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Side by side in Kathmandu

Two of the world’s great faiths live harmoniously in the shadow of the Himalayas

By Tim Johnson

When they set fire to her mouth — that’s when I started feeling uncomfortable. Standing on a rise overlooking the Pashupatinath Temple, I had a good view of the Bagmati, a shallow, murky, garbage-strewn river, but also a tributary of the Ganges, and as such, a holy river for Hindus. When I arrived here, three men were shovelling and sweeping the charred remains of a cremated body from a grey stone slab into the river. Soon after, a female corpse arrived, newly dead and wrapped in cloth. They laid her body on the slab right in front of me.

The ceremony would have been rather bewildering were it not for my unlicensed, unofficial, wholly uninvited tour guide. Kathmandu is a city full of such “guides,” men who accost you on every street corner, calling out in accented English, “Sir, where are you from?” — a trick that forces you to slacken your pace. I had already rebuffed two such men, but this one — who claimed his name was Diamond — stuck by my side. When the attendants carried the dead woman in, he spoke to me in low tones, sotto voce, explaining what was happening.

First, they laid her down and uncovered her face from beneath the shroud. Then, in his undergarments, the woman’s son — the chief mourner — circled the slab three times, counter-clockwise, holding a candle. After the attendants placed white pods on the corpse’s mouth, the chief mourner lit them on fire, also resting a small sack on her stomach. “Food for the afterlife,” Diamond whispered. The family watched as the attendants built up the fire, placing great heaps of straw on top of the body. Soon, the fire burned steadily, smoke billowing back toward me, ashes collecting on my jacket. I paid Diamond the equivalent of two hours’ wages and left, a bit overwhelmed.

Stumbling upon this sacred funeral rite was strange, fascinating and entirely typical of my Kathmandu visit, a four-day stopover between trips to India and the Middle East. A dusty, exhaust-choked, cacophonous city of about one million, Kathmandu sits in a broad valley at the foot of the Himalayas. Its name instantly conjures up exotic images, many of which are actually true: here in Nepal’s capital, an overabundance of clattering rickshaws can cause a midday traffic jam, cooking fires burn along roadsides and mischievous monkeys hop from rooftop to rooftop. And it is an intensely spiritual city, where colourful prayer flags flutter over pedestrian streets and monks in bright robes wander. Religious shrines (including one of the world’s largest Buddhist stupas) can be found on nearly every street corner.

Kathmandu is also a city with many problems. The country’s literacy rate is below 50 percent, and Nepal struggles with serious poverty and underdevelopment — only Afghanistan ranks lower among Asian countries on the United Nations’ Human Development Index. The country has also recently undergone a major political upheaval, the ruling Maoist party having ousted the royal family following years of rebellion and civil war.

But those problems don’t, for the most part, extend to religious discord. Hindus and Buddhists (and others) live side by side in peace, and so it’s perhaps appropriate that the two young men who explain the religious dynamics of the city to me sit side by side in a faux leather loveseat. We’re in the lobby of my budget hotel, and the two guys — both hotel employees — are taking a break to chat with guests. One of the men, Bhependra Adhikari, is Hindu, while the other, Nerbu Sherpa, is Buddhist. (Sherpa is also related to the famous sherpas who aid other climbers up the slopes of Mount Everest, but he is thoroughly a city kid: “I don’t climb mountains,” he tells me, a golden hoop in his left ear, a motorcycle helmet under his arm.) The pair explain that both religions share a common root and many common beliefs, including reincarnation, a strong incentive to live in harmony in this life in order to cultivate good things in the next. “Nepalis are peaceful people, and we want to live in peace,” Adhikari says, while Sherpa nods his approval. “In Nepal, there is no problem with religion. Buddhists go to Hindu temples, and Hindus go to Buddhist temples. The temples often sit next door to each other. We even pray together.”

And I, at least in a superficial way, certainly experience what they’ve told me. I wander beyond the confines of Thamel, the tourist district of Kathmandu, to see the temples sitting side by side, as well as the religious shrines along the city’s lanes and streets. I visit the giant, imposing Boudhanath Stupa, and I even take a scenic flight on Buddha Air over the sacred Himalayas, viewing the soaring summit of Everest and its majestic, snow-capped neighbours from high above.

And I visit Rob and Sue Anley, a married pair of British expats who own the Seeing Hands massage clinic, a small storefront operation on an unpaved back lane in Thamel. They fell in love with Nepal on a round-the-world trip, deciding before the journey was through that they would return and settle here. The clinic is a natural fit between Rob’s background as a sports therapist, Sue’s experience in marketing and the year-round abundance of sore, weary western trekkers in Nepal. The twist is that the couple employs about 20 blind people to perform the massages. “There’s a higher rate of blindness here, because of the altitude and the lack of Vitamin D, plus malnutrition and the shortage of carrots and fish in people’s diets,” says Sue. Robs adds that people’s religious beliefs sometimes make things even more difficult for those with disabilities in Nepal. “People think it’s karmic,” he explains. “Or that it’s contagious.”

I decide to have a treatment. Chiran, my therapist — and the manager here — leads me up a couple of flights of stairs, carefully counting each one, to a bare space with two massage beds and a large space heater. He quickly detects problem spots I have accumulated over my weeks on the road in Nepal and India, focusing on the area where my daypack strains my right shoulder, diligently working out the knot. And we have a good chat, too. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of world geography and bears a skeptical, nuanced view of politics. When I ask him if Nepal is better off without the royals, he replies shrewdly, “The name changed from the Kingdom of Nepal to the Republic of Nepal, but the name is the only thing that changed.”

Back downstairs, Rob and Sue tell me about how Chiran has changed since beginning to work at the clinic. A scrawny, shy teen when they met him, he now carries himself with confidence. And Chiran and his compatriots have begun to change the minds of other Nepalis toward blind people. They’ve proven that blind people can hold jobs and lead independent lives, something that has shifted local attitudes in an exponential way.

Seeing Hands seemed like a fitting place to finish my visit to Kathmandu — a city filled with heavy doses of both hope and heartbreak. As I walk back to my hotel, passing shrine after shrine, I know that I will be back, someday — perhaps not to settle like Rob and Sue, but certainly to see what such a city can both build and destroy as it moves forward, using the strength of its beliefs and traditions to propel it into the future.  

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