Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Songs of the Sea Bride

Siren of Araby
...still in Kathmandu, Nepal

Reem, at the Your Name In Arabic blog, was kind enough to not only translate Sirensongs into Arabic, but to create these beautiful graphics. Evidently "Sirensongs" doesn't make sense as a compound noun in Arabic. But, you can say "Songs Sea-Bride," and it looks like this:

...and is pronounced something like "aghaani ʕaroos lbaHr." ...Except, the "gh" is a sort of R, and the letter that looks like a backwards question-mark does not exist in English.

Here is the phonetic spelling for the word "Siren."

Sometimes people ask me the significance of the name, Sirensongs. I used to have a thing for mermaids, and "song of the siren," the title of my favourite song, at Yahoo was taken. So was "sirensong" singular. Voila, a recognizable nomme de nette is born.

My old mermaid art gallery is nearly 10 years old now, maybe even 11. Those were the gothy pagan old days, when I listened to Dead Can Dance all day and mooned over Pre-Raphaelite paintings.

As you have probably guessed by now, I am procrastinating leaving Kathmandu for Delhi (yuck, too hot; the rains are soooo nice here now) and the 14-hour bus ride back to Dharamsala, which will shortly be followed by another 14-hour bus ride to Manali and yet another double-digit hours bus ride to Leh, Ladakh, elevation around 10,000 feet.

But it's been fun watching Kathmandu continue to disintegrate. There is no way an election is going to be held here by November. The Maobadis are doing everything they can to disrupt things so that security-wise, it will be impossible. But I think the fall of this hill-and-vale Saigon is still a few years away. Who knows, it could even be averted completely, if (among other things) they just pay attention to history. (When, in history, have Maoists ever been interested in being a part of a multi-party democracy? There's clue number one.)

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Found in translation

Your Name in Arabic
Kathmandu, Nepal

Isn't this cool? Reem is offering a free service; transliterating your name into Arabic script. Just go to her blogpage and send an email. She will post a jpg file of the graphics onto her blog page.

Arabic has got to be the most beautiful-looking script in the world. This service is not a translation - that is, my own name means "singing," but she will not give the Arabic word for "singing" - just a transliteration of the phonic sounds.

I haven't received the reply for transliterated "Sirensongs" yet (Reem says it has to be "songs of the siren"). But my sister's name is Karen; and here (above) is what "Karen" looks like in Arabic.

Laura of Arabia
And yet another cool Arabic-related blog, Carolyn McIntyre, aka Girl Solo in Arabia has devoted herself for the past year and half to journeying in the footsteps of 14th century Moroccan explorer Ibn Battuta. A very literary blog with exceptionally elegant template.

Speaking of translations: after a few requests from foreign viewers frustrated with English, I have added the AltaVista Babelfish translator on the sidebar. With just a few clicks you can translate Feringhee into Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, German or French.

If anyone knows of a web translator for Hindi, Tamil, Tibetan or other Indian languages, please let me know.

"Sirensongs" in Italian is "Canciones del Sirena." I like it. I guess in Hindi, it's "Jalpari ki sangeet," or maybe, "Jalpari ki gana." ("Jalpari" literally means "water faery." The movie Splash was released here as Jalpari.)

Vote for Meeeee
If you vote for me for Best Travel Blog in the Blogger's Choice Awards, I promise a rickshaw in every garage and dal-bhatt on every stove. Or at least, I promise to tell you where to get the best dal-bhatt and how not to get ripped off by the rickshaw.

You can vote here. Thank you, come again!
My site was nominated for Best Travel Blog!

Monday, July 16, 2007

Chariots of the gods

The gods must be lazy
Kathmandu, Nepal

Finally, the towering chariot of Rato Machhendranath, a Buddhist Bodhisattva figure who is traditionally regarded as bringer of the seasonal rains, was pulled to its resting place in Jawalkahel, Patan.

At last, after a delay of nearly 1.5 months (and even for Nepal, that is a big delay), the traditional Bhoto ceremony took place, with the Patan Kumari (one of the Kathmandu Valley's living goddesses) giving her blessings.

The eight-storey Rath (Chariot) of the deity, assembled of archaic wooden parts and a whole lot of bamboo and pine boughs lashed together, resembled a beserk Christmas tree careening through the crowded streets. Its massive wheels are about 2 metres, or 7 feet, high, each painted with the trademark "Kathmandu eyes." Now that's a big wheel.

Tradition clashed with modernity (literally) when the pine-topped peak scraped telephone and power lines. I wondered about the symbolism of the great piney tower. Sure, you could say it is phallic, but I saw more of a beacon. It's like they've constructed a literal skyscraper, maybe to reach cloudward and beseech the rain gods to come on down to earth. Maybe poking at the clouds with a big earthbound finger.

Such a primordial mega-spectacle takes a great deal of communal involvement and coordination every year. I could really see the practical role that such festivals play in bringing all parts of a diverse community together. Certain elements of the festival have traditionally been allocated to various castes and families, and this is a chance for them all to cooperate in a show of unity, sweat, incense, animal sacrifice, and heave-ho.

While the men pull the chariot en masse with giant ropes, the women now have an active role in the procession - linking hands as a security line to prevent onlookers from getting too near the crushing wheels. In Indian tradition the elderly and destitute used to throw themselves under the wheels, hoping for an auspicious death at the mercy of the gods. Don't know if they ever did that here in Nepal.

However, the rain gods may not be pleased. This year for the first time since the 7th century (!), the appointed Prime Minister, GP Koirala, presided over the Bhoto puja, rather than the King (or the Crown Prince).

While the papers are full of gloating crows like "King stripped of his cultural privileges," "Adieu monarchy" and so on, nowhere is addressed the issue of who decides these things.

Who, after all, gets to decide who participates in this ritual of primeval fertility and festivity?
Did the King decide not to go for security reasons (a wise move, really, considering all the anti-monarchy protests outside the palace on His Majesty's birthday)? Did the rain god Indra come to the high priest in a dream and demand the king's absence? Or did the Patan Guthi (community organization in charge of the event) just decide somehow?

Or, as I suspect, was this at least partially a cowardly kowtow to Prachanda and the Maoists, who have "vowed" to abolish the monarchy (not that it's up to them, or the political parties, to decide - supposedly, it is up to the people of Nepal. Supposedly). Prachanda's Young Communist League, a sort of Red Guard formed in the past 8 months, have been very active in the Valley, with all sorts of extortion, abductions and protection rackets. My Nepali friends say that because of the YCL, they do not feel as safe after dark as they did even six months before.

At any rate, it makes little sense for a Prime Minister of a proclaimed "secular" state to preside at an ancient ritual that represents Buddhist, Hindu and folk religions all rolled (literally) into one.

Let the King take his place in the rituals, for Peetha's sake. That's what Hindu monarchs are for, after all - Ritual,
ceremony and tradition.

Monsooner or later
Thank all the gods (and there's one on every street corner here), the monsoon appears to have at last set in, in earnest. That means, it rains at least once a day for at least an hour. Not the non-stop type of downpour we'll be getting in, say, Dharamsala, which has the second highest rainfall in all of India (after Darjeeling, I think). Back when Alex Frater wrote Chasing the Monsoon, Cherrapunji was #1. I guess shifting weather patterns have something to do with it.

It's wetter, cloudier, and the days are cooler. Bad for photos, but good for walking around exploring.

My friends in the Sakya community say Sajani Sakya, the (perhaps former) Living Goddess of Bhaktapur (reported here last week), is still touring India with her parents. Right now she is said to be in Gujarat. I am hoping to interview her when she returns to Nepal.

Two ancient traditions broken in one week. It may be hard to fathom the significance of this if you are sitting in America (perhaps London would be more sympathetic). But Nepal is a country that often appears to exist for the sole purpose of festivals and religious observances; a place where the old gods and devis still walk the streets and are brought to life with these seasonal cycles. I personally think there's plenty of room for the Old Gods in the New Nepal.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Goddess in progress

Stripped of divinity
Kathmandu, Nepal

Earlier this week, newspapers back home reported that the Kumari, one of Nepal's traditional "living goddesses," lost her title because she left the country. She traveled to America to promote a new British documentary about this Hindu-Buddhist tradition. Everyone wrote to me asking if I had heard anything about this.

Strangely, I have not seen a peep in the newspapers, which devote most of their space to controversies about the King's birthday (which was yesterday - that's another story). And, on the phone with my Newar Buddhist dance teacher (who is of the same caste as the girl), it was only when I brought up the subject that he acknowledged it.

The tradition holds that no Kumari can leave the Kathmandu Valley during her reign. The Valley forms a sort of sacred mandala and she is supposed to stay within those confines. It's for her own safety; plus that of the Valley, since she is considered an incarnation of the protector goddess.

Since no Kumari has ever left the Valley, much less gone abroad to an "impure" non-believing country, this issue has never come up before.

I was able to meet, receive blessings from, photograph and even have dinner with Sajani Sakya (the Kumari in question) twice last year. I am on speaking terms with one of her attendant-priests and will travel to Bhaktapur ("City of Devotion") next week to try and get the story.

One of the stories below quotes a priest as saying "We don't allow our Kumaris to visit an alien land." However, the story is wrong in saying that "several THOUSAND Hindus a day visit the temple to worship the Kumari." In Bhaktapur it is at most several hundred unless it's a holiday.

It could be that I will be here in Nepal when they select and enthrone a new Kumari, which would be quite an event.

Here is my photo of Sajani last Dasain (a big Hindu holiday) when she was being carried from house to house to give blessings. I still have the Jamara (sprouted rice sprigs) she gave me as part of the blessing.

Here are some links to related news stories:

Nepal "living goddess" loses status
One of Nepal's Living Goddesses stripped of status due to overseas trip
Nepal to unseat Living Goddess for US visit