Wednesday, December 31, 2008


Faces from Swayambhu

Everyone knows I get boring and "spiritual" on holidays. Well, this new year is no exception.
Let's start 2009 off right. It is, after all, the last of the Aughts and oughta be done right.

Swayambhu, the famous "Buddha Eyes" temple (one of many, but probably the most famous one) is under restoration. I thought that was fitting for the New Year, even if it is the English new year. A few questions revealed that a local Nepali monastery (and some foreign well-wishers), not the government, was sponsoring the restoration.

Here are some photos and details from our recent trip to Swayambhunath temple (the sistren and I, that is).

The blue Buddha is Akshobya, the "unshakeable" Buddha, to whom we will pray when the next earthquake rocks the Valley (just kidding. Well, not really kidding).

The elaborate carved archway at the top of the page shows Akshobya in the "bhumisparsa" (touching the earth) mudra with right hand, Dhyanam (meditation) with left hand.
This figure is holding his hands in the Dharmacakra mudra - the 'teaching' mudra aka "turning the wheel of dharma." This mudra is usually associated with Vairochana Buddha.

I am getting to be such a Buddha geek, I can instantly identify these Mudras (hand gestures). I know, you are yawning already.....!

The figure above is holding left hand in Nilotpala (holding lotus stem) and right hand in what would normally be called Gyana mudra (wisdom). But in the right hand he's holding some kind of...flower bud?? Maybe the other half of the lotus.

Here the left hand again is in Nilotpala, and the right is holding a Double Dorje with a hand gesture I haven't yet learned the name of. In Bharatanatyam it would be called Mukula, but I haven't seen this one in Charya.


Art and about
I was lucky enough to visit with a well-known painter of Hindu and Buddhist Tantric art, and didn't even write about it. Yet.

Samundra Man Singh Shrestha is so cool, he is friends with Robert Beer.

No, cooler than that - Robert Beer actually buys his (Samundra's) paintings. His most recent exhibit was at the Sacred Art & Sacred Space Auction in San Francisco.

He's also a good friend of my Charya dance teacher, which is why we went to hang out at Samundra's house in Lazimpat.

There are still plenty of painters in the Newar Poubha tradition, as well as in the Tibetan Thangka tradition. These traditons, like most classical schools, leave little or no room for innovation. Samundra has the technical ability to produce such works, but uses that background to render his own interpretations, particularly of Nepali Hindu gods and goddesses (Bhairab, Kaumari, and so on).

Samundra puts a lot of Rasa or Bhava (feeling or expression) into what could otherwise be static images with parameters set down by the Shastras (scriptures dictating artistic guidelines).

Anyway, I was too much of a bonehead to remember my camera that afternoon, so here is a wee example of his work. On the website you can see more.

Let's get it over with

Let's face it, the only good thing that happened in '08 was Obama, so let's just get this over with.

Oh, and I got to see my sisters for the first time in six years. Okay, we're done.

Monday, December 29, 2008

To the book depository!

Christmas raid on UNESCO
Jawalakhel, Patan, Nepal

FINALLY. Third time was the charm as Raju and I once again descended upon the UNESCO Kathmandu office, demanding the free publications and books that were so rightfully ours as authentic bearers and students of a dying cultural tradition (in our case, masked and other ritual dances of the Kathmandu Valley).

UNESCO is supposed to distribute their various publications (most of which are about development and architectual restoration) to the general public. As students of religious classical dance, we were more interested in the sector called "Intangible Heritage." This proved to be intangible indeed. Three separate visits all the way out to the Jawalakhel office had found the lights on, but nobody home. Last Sunday (Sunday is a working day in Nepal), we were told they would definitely be in on Dec. 24, Christmas Eve.

Arriving at 2pm Christmas Eve, we were told that in fact, the staff got that day off as well as Christmas Day and the following Friday. The real reason for democracy and secularism: More holidays!

At long last the day dawned when they were both open and in the office, though on this day, too, the librarian and periodicals person was not in. Evidently taking five days' leave for "Christmas" (Christians still constitute less than 10% of the country, but all offices that are even vaguely government-related get to close) wasn't enough; she had 3 more days coming to her.

After much smooth talking by my friend we scored these glossy bound publications:

Masked Dances of Nepal Mandal: (a bit troubling as only 26 of its 163 pages are translated into English, meaning there's a whole lot left untranslated - but I will take what I can get; English information about the dances is scarce)

Tiji Festival of Lo Manthang (more of a photographic booklet than book, but a good basic rundown of a Tibetan Buddhist cham dance ritual)

Intangible Cultural Heritage of Nepal: Future Directions (evidently the idea of supporting Intangible-Cultural heritage, that is rituals, dances, folk music and festivals, is less established than that of preserving material culture and they are still struggling for full financial support)

--and best of all, a 7-volume set called Cultural Portraits Handbook. This includes slim volumes dedicated to Swayambhunath, Bauddhanath, Patan, Bhaktapur, Hanuman Dhoka, Changu Narayan and Pashupati.

Score! We left quite chuffed with our "Christmas" packages full of books about ritual dances of Hinduism and Buddhism.

Sunday, December 28, 2008


Weekend update

Whassup wid da whack stomach-ache, whassup? Everything I eat hits my stomach (not intestines) like a rock. A whole beautiful winter's day with blue sky, wasted lying on my side. Whack.

(This post was brought to you by the Revival of Tired Urbanisms Campaign. And whassup wid da orange letters? Whack.)

Saturday, December 27, 2008

In the dark

Dark ages
Chakupat, Patan, Nepal

Yikes. Power cuts just INCREASED AGAIN to almost 16 hours a day. The New Nepal is looking more and more like the Old Nepal - as in, 50 years ago, before electricity arrived.

Ason Tole
, the ancient crossroads of the Tibetan-Indian trade route, did look very magical with absolutely no electric lighting to compete with the glowing oil lamps of the temples. If it weren't for getting mowed down by motorbikes, I could almost imagine I was in the middle ages.

This afternoon, after my Charya nrtya class with Raju, we took the Patan Dhoka bus down to Chakupat to visit the
Nagarjun Institute in Patan. I got a copy of the only English translation (sort of - a summary really) of the Swayambhu Purana.

Here in Nepal there is a tradition that even before the historical Buddha, Gautama Buddha who lived approximately 2500 years ago, there were other, Adi-Buddhas (ancient, primordial buddhas). This Purana ("purana" means "old story") relates the Buddhist history of Nepal in this manner.

I personally think that since Buddhism had to co-exist with the Hindu kingdoms at that time they were amping up the ancient-ness - you know how in Hinduism everything has to be sooooooooooooooooo ancient.
Min Bahadur Sakya, one of the foremost Newar Buddhist scholars, was quite forthcoming about the adaptive aspect of the stories. Special thanks to him and his son Milan Sakya for sitting in the dark, illumined only by a dim battery-powered lamp, for about an hour discussing this subject with me.

Anyway, my net time is running out today, more later.

Friday, December 26, 2008

A fireside chant

An exotic Christmas on the cheap
Thamel, Kathmandu

There is a roaring fire here in the lobby, and a roaring plasma-screen TV showing BBC to give electro warmth. But why, or more importantly HOW, the hell is it raining in late December (ie, today) in the Kathmandu Valley? This region famously has no precipitation from, say, early October to late March at the very least, maybe even later.


We (friends and I) managed to make yesterday fun, despite the glaring lack of immediate family. Rene, Amy and I went out carousing for inexpensive presents. Whoever is running Thamel these days (I think it's a war between the gangs and the Bahun-Chhetri dominated Thamel Tourism Development Corporation) decided to do what they should do every day of the year - block off Thamel to large vehicle traffic. Read: we could walk the streets and window shop without fear of being mowed down by a speeding taxi or SUV, careening down narrow ancient streets that were made for pedestrians, bullock carts and bicycles.

BRAVO, TTDC or whoever did this. For once, people could shop and enjoy the cornucopia of Exotic Cool Affordable Stuff that Thamel offers, from handmade yak milk soaps to calendars of Tibetan Thangka paintings, to 100% hemp woven house-slippers to pashmina (or sometimes "pashmina") shawls. I actually noticed shoppes that I have been walking past for years and just never could stand still long enough to see.

The aura in the streets was one of festivity and genuine friendliness. We were approached by one family with a small daughter who wanted to take "our daughter's picture with different-looking people," so we obliged by holding little Anya as the parents took snaps.

I also noticed none of the major street "hawkers" (Tiger Balm madam??) seemed to be out, though my friends and I did get approached to buy "hasheeeeeeesh" a few times. During the day there were processions by the local Newar youth in traditional costume, playing Dhimay Bhaje, with the Gandarbhas playing sarangi. I found it cute that the locals found a way to participate in Christmas and make the "foreigner" neighborhood festive, without ever being tacky, overtly commercial or in-your-face.

Multiculturalism appeared to be good for business. Several restaurants offered special Christmas dinners, usually including turkey and pumpkin pie. I had the Northfield's pumpkin pie which was more like punkin' puddin' with crust around it, but then, I never had a pumpkin pie I could really complain about. And even random Nepali families who had nothing to gain monetarily seemed to enjoy wishing us "Happy Christmas." Or, as the hand-painted sign at Tom & Jerry's said, "Happy Christmas Merry."

I was also glad the Hindu fundamentalists weren't all up in the air (as they may have been in parts of India) about observation of Christmas. Obviously, all the salaried office workers were happy to get yet more days off. And like Dasain, Christmas has become a pan-cultural holiday that one can observe as religiously or un-religiously as one likes. I didn't see any non-pagan Christmas decor - it was all trees, Santas, presents and stars.

Down by Narsingh Chowk there was a techno-street party complete with female Nepali DJ on the stage and boomin' music. Fortunately it didn't seem to get too least while we were there. Thamel is sufficiently chock-full of places selling alcohol that there's no need to sell beer on the street, for crying out loud.

My contribution to the Nepal economy, in the form of presents for friends, included: one handmade stuffed animal made of woollen felt for my 3 year old friend; two Thangka calendars; one copy of the Tenzin Palmo bio Cave in the Snow; one bar of handmade Rose soap; one packet of locally made incense; and a box of Indian sweets (doda barfi, chocolate barfi and moong dal barfi) to share with all and sundry. The most expensive present in the lot cost 500NRs (about $6.00).

Tuesday, December 23, 2008


Solstice season thoughts

Buddha in Glory
Center of all centers, core of cores,
that closes tightly in and sweetens,--

this entire world out to all the stars
is your fruit-flesh: we greet you.

Look, you feel how nothing any longer clings to you;
your husk is in infinity,

and there the strong juice stands and crowds.

And from outside a radiance assists it,
for high above,
your suns in full splendor
have wheeled blazingly around.
Yet already there's begun inside you

what lasts beyond the suns.

--Ranier Maria Rilke, translated by Edward Snow
from New Poems
Thanks to Rob Brezsny for featuring the Rilke poem this week.

Time shift

Let's do the time warp again

Last week, my Charya Nritya (Chacha Pyakhan if you speak Newari) teacher, Raju Sakya, and I were pushing our way through the sidewalk near Sundhara.

Pushing, not because Nepal is soooo heavily populated or because people are so rude (neither is the case) but because 2/3 of the walk space is taken up by sidewalk vendors. One of the first things the new Home Minister announced was a crackdown on "footpath" vendors. I guess what we're tripping over now are the vendors who can pay the new, requisite bribes.

Anyway, as we were negotiating our way toward the Ratna Park Tempo-Micro (mini-bus and share taxi) stand, we passed a lone Buddhist chaitya (aka stupa, chorten - Buddhist monument) in the middle of the sidewalk chaos.

In Kathamdu, it's hard to walk without tripping over such works of religious art - they are literally everywhere. But there was something distinctive about this chaitya.

The lines were more fluid, more flowery...I did not get a snap of it. But Raju, who is getting a Master's degree in Nepali art from Tribhuvan University, said "This is a Licchavi period chaitya."

The Licchavi period. Wow. That means it's at minimum 1,400 years old.

"Yes," said Raju, "from 6th or 7th century."

For just a second all the horns, shouting, spitting and pushing stopped. The Licchavi dynasty came from what's now Bihar state in India (I think; don't beat me up if I am wrong). Though they were Hindu, there was still plenty of Buddhist art flourishing during their reign.

This piece of ancient artwork is enclosed by just a cast iron railing; otherwise it's in the open air. It appears undamaged and has probably not changed for the 1500 or so years of its life.

Just the kind of stuff you can see any old day walking down the sidewalk in Kathmandu - if you can make enough space on the sidewalk. We pushed, darted, and maneuvered our way over to the micro-bus and headed for Patan (former Buddhist kingdom, now home to INGOs and expats).

Monday, December 22, 2008

Days of our lives

Calling all culture geeks and India-heads! The new Hindu Festival Calendar 2009 is out, courtesy Hinduism. It's more oriented toward India than Nepal, but is pretty inclusive. Of course there are always myriad celebrations and regional variations that don't make it to the general calendars. But, if you are planning to be in Tiruvannamalai for Shivratri (for example), this is a big help.

There's also an explanation of the calendar and its relation to the English (Gregorian) one.

Here is the January listing.
Of special importance to Nepal visitors will be the Dasain schedule. It's well known how difficult it is to get anything done at this time.

These observances get earlier and earlier every year. I read a few months ago about how the Jyotishis (Joshis in Nepal) are discussing how to adjust the calendar. At the rate the lunar calendar is progressing, or I suppose regressing, pretty soon the harvest-themed festivals such as Dasain will be in August. That just won't do.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Do you hear what I hear?

In the stars

I've been trying to pick up bits about Vedic Astrology (better known as Jyotish) for the past several years. Evidently the most significant thing is one's Nakshatra, or lunar "mansion." Since there are 27 - odd days to a lunar cycle there are 27 Nakshatras. (I think.)

My Nakshatra is Shravana (in Sanskrit, Tiruvonam in Malayalam). Shravana means "Listening" or Hearing.

For those who know me, it really is frighteningly accurate, though I'm not so sure about the stable-minded part. Here's one summary:

Those born in the Shravana star are experts in music, dance and drama, truthful and stable minded; they enjoy hearing scriptures.

Another site reads:
This constellation signifies eternal quest of knowledge. The Shravana people are restless. They constantly involve themselves in conversations, or listening sessions to collect information. A person born under this sign is either an ardent student, or a well-versed teacher. They can be excellent counselors, owing to their art of listening and giving advise based on their vast knowledge.

See, it's official. I'm really supposed to be doing this stuff.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Fly like an eagle

In the hall of the mountain king

I took the famous Mountain Flight - the flight that goes parallel to the Himalayan giants, and makes a turn at
Ama Dablam just before Everest, then doubles back the same way. But I don't remember a lot of it. Bad timing meant I was trapped till about 1.30 am at an event that shall remain nameless here. Then I had to get up at 4.30 am to be at the airport at 5.30 for a 6.00 am flight that didn't leave till

I suppose I shouldn't fly past Gauri Shankar, Lhotse, Cho Oyu, Shishapangma, and the other granite titans is no small thing. I just wish I had been awake.

There are now at least four airlines offering the same route for the Mountain Flight, all with names from mythology and legend - such as Yeti Air, Buddha Air, Agni Air and Sita Air. I was on Yeti Air.

Every passenger gets a (brief) turn in the cockpit looking over the pilot's shoulder, and mine came fairly early in the flight - which meant that I got the contrast of the cloud ocean below with the ice castles looming ahead. Not a bad thing to see first thing in the morning. Mountain Flight Pilot would be a pretty cool occupation.

Some suggestions for the Mountain Flight: -They advertise that everyone gets a window seat - true enough. But all window seats are NOT created equal. Since it's a 15-seater plane, several seats are located directly over the propeller or wing. I got a propeller seat. It did give good scale to my photos.

-As it turned out, it would have been cool to sit way in the back. Reason: Everyone gets a turn in the cockpit as I mentioned, but the penultimate one is the best. That is, as you get close to Everest, there are just a few minutes in which Everest is straight ahead before they make the double-back U turn. THAT is the best time to be in the cockpit. I saw it over someone's shoulder.

-The Mountain Flight is now $120 (just 2 years ago, it was only $75). If you are fortunate enough to be flying to Lukla or another location in Everest Region, you will see quite a few of the same mountains. In that case, the Mountain Flight might be not quite redundant, but less necessary. However, if you have a very limited time in Nepal, or if you are not well enough to physically get closer to the big mountains, it's a must-do.
-If you're going alone, force another hapless passenger to snap your photo getting on-off the plane or posing with it (as above). Whenever I get off an STOL plane onto a runway, I feel like a character in a 1940s black and white drama. Or maybe Clutch Cargo.

-Oh yeah, and it most definitely does NOT fly right by Everest as depicted in the (heavily Photoshopped) advertisements! (One friend was disappointed to find it didn't do donut-rings round Everest.)

-And go to bed early! Especially at the current prices, you don't want to be half asleep (as I was).

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Dance Archaeology

More ancient obscure art forms pursued

Finally, after very patient and gentle persistence from the tireless Raju Sakya, I have resumed my Saturday morning lessons in the Newar Buddhist Charya Nritya. (I would say Nritya Dance, but that's redundant. Nritya means "dance.")

I've mentioned it a few times before, and like a lot of my external life so far it's been stop and start. But all those years of Bharatanatyam has given me a solid foundation for Charya - it's amazing how much of the classical dance stuff remains hard-wired after years of slackerdom.

Raju is a senior student of Prajwalratna Bajracharya, who now lives in Portland, Oregon USA and runs Nepal Dance Mandala. To my knowledge, he's the only Nepali teaching Charya abroad. There are a handful of non-Nepalis that teach Charya in their own countries, like
Lianne Takeuchi Hunt, Helen Appell, and Shahrazad.

Not that Charya is by any means a simple dance, but compared to the aerobic demands of Bharatanatyam, so far it's lower-impact. It's certainly more lasya (graceful and lyrical) than tandava (percussive and forceful).

With its Tribhangi (three-bends) posture, Charya most closely resembles Odissi dance, which, if I had had my druthers, is probably what I would have learned long ago. But Odissi teachers are hard to find in the American heartland, outside of perhaps California.

Space: the final frontier
I had planned on having dance class on one of the rooftop terraces of my guest house, since the weather is delightful during the days now. But Raju arrived in my small room and declared the space sufficient for dance. Westerners are quite spoiled in terms of studio space, not to mention facilities like wooden floors, wall mirrors and sound systems. Asian dancers usually manage to learn without any of these. At one point we were meant to make a complete oval around and come back to "first position;" we just kind of had to imagine it (dancing into the wall). And there is not room for us to dance simultaneously.

There are a number of suitable spaces (like yoga studios) in town, but they naturally all want a fee to rent for an hour or so - which doubles my class fee. Probably it's best to go ahead and rent a flat with an extra room, install a wall mirror and get on with it.

Now, to hunt for a flat (Nepali for "apartment"). Flat-hunting is always a drag, but winter should be a good time to look. With the increased load-shedding (power cuts), though, I don't want to be too far out of "town" or in too deserted an area. There's just too much darkness (in several ways) these days.
If you are within shouting distance, I am ideally looking for Lazimpat, Chhetrapati, Paknajol or Sorhakutte areas. Or something like that. I see no reason to pay more than 10,000 NRS at the most.

Baby steps
Every dance has its "first position;" in Charya, that is Suchi-Tribhangi. It looks like so many of the ancient Indian statues, with a graceful goddess poking one hip out.

The basic foot movements are Alida (to the right), Pratyalida (back to the left), Suchi (right foot back) and Vajrasuchi (left foot back), which together make a semi-circular closed step sequence called Mandala. The mudras (hand gestures) are similar to the south Indian ones, but much gentler. Raju is always telling me to relax my fingers (which took so long to get ramrod-straight!) and DROP my elbows (unhearin Bharatanatyam, 90 degree elbows is a cardinal rule!).

The first "item" I am learning, other than the Refuge Prayer (a sort of opening Mangalam), is "Sodasa Lasya" or Sixteen Graces. It's an opening item invoking the sixteen forms of offering, here personified as goddesses. For instance, flowers, incense, and song, rather than just be offered as such, are depicted as the Diamond Flower Devi, the Diamond Incense Devi and the Diamond Song Devi (Vajra Puspe Devi, Vajra Dhupe Devi, Vajra Gite Devi).

Why "Diamond" (Vajra or in Nepali pronunciation, Bajra)? In Vajrayana Buddhism diamond has a significance beyond being an expensive stone, or a girl's best friend. I'm still learning but I would imagine it involves being immutable, enduring, indestructible and pure - like the teachings of Vajrayana Buddhism.

Sorry I have no recent photos of Charya, let me poke around and find some.....! above is one I have lifted from Prajwal Sir's website.

Art of darkness

A load off

It's really, really, really dark here a whole lot of the time. Not too cold, mind you...but dark.

"Load-shedding," the south Asian euphemism for scheduled power cuts, has taken hold now for more than 49 hours per week. A few months ago I heard it would be up to 65 hours a week before the winter's end.

I went to the Nepal Electric Authority website to try to download the "new schedule," which seems to change daily. At least, I thought, I can schedule stuff (showers, battery charging, computer work) around the blackouts.

Not only is the schedule posted on their English language website all in Nepali script, it's too small even for someone who can read Nepali (ie, me) to decipher. The rest of the web site (all in English) is devoted to explaining the plan for ending the load-shedding problem "within the next four years."

It's one thing to have scheduled power cuts. But they are not even following the schedule. For instance, today's posted cuts were from 11.30am-1.30 pm and then again in evening. At 2pm, the power was still on, only to cut off at 3pm instead.

Various people try to excuse or defend load-shedding in various ways:

--We depend on hydroelectricity and the rivers are frozen
(This was true in Ladakh, north India in the wintertime, too. But they made a schedule and stuck to it. Midnight to 6pm, every day. From 6pm, when it got really dark, we had power till midnight.)

When the rivers weren't frozen, back in September, it was

--The broken dam in Butwal (south Nepal/Bihar region) means there is less ability to produce power

But, before the dam disaster which displaced tens of thousands of people, other excuses were:

--One of the hydroelectric projects went down and it will take three years (THREE) to fix


--We have greater hydroelectric potential, with all our rivers, than any country in the world; however we haven't been able to finish the incomplete dam projects. The money disappeared somewhere

or even,
--we actually DO produce lots of power...but we need cash so we sell the resultant power to India.

Probably elements of all the above are true. The only excuse I do not accept, at all, is:

--This is a developing country.

It WAS a developing country. No longer. In the past three years, things have gone backward. It's more like a de-volving country.

Of course, for me and many city-dwellers, the inconvenience extends only so far as inability to charge my cell phone, or take a hot shower, use a credit card, or get a cafe latte. What about those trying to run factories, restaurants and offices? Zero productivity.

I really feel for those trying to sew garments or manufacture toothpaste. The tailors with their foot-pedalled machines and the chai-wallahs with propane stoves are really better off.

Most nights I read myself to sleep with a flashlight. What about the schoolkids struggling to do homework in the early dark (around 4.30 pm here now)?

Sales of diesel and kerosene fuel should be booming; let's just pray that the Terai (Nepal's flat, dusty corridor to the Indian "mainland") stays open, since that's where all the fuels are imported from. The largest places (star hotels, for example, or major supermarkets) have diesel generated backup.

Crime has gone up in the city, as not only is there an earlier dusk these days, but the streets are completely dark a great deal of the night. Sometimes it seems the power is off more than it's actually on. People, especially women, are forced home earlier.

Of all the things Nepalis have rioted and shut down the city or valley over - raised transport fares, petrol prices, unsolved murders and unavailable school textbooks -why doesn't anyone get up in arms about this?

It would almost be better to be up in a remote village where no one relies on electricity, and everyone goes to bed at 8pm anyway.

Glow-in-the-dark clothing
Flashlight with extra extra batteries
Candles and matches or lighter
Solar-powered charger
Battery-powered everything
One of those deep-sea fish that have lamps growing out of their foreheads

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Amaravati's Most Wanted

The new Flickr stats device shows that my all-time Most Viewed photo was not my portrait of the Dalai Lama of which I'm so proud, nor even the portrait of my Tamil Muslim friend Mumtaz in the slums of Chennai (though she has quite a following).

It's not even the news photo I snapped of a Tibetan monk being attacked in Kathmandu, which made MSNBC.

It's this photo of a young Telugu lady in Amaravati, Andhra Pradesh, sporting the traditional south Indian half-sari. So far, she's gotten 7,871 individual views (not including my own). I think the half-sari is also called "skirt and thavani" (thavani being the top part).

In these days of internet porn, there is something very comforting about this. As the jewelry salesman said in
Breakfast at Tiffany's, "Do they still put the ring in the box of Crackerjacks? It gives one a feeling of...solidarity."

My friends Vijay and Teja still live in Amaravati, the town where the 2006 Kalachakra was performed by the Dalai Lama. Maybe they know the name of this young lady.

The occasion for her special dress was Pongal, the south Indian holiday that falls in mid-January. (It just happened to fall that year during the Kalachakra.) Otherwise, it's increasingly rare to see this elegant dress for young "unmarried" ladies.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Sister act

Three for the Road
Delhi, Agra, Kathmandu, Patan, Lukla & Namche

It's been nearly 2 weeks, and I am still getting over my sisters' (one older, one younger) 17-day visit. Not that they are at all difficult, and they are both experienced travelers, but it was such a whirlwind tour that we were all breathless by its end (and not from altitude).

We had only 15 days (excluding the travel days) but managed to get in, in two different countries: no less than seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites including Taj Mahal, Agra Fort, Qutb Minar, Humayan's Tomb, Swayambhunath, Patan Durbar Square, and Sagarmatha National Park; a ride on the Indian sleeper train; visits to some home-cookin' restaurants in Delhi and Patan; rides on public buses, cycle rickshaws and auto rickshaws; seeing an elephant walking down Aurobindo Marg; watching a Hindu-Buddhist puja at Swayambhu; shopping for pashminas; seeing the Himalayan snowcapped mountains from a plane no less than three times; a trek to Namche Bazaar Solu Khumbu Region, a five-hour wait at the Lukla airport, and getting stuck in an authentic Kathmandu traffic jam near Ason Tole.

Somewhere in there we got to visit a bit - but not nearly enough.

Here are just a few photos.
with Newar women for Kartik Ekadashi puja at Swayambhunath temple, Nov.2
The 15-seater Sita Air flight to Lukla from KTM was only delayed by one hour, which compared to the return, seemed like nothing.

On the street in Agra.

With our most excellent host and Delhi guide, Tak Noguchi, at Qutb Minar complex.

Sleeper train to Agra!

Friday, November 28, 2008

Mumbai memories

I felt like waxing all dramatic about how Mumbai and India will never be the same, but it's cliche at this point. Here are some of my more iconic photos from my time in Mumbai (2005), with its beautiful architecture and warm people.

The recently besieged Taj Hotel at India Gate. The Taj was founded by an Indian about 100 years ago when the finest hotel in Bombay would not admit him (as an Indian - it was foreigners only).Inside one of the great halls at VT, aka Victoria Terminus railway station, aka Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus. It's a masterpiece of Indo-Saracenic architecture and in this particular hall, you can see the stained-glass windows reflecting on the white stone.

The clock tower inside one of the main halls of VT. I believe this is one place grenades went off yesterday.

Three proud Marathi (Maharashtrian) gents in traditional regional attire in South Bombay. Looking good!

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

This stuff works

I (didn't) read (or write) the news today, Oh Boy

Yes, I have been back from Bara for a few days.

It took a couple days to recover from being in a Jeep with eight other people (men, women and children) who never, ever, ever stopped talking for 9 hours at a time. I had also caught a cold and sore throat while in the Tarai (sleeping outdoors under a tarp with other pilgrims). Then today, I had "gastric." So once again I am bad in not reporting right away about "Buddha Boy." Maybe his spiritual powers are keeping me from delivering a newsworthy report.

A news-junkie friend asked me a few months ago if I "read the news." I read different things, I told him.

This particular person prides himself on being well-informed. He gets up in the morning and, right away, turns on Google News and fills his mind with The World.
I used to do the same, with newspapers. They filled up some kind of void in the morning. Then I realized, to paraphrase the Rocky Horror Picture Show, that "the void was calling."

I didn't say as much, but I think meditation is even better than reading the news, in terms of connecting you with what's going on around you.

My friends Brother Martin and Lisa sent this today from Alternet.
Here's a link to the old (2004) Wall Street Journal article about same.
For thousands of years, Buddhist meditators have claimed that the simple act of sitting down and following their breath while letting go of intrusive thoughts can free one from the entanglements of neurotic suffering.
Now, scientists are using cutting-edge scanning technology to watch the meditating mind at work. They are finding that regular meditation has a measurable effect on a variety of brain structures related to attention -- an example of what is known as neuroplasticity, where the brain physically changes in response to an intentional exercise.

A rash of other studies in recent years meanwhile have found, for example, that practitioners of insight meditation (Vipassana) have noticeably thicker tissue in the prefrontal cortex (the region responsible for attention and control) and that experienced Tibetan monks practicing compassion meditation generate unusually strong and coherent gamma waves in their brains.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Buddha Boy's Back in Bara

Now with new longer hair

Lots and lots of catching up to do following a tumultuous month or so, which saw me start a new job (believe it or not) and host my 2 sisters who visited for the first time in six years.

You've probably read in the news that Ram Bomjom, whom the press has dubbed "Buddha Boy,"
has reappeared from his forest retreat in Bara district, Nepal. Tomorrow morning (if all goes as planned) I will share a car down to the Tarai to see the final few days of Bomjom's public appearance. This time he is speaking, addressing the public and even touching people. Like all good mystics, he seems to know there is a time and place for retreat and a time to share what you have learned with the public.

Somewhere around here is my old India Mike post about Bomjom.....

Boots and all

Kathmandu and Delhi

I was wrong, they do have Merrell hiking boots over here - at least in Delhi. There is a Merrell "showroom" in Khan Market. Live and learn.

I'm currently enjoying my birthday present from the Sistren - a new pair of waterproof North Face hiking boots, size American Women's 9. Nothing like new kicks to give you a boost.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

the air up here

Namche Bazaar, SoluKhumbu district, Nepal

Wow, there are some big-ass mountains up here (10, 335 feet or 3,445 metres). Internet time is so expensive (10NRS a minute) I can't write much. Tomorrow is an acclimatization day, however, so perhaps I can squeeze in a post.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Who writes this stuff?

I think the Telegraph needs a new correspondent.

In Nepal related news this morning:

The escape of the Czech forester from Darjeeling has raised serious security concerns in the region especially in the light of Nepal’s lenient immigration policy and the largely porous border that it shares with India....
The problems they believe lie in the fact that foreigners do not need visas to visit Nepal. They only have to get the passports stamped while entering the Himalayan Kingdom.

Foreigners don't need visas? My friends and I will be so glad to hear that!!

Hilarious - of course we need visas, oh boy do we need them. A few laws have permutated recently, but until about this past June, we had to report every 30 days at immigration and get a new one. They didn't even trust us with a few months at a time.

Indeed, foreigners do need visas for Nepal. However, visas can be taken either in advance from a Nepali embassy or, more commonly, at the border (or airport) upon arrival.

It's not just a most visas, it is a sticker in your passport. Tourist Entry Visa. AHEM.
And it costs all of $40 for 30 days, pretty hefty when you consider that six months in India only costs you $60.

When you get to the Immigration queue at Tribhuvan Irrational Airport, just get in line and be sure to have 2 copies of a passport-sized photo, as well as photocopies of your Passport front page. AND $40....the denominations required keep changing. They used to ask for $40 US and only accept US. Now I hear they won't take USD.

And we're no longer a Kingdom! Wake up and smell the incense, Telegraph "correspondent"!

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Traveling light

Sort of
Delhi, Agra and Kathmandu

One of the many, many things preoccupying me these past months has been the pending visit of my 2 sisters from America. They arrive in Delhi on 31 October. I haven't seen them in six years.

Since one has been to Turkey and the other, to Malaysia and Singapore, I suppose technically it is not their first visit to Asia. Still, there is lots of preparation for them.

Now if only they had been reading my blog all these years, they would know most of these things. Anyway, I am now answering questions like

"how many hair scrunchies should I bring?"


"do I need to bring sheets, towels and bedclothes?"

In general, I have found travel in this part of the world to be a great lesson in how little you really need. But to answer:

Scrunchies are available on the street here. Bring 3 from home, you will probably lose two.

All the the grungiest lodges have decent sheets and towels. If you are exceptionally picky about towels (ie, need to have 100% cotton - I know I do) bring one from home.

"What kind of stuff should I bring?"

A great many, many things are available here now, particularly in Nepal which has a history of being much easier on the imports than India. But there are a few things that really make life easier:

1--hand sanitizer and wet-wipes. They are in stores here, but you will want them on the plane ride they are ridiculously overpriced here.

2--Something to put your hair back with. Yes, you can get this in the stores but do you want to spend your first night looking for a scrunchie?

Why put your hair back? It is usually too hot or windy to do anything else, and long loose hair on women is associated with easy morals. Besides, as soon as you get off the plane your hair will be sticky with pollution.

3--Ziploc Bags. These do not seem to have made it over here yet, and they have 100 uses.

4--Some kind of washcloth or sweat-and-dirt-wiping rag for your pocket (see #2). Also available here, but you will need it en route.

5--Since we are doing some hiking, 2 pairs of shoes only. A pair of Teva type sandals, and a pair of hiking boots. For some reason, good shoes like this are still unavailable even in hiking-capital Kathmandu. Reebok, Nike and Adidas do have shoppes here....but not the serious outdoor brands like Teva, Merrell and so forth.

What are readily available are a lot of Chinese copies - best avoided. Chinese fakes are fine for some things - but not for your feet. You cannot put a price on how your feet (and back) feel.

6--Again, for some reason, mosquito repellent products containing DEET are mysteriously unavailable here. Bring some DEET sprays (spritzers are best to cover wide areas).

7--A travel mug with a sippy top really, really comes in handy. Yes, you can buy it here; but again, usually the western quality is better (ie, local ones often leak).

I really like having this on long trips or walks round town...I can buy a mug full of tea and keep going, or sit on a boulder or park bench, or wait for a train, drinking tea and watch the world go by.

8--A non-material thing many people forget - actually two things. A whole bunch of passport photos and photocopies of your passport and visas. These come in handy countless times during your travels, for entry permits and all kinds of things.

Another very important thing: make sure you scan and upload your passport and visa to your email account or other online account. After all, if you can lose your actual documents, you can just as easily lose the photocopies. This way, if the worst does happen, copies of the critical documents are available in the ether.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Dance the night away

Naach your average dance
Patan, Nepal

Kartik Naach,
the Nepali annual dance cycle depicting scenes from Hindu mythology (but danced by Newar Buddhist dancers) begins Oct. 31st in Patan's Durbar Square.

Kartik Naach is an eight-day series of dance-dramas instituted several hundred years ago by King Siddhinarasimha Malla. Though Patan's population was primarily Buddhist, the Hindu king hired the Buddhist dancers to portray Hindu stories.

Especially popular is the final night, when the tale of Narasimha disembowelling Hiranyakashipu is re-enacted to what can only be called mass hysteria from the crowd. (I would imagine this scenario is especially prominent because it's the namesake of the originating King Siddhinarasimha.)

All dances are free and open to the public, and take place on the Kartik Dabali platform in front of the famous Patan Museum from about 7pm to 9pm.

Here is a photo from the 2006 Kartik Naach depicting Lakshmi and Brahma Padmanabhasana (seated on the lotus from Vishnu's navel!).

I wrote to my Newar Charya dance teacher Raju Sakya about the origins of Kartik Naach. Here is part of his answer;

The King is Siddhinarasingha Malla who instituted and started for 15 days and his son SriNivas Malla elaborate it with other opera and dances for 1 month.But today in this century only for 8 days and some of the dance and dance parts are already lost or dissapeared with modern age. We have to preserve it but it's already missing . Let's hope and try to do revise and research on it.

Happy Deepawali and Nepal Sambat 1129 \Mhapuja.May Mata Laxmi bless us.

Whassup Ode Skool?!

A note from Flickr

Back in February,
you may remember I attended the Tibetan New Year celebration Losar out in Boudha. The Tibetan community, like Ladakh, is a cinch for "beautiful old faces" photos.

One of them was this lovely white-bearded Gandalf of a Ngagpa, or non-celibate Nyingma yogi
. (Nyingma is one of the five Tibetan Buddhist schools and literally means, "Old School.") I wish I could have illuminated his face better, but it was still a good composition.

He spoke a bit of English and invited me up to see his monastery in Helambu (about five days' walk from Kathmandu).

Just yesterday, a
Flickr member named Joakkim wrote in with this note:

Hi I also met Lama Rechung is his name by the way, at his home in Helambu in 98. Read more about Rinpoche at rr_ph_01_eng...

The Rinpoche does not appear to have aged a great deal in the 10 years since Joakkim met him, if the website photos are any indication. There must be something to those Tantric Arts.

Time for a closing cliche: What a small world it truly is.

Here are a couple more photos I took that day. Old school indeed.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Graven images

in Kathmandu

Yeah, I am so lame. I haven't blogged in nearly a month. But I have been playing Tour Guide to a number of friends tripping through the Du. Literally every time you go to an historic site, you see some new detail. Here are a few I've noticed this past month:

At the entrance to Mhyepi Ajima Buddhist temple. Just an archetypal female figure seated in something like Padmasana, and a bell to call her with. I like the way it's so worn down with centuries that nothing remains but the basic shape.

The torana (carved archway) of Sweto Kali or NarDevi temple, in the heart of Old Kathmandu. If you want to find her, the neighborhood is actually named after her (NarDevi). The white stuff on her mouth is milk-sweets (people "feed" her). Inside the temple are three more Devis. The torana is just a sort of "signboard" heralding the gods that live inside.

An unusually sensual statue of Sri Vishnu, Hindu god of preservation. He obviously seems "glad to see you." My friend Sean in California observed, "instead of sporting a Woody, he's sporting a Stoney."

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Still haven't found what I'm looking for

Looking for porn in all the wrong places

Sometime last year, DesiPundit ran a summary of a blogger's Greatest Attempted Hits. Most bloggers track USPs and referrals via something like Sitemeter; this guy (sorry, I can't remember his name) had listed the Top 20 Search Requests that had resulted in his page.

In other words, What People Were Really Looking For when they landed on his blog.

This week, I had some really interesting ones. I have taken out the weird machine-code between the keywords.

It's always gratifying when people look for "sirensongs" or "feringhee" or one of my other signature keywords. Heck, believe it or not, more than a few people even Google "Indologist at large."

I'm also pleased to see a number of people looking for Indian and related travel advice:

"dakshineswar temple"

"sudder street"calcutta backpacker accomodation

"dried foods ladakh"

"types of amoebas"

"bhutan altitude sickness death"

"licchavi democracy"

"meaning of teertha"

Or even names of my specific blogs or photos:

"organic orphanage"

"flower girl"

As usual, there are a few people looking for

"hot indian girls"

--who isn't? ;-)

Since I went to visit Ram Bomjom the "Buddha boy" a couple years ago, there are always requests for

bomjom location

"buddha boy" nepal

"mystic buddha boy meta"

Some appear very random indeed, and a bit confused:

"Geezer 2Bindia"

"Gandhi Seven Habits"

"pharma sutical"

But then there are more unusual requests, for

"caitlin derivation"

"what goddess of sri lanka believe in"

"love yourself in tibet alphabet"

and this week's favourite:

"uncut nepali men"

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Don't believe the heap

This just in! mountain made from molehill, film at 11
Kathmandu, Nepal

We have enough mountains here in the Himalayan Former Kingdom. In fact, with no petrol, no money, no roads, limited diesel and propane, no electricity, no schoolbooks and no real government or rule of law it's about all we've got.

I can't help but notice that some writers have lately added to the surplus, marking "Mountain" on our cultural and political maps where mere "Molehills" once stood.

One easy way to create a mountain is to heap up the hype of "news" where there is none.

Case in point: (jumping over to the western Himalayas for a moment):
Nicolas D. Kristof's
assertion a couple weeks ago that HH Dalai Lama's acceptance of Communist Party Rule in Tibet marked a "major turning point" (or some such nonsense) in the so-called dialogue between the Tibetan Government in Exile and the Chinese.

"An Olive Branch from the Dalai Lama"? What was he doing before, hurling invective?

Breathless with exci
tement, the double-Pulitzer winner Kristof rings what he clearly believes to be a clarion call:

One signal is this: For the first time, the Dalai Lama is willing to state that he can accept the Socialist system in Tibet under Communist Party rule. This is something that Beijing has always demanded, and, after long discussion, the Dalai Lama has agreed to do so.

News Flash to Nicky!: The Dalai Lama has always said this. He's been saying it for years (HHDL always says he's a socialist anyway, even calling himself a Marxist) and besides, it will hardly be seen as some major concession - the Chinese never considered it up for discussion.

Before I could muster my disdain for this silliness,
Manyank Chhaya beat me to it in this very lucid article which explains the non-event.

Indeed, the entire (widely republished, including in the International Herald Tribune) article appears to have been written in order for Kristof to reiterate, "I met the Dalai Lama personally. That's right, I got to sit and talk with him. The BIG D.L.! and ME!"

It's just like last year's reports that claimed the Dalai Lama was going to "resign." The Dalai Lama's been saying for literal years that the minute he's not needed politically, he will devote himself entirely to delivering Buddhist teachings and spiritual matters. This is nothing at all new.
Every writer just wants to be the first to break some new angle on a Dalai Lama story so they try to put old Chhang in new bottles. dot dot.....

By the way, in case you were wondering what the so-called "dialogue" or "talks" between HHDL's special envoys and the Hu Jintao sound like, our special Siren On the Scene had her ear to a tea-glass against the wall at the most recent Round of Talks in Beijing. She swears it went something like this:

HH: We give in! You run the government, just let us run our own religion. That's all we want.


HH: Not really, actually you can stay in political and military power....we just want to run our monasteries and rituals according to our own traditions.


HH: Uh, no...

China (sticks fingers in collective ears): LA LA LA, LA LA LA LA LA........

(Lather, rinse, and repeat - for the past six years.)

The "di" in dialogue means "two." The Sino-Tibetan DI-scussion is more of a monologue, going only one way.

And in other non-news....

On the other side of the Himalayas, scandal-mongering secularists attempt to create child abuse stories where there are none. The way to create a mountain, in this case, is to accrete creative imagery and selective exaggeration atop a religious custom you clearly don't understand.

There is plenty of child abuse in Nepal. Bonded labour, child trafficking, and so on. But these folks aren't concerned with that.

Witness today's "news" by AFP's Sam Taylor:

KATHMANDU (AFP) - A Nepali tradition of locking a young virgin girl in a palace and worshipping her as a "living goddess" has been dealt a blow with the country's Supreme Court ruling she has the right to go to school.

"LOCKING a YOUNG VIRGIN" (as opposed to a wrinkly, OLD virgin) "in a PALACE! " Now there's real objective journalism - visuals courtesy The Brothers Grimm.

It's sort of like saying that child monks are locked in a monastery, or that kids in a Catholic boarding school are prisoners. They are kids. Their parents decided where they would go, like most kids. In those places, there are rules. No kid has a "right" to go just anywhere he or she wants to...that's part of what it means to be a kid.

These girls' parents accepted the title of Kumari for the girl. They could have refused. The girl receives home-schooling, which is quite a luxury in a country where many children get no education at all. Her health care needs are met. There is no "labour" to speak of and even if there were, why are the plaintiffs not equally concerned with the thousands of bonded child labourers across the region?Above: Sajani during, and below after, Kumarihood. Photos by me

What if the girl doesn't want to be a Kumari? What if she doesn't want to enter a beauty pageant, be a child spokesmodel on TV, or take piano lessons? Do kids ever really get to say no?

Sure, she could be non-cooperative. She could sulk and be rebellious (I definitely tried it). The parents could still force her to do any of these, non-abusive, activities.

Those claiming to be so concerned for the various Kumaris' "rights" should review the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, the ones they keep harping on but haven't actually read. It seems none of them are violated by the Kumari tradition.

...the right to survival; to develop to the fullest; to protection from harmful influences, abuse and exploitation; and to participate fully in family, cultural and social life.

I would submit that the meaning of participating fully in cultural and social life varies from culture to culture. In a typical Nepali household, "full participation" of girl children in family life means doing a full day of chores after school, if they do indeed attend school. Carrying water from the well, chopping vegetables, sweeping, cleaning, laundry and so on are all "full participation." Female literacy overall in Nepal stands below an appalling 27%.

The Kumari is exempt from all these things, and as such is quite privileged, rather than deprived. There isn't a whole lot of hanging out giggling at the mall involved in the average Nepali girlhood. All the Kumaris are able to receive visitors and play with children their own age - they are hardly sequestered in the locked palatial towers Taylor suggests.

Some interested parties made much ado about the Bhaktapur Ekanta Kumari's being "forbidden" to travel overseas last year to promote the documentary Living Goddess. In fact, Sajani Sakya herself was never forbidden to do anything. The seated KUMARI, however, traditionally does not travel in such a way. Sajani was free to go, but that would mean surrendering the title of Kumari. It was her (and her parents') decision.

Every title and position has its rules. Miss America, Eagle Scout, Class President and other titles can also be rescinded if protocol is not followed. The person is free to do as they like; but in order to retain the title, they must follow the rules. It's not a rights issue, it's an issue of whether or not you want to keep the job.

And that's about all the non-news that's fit to print.