (the "Buddha Boy") is back!

I was lucky enough to see the saint-in-the-making about a year ago, while he was still in place meditating under a giant banyan tree near Nijgadh. Last March he disappeared, citing too much disturbance in his practices caused by all the attention. There were rumours of his reappearance a few months ago.

"I have been wandering in the forests since then," Shrestha quoted Bamjon as telling him.
"I am engaged in devotion which will continue for six years," the boy told Shrestha.

Now, he has re-emerged again in southern Nepal. Read all about it here.

Feed the Ghosts
Monlam (Tibetan for "aspiration") ceremonies start tomorrow. Today the Mahabodhi Temple was full of priests chanting ground-blessing mantras in preparation. Nuns in maroon robes were busy arranging flowers and hired Indian workers were stringing marigolds and banners all over the various chortens and sculptures surrounding the temple.

The torma (ritual cake-offerings) on display were nothing short of mind-blowingly psychedelic - vast landscapes, mythological figures, gods, saints and ritual implements all fashioned out of barley flour, food colouring and sculpted butter. Each torma was about four and half-feet high. These cakes and other foodstuffs are offered to satiate the "hungry ghosts" that gather around all spiritual places - disembodied spirits hoping for help on the other side. I have tasted lots of torma; it's sort of like eating sugary Play-Do. Mmm-mmm, that's some good ghost-eatin'!

National Anathema
Oh yeah, back home in Nepal we also have a new national emblem.

Here is the new one, which very wisely incorporates Mt Everest, and appears to include a red-wristbanded hand shaking a non-banded one. Way to go to legitimize the Maoists.

Here is the old national crest. It incorporates a modern Gurkha soldier, a traditional soldier of ancient times, mountains, the royal crown, crossed khukri knives, rhododendrons, national flags, Sun and Moon, footprints of Gorakhnath (patron deity of Gorkha, the king's homeland), and a few other things I can't make out.

Whoops, after three tries it still won't upload. It must be time to sign off.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Christmas With the Big K

Instant Karma-Pa
BodhGaya, Bihar

I guess am one lucky dharma groupie. Not many people can say they got to shake the Dalai Lama's hand, and got a blessing from the Karmapa, all in the same week. I am here for the Monlam celebration and adjacent teachings of His Holiness the 17th Karmapa, who just managed to escape from China to India a few years ago. Again, it was a total accident; I turned up late and unregistered, but somehow managed to get ushered in with just a few other people, to present the kata scarf and receive Amrit Tibetan medicine pills. Gate-crasher in the houses of the holy, am I!

I Feel (Not So) Good
The bad news is, James Brown is dead. On Christmas Day, no less. Actually his hair died about thirty years ago (and was reborn on the head of Condoleeza Rice).

There is one guaranteed cure for depression or homesickness, for me anyway: to hear James Brown's Greatest Hits. The best 200Rs I ever spent (in Bangalore).

I hope he has a funky funeral, and is buried in one of his satin capes.

But seriously, I don't feel so good
I am suffering from some kind of carpal-tunnel syndrome. Numbness alternating with shooting pains in my right hand and arm mean I am unable to work on the computer for more than a few minutes. I have loads of wonderful photos from this Buddhist pilgrimage to share, and am sorry I can't get them to you sooner. Now I'm getting physiotherapy and massage at the Root Institute (a Buddhist school here).

Bodh Gaya is an oasis in the otherwise dusty and uninspiring plains of Bihar. The local people, most of whom are Hindu, appear to be thriving only on the business generated by local monasteries and Buddhist-related tourism. It's a very international place, as well, wealthy Buddhist pilgrims making a real contrast with the threadbare Biharis. Each Buddhist country (Bhutan, Japan, Taiwan, China, Taiwan, Thailand, Nepal, Vietnam, Korea, Burma, Tibet and so on) has a temple built in its characteristic style. Visiting them is sort of like going to an embassy for that particular country. There are also very cheap and nice rooms available in each monastery guest house. Unfortuantely they are all taken, as it is not only Monlam time but holiday season for everyone. The town is swamped with big tour groups from Burma, Sri Lanka and so on, many dressed in their distinctive national clothes.

Maybe I can create a field guide: Know Your Buddhists. That is, if my arm and hand improve.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Touched By An Avatar

Lama Drama
Sarnath, Uttar Pradesh

I got to shake the Dalai Lama's hand today. It was a total surprise - just a lucky accident. I was one of just a couple of reporters sitting in the front of the teachings at Central Insititute of Higher Tibetan Studies. The security in their grey suits with walkie-talkies came out of nowhere and said "His Holiness will come this way, so please move aside, then you can move back." I and one other woman, a Croatian freelance reporter, stayed over to one side.

First, I heard the horns. The lamas with yellow Toucan Sam hats preceded him, blowing the massive Tibetan trumpets. Then came the Indian commandos in khaki with rifles slung over their shoulders. It was a sharp reminder, amid all the ancient pageantry, of the danger he lives in every day. So many different parties would like to see this amazing person dead.

On the rare special occasions when my dog Daisy gets to come in the house, she "hides" in plain sight (crouches down on the carpet), hoping you won't notice her and make her leave. That's exactly what I did (actually knelt down on the red rug to minimize myself). He was only 10 feet away!

When he walked by I rose to my knees, peering up, and stretched out my hand. He grasped mine, softly. Wow! He looked straight into my eyes with his usual smile, a mix of curiosity, concern and sweetness (like, what are you doing down there, young lady??). Then his red robes brushed past my face and he was up the stairs to the throne. The Croatian woman next to me was weeping quietly, holding a white kata scarf he had touched.

I would love to natter on about it but there are lots of people waiting for the internet here. There are only 3 ancient computer terminals. And it's 8.30 and the gates of the Burmese monastery where I am staying close at 9pm.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Blue skies, burnt out

Substandard subtitle
Kathmandu, Nepal

I'm officially burned out. Between the requisite appearances and celebrations of the holiday season, lots of late nights in crowded temple squares trying to photograph masked gods, lots of pilgrimages to holy sites of all stripes, and all the immigration rigamarole (which finally resolved - guess I need to do a thanksgiving puja now) I just do not feel creative. Actually I have been creating and documenting things all along, and now, just have no energy to upload and share them!

So here are just a few photos. About 10 days ago, I took a walk with my friend Jessamine down to Pashupati Temple.

This Brahmin pujari (ritual priest) in the photo is preparing offerings of rice balls, bananas, incense and so on for a memorial ceremony or shraddhanjali.

Pashupati temple is one of the most sacred in Hinduism, the most sacred in Nepal and seat of the national patron deity Pashupatinath (lord of the beasts, a manifestation of Shiva). This temple is the most prominent place to be cremated (here on the Bagmati River) or to hold the required memorial pujas for loved ones and family members.There is a special place just up the river bank for cremation of nobility. At the time of the 2001 Royal Massacre, there were so many royal bodies that special ghats (body platforms) had to be built just to accomodate all the cremations.

These are traditionally-dressed Nepali ladies (probably from the Gurung or Tamang ethnic group) worshipping the lingam, or sacred symbolic phallus, of Kirateshwor Mahadev, a manifestation of Shiva. The Kirateshwor temple is at the top of a flight of stone steps near Pashupati temple, but unlike Pashupati is open to foreigners and non-Hindus. The copper vessel hanging over the lingam is filled with holy water and "bathes" it continually.

This lingam-stone appears to be naturally formed, but someone has carved an OM symbol on it.

What looks like little stone bunnies next to the lingam are Nandis. They represent Lord Shiva's animal vehicle of choice, or vahana. Murugan rides on a peacock, Durga on a lion, Saraswati on a swan, and for some reason, Shiva chose a bullock. I guess he wasn't in a hurry.

The people in the next photo are Newaris, worshipping on Kartik Purnima - the special full moon that just passed on Sunday - at the Chobar Temple just outside Kathmandu. Like an amazing number of Nepali temples, Chobar has both Hindu and Buddhist deities. The Newaris have a special festival just for this full moon (actually they have a special festival for everything). It represents a unique opportunity for the women of the community.

If there are Newari couples who have separated or had disagreements over the past year, the women can come and offer five days' puja service at the temple. That means, they have to fast, ritually bathe every morning in the river, and not let anyone touch them, as they perform the pujas for the god. This year, there were about 41 women doing this sort of service at the Chobar temple.

At the end of the five days, the woman's husband can either come to "claim" her again, or leave her there. If he does not come, the woman is free to remarry with another person. Since divorce is rare and highly frowned upon in this society I wondered if there was any stigma on these women. My Newari companion told me that lots of them do remarry, also rare in this part of Asia. I wonder how many women secretly or not-so-secretly hope that the husband will not come for them!

Before I go completely supernova, I think I might head for Pokhara, the lazy hangout spot, for a few days. We have a new peace agreement - the Maoists get a "piece" of everything! And you thought The King (Mr Ten Percent) was bad. Maoists are still effectively running 80 percent of the country and hitting up local people for donations and accomodation. But there haven't been many strikes lately. In fact I had gotten so used to using "strike" as an excuse for being late, now I am disappointed at having to arrive in a timely fashion.

Here is a peaceful, contemplative image of a giant Buddha statue, from the entrance to Swayambunath Stupa. Funny how getting these peaceful, spiritual images is so much work, I just feel dirty and tired and gritty and exhausted by the time I get home. Someone needs to make a t-shirt: "Spirituality Is Not Pretty."

Sunday, October 29, 2006


Thoughtful fan mail
Kathmandu, Nepal

A very thoughtful and newswatching Tom in Iowa writes:

Hi SirensongsIndia,

If you respond to this that means you were not on the bus that plunged over backwards down a 1000 ft ravine in Nepal.

Crowded bus plunges off Nepal road, killing 42: An overcrowded bus plunged off a mountain road in western Nepal on Saturday, leaving at least 42 people dead and 45 injured, police said. Police were investigating the cause, but an initial probe indicated the driver may have lost control of the vehicle because it was overloaded with passengers. (source: USA Today)

Overloaded or overcrowded? an Asian vehicle? Imagine that. Check this out (these photos are really nothing extreme) and welcome to my world!

--Nope, I wasn't on that or any other bus; I was safe several hundred miles away filling out papers in triplicate in an immigration office, on an otherwise bee yoo ti full fall day. Sorry for the brevity, just wanted everyone to know I am safe, if preoccupied. Thanks for your concern!

The snowcapped Himalayas are now visible even from the mundane valley streets. I yearn to be among them!

photo source: "Lords of the Logistic" from Aistigave, Belgium

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Diwali walli* goes Nepali

Festivus maximus
Kathmandu and Lalitpur, Nepal

*Wallah: someone who is particularly expert at or specializes in a certain activity or profession. Walli: feminine of Wallah.

Everything happens at once, all the time, here. We're now in the middle of yet another cluster of festival days. This one is Diwali, aka Tihar, the Hindu festival of lights and Lakshmi, goddess of wealth and abundance. Some things are closed, some are open for business, many look deceptively open yet are operating on skeleton crew.

Naturally, all government offices are closed. In fact, I think they were literally closed more days than they were open this month.

Bunches of dressed-up, beaming people roam the streets, butter-lamps are lit at in doorways at dusk, children make the rounds singing and drumming deusi-bailo (a sort of Newari trick-or-treating from door to door) in the evenings. Every home and shop has a rangoli (sort of mandala-design invitation to the goddess, painted with cow dung, coloured powder, lamps and flower petals) at the front door - a painted pathway to guide Lakshmi as she enters to bless the residence. Everywhere you can hear the sounds of ringing puja bells, and Newari panchbhaje bands go from door to door playing their distinctive, reedy ceremonial music. A few months ago I wrote about the snake holiday (Naag Panchami). I can really hear the snake spirit in the sounds of the long, narrow Newari horns.

New Newaris
Today I am rushing to get some prints made for Pramochan, one of the (the many) Newari masked dancers I photographed this past Dasain season. On Dasain day, I received tikka and jamara (red powder on the forehead and sprigs of barley behind the ear) from Pramochan's father. Tikka and jamara are a sort of blessing given from elders to juniors on Dasain day. So, Pramochan's familiy (all five of whom live in a traditional Nepali wooden house, which looks like a hayloft with a five-foot ceiling) have invited me to Mha Puja. (Yet another puja!)

I love the tradition of jamara, which is (as far as I know) unique to Nepal. On the first day of Dasain, the lady of the house plants seeds of barley, rice or corn, in a bed of sand, in a special niche inside the home. The seeds are then covered and allowed to sprout secretly in warmth and darkness. It's during these nine days that the goddess Durga is symbolically fighting evil. On the tenth day, Vijaya Dashami, the jamara is uncovered and revealed to have grown into long, bright green grassy stalks. The stalks are then ritually harvested and bestowed upon juniors by the family elders.

Everyone walks around town with an enormous red dot (made of red kumkum powder, rice and yogurt) on their foreheads and chartreuse sprigs sprouting from their hair like feathers (see photo below). Nepalis absolutely love tikka and jamara ("sooooo beauty-full") and seemed very proud to be seen with me, once I was properly marked.

Today's festivity, Mha Puja, is done only by the Newari community on the occasion of Newari New Year (it's now 1126). This ceremony honours and blesses the individual's body for the coming year. Fortunately I have a Newari and Nepali interpreter and hope to find out more about it. I am bringing the prints as a present for the family. (Others might get away with bringing a box of sweets, but as a foreigner with a digital camera, I am honour-bound to provide free prints to the family. I think it's a tradeoff for the stigma they might otherwise receive of associating with a foreigner.)

Rituals in transfigured time
Here in Nepal, we are running three simultaneous calendars. The business calendar is (sort of) the "English" or Gregorian calendar. Then there's the Vikram Sambat or Nepali Hindu calendar, in which it's 2063 and the new year is in April. It is quite common for buildings to boast of having been "established in 2059" (my Australian friend Dave took a photo of this - he thought it was a typo), or for people to say "the conference will begin after 10 Bhadra."

When yet another time cycle, the Newari calendar, starts tomorrow, and it will be 1127. The Newari new year is figured from our AD 867, when legend has it that a Newari Jyapu (farmer caste) discovered a riverbed of gold, and thus paid off everyone's debts. A good way to make a fresh start.

Now if I could just make some money and pay off a few of my debts...guess I will be offering Lakshmi extra marigolds and butter lamps for that one.

New widgets on the block!
Feeds, widgets, clusters, tags, bookmarklets, clouds, sprinkles, aggregators, badges. I'm just now learning about the galaxy of nifty blog features and how they procreate.

I've added a couple of new widgets (nifty code dropped into my template to do cool things) to the blog site. The SirenLocator Map (requires Flash, I think) should show online viewers as they appear, and even reveal a map of their nation (for those unclear on geography).

Scroll down and you will find the Current Moon Phase, essential for life in Nepal and other parts of Asia.

My SirenDelicious feed shows my favourite items and headlines saved to And Global Voices headlines feed show selected headers from the Nepali and Indian blogosphere.

Coming soon: my very own tag cloud, and a Newsvine widget. Oh, and I've finally caught up and gotten myself a YouTube account, but some stupid folk singer already snatched the name SirenTV will be appearing as "SirensongsIndia." Maybe someday I'll figure out how to upload my many videos directly to this site.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Here, read this

Catching up, sort of
Kathmandu, Nepal

Today was yet another strike, this one notable for not having been convened either by Maoists or "labour unions" who were organized as Maoist mouthpieces. Instead, this strike was called by (wait for it) the Kathmandu Chamber of Commerce.

The COC intended to protest law enforcement's inability to protect them from the ongoing Maoist demands for "donations" from local business owners. Why can't the police and military do their job and protect us? they asked. Their method of protesting loss of revenue and business close the businesses.

We've been awash in garbage anyway; yet another of the endless litany of strikes has been that of the sanitation workers. At Thamel Chowk, I literally can't cross the street without some kind of scarf wrapped round my mouth. I saw that I wasn't the only one as I picked my way across the trash. (Can't tell the Maoists with their bandit-bandanas from the people trying to avoid garbage stench.)

In absentia
A number of people have written asking why I haven't blogged. As usual, when I don't write, it's not because nothing is happening. Just the opposite - it's because too much is happening and I am a bit overwhelmed.

The town has been abuzz with, for one, the ongoing peace talks between the Maoists and the Seven Parties, taking place just a few blocks away at the Prime Minister's house in Baluwatar. (Turns out the PM is neighbors with my friend David.) The many opportunistic/enterprising vendors selling candy, tea and cigarettes to the onlookers camped outside will no doubt be disappointed that evidently, the talks have failed. Among other things, the Maoists refuse to give up arms. How could they? The minute they do, they will be vulnerable to the families of their many victims, seeking justice for all the abductions, extortion, "people's court" verdicts and so on.

Nun shall pass
A number of western mountain climbers witnessed the fatal shooting of a 17-year-old Tibetan nun as she attempted to cross the Tibetan-Nepalese border. When the climbers and their guides returned to Kathmandu, they were hunted down and rigorously questioned by Chinese spies. The nun, named Kelsang Nortso, was one of a group of Tibetan pilgrims on their way to see the Dalai Lama, and perhaps, to gain freedom in Nepal or India.

There are still people out there that believe the Dalai Lama is some kind of medieval feudal lord that wants to return his people to a pre-democratic age. Nothing could be further from the truth. The burden of being head of government is something the Dalai Lama has wanted to rid himself of for a long time, and at his request, they have been moving toward being a fully democratic people-in-exile. The Tibetans have just held a free election in Dharmsala, electing Professor Samdhong Rinpoche as their Prime Minister.

How the Other Half Lives
My Nashville correspondent Darkhorse asked, "Does India have its own Woodward and Bernstein" to report on the vast underbelly of social inequities? an antidote to all the India Shining superpower hype of TIME Magazine glossy cover-story ilk?

Like most Indian situations, numbers are part of the problem - it's difficult not to get overwhelmed. A good start is The Other India, taking its cue from Jacob Riis' How the Other Half Lives.

Oh, and read this. It's all about the latrine scavengers of India. That's right, people who move human waste with their bare hands.

I photographed some of these folks back in February in Madras, but lack of time and Tamil translation prevented me from getting their story firsthand. The middle-class, English speaking Indians I related this to seemed horrified that I would even acknowledge the existence of such a thing. Naturally, I then knew I was on to a good story. In other places, you might get in trouble for telling a lie. India is a place where you get in trouble for telling the truth.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Epidemic proportions

News Flash! Mosquitos don't discrminate!
New Delhi

In the Simple Problems with Self-Explanatory Solutions That Should Have Been Solved Forty Years Ago Department, the mosquito-borne illness Dengue ("denn-gay") strikes several places in India (Kerala, Delhi, Jammu & Kashmir), with more than 70 dead so far.

Malaria is no big news; even the annual Japanese Encephalitis Outbreak (a horrible way to die, in which your brain literally melts away slowly - and the vaccine is very expensive) has become passe, probably because it is rarely widespread and seems to strike only hinterland areas. A few villagers in UP or southern Nepal, that's usually it. When you have a billion people, life is cheap.

This outbreak of dengue appears to be garnering more press attention than your average epidemic because it's (shock) acutally made it to the upper rungs of Indian society. When the rich people start getting sick, it just might be time to do something!

The article below admits as much, semi-consciously. ("When doctors are getting sick, something is wrong." All emphases below are my own.)

A lot of the local press appears to treat mosquitos and their adjacent ills as unique to the subcontinent. It's quite maddening, when you realize that many other places have the selfsame problem and have dealt with it effectively, to hear people address this as though it has never happened anywhere before and it's an unknown quantity. In fact, mosquitos are a tremendous problem everywhere in the temperate world, including my homestate, where I was eaten alive when I so much as walked from the house to the car (about thirty feet). I don't know why there are no mosquito-borne diseases in the "developed" world - there are certainly plenty of mosquitos; we are a long way from getting rid of them.

Another local attitude toward mosquitos is that it is primarily a foreigners' problem. At shops and restaurants, they don't burn the mosquito coils until a foreign customer comes in...then they start taking precautions. And only the most tourist-oriented places (read: more expensive) have window screens. I asked one shopkeeper why he only lit the coils when I came in. He said, "the mosquitos do not find my blood tasty." Yet this strata of society (ordinary blue-collar Indians who live in poorly ventilated, crowded places, often with poor water sanitation) are usually the first to suffer from malaria.

When I lived (at various times in the past 4 years) in Andhra Pradesh, Chennai and Pune, the "municipality's" idea of mosquito prevention was to hire a fogger machine that made the evening rounds, chugging and clouding neighborhoods with DDT. Little kids love the noise and novelty of the machines and chase it around the block, breathing in big lungs full of the poison. I never noticed that it made any dent in the mosquitos (they just sensibly went indoors away from the smog - not hard to do when there are no screens or glass windows and most people keep open doors for air circulation), but it sure made my friends and I deadly ill, with headaches, wooziness, and severe chest pains.

You could always have functioning drains, and screens on the windows. No, that's too easy.

AIIMS Wakes Up to Dengue On Campu
NEW DELHI: After 15 people including doctors and students were tested positive for dengue at the premier All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) here, institute authorities admitted on Saturday that the situation was alarming and necessary directives were being issued to control it.

"A student is in the intensive care unit after being operated upon for a dengue-related problem. He is in a very critical condition and is on the life support system," said a top AIIMS official.

In last two weeks, over 20 cases of dengue have been reported from the AIIMS and a 17-year-old girl succumbed to the deadly fever earlier this week.

Out of the 20-odd cases, 15 have been reported from within the campus of the prestigious institute, including seven students and resident doctors.
"If doctors have caught dengue, that too in the AIIMS, then there is something wrong somewhere.
full story from Times of India.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Goats' head soup

Dead and kicking
Bhaktapur, Nepal-

Just saw my first goat sacrifice yesterday, and am still recovering.

I was under the naive impression that they held the poor thing down, slit its throat and let the blood drain out while the animal just kind of faded away. Nope. One guy holds it up by the horns and yanks its head back, another guy holds it by its tail, lifting it off the ground. The idea is to get the blood to SPURT and PUMP out onto the vehicle (usually car, tractor or motorbike) that is being .... well, christened is definitely not the right word. ("Inaugurated," maybe.)
Then as the goat screams and kicks in the air they carry it round the bike in a circle to get ALL Corners covered by blood.

If you stand too close you are in danger of getting spurted on, for real. Fresh blood is the reddest red you can imagine, it almost hurts your eyes. I used to have a bright red nail polish that was the same colour but you never see it elsewhere in nature. Not that bright.

Finally they brutally sever the head (at this point the throat is torn wide> open and you can almost see the heart still pumping) and put the head in the front adorning the ground. The body lies kicking and thrashing beside the vehicle.

I love all animals, but goats really have sass and personality, and this really bothered me. According to an American Hindu scholar who was with me, the scriptures say it is not a sin to eat meat as long as it was sacrificed to a god. But does sacrificing it in order to safeguard your vehicle count as religious? or at all spiritual?

Everywhere we went, at literally every corner of Bhaktapur, there were machines and vehicles adorned not just with pools of blood but what looked like clear plastic tubing. These turned out to be the washed strung-up entrails of the animal, draped like a festive garland over the radiator grill or handlebars. I purposely missed the sacrifice of a water buffalo last night in front of Brahmayani Peeth temple, but I did talk to the Navadurga Dancers who were required to drink the blood straight from the animal's neck. Their white ritual gowns were soaked pink like tie-dye. It is still really hot here in the daytime (okay, pretty hot - nothing like India though) so I am tired from walking all over town. Time to go shower. I have loads of photos to download, too.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Dancing days are here again

Lost in a masquerade
Lalitpur, Nepal

Indra Jatra, Dasain and Kartik Purnima mean it's time for the ritual masked dances of the Newari people. I'm currently engrossed in tracking them down (obscure, community-based, secretive besides the language problems) and documenting them. Last night I went to Lalitpur (Patan) to see the Ashtamatrika (Eight Goddesses) dance of the Newari Buddhist community. I only have time to upload one photo right now (before running to Immigration).

I have seen lots of masked dancing by now, and I think the Ashtamatrikas are the most exciting yet. They seem to be the most classically influenced, and the most ritualized. These dances were begun in the 1600s on the orders of the Lalitpur king (at that time it was one of the rival 3 kingdoms of the Kathamandu Valley), who was a great devotee of the eight guardian goddesses.

The transformation of the dancers, as soon as they don the mask, is really astonishing. They assume a hands-on-hips stance and begin trembling with shakti.

Hundreds of people from the community turn out and follow the Goddesses on their journey from Nakabahil (courtyard of the dance-god) to the courtyard of Taleju Bhavani Temple, where the gothic gables tower over the dancing devis.

I was the only foreigner there. It amazed me that so few outside people know about the vibrant, living culture of the valley, especially since it's been going on continually for the past four hundred years.

Last night there was a power cut, so we were marching through the cobblestoned streets in candlelight - it felt like the dances must have one hundred years ago.

Getting your goat

Dasain Days
Bhrikutimandap, Kathmandu, Nepal

Finally, the weather cleared yesterday, after a weekend of seemingly interminable drizzle and rain and mud. Billowing white clouds now hang over the green hills that surround Kathmandu, and it's hot at mid-day.

On my way to Immigration, I passed an impromptu open-air goat market - the sidewalk was transformed into a musky-smelling barnyard, with all sizes and colours of goats nibbling at green fodder suspended from rope ties. They were adorable! But sadly, all are doomed. They have all been brought in from the surrounding villages to be bought as sacrificial offerings for the Dasain holiday. If all goes as planned, each and every one (all male goats) will have their throats slit and their blood offered to the goddess Taleju Bhavani, a manifestation of Durga. The unwanted goats will go back to the hills.

I had romantic notions of topi-wearing hill-dwellers herding the goats, on foot, over valley and dale into the big city for market - a sort of annual pilgrimage. Actually, the goat-keepers rent a mini-van (for about 500NRs a day,or $7.00 US) and load the goats inside; as many as 20 goats are crammed into the little vehicle. They pick up uncooperative goats by the horns (in one hand) and the back-scruff (in the other) and toss them in.

The hundreds of goats there were distinguished by some numerical system scrawled onto their horns, and sometimes, blotches of coloured dye on their shaggy coats. One shyster tried to sell me a goat for 3000NRs (about $50), but it turned out the correct price was 160NRS for 4 kg.

The goats are weighed (or as they say here, "weighted") across the road on a medieval-looking contraption that is a combination of a seesaw and swingset. The balances are big enough for a couple of humans to stand in - in fact, it looks like the thing they use to weigh the accused with in Monty Python & the Holy Grail ("I am NOT a witch, and this is not my nose, it's a false one!"). There were a few regulation weights there to balance the goats, but they also used a chunk of cinder block.

If the goats had any inkling of their fate, they seemed pretty resigned to it.

On the other side of the road were an especially handsome looking gaggle of goats, with long shaggy coats, twisted ornamental horns, and an extra swatch of shag hanging between their eyes like overgrown bangs. They seemed like the cool, laid-back hippy goats. Turned out they are a special kind of mountain goat called "Changra," but they don't cost any more than the other goats. I scratched them behind the ears, ruffled their fringed bangs and said a silent prayer for them to be reborn as humans (hopefully, vegetarian humans).

Immigrant Song
At Immigration, they told me that in order to stay in the country on a three-month student visa, I need the following things:
-$750 deposited in my name in a Nepali bank account. This is to prove I have $250 a month to cover my expenses for the three months's time;
-a receipt of fees paid and enrollment from the dance academy in Bhaktapur (which means I have to pay the teacher in advance, usually not a good idea);
-Letter of recommendation from the Nepali Ministry of Education (this is known to take a month or more - sometimes tourist visas run out just waiting for it);
-Various copies of my passport, visa and application itself (not a big deal).
-After the initial submission of the bank statement, you then have to show another just to prove you still have the money (that you didn't just borrow it in order to make a false statement).

$250 a month is quite reasonable for living expenses in Nepal; the problem is, getting it all together at the same time (plus the school fees).

They give you a nicely printed list of all these things (guidelines for foreign researchers and students)... in Nepali script! Talk about missing the point.

All this has to be accomplished within the next 30 days, and about 10 of them are official holidays. Nepal maa, din din ne, ek naya mela aunchhu (in Nepal, every day a new festival is coming).

Monday, September 25, 2006

Caste away

Trickling down
Kathmandu, Nepal

It's raining, it's pouring. Normally the monsoon is history at this point in the Nepali year, but a new low pressure front from the Bay of Bengal has put a real damper on the Hindu Dasain festival, which began with the new moon on Saturday (along with the Muslim Ramadan).

Lots of friends in America write and ask me questions like, "Does the caste system still exist in India?" It's sort of like asking, "does racism still exist in America?" (In case you didn't guess, the answer is "yes."

Some very well-meaning middle class Indians have solemnly proclaimed to me that "the caste system is illegal here now." Sure, that explains why you're tall and light coffee coloured and all your servants are short and dark brown.

Like everything in India, there are exceptions. Sort of like seeing black people at Vanderbilt University. Ninety percent of the time, they were sanitation workers. The occasional black professor or physician was a real contrast, and surprise.

This article gives a very brief overview of the situation (which is vast and complex). I am just giving
this article as a backdrop to the situation, so don't yell at me in Comments if you don't agree with every little thing it says. (For one thing, from what I can see with my own eyes, Brahmins are not "in an abysmal state" in most places.) If 49% reservation sounds like a lot, remember that lower castes are about 70% of the Indian population.

An additional factor is that poverty and low caste don't always coincide, leading some to demand reservations on the basis of income rather than caste.

Also contrary to this article, caste is determined by looks an amazing amount of the time. I have a Nepali friend who was an orphan (he was left at an orphanage
as an infant). They had no idea what his caste actually should be. As he grew older, it turned out he had a big they dubbed him officially Brahmin!

Here in Nepal, the caste system is very much a reality. The owner of my hotel is Chhetri (the second "highest" caste after Brahmin); his marriage to a Newar girl just four years ago sparked a schism in both families. The Brahmin waiter in our restaurant assumes an air of automatic seniority and bosses around his Tamang colleagues (and also reserves the right to pre-emptorily snatch tips off the tables).

Marriage ads in the paper are listed "top down" - that is, Brahmin first; then Chhetri; Newar; and "other." And just last week, there was a huge riot at Shaileshwor temple when Hindu Dalits (outcastes) attempted to enter the place of worship and were violently turned back by those of higher castes.

I applaud the Maoists' attempts to forcibly break down caste barriers (forcing high-caste people to accept water, for instance, from a Dalit - this in a place where Dalits can still get beaten for taking water from a high-caste well), but wonder whether there will be an inevitable backlash.

NEW DELHI -- Years of affirmative action have upended India's caste system to the point where some upper-caste Brahmins are reduced to working as porters and pedaling rickshaws, while almost half the places in universities will soon be reserved for lower castes and tribal people. Source: The Washington Times

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Going Postal

I go to the P.O.
Kathmandu, Nepal

The Kathmandu Valley has been called the world's largest open-air museum. Priceless historic carvings, statues and monuments are strewn casually, even carelessly, around. Old men sit chatting on the plinths of Hindu carvings and drunks lie in the shadow of Buddhist stupas. Little kids clamber all over the mythical chimeric animals (part lion, part eagle, part dragon) that guard the countless viharas, temples and courtyards. Probably some art historian would think it's destructive. I think it's cool that so much of the stuff is still a part of the city's everyday life. And it makes doing a chore, like going to the post office or the bank, an exotic adventure back into time.

That is, if you walk through the right parts of town. It's possible to walk to the General Post Office completely in the 21st century, or the 18th. If you head down Tridevi to Kantipath then over to New Road, you can walk through four-lane traffic past concrete buildings (though none rise higher than five or so stories - thank God). Or, you can walk through Thamel to Jyatha, Vijaya Punani, Tyora, Asan Tol and Indra Chowk to Sundhara, down herringbone brick lanes practically tripping over goats, mud puddles and ancient statuary. You will get lost down the myriad alleyways, but that's part of the fun. I don't think I have ever walked the same way twice.

I had to go mail some books to my friend Tim in England- something I had promised to do a couple weeks ago. I had managed to find not one, but two Lonely Planet Travel Atlases for India & Bangladesh. This is a priceless travel resource, and of course, it is now out of print. Since Kathmandu has some of the best bookstores on the subcontinent, my friend at Alpine Books got ahold of a couple for me to send to Tim, at an only slightly inflated price. I guess that's to be expected, considering that the book is scarce these days.

Between the rain and various weird deadlines and festivals, it never seemed the right day to go. Finally a sunny day with no pressing agenda, no political strikes, no rituals enacting ancient legends and no stomachaches dawned. A rarity in Nepal!

A few of my favourite things
Here are a few things I saw on my way to the GPO.

--Butterfly kites and wooden kite-string reels on sale in Jyatha. Changa Chait, the big kite-flying festival, has its final round this Sunday in Nagarkot. I think Floriane and I will take the bus up on Saturday. It's a great excuse to see green trees and breathe clean air (I guess you do need an excuse to do that these days).

Everywhere I looked, on the street and on rooftops, little kids (always boys for some reason) were fixated on their kite reels. Usually they had an older brother up in the building or on the rooftop helping them detangle. At the Boudhanath Stupa, kites mingled with crows, circling hawks and prayer flags in the autumn sky.

Mahaboudha -- There are countless stupas, or
three-dimensional pagodas whose structural symbolism represents "the mind of the Buddha," throughout Kathmandu city. The style with the wise Buddha eyes is unique to Nepal. Tibetans are the most well-known Buddhist community, but in fact about 15% of Nepalis are Buddhists, mainly Newari Buddhists, and these stupas were built by their ancestors.

Mahaboudha is one of many neighborhood
s centered around a stupa, the same way a typical southern American town would be centered around a clocktower. Mahaboudha is now a place for buying electronic goods and appliances. In addition to the usual foot traffic and livestock, there are also delivery vans clogging up the narrow alleyways dispatching boxes of microwaves and blenders.

Nepali Buddhist stupas look very different from
their southeast Asian counterparts. The stupas in countries like Sri Lanka and Thailand are much more austere, with little or no figurative artwork.

In Nepal, the stupas are covered in a profusion of guardian creatures, faces, eyes, winged figures and all manner of animistic (ani mystic?) pagan-looking curlicues and doodads. Lots more fun than the others, which I find too sleek and very impersonal. Rather than serene, pure white, The Nepali stupas seem to be bursting with life.

At the base of
Mahaboudha stupa, there were little kids playing, the usual sleepy street dogs and a few grubby drunks lying in the Buddha's shadow. Maybe they will get some enlightenment from passing out in a holy place.

--Things fall apart: I have to smile every time I pass this crumbling house. It is literally being propped up with long 2x4s (and it's not the only one of its kind). There are still people doing business in the ground floor, maybe even living in there. It looks like it will disintegrate any minute.

Somehow, this doesn't stop life from going on. In the west, it would have been condemned and destroyed years ago, and it would have had all sorts of yellow tape and barriers to prevent anyone from going near it. Here, there are no liability it's just your tough luck if it collapses while you're in there.

Dharahara Tower-- This pseudo-Mughal monument was built by some Rana general in the 1800s. A few weeks ago, some guy committed suicide by jumping off the top. During the Rana regime, the rulers began emulating foreign architectural styles (from both India and Europe) with some decidedly mixed results.

The view from here is probably great in a few weeks, when the monsoon clouds finally burn off for good. But the fees they charge for this are bizarre. It's something like, practically nothing for Nepalis, a few rupees for citizens of SAARC countries (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation), and about $5.00 US for everyone else. Forget it!

There is nothing exciting about this rather ugly tower other than a potentially decent view and a good workout for the calf muscles. I wonder if any foreigners ever bother going inside.

There is a legend that some crazy army general rode his horse all the way up the stairs, and off the top of the tower. Supposedly, the man survived because he used an umbrella. The horse was not so fortunate.

Its location does make it easier to find the post office.

Serpent Fountains--Until twenty or thirty years ago, public fountains were a viable, thriving place to get one's water, cool off and socialize. Nepal has a unique style of ornately carved, sunken public fountain/pool called "hiti." They are often dedicated to various gods (for instance, Narayanhiti was the fountain of Narayan, or Vishnu).

In a few places, the hiti are still flowing and functioning. Mostly, however, they are green and scummy, if not completely dried up. A combination of lowered water tables, slackening monsoons and the proliferation of indoor plumbing and alternate water sources has left most in disrepair.

These sunken stone fountains are a marvel of art, architecture and urban planning. There are concentric scalloped steps, surmounted by statues of various deities and guardians, and each spigot is an ornate face or mouth - usually of a serpent or water creature.

The one by Dharahara is larger than most, and especially fantastic. It's called SundarHiti (beautiful fountain). Just imagine how lovely it must have been, with fresh water gushing from the mouths of the bronze dragon-heads.

To get some idea of the fountain's scale, you can see the passers-by sitting on the outside ledge. Easily 100 people could have fit in this pool. A few months ago I was able to descend the steps into the dried pool and touch the heads of the water-demons. Now, the entrance has been roped off. Perhaps they are in the process of restoring it - I sincerely hope so.

In Bhaktapur and some smaller towns, and even a few places in Kathmandu, you can still see women washing their hair, bathing (wearing a coverup sarong of course), drawing water in buckets, and washing clothes standing in these great stone fountains. Young kids play and splash all around them, and men hang out on the periphery, gossiping and smoking.

Forgotten Lions-- Just about anywhere, you can see statues guarding the entrances to small neighborhood temples, hidden away round every nook and cranny.

This leonine pair were guarding the locked-up entrance to a Shiva temple in Gaushala. They looked prepared to take on all comers, and it was kind of sad to see them staring for eternity into a grassy vacant lot. There are so many statues like this in Kathmandu, after a while, you almost don't see them.

I can envision a children's fantasy story, all about the stone creatures of Kathmandu and their secret lives. Perhaps on one special day, one of these magical midnights, during a particularly rare conjunction of planets every 12 years, they all come to life and roam silently through the darkened streets.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Royal Treatment

Of masks, monarchs & Maoists
Kathmandu, Nepal

Another Indra Jatra - Nepal's most colourful festival (and here, that's really saying something. If there are 365 days in the year, there must be 366 festivals) is once again at an end. Amid rumours of Maoist disruption, and a few anti-monarchist demonstrators waving black flags and shouting "death to the King," King Gyanendra and Queen Komal made a dignified appearance in Durbar Square.

It was six days of medieval pageantry, military pomp and ceremony, rain, mud, and ritual - that combination of majestic, macabre, arcane, occult and festive that is so unique to Nepal.

The world-famous Gurkha soldiers, a nearly-deposed monarch of the world's last Hindu kingdom w
ho had taken the throne amid murder and controversy, political street agitation, a pipe and drum corps dressed in vintage garb of the 18th century, animal sacrifices, ancient virgin goddesses, masked dancing gods and demons doing battle in the streets, a lunar eclipse, a 50-foot wooden pole being worshipped as a sacred phallus, streets lit with oil lamps and primitive torchlight, massive chariots with wooden wheels that rumbled like the monsoon thunder - did I leave anything out? I mean, what more could you possibly ask for in a show of barbaric splendour? I have spent the past 3 hours (literally) trying to get a strong enough connection to upload these photos, so I'm too tired to write more now. It will be a miracle if all these photos upload without a glitch....

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Lunar Tunes

Victory! Virus Vanquished
Kathmandu, Nepal

Whew. It's been a way-out week. If it sounds like I am speaking in ancient riddles, just bear in mind, I am living in the KathMandala.

The Lunar Eclipse on Thursday coincided with the Nepali festival of Indra Jatra, and like most Nepali festivals, this meant lots of animal sacrifices. A baby buffalo (! a baby, that just doesn't seem fair) was sacrificed in front of the Mahadeva Mandal in Durbar Square, and I saw them kill 2 ducks and a sheep right in front of the goddess' chariot at Kumari Ghar. It never seemed right to me that the animals sacrificed are the most harmless, sweet, guileless, defenseless animals - sheep, goats, ducks, chickens. What would the Crocodile Hunter say?

All this along with the King's public appearance and the 3-day Maoist labour unions rally. Needless to say, traffic was a mess.

This, plus the lunar eclipse (considered unlucky in Hindu tradition) must have released some local weirdness. Not only did I get verbally and physically assaulted - shoved and yelled at by some fat German photographer wearing a Hawaiian shirt; grabbed on the butt by a local guy in front of the Seto Bhairav shrine; then threatened for a bribe by yet another local tough who insisted I had to pay to take photos of the street festival -- but Tawanda, my erstwhile laptop Compaq Presario B1800, was down with a mysterious virus.

Following this mishap, I was too depressed all weekend to do anything but watch the Animal Planet Steve Irwin marathon. In Hindu tradition, a lunar eclipse means that the snake-gods Rahu and Ketu, thirsty for divine nectar or Soma, are devouring the moon. The entire operating system froze up and I couldn't even boot. It really felt like something reptilian was in devour mode.

I spent a great deal of Saturday frantically calling friends in order to find a laptop repair geek, and watching Irwin in his life-long dance with some of the planet's most dangerous snakes. Coincidence?

Luckily, many prayers and about 12 hours of Crocodile Hunter later, the young techies at Mercantile Operating Systems on Durbar Marg were able to "operate" and restored Tawanda to working order. That'll teach me not to back up the photos onto hard disks at the end of each day.

Good Vishwa-Karma
So it's a good thing that the special day of Lord Vishwakarma is coming up, on September 17.
Vishwakarma (translates to something like "universal work") is the lord, sort of like a patron saint, of architects and also of all tools, workers, machines and instruments.

On the 17th, everyone will do puja (make offerings and hold ceremonies) to the tools of their various trades - hammers, scissors, sewing machines, cooking utensils or in my case, camera and computer. In south India, you break coconuts. Here, you throw rice and flowers.

I refuse, however, to sacrifice a duck.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006


Just a quick note - today is both Indra Jatra, a big festival in which the King makes a public appearance (hasn't been doing that much lately) and the beginning of a 3-day Maoist and labour unions mass rally here in Kathmandu. I can hear the marching, chanting demonstrators on my street now. I guess today I will be shuttling back and forth between Hanuman Dhoka (the old palace square for Indra Jatra ritual) and the Kula Manch (site of the Maoist mass rally). Ancient tradition meets modern politics.

It's not often you get to have the darshan of the King, the Kumari (Living Goddess) and Prachanda (Maoist supremo) all in one day.

Monday, September 04, 2006


Steve Irwin, 1961-2006

Not possible. It's just not possible. Steve Irwin, the Crocodile Hunter, dead from a stingray barb in the chest (!) at the age of 44.

I was literally *just* watching him here in Kathmandu on the Discover channel, thinking, wow, I've been watching him do this for 10 years now and he's still at it, with so much gusto.

Damn, at least he died doing what he loved - wrangling with fierce creatures out in the wild. It's appropriate that he died at Australia's Great Barrier Reef, and that only one other person has ever been known to die from a stingray barg - in 1945.

Crikey, ain't she a beaut?!

Photo of Steve Irwin used courtesy BBC.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

The Umbrella Man

Shelter and shade
Kathmandu, Nepal

I finally found an umbrella man, on my way to CIWEC clinic. He sits by the roadside under a tiny blue-tarp lean-to. He's little more than a child, and speaks almost no English. But his slender, tiny fingers work delicate miracles on broken parasols.

I was always taught that umbrellas were disposable. If an umbrella breaks in America, you just buy a new one. There is no one who would even think of repairing it, much less know how to do so.

Here, just about anything can be and is repaired - people simply can't afford to toss things aside. The cobbler will even painstakingly sew plastic flip-flops back together.

I'm a bit attached to my green folding umbrella. It's nothing special, but I bought it in Kandy, Sri Lanka in March last year, where the alternating rain showers and blazing sun make it an absolute necessity. In Sri Lanka, there are entire umbrella stores (In Tamil an umbrella is called "kooday"). This umbrella has been with me ever since, through three countries. I hate to give up on it, even though now it has a broken metal rib and a couple of holes in the vicinity. I love the fact that the inside tag is in curly Sinhalese script.

There are shoe repairmen (cobblers) on every other urban corner, all belonging to one of the "lowest" castes in Hindu society because they work with leather.

An umbrella man, while also "low" caste, is a bit more specialized. This one is a thin, dark brown boy with an enormous helmet of glossy black hair. His "Indian" features (round, not almond eyes; full lips, and dark brown skin) mark him as a Madhesi, or native of the Terai - the hot, flat, fertile plains near the IndoNepali border.

"Maithali bholnu hunchha?" (You speak Maithali?) I offered, hoping a familiar name - Maithali is a minority language spoken in Terai - would put him at ease. "Maithali nahi, Bhojpuri," he said softly, averting his eyes. I asked him "your native place?" and he answered with the name of his village, which escaped his lips like a whisper. Something sinuous, like Siraha, Sarahi, or Senauli.

I squatted next to him, watching as he opened his homemade repair kit, a metal can that looked like a Danish cookie tin. All shapes and sizes of metal bits, most of which were scrap; a motley assortment of thread colours, needles of various sizes, scissors, and a tiny pair of rusty pliers were inside.

The boy's father - a paunchy, balding carbon copy whom I instantly disliked, probably because he stood idle while his young boy did all the work - came along and insisted that I sit on the "good" chair. In this case, the good chair was a stool woven of cane covered in colourful plastic threads. "It is the custom," as they say here, to offer a guest the chair - usually, there's only one chair in the place.

Often my hosts embarrass me by taking the chair away from the elder in the room, and insisting I sit there instead.

I see this multi-coloured stool all over Nepal, but never in India, where it's all machine-made moulded plastic furniture these days. Every bus here has a couple of these stools - they plop them down in the aisle to make more seating.

The boy carefully selected the closest matching thread in his repertoire, a dark blue colour. His tiny fingers threaded the needle, then worked the blue thread through the tiny eyes of the umbrella's metal underpinnings. His father stood over him sternly, and I got the feeling that if the boy made a mistake, he might well get cuffed on his glossy black head.

It was 3.30 p.m. Immaculate, uniformed children were parading home from school, toting bright-coloured book bags brimming with their futures. The contrast was almost physically painful to watch - surely the Umbrella Man (boy?) had never gone to school.

His repair of the broken metal rib was really amazing. He fished, from among his assorted metal scraps, a piece of aluminum just the right width. This he measured, and cut down to size with the rusty pliers. His motions were so intimate with the umbrella rib, I almost felt I had to look away. He bent low over the umbrella, pinching and pressing the metal rib into place.

A fair-skinned local lady came by and interrupted the operation. She complained in Nepali about the scuffed heel on her shoe - a frivolous white plastic sandal with a stack heel. After a bit of theatrical teeth-sucking and a eyeball-rolling disapproval, she paid him 20 rupees for his work. She retired into the building behind their blue-tarp lean-to.

The boy then resumed stitching up the quarter-sized hole in my umbrella, almost good as new. In less than ten minutes, my Sri Lanka Kooday was miraculously whole again. I opened and shut it a few times, just to make sure.

"How much you give?" blustered the father.

The correct price was probably 30 rupees or less. All I had in my bag was a fifty.

"Fifty rupees," I said.

"Fifteen??!" the father spluttered. Fifteen and Fifty are commonly mistaken for one another here.

"No, fifty. Pachas rupiyah," I said gently. I have always been an advocate of paying the correct local price, but I just couldn't bargain with these people living on the side of the road. The father smiled with approval. He had gotten an extra twenty rupees from the gori touriss.

It was starting to rain as I snapped the boy's photo. I had to stand close under the tarp, so the camera wouldn't get even a drop of rain. Even a tiny bit of rain is ruinous for digital equipment. He was so engrossed in his work, I don't think he noticed my camera.