Thursday, July 23, 2009

Fair to partly cloudy

Grey, green, gold, blue and white
Ranipauwa, Muktinath, Lower Mustang

Those are the colours of the landscape up here at Muktinath (in the lower Mustang region), an elevation of about 12,000 feet. Grey are the mountains; green trees; blue skies, golden wheat and white clouds. It was a precarious plane ride (between mountains, from Pokhara to Jomsom), stopped at the Magic Bean coffee shop in Jomsom for java, before walking to the shared Jeep ride.

I recommend sitting on TOP of the Jeep from Jomsom to Ranipauwa. They do not give you a discount for doing so (the ride is still 500NRS for foreigners) but it is much more fun to have the wind in your hair than to be in the stuffy inside.

Waiting for the Jeep you will see a colourful mix of fellow travellers. The Hindu sadhus are refreshing as, unlike the city "pseudhus," they are genuine pilgrims and not out for spare change. There are Tibetans and Tibetan-descended Nepalis who are native to the lower Mustang region, random "other" Nepalis, a few clean-scrubbed Western volunteers who are eager to teach the locals English, and of course, what I call the Stick Men (over-equipped foreign trekkers with their two walking sticks, one in each hand).

The morning of the eclipse dawned grey and cloudy, as luck would have it; but it was still great to be in a quiet, sacred space.

I am waiting for the camera batteries to charge; then I can upload photos.

At this time of year the region is really empty. Of course there are a lot of monsoon clouds, but they clear off a couple times a day for great views of what I assume are the Dhaulagiris.

Ranipauwa (the base village for Muktinath temple) is surrounded by more traditional villages such as Dzong ("hilltop fortress"), Purang, Lubra, Khining and Jharkot, which is home to the Tibetan Medicine society, a large Sakya gompa and an ancient ruined fort. During these first 3 acclimitization days, my walks to these villages, through golden wheat fields and meadows of flowers, have been nothing short of enchanted.

The "happening spot" in "town" appears to be a place called Hotel Bob Marley which actually is decorated in 100 percent Bob Marley paraphernalia, if you can imagine that, and run by a Nepali transvestite (very nice eyeshadow). In season I guess it is full of drunk Aussie climbers. Now it's nice and empty.

Muktinath temple is actually a walled compound (a complex complex at that) encompassing various religious expressions. The "main" temple to which most people refer when they say Muktinath is a three-tiered pagoda-style structure shoved way up under the very last spot before the mountain turns to cliffside. It's surrounded by the cold mountain streams, 108 spouts coming out of the steep hillside, so it constantly feels cleansed and renewed.

I normally associate Himalayan mountainscapes with Shiva in the Hindu pantheon, so was surprised to find it is a Vaishnav Hindu temple (though most people will claim it is "both Hindu and Buddhist"). The temple darshan (opening and closing of the doors) is controlled by a Buddhist nun. I'm going to read up a bit on the temple history.

The temple is best known for its association with Shalagrams, the sacred stones with ammonite fossils inside, said to be manifestations of Vishnu's sudarshana chakra. The stones grow naturally in the nearby Kali Gandaki river. They are for sale down below in the town, but technically you are not supposed to buy them. I think you are meant to find them, or have them "come" to you.

Additionally there are a Hindu yagnashala (fire ceremony house) where fire pujas go on daily; three very old Buddhist gompas with mostly clay (not stone or metal) statuary; a Shiva temple with an unusual iconic image (not just a Shivalingam, but marble figures of Shiva and Parvati); mountain ponds suitable for bathing, and lots of Buddhist prayer wheels.

Everywhere there are these solar cooking ovens that were thoughtfully donated by some German NGO. Great idea - to cook with solar energy rather than using local firewood, which deforests the land, or kerosene which has to come from down below. Too bad I have yet to see anyone use even one of them.

Development people need to realize: you can suggest all you want, you can lead a horse to water, but people do what they want to do. Not what you want them to do. Even when it means killing the goose that laid the golden egg.

Related reading: 
Trekking North of Pokhara Jomsom, the Thak Kola Canyon and the Annapurna Sanctuary: No 2 (Nepal trail guide)

Sunday, July 19, 2009

hostel witch in india

That's the weirdest search engine referral for my blog today (perhaps ever), according to SiteMeter.

Origin: Saudi Arabia.

Is there a hostel witch in india, and does she help you to find a hostel (like a water witch locates water)? Or does she cast spells upon hostel dwellers?

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

I'll follow the sun

Tracking the eclipse
Pokhara, Nepal

I'm here in the lazy lakeside town of Pokhara, trying to figure out (among other things) the best place to go within Nepal to view the upcoming total eclipse of the sun - July 22, 2009.

Here are some traditional Hindu dharma ideas about appropriate activities during a solar eclipse.

Usually, Hindus do not perform any work during Surya Grahan and they purify themselves by taking a bath and chant mantras. A complete fast is undertaken by many Hindus during the period. In Hindu religion, taking a holy dip at sacred rivers and tirths on the Surya Grahan day is considered highly auspicious.

I am close to Muktinath, the remote Buddhist-Hindu mountaintop temple, which would seem to be an ideal place. But at Muktinath, the eclipse will "only" be about 94%.

From southeastern Nepal, however, such as the town of Gaighat, it will be 100%. It seems a shame to be so close to a 100% eclipse and not actually witness it somehow. Of course, all this is dependent on weather. I could go allll the way to Gaighat - and, being in the Terai, it is subject to bandhs and road blockages - and not see the eclipse due to weather.

Or, I could go up to Muktinath, and still not witness it properly for the same reason. I have been led to believe there are fewer clouds in Muktinath, so perhaps a 94% view clearly is better than 100% subject to monsoon clouds.

The ideal place might be Varanasi or Bodh Gaya, where undoubtedly there will be a great deal of chanting and appropriate pujas held. But as it's only 10 days away and I don't yet have the Indian visa, it might be near-impossible. July is boiling in those places; but for a once in a lifetime event, I suppose I could rough it. The Ganges at Varanasi will be absolutely swamped on such an occasion.

As Asian logic would have it, it takes as long to reach Eastern Nepal (thanks to bad roads and strikes) as it would to reach Varanasi, in the next country.

Related Reading;
Following The Sun Shadow or Ted Scott and the Great Eclipse

Thursday, July 09, 2009

We can be superheroes

Just for one day

The Lalit Kala campus reeks of urine.

That's my overwhelming impression of what should be Nepal's equivalent of the "Kids From Fame" high school. Lalit Kala ("Fine Arts") is a secondary school where classical music, singing, and fine (visual) arts are taught. The building is historic; several generations of Nepali royal court musicians used to house and practice there. But it's terribly dilapidated; the semi-modern toilet installed smack in the middle of the ground floor is only the beginning.

According to Raju who graduated from there 15 years before, absolutely not one thing has changed. Looking round the fine arts and sculpting studios was nothing short of depressing. Dimly lit, dusty, musty rooms; even the grimy brown anatomy skeleton was missing parts.

In case you haven't figured this out yet, money is not a problem in Nepal. There is plenty of money. It all goes into deep pockets! I had to wonder how a student could concentrate on anything, let alone fine arts, with such a reek coming into the old classrooms.

Raju and I performed briefly there on 15 May; we opened the end-of-term classical music show with the "Sodasa Lasya" (Sixteen Graces) item.

In order to dance the approximately 6-minute hymn, we still had to garb up in full Tantric dance gear; all this in one of the empty classrooms with no mirror. But I'm not complaining, it was my first Charya performance of any kind. Raju was dressed in the yellow gown of Manjushree; I wore the red attire of Vajrayogini.

I'm accustomed to 3-hour dressing sessions from Bharatanatyam, and Charya is quite a bit simpler in alankaram (decoration), but still involved:

-under trousers, -choli blouse, -full skirt, -mekhala (deccorative belt), -another kind of overskirt waist-piece, -a big full thavani (top part) that made me feel like a Catholic cardinal, -another top piece that fit around the breastbone, -and lots and lots of jewelery, including:

-Several sets of bangles,
-heavy silver anklets,
-bells tied round the knees,
-about five different neckpieces including the tayo or oblong traditional Newari women's piece worn by the Kumari, and
-several strands of fake pearls.

Raju drew a "third eye" on my forehead using a black kajal pencil.

My favourite part is the crown, or muthi, also called kiriti. There are several different crowns meant to be worn for various deities; this time I was wearing the skull-garland crown of VajraYogini. The grinning kapilas look to western eyes very Tibetan, but in fact it's the other way round; Tantric Buddhism with its skull imagery came from India via Nepal before reaching Tibet.

Underneath the crown is a 3-tiered topknot hairpiece; an identical wig is worn by the Tibetan monks when they perform certain lama dances depicting the Dakinis. Then the crown is tied on with black threads in three different places.

The crown looked and felt a lot like a helmet. After donning all this magical bling, I felt like a superhero - cape, implement of power, helmet of invincibility, and shields. I have often mused on the similarity between Hindu deities and the Superheroes. Vishnu particularly seems like Superman (he rests in his Fortress of Solitude when not needed; he incarnates whenever a call for help is heard on Earth, has superhuman strength and takes different forms).

After three false starts (the sound guy couldn't cue the CD right), we finally danced. It is rather un-godly to stand on stage waiting for the music to start.

Somehow I think Kathmandu needs all the cutting-through energy of Vajrayogini to eliminate the corruption that allows a noble institution like Lalit Kala to fall into such decay.

 Related reading:
Gods, Men and Territory: Society and Culture in Kathmandu Valley
 The Glory of Nepal: A Mythological Guidebook to Kathmandu Valley Based on the Nepala-Mahatmya and Himavatkhanda 

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Turning over an old leaf

This is so cool
News from the Olds

I love the image of drinking in new knowledge from ancient palm leaf manuscripts. In some areas, palm leaves are still being painstakingly inscribed with sacred information.

Lontar is deeply venerated by Balinese, anyone who wishes to read lontar regularly needs to undergo a consecration ritual (mawinten) which must be performed by a brahman priest. Lontar cannot be sold or thrown away when damaged but it can be burned with proper ceremony and offerings.

A recent archaeological project collected palm-leaf manuscripts in the state of Chhatisgarh (formerly part of Orissa state).

In the first phase of a survey conducted by the National Mission for Manuscripts and assisted by locals, around 2,000 manuscripts have been collected from various archaeological and remote sites in Chhattisgarh...

But, how do the manuscripts contain words in "texts in Sanskrit, Oriya and Devnagiri" - since Devanagiri is a script, not a language? I think they mean that Devanagiri script was used to write the Sanskrit.

The photo at left shows an ancient manuscript in Kerala, in the possession of my friend Murali in Tiruvilwalmala, whose family have been Ayurvedic vaidyas for 17 generations.

I believe the script and language shown is ancient Tamil. (Someone know for sure?)

Originally, the pages would have been strung together with a thread through the central holes.

Hinduism Today's specialized news service, Hindu Press International, is where I saw this story, and a great source for all kinds of Hindu-related news items.

In the ongoing "pick on the foreigners" thread, Nepal's Pashupatinath temple has added insult to injury by charging perceived "foreigners" (read: people who don't look if you are Assamese Indian, or a Singapore Tamil, you are scot-free) double the previous entry fee - even though "foreigners" are prohibited from entering the actual temple, lest they pollute the hallowed grounds.

It's still okay to through plastic bags of trash into the nearby river and spit on the ground, though. No fines levied for that.

Monday, July 06, 2009

I'm back, sort of

Temple of the Sword-Wielding Goddess
Sankhu, Kathmandu valley

Ack, I am suffering from what has become my annual Monsoon Illness. Somehow, hard as I try, it gets me every July that I stay in Nepal. I have got to get out of here earlier next year.

Here are a few photos from my visit to the atmospheric, remote temple of the KhadgaVajrayogini
at Sankhu village, on the eastern edge of the Kathmandu Valley.

'Sankhu Vajrayogini' is one of the four guardian Vajrayoginis ("Adamantine Goddess") that stand watch over the Valley. The other three sisters are found at Pharping, Guhyeswari (foreigners not admitted), and Swayambhu at Bijeshwori.

I hope to make a complete tour (via bicycle) of all four Yogini temples and post a yatra-logue about the whole thing.

Photos of the murti were not permitted, but I found the people up at Sankhu temple to be welcoming and very, very proud of their goddess. The young girl below (who spoke excellent English) explained to me simply, "She is our Mother."