History & Traditions, Traditional Art

First Trip to Nepal

Fellow blogger Pooja from Stories from Europe grew up in Nepal, so we’ve joined forces to write about a city located close to Kathmandu, called Bhaktapur. The individual accounts are about the same city, Bhaktapur, but written from a perspective of 34 years apart.

What things had changed?

What comparisons can we draw? Let’s find out.

1986

It is March in the year 1986.

It’s been two months since the doomed Space Shuttle Mission exploded and before another month is over, the reactor in Chernobyl, Russia will fail triggering a catastrophic nuclear accident that will change the world.

Meanwhile, in Australia, I am young, newly married and embarking on my first overseas trip. I am optimistic and filled with a mixture of excitement and nervous energy about my upcoming visit to Nepal. It would be my first time travelling overseas.

The First Overseas Trip

Why choose Nepal for my first overseas trip when every second Australian, at that time, was going to London or Bali?

24-year-old me was eager to experience a culture entirely different from the semi-pasteurized life I had in Australia, yet I still had many reservations about what ‘Overseas’ would be like.

My Arrival in Nepal – Kathmandu

When I arrived in Kathmandu, the capital of the Himalayan Kingdom, the wave of initial shock I felt at seeing the level of underdevelopment that existed in the Third-world, quickly gave way to a respect and appreciation for the Nepalese country, its eye-popping scenery, history and peace-loving people.

In 1986, I wrote in my travel diary, “the poverty of many Nepalese citizens contrasts sharply with a grand, ancient architecture, which is set against the backdrop of the staggering beauty of the Himalayas, mountains that could easily be mistaken for clouds.”

The contrast of our well appointed accommodation, the Yak ‘n Yeti Hotel, a former Palace in itself, with the scene a few steps away on the main street of the capital was stark.

Contrasts.

In 1986, there was very few modern conveniences, (there was great bemusement and amazement when someone brought a small vacuum cleaner into the hotel lobby). The swimming pool was cleaned with a mop that consisted of a rag wrapped around the end of a wooden broom.

Thus, it was a day or so before ‘Westernized’ me could relax and enjoy the Nepalese culture, without feeling a sense of inequity on behalf of the people, and guilt for living my life in what would Nepalis would consider to be an extravagant and materialistic Western lifestyle, in comparison. (Even though my lifestyle was merely average by Australian standards.)

One street vendor summed it up.

“Where are you from? he asked, polishing the prayer wheel we were about to buy.

“Australia? Then you are rich!” he put forward.

I shook my head.

“No, not rich, definitely not rich,” I maintained.

“No?” he said, raising his eyebrow quizzically.

“How long did it take you to save the money to come here, then?’ he asked, “Six months, a year?”

I said, “Almost two years,” but he had made his point well. I was rich in comparison.

Bhaktapur – 1986

After a day or so in Kathmandu, my new husband and I were eager to explore further by driving around 10 kilometres east, passing through largely agricultural farms and the turnoff to China before arriving at Bhaktapur.

In 1986, 80% of the population of Bhaktapur were farming and the city was not yet on the main tourist trail. That was a shame as it was the original epicentre of Nepalese government from the 12th century until Kathmandu became the capital city under the Rana Kings.

The name Bhaktapur, means, “city of devotees,” my yellowing travel notes tell me, and if you enjoy traditional art, architecture and lifestyle, Bhaktapur gives you this in bucketloads. To visit Bhaktapur in 1986, it felt like a time warp back to the 14th centuries, Nepal’s Golden Age, when the Dynasty of Malla Kings ruled the region.

As well as seeing traditional Newari homes, Bhaktapur’s main square, ‘Durbar Square’, is filled with UNESCO heritage-listed Palaces and Pagoda-styled temples, adorned with highly crafted, intricate woodcarvings and statues that I felt were a privilege to see, given that Nepal was, for many years, closed to the outside world.

It isn’t widely known that the tiered Pagoda-style architecture, typically associated with the Orient, was first developed in Nepal, by a Nepalese architect who exported the concept very successfully to Asia.

Durbar Square

Our Guide, Madhav, explained the history behind the architectural legacy left from the Malla Dynasty and their lengthy rule which preceded the more inward-looking Rana Kings, who closed off Nepal to foreigners.

Walking across Durbar Square we saw the masterpiece that is the Golden Gate, which comprises the main entrance to the old Royal Palace. Said to be, ‘the most richly moulded specimen of its kind in the world,’ the Golden Gate is intricately embellished with Garuda, the mythical griffin, Goddesses and other Hindu creatures. The gate leads to an inner courtyard containing a Royal Pool, or Water tank where a Hindu goddess, was believed to have her daily bath.

The Royal Palace itself, a structure adorned with fifty-five carved wooden windows, was built during the reign of the Malla King Bhupendra Malla, and finally completed in 1754.

Despite the Royal Palace remaining closed to the public as a result of the damage it sustained, during the 1934 earthquake, we feel now quite lucky to see it when we did, as the damage to these heritage structures from the 1934 earthquake had been repaired and the devastating 1990 earthquake was yet to happen. This is the palace as it appeared in 2013, (not my photo).

Photo Credit: Sadmadd

The Statue of King Bhupatindra Malla stands atop a pillar overlooking the square. The King is depicted in an act of worship and can be seen facing the Palace and away from the main square, as a mark of respect. Such a contrast to other statues in the West.

Bhaktapur’s Taumadhi Square

A few more steps away, Taumadhi square features a five-tiered pagoda built in the 1700s, with stepped plinths, said to have taken three generations to construct. The animal statues on the steps, guard both the temple and the resident Goddess. My photo is old and cloudy, but I am there standing on the right side at the top of the steps, talking to some young girls.

The girls in the photo gathered around me, holding my hands tightly and pleading, “one rupee.” Their fingers were so cold, and I worried that one little girl might actually be ill. One rupee is a pitiful amount of money and my heart went out to them, but our guide had warned us away from giving any of the children money. “If you give them money, it encourages begging,” he said. I did not want to offend.

From here we strolled along the quieter back alleys, where several Newari ladies dressed in traditional Sari, sat on mats on the ground, selling their crafts.

They sold silver filigree jewellery and trinkets, some inlaid with semi-precious stones as well as carved wooden boxes. There didn’t seem to be a lot of customers about that day. I purchased a small carved box and was given another small silver box in place of change, as the seller had no coins or notes to give me any change for the transaction. A kindly gesture and one that I hope did not leave her out of pocket.

traditional craft

Buddhist Art -Thangkas

We were privileged to witness the Buddhist monks painting scrolls in the traditional Buddhist art form, known as Thangkas. The monks paint versions with authentic gold leaf highlights, or a lesser alternative using gold paint, which was reflected in the price of each alternative.

I selected the following Thangka, brought it home from our trip, had it framed and it has been such a delight to me. All my family love it and I still have on the wall in my new home, 34 years later. It is a timeless piece that still fascinates me. There is always something new to see in the painting, even after 34 years.

nepalese traditional art

Some of the figures depicted in the painting might, on closer inspection, be considered pornographic to an unknowing Western eye. We are grateful that our guide explained the true purpose of this traditional depiction. The erotic positions of the figures were intended to excite men and the male spirit, in the hopes of increasing their fertility, something vital to the population, where children are seen as a way of securing your financial future.

Perhaps it worked, as I never had problems conceiving children?

My view from the coffee lounge

Our final stop in Bhaktapur, was a surprise invitation from our guide to drink coffee with him in a small Lounge, located atop one of the tiered Pagoda-like buildings, overlooking Taumadhi Square.

It was a unique experience to sit and contemplate the history of the centuries-old square where Kings had walked, where battles were fought, where ancient monuments were crafted and stone sculptures stood on guard, as a timeless testament to a creative and artistically rich culture.

Our Guide told us he met a girlfriend who lived in our home town and also how it was common for many Tour Guides to marry foreign tourists and live overseas. He insisted that he would prefer to stay in Nepal and hoped his girl would move over there. He asked us to go visit her when we went back home. I imagine he would have been disappointed to hear that she had no plans to return to Nepal.

Visiting Bhaktapur was a unique and highly satisfying experience I shall never forget and I thank Pooja from the blog: Stories from Europe for the opportunity to share these beautiful memories of my first overseas travel experience with you.

Bhaktapur – 2020

What things had changed since 1986?

To find out what has changed in Bhaktapur over the intervening years, visit Pooja’s blog post, and find out what life in present-day Bhaktapur is like.

What was your first Overseas travel experience like?

Where did you go? Was it to someone familiar or completely different?

I would be happy if you link back to #firsttripoverseas in the comments below.

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Traditional Art – Buddhist Thangka

 

Very likely one of the oldest Buddist symbols, the Wheel of Life is a popular theme in traditional Tibetan Buddhist art and it is known as the Thangka. Historically this highly skilled art form is commissioned for both spiritual and mundane matters, such as aiding the sick,  or to gain merit during commemoration of religious events.

At one time, Buddhist monks used to draw beautiful and complex mandalas on the ground, using colored sand. Once the Mandala was completed, it was removed as conclusion of the ritual, a strong symbol of the impermanence of reality.

 

patan Temple Katmandu

 

 

 

 

One of our treasured artistic possessions from a trip to Bhaktapur, in Nepal, is a Tibetan Buddhist Thankgka painted on silk, pictured below.

 

Buudhist art Apologies for the reflection on the image.

 

Thangkas are painted by the monks themselves, and the art form demands great mastery over drawing, as well as a high understanding of the geometric and iconographic principles within this style of traditional art.

Lamas and pilgrims would carry them in ceremonial processions and Thangkas were hung in monasteries as a way to display Buddhist teachings, in pictorial form.

Certain pictorial elements are outlined in 24 carat gold and are still considered an important method for studying and preserving the religion, history, culture and traditions of the Himalyan countries of Tibet, India and Nepal.

Here you can see the painstaking and long hours needed to produce this work of art:
[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4YyptY72-rk]

What do the Symbols Mean?

This art form is highly formalized typically seen as four or five concentric rings, or their symbolic equivalents, depicting the realms of existence associated with the journey towards enlightenment.

 

  • In the central ring, you will often find the intertwined images of a pig, a rooster, and a snake which symbolically depict the three “kleshas,” (mental states affecting actions), being ignorance, greed and aggression, called Samsara. These three states characterize the world of suffering and dissatisfaction.The snake and bird can be seen coming out of the mouth of the pig, indicating that anger and attachment arise from ignorance. At the same time the snake and the bird grasp the tail of the pig, indicating that they both promote even greater ignorance.

 

  • Half of the second ring depicts light, showing contented people moving upwards to higher states, possibly to the higher realms whilst the remaining half-circle, (usually dark), shows people in a miserable state being led downwards to lower states, or realms. These images represent karma, the law of cause and effect. The light half-circle indicates people experiencing the results of positive actions, the dark indicating negative action.

Propelled by their karma, beings take rebirth in the six realms of Samsara, as shown in the next ring.

 

  • The outer rim of the wheel is often divided into twelve section.  Whilst the three inner layers display the three poisons that lead to karma, and the suffering of the six realms, the twelve links in the outer rim show how this can happen. This is reference to cause and effect, or karma, over several lifetimes, demonstrating our current life and how our past lives and our present action influence us and our future.
  • The outer area contains decorative floral motifs and mythical animals, which were elements introduced into Buddhist painting in the mid – twentieth century by Newar artists of the Kathmandu valley.

 

 

  • Surrounding the wheel is either Mara, the fearsome demon who tempted Buddha, or Lord ‘Yama’, the Lord of Death, with his tiger skin hanging beneath the wheel, (indicating fearsome- ness), and it is he, who holds the wheel of life in his hands. Regardless of which figure is depicted, it represents impermanence and the transient nature of existence; everything within this wheel is constantly changing. The four limbs, (that clutch the wheel) symbolize the sufferings of birth, old age, sickness, and death.

By contemplating on the twelve sections of the outer ring, one gains greater insight into karma and this insight enables us to begin to unravel our habitual way of thinking and reacting.

  • The twelve outer sections, paired with their corresponding symbols, are:

lack of knowledgea blind person, often walking, or a person peering out

constructive volitional activitya potter shaping a vessel or vessels

consciousnessa man or a monkey grasping a fruit

name and form (constituent elements of mental and physical existence) – two men afloat in a boat

six senses (eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind) – a dwelling with six windows

contactlovers consorting, kissing, or entwined

painan arrow to the eye

thirsta drinker receiving drink

graspinga man or a monkey picking fruit

coming to bea couple engaged in intercourse, a standing, leaping, or reflective person***

being bornwoman giving birth

old age and deathcorpse being carried

*** The images of the couple lying together in a sexual union, we were told, was never intended to be pornographic, but rather to excite and increase the potency of fertility, especially for males! Devotees consider all creation begins with the sacred union of male and female energies. To experience the pure creative passion between man and woman they believe; to know unconditional love, is to manifest the body, mind, and spirit of a Buddha.

Something traditional to Ponder About

Aoraki
Community

Proverbial Thursday – Global Words of Wisdom

I find there to be profound wisdom in proverbs, sayings and quotes and I marvel at the way they are so succinct in communicating messages to the reader. Mostly anonymous, they come to us from past generations and from across cultures. They speak of the experiences of lives lived and lessons learned. Quotes, like proverbs, make us think more deeply about something.

Each Thursday, I post a Proverb or Saying and a Quote that I find thought-provoking. 

I hope you think so too.

proverbial-thurs

You can’t wake a person who is pretending to be asleep –

Navajo Proverb

“And this is what really counts, not just achieving things, but the advantage you have taken of your opportunities and the opportunities you created. Each of us has to discover his own path, of that I am sure. Some paths will be spectacular and other peaceful and quiet and who is to say which is the most important? For me the most rewarding moments have not always been the great moments, for what can surpass a tear on your departure, joy on your return, or a trusting hand in yours? Most of all, I am thankful for the tasks still left to do – for the adventure still lying ahead”  –

Sir Edmund Hilary

Lunch with Edmund Hilary at 760 metres at MT Cook /Aoraki

I may be with the statue of the great mountaineer, here, but as a young child, I was fortunate enough to have him visit our school,  shortly after his  successful assault on Mt Everest. Hilary was someone who contributed to many and various social projects in Nepal, and maintained close relationships with the country and the people, all throughout his life.  This is Nepal. It touches one’s soul, and one can never completely eradicate the desire to one day, return again.

I think Hilary’s words are profound and inspiring to a younger generation for whom the conquest of the world’s highest mountain is merely not if it will be done, but how many will succeed.

What do you make of his words?

Is the Navajo quote referring to something deeper or merely pretense?

Lunch with Edmund Hilary at 760 metres at MT Cook /AorakiThat is Something to Ponder About

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