Walking Around Kathmandu

I was on a market street somewhere between Thamel and Basantpur, walking towards the Durbar Square in Basantpur, which I was told by the people who gave me directions was at a walking distance, though I was finding the rightness of the expression “walking distance” very questionable with every kilometre I walked. Much as I disliked admitting it, the walk was actually not that bad, though a little outside of my zone of expectations in terms of the distance. There were honking scooters, speeding rickshaws and men, women and children going in every possible direction in the narrow galis or lanes where I was walking, which had double storey houses on both the sides, and small shops at the ground level. The houses had an entrance door opening in the gali, sometimes with some small verandah, where some women and old men were sitting and talking, or just sitting. I thought it uncanny, since I had not seen people just sitting like that, though I let it pass. “Maybe one of their lazy days, or some slow hour of the day”, I thought to myself.

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The Durbar Square came upon me as a surprise, just as I had gotten habituated to the walking and looking around. There stood marvels in carved wood and red brick, scattered in large open spaces, where you could stand and take in the splendour of it all. While I looked on in wonder, I also saw that there were men sitting everywhere in the Durbar Square, in the pastel colored Nepali hats. This was becoming too uncanny to ignore. There were men sitting on benches, in the corridors of the buildings and on the steps leading to the temples. Just as I was ready to dismiss them as “jobless”, I stopped to rethink my perception of people, the given situation and life as such. What is it that makes us so productivity-driven? Why is it that the idea of sitting with one’s own self, alone, without any work and without any thinking felt out of ordinary? Why was it that I was so quick to think that just because some people looked free and without any work, I equated them with being jobless?

I discovered that every place can teach us things that as yet we don’t even know we need to learn. And it is for that reason that we need to travel. Even though we may be cultured and polite on the outside, inside, many a time, we are thinking something that is a polar opposite of what we project to others. So, while I thought I was perfectly at peace with myself, I understood that I really did have the need to constantly do something or talk about something or atleast think about something. I had lost the inability to enjoy and cherish silence inside and outside.

With this pensive mood, I took a cab to the Bouddhanath Stupa, a sacred monument and monastery where Buddhist monks lived and practiced the higher truths of living. As I entered there were pigeons flying all around, and little monks were feeding the pigeons the seeds. They playfully fed the seeds to the pigeons and talked amongst themselves, occasionally laughing and sometimes getting into an intense discussion. A smile came to my lips. The men in the Durbar Square created a question in me, and these little monks were the answer. Do we need to be jobless? No. Do we need to be efficient? Yes. Do we need to work or think or talk all the time? Not at all.

The Bouddhanath Stupa looked different to me seeing it with a silence inside. Only now I really noticed the intensity in Buddha’s eyes which were watching over the world. Only now I relished the serene smell of the incense around the Stupa. The silent space inside, once discovered, doesn’t just make us more relaxed, it makes us be more with where we are, and who we are. It makes us available to the new lands we explore, and makes the exploration a complete experience.

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Satori at Pashupatinath

Image (c) Arti Agarwal
Image (c) Arti Agarwal

“So what’s the story behind the temple ?”, I ask my friend, munching a typical Nepali breakfast of poori, jalebi and tarkari outside the Pashupatinath temple in Kathmandu. My friend is a Nepali who left his country in the year 1999 before the political drama had begun to unfold in Nepal. Twelve years later, his spiritual wanderings see him outside this temple today eating breakfast with a fellow spiritual seeker like me. All around shopkeepers and vendors try to sell me rudrakshaskum kumdiyas, flowers, beads, incense, idols, pooja fans and an assortment of pretty items which I admire and politely decline to buy – just yet.

“Many stories are afloat”, he answers, sipping his tea. “One of the more popular ones is that the Pandavas after the battle of Mahabharata wanted to redeem themselves of their sin of killing their kith and kin and prayed to Lord Shiva to forgive them. Lord Shiva assumed a bull form to elude them. After a lot of tapas and search, the Pandavas saw the bull and immediately knew that this is Lord Shiva. On seeing them, Lord Shiva, in the bull form, started to dig into the ground to avoid them. The Pandavas run after him and could only catch his head as the rest of his body was already under the ground. Seeing their earnestness, Lord Shiva forgave them. Since then, He is worshipped as the Lord of Animals or Pashupatinath in this temple”.

“Interesting”. True ? Who knows ? Considering the number of times the face of the world has been swept by the forces of nature – and man – in the last twenty centuries and more, can there even be any tangible proof of any tale dating that far back ? For that matter, is there any proof of anything worth knowing in life ? Maybe our biggest achievements of today will be met with a similar scrutiny and skepticism by whatever exists in the world twenty more centuries from now, one never knows.

“Do you want a pooja basket ?”, asks my friend bringing me back from my train of thoughts as I look around the place wondering how, when and by who – or who all – this temple was put in its present form. I ponder over the fact that this temple is the biggest place of worship of Lord Shiva in Nepal, and has been under the direct patronage of the kings of Nepal since time immemorial, getting contributions from many rulers to expand the temple complex. My sense of time and place gets momentarily boggled and my sense of history feels flustered.

I realize my friend is looking at me and smiling and waiting for an answer. “Yes ofcourse, we’ll take a pooja basket. And a rudraksha mala, a big one, to go with the rest”, for I was already wearing two. A mala is another term for a string of beads worn around the neck. Rudrakshas are beads that hold the cosmic energy in them – which means, the more you meditate and the deeper your connection with your inner self, the more energy therudrakshas will hold and the darker their color will be.

Since my childhood my connection with deities and temples had been nothing greater than my connection with road signs, which is to say, not at all. They were something people used to follow and take seriously but I never understood why, because they never lead me to anywhere. I had questions in my mind which I wanted answers to, but a temple did not seem like a place where I would find answers on existence.

Today I was in one of the holiest temples of Lord Shiva, the God of enlightenment.  As I enter the temple compound I am instantly taken in by the grand pagoda structure, the crowds, the incense, the loud Nepali music, the camphor, the electrifying energy in the atmosphere and the monkeys hopping from one place to the other like its their playground. Here, I, with my malas, do not stand out at all. Here, I fit in comfortably. There is an erstwhile unseen energy in the air which begins to penetrate my very being, raising me beyond the physical, immersing me into the present, the immediate, the inner world in sync with the outer world. I see people and their faces, their expressions. My friend tells me I should stand in the queue for the pooja and darshan. He is talking to the priest trying to find the best way to get the darshan. He has been here several times, but he is trying to ensure I don’t miss anything important. I tell him to relax. Some people hustle and bustle in the queue, like they always do. I can see them struggling to get near God. They dont want to miss God. But how can you ever miss God?

It’s my turn. I step forward and give the pooja basket to the bhatt who takes it, without pausing his mantra chanting. My eyes are now arrested on the golden eyes standing out from the stark black shiva linga which are staring right at me. In that moment, I am transfixed on the eyes – they seem to be talking to me, without saying anything. The bhatt brings back therudrakshas and the sandalwood paste and I walk out, blissful. My friend and I walk around the temple having darshan of the remaining deities and soaking in the temple vibes. I am very aware … in my mind, there are no thoughts, only the present moment and its experience. While in the queue, the question had occurred to me, why am I here? And the answer came, this time. I am here, not because I want to be here, but because Pashupatinath wants me here.  Because the cosmos wants me here. I did not fret aboutdarshan or pooja, I knew I was here not because I wanted something but because the cosmos wanted to give me something, all I had to do was receive. And I did. I let myself be a path for His energy to flow through me. And I could feel it now, vibrating in my being like the membrane of a drum. I know now, that some answers come, but not in words – but as an experience.