Monday, April 13, 2009

Kathmandu, in a Stupa (or the Jew in the Lotus)

It is hard to even begin to describe the sights I encountered today.  Unbelievable.  Kathmandu is chaotic and sprawling and dirty and dazzling and utterly fascinating.  It is also full of contradictions (more on that to come.)  I’ve been to my share of places in the world, but nothing like this; unlike in Europe or the Middle East, here you really feel like you have entered an entirely different universe.

So I’m going to try to capture some of the highlights, and offer my thoughts as I go.  This will, no doubt, result in a rambling style, full of  non-sequitors.  That’s just the nature of the place, at least as experienced by this westerner.  To help sort things out, I’m also going to divide this day into four different blog entries.  Bear with me. 

I met my guide, Mangalal, at 8:45 am in the hotel lobby.  As we hit the road, I was once again incredibly thankful to have a skilled chauffeur.  Driving is definitely a challenging profession here, not for amateurs.  Mangalal pointed to a banner proclaiming that tomorrow night, Kathmandu will be celebrating Bisket, the Newari New Year (the Newari are the Hindu upper class, Nepal’s version of Brahmins, the dominant local culture.)  I was excited about this, but Mangalal was nonchalant, for he noted that there are, in fact, 366 festivals per year here in Nepal, on account of the mix of religions, regions, and cultures.  In his home town of Bhaktapur, outside Kathmandu,  the people construct a giant chariot containing the deities Bhairav and Bhadrakali, which becomes the object of a tug-of-war between the residents of the eastern and western parts of town.  Apparently, this also involves a considerable amount of drunkenness, as last year two people were run over by the chariot.  Some things are the same everywhere!  At any rate, this will be the year 2066.  When I asked why, Mangalal recounted the legend of an insatiable princess of Bhaktapur who would take a new lover every night—because each morning, the previous night’s partner would be found dead in her bedroom.  Finally, a determined royal prince with a plan stepped forward and offered himself to the beautiful but lethal princess.  After a torrid night of love, he feigned sleep, but watched secretly as two poisonous serpents emerged from the nostrils of his sleeping princess.  He drew his sword and hacked the snakes into twenty pieces.  When the sun rose, he was alive, the princess was in love, and the town lived happily ever after.

As Mangalal finished the story, we arrived at Swayambhunat, a Buddhist temple (known here as a stupa) which is over 2500 years old.  Its origins are mysterious.  According to the local mythology, the Kathmandu Valley was once a lake, upon which floated a single, miraculous lotus blossom.  Many came to see its glory; eventually a great sage cleaved the Valley wall with his flaming sword, thereby draining the lake and enabling the lotus to settle on dry ground.  On the site of that flower, the Swayambhunat erected itself, high on a hill, overlooking the city.  Centuries later, it became a favorite place for the hippies who invaded Kathmandu in the ‘60s.  But they were usually too stoned to pronounce its name, so they called it the “Monkey Temple,” on account of the hordes of monkeys that frequent the grounds.

It is incredibly beautiful, filled with statues and prayer flags.  Each chorten, or prayer shrine, contains thirteen steps, representing the thirteen lives that Buddhists believe it takes to achieve nirvana.  The omnipresent prayer flags are always five colors.  Red represents fire, yellow is for earth, green for vegetation, white for wind, and blue for water.  Each flag has written upon it the words, “Om mane padme om,” the unofficial mantra of Nepal, praising the “jewel in the lotus.” 

The other ritual item one sees all over the temple are prayer wheels.  One always spins them clockwise (one also always walks clockwise through the grounds of the spiral-designed stupa.) Interestingly, these prayer wheels represent a concession to modernity.  In ancient times, monks would chant Om mane padme om up to ten thousand times a day.  But who has the time for such things now?  Thus, ingeniously, someone thought to put a scroll, with this inscription repeated time and again, inside a cylindrical wheel; every time you spin the wheel, sending those inscriptions around and around, it is as if you said your om mane padme om ten thousand times.  If only a good Talmudic sage had come up with such a short cut for the daily shacharit (morning) service!

Alas, the view from the Swayambhu is compromised by the pollution.  Kathmandu is growing so fast that no one really knows the population any more; it is certainly over three million.   Most of this growth consists of younger people moving from the countryside, which has suffered with political instability.  Mangalal looked out and said sadly, “Just ten years ago, all of this was rice fields.”  It’s the same story everywhere, I guess, from Meridian, Idaho to Nepal. 

Amazingly, right next to the Buddhist stupa, on the grounds of the “Monkey Temple,” there is another shrine, which is recognizable, by its pagoda-shape, as a Hindu temple.  Looking at it, I thought of the mosque/cathedral I’d seen in Cordoba.  But here, the co-existence is happy rather than competitive or triumphalist.  Buddhists pray in Hindu sites, Hindus pray in Buddhist sites.  The two traditions even share and co-opt one another’s gods and goddesses, harmoniously.  Religious syncretism is the rule here; Mangalal told me that there are over 33,000 divinities worshiped in his country.

This was my first large-scale encounter with polytheism, and it was fascinating for me, as a rabbi.  Jewish tradition is highly critical of polytheists, but as I toured Kathmandu, I recognized that the Torah’s critique is not entirely accurate.  I’m not going to start worshipping multiple deities, of course—I said my Sh’ma this morning in good faith—but I do have to concede that the Eastern path has its share of virtues.  We monotheists—Jews, Christians, and Moslems—have a tendency towards intolerance.  This is natural—if you believe that there is only one God, then anyone who believes in other gods and/or goddesses is, by definition, an idolater.  But if you believe in many, there is always room for one more.  Monotheism’s weakness is that it can easily slide into fanaticism; polytheism has a kind of “live and let live” attitude that is very evident in Nepal.  There is no triumphalism whatsoever here.  Nepalis also exhibit much less messianic fervor than we, monotheists, do.  Local Buddhists believe that a new Buddha will arise and bring peace every five thousand years—but since that still leaves 2500 years until the next one comes, they are not exactly rushing out chanting, “We want moshiach now!”  All of this is a nice thing after being in Jerusalem, which is home to me and my tradition, but also a bit oppressive at times.

Upon leaving the temple, Hindu visitors leave ritual offerings, known as puja for their gods and goddesses: corn, rice, flowers, fruit.  They mix these offerings with clay, then apply a red streak of the mixture to their foreheads, between their eyes.  This is called a tika, or “third eye,” and it symbolizes the presence of the sacred.  Eyes are also a leitmotif of Buddhist stupas, which are painted with the eyes of the Buddha, gazing out in compassion at his followers.  As we left, we passed a group of chanting monks, and a gathering of birds and monkeys helping themselves to the puja offerings.  I was already dizzy with thoughts, sights and sounds. . . and we’d just begun.

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