My last moments in Nepal had me back in Kathmandu and I had placed myself in the hands of my guide, Raj, to show me interesting sites. My only rule of thumb was to avoid the standard touristy places and visit someplace where aggressive vendors were not in my face, selling useless trinkets. He didn’t need to think hard. Immediately he said, you need to visit Kirtipur.
We drove southwest for perhaps thirty minutes and I was told only some five kilometers. Such is the traffic in Kathmandu, one creeps along, fighting for every inch of progress, not to mention the untouchable, holy cows lazing along the side, the center or actually, any section of the road they fancy to park at. The incessant honking of car horns is a symphony in its own right, and yet, no one seems to listen. Perhaps that is indeed another story.
Kirtipur is a tranquil town with its own ambiance. One parks their car and walks through the streets. This is one of these places where you automatically slow down and slide into the atmosphere. There is a small booth entering the town where you buy a ticket for entry. The handsome, imaged, glossy receipt ( which had a negligible cost) allowed non-Nepalis like me, access. The receipt thanked me for my contribution to tourism infrastructure development but was numbered 575, so I wondered how many people had taken the time to visit.
As one walks through the quiet streets, tranquility allows for observations. Older people are sitting outside, communicating on their feet, on high stools, or sitting on steps. I passed a group of men sitting in a row and asked to take their photograph and they agreed. I took two photographs and they are now prized possessions. Somehow, they gave off the aroma of this place.
There is an impressive group of medieval temples placed around the backstreets, The earthquake did its share of damage to the town, Yet, many of the temples were spared or were able to be reconstructed. The rubble which almost seemed to have invaded Kathmandu had virtually disappeared and was replaced with piles of building materials. Piles of bricks, loads of sand other materials were neatly piled. Re-construction work was ongoing and one could feel the sense of community, as people went about their daily chores.
This Kirtipur town is inhabited by the Newar people, the historical inhabitants of the Kathmandu Valley, and the surrounding area. The Newars consist of various ethnic, racial, caste, and religious sectors and they have existed since prehistoric times. I learned that theirs was a classical North Indian culture in which Brahamic and Buddhist elements shared equal status. In effect, these are some of the founding fathers of Nepal, and they have managed to maintain their ethnicity. However, migration out slowly eats away at history. Economic history talks about these people being merchants, craftsmen, artists, potters, weavers, dyers, etc. In effect, they were a flourishing economic system.
Kirtipur is the center of the Newar culture. As you progress through the streets one finds many temples, gumbas ( Buddhist monastery), and churches. There is Tribhuvan University so it is also a modern, medieval university town.
We walked on to the grounds of one temple and watched a ceremonial offering take place. I was especially taken by the colors of the clothes, worn by the female participants. I was told that it meant they were from the same family. They made offerings of food, under the watchful and helpful eyes of an elder, who I assumed was a priest or leader. The stones were stained by dyes, wax and what I am quite sure was the blood of animals, from over ages and ages of use. The stones, the statues, the altars, the bells all carry the weight of time. If you look carefully at the stone covered ground, you can see the pathways, the feet of generations, worn into the rock. The Newars seemingly practice both Hinduism and Buddhism and now Christianity, Islam, and other religions are followed. I believe I spent perhaps thirty minutes sitting and watching, taking photos, and allowing the Newar world to surround me.
It is always the same in a new country. If you sit in peace, to one side, and observe the surroundings, to eventually blend into the landscape,. The locals would acknowledge me but go about their business. They did not seem to be bothered by my constant taking of photographs. Nepal, and Nuwakot, and Kirtipur all infuriated me. I would just begin to feel the daily pulse of a place and it was time to move on. Truly, this is a place where I believed I could stay for a week, walk the streets, and try and capture the pulse in words and photos.
Walking further on, one meets a hill, with a temple at the top, with a long string of steps leading to the two lions that guard the gates. The steps again are worn, pounded down, and smoothed over by countless feet, over years and years. We walked to the top and sat on the temple steps, to survey the kingdom below. This was a strange land, peopled by culture, of which I knew so little. The corners of stones were polished by hands, beyond counting. One sits and looks at the lions guarding the entrance and with time one begins to understand their grandeur. They face the people, the town and they roar. When one quiets the mind, one can hear their protective roar.
Kirtipur is not just a place, it is history and once again, I am ashamed at what I do not know. Would I go to Kirtipur again, damn right YES! And, I would stay there a week or more and live with the Newar, like a Newar.