Hidden Worlds

Features Issue 150 May, 2014
Text by Sally Acharya

Do you think you know Patan? There’s a whole world behind those busy streets. Each hidden courtyard has its own story and its own secrets – which can sometimes be 2,000 years old, unmapped in guidebooks, and unknown even to scholars.

Every day thousands of us, travelers and expats and Nepalis alike, walk in oblivious haste past whole sections of the city. We see them and don’t see them. We pass a shadowed doorway, unmarked and head-bangingly low, but would never enter because it seems to go into someone’s home. Further down we pass another doorway, and then another, which offer occasional glimpses of murky passageways and perhaps a dusty inner courtyard. But there is nothing inside on a tourist map, and it’s not the location of the shop we’re heading for, and so we walk busily on.

This hidden world is a mystery to most foreigners, but it’s also a mystery to Nepalis who aren’t native to Kathmandu -- or, if they are, happen to have no friends who live in an old Newar neighborhood. After all, who would walk into what appears to be a private and seemingly closed space without an invitation?

Try it sometime. On the other side of that portal lies a world that is both public and private, interior and exterior, where each square seems self-contained but is linked to others through a maze of dim tunnels, as if they’re a series of secret rooms.Each courtyard has its own story, and it sometimes goes back to the dawn of Kathmandu Valley civilization.
You can start with a passageway barely a minute south of Patan Durbar Square, off the mobbed thoroughfare of Mangal Bazaar. It’s unmarked in English but says Rajkarnikar Samaj in Nepali, a reference to the sweetmakers who have made their homes on the other side since Rembrandt’s time. Actually the sweetmakers are the newcomers. There is a Mother Goddess inside who dates back 2,000 years – one of the oldest relics in Nepal, although it, too, is unmarked and virtually unknown.

You won’t find the goddess right away; what you’ll see is a square that looks like an enclosed space. It’s Hastinagal Mahabihar, better known as Haugal, one of the documented 166 similar spaces that honeycomb Patan. As a bahal, or monastic courtyard, the focal point is a former monastery for the quirky Newar form of Buddhism in which monks weren’t voluntary celibate hermits but multi-taskers born to their vocations. They were married men of the high priestly caste of hereditary monks (now surnamed Shakya and Bajracharya), some of whom doubled as goldsmiths and had daughters eligible to be the Kumari, or Living Goddess, whose blessing was needed by the Hindu king. Even today there is a coming-of-age ritual in which young men of traditional monkish families become a monk for four days, serving at their hereditary monastery.

But the monastery at Haugal isn’t active any more. So what, really, are we looking at in this randomly chosen courtyard? Well, it’s a monastery of unknown age that was renovated in 1806 by the sweetmakers and again in 1934 after the earthquake, but has morphed over time into a shrine and a community center run by the local guthi, a type of community organization that goes back to Licchavi times (400 to 750 CE) and “binds people to socio-religious obligations in their community,” as one scholar puts it.

In other words, this 1,500-year-old system organizes feasts, rituals and parties that, frankly, you’d better make an appearance at if you belong to these families. Nobody ever said that tradition was easy. But if you’re from this community, you do have a social life, and it’s connected with your ritual life, and it will periodically bring you here to eat dal bhaat with your friends and relations in a cavernous attic-like room above the shrine, to the Reclining Buddha, where you can party while remaining completely invisible to the people in the quadrangle below.

Every bahal has a specific past that is related to its living present. This one is home to 40 or 50 people, mainly Rajkarnikar sweetmakers whose ancestors, as they tell it, were invited to Nepal centuries ago from India by the king of Patan and given this land in what used to be an elephant stable – hence the name Hastinagal, a derivation of haati (elephant). There is little to verify the oral story, but scholars point out that the suffix “gal” in the names of neighborhoods such as Haugal goes back to Kirat times (when it was “gvala”) – which is circumstantial evidence, at least, of some kind of community in the area when gladiators fought in Rome, because that’s what coincides with the Kirat era. This particular bahal is documented as an administrative unit by Licchavi times, during the early European “dark ages.” And as we’ll see, it goes back much further, to the dawn of Kathmandu Valley civilization.

A Small But Special Home
If anything besides the old monastery-turned-guthi-building dominates life in this bahal, it’s Mangal Laxmi Rajkarnikar’s teashop. She’s an amiable middle-aged woman, barely four feet tall, whose customers have to sit on stoolsand steps outside, since her kitchen is too small for a teashop table. Her home is about seven feet wide, though it rises towards the sky. That’s not uncommon in old homes; life in an extended family is full of squabbles and small annoyances, and so the ancestral property of MangalLaxmi’s sweetmaker husband was subdivided down the middle.  Much of her family’s halfconsists of a stairwell with an old wooden ladder, and at each floor, you have to swing tightly around it and maneuver gingerly on the ledge-like hallway, about three feet across, whose floor has been trodden on for so many years that it now slants towards the yawning stairwell. There is no railing.

Each floor contains a single room, with space only for a bed, fitting snuggly between the walls, rather like a ship’s cabin. By each bed is a window, like a porthole from on high. MangalLaxmi sleeps above the kitchen; her husband’s room is on the floor above; and their two sons share a bed one floor higher, with a larger-than-life poster of Bob Marley gazing benignly on them as they play guitar to pass the time. Rikson, 22, has a slight scar on his forehead from falling down the steep stairs as a child. He also has a sweet singing voice, and a vague plan to go abroad someday for work like his friends, most of whom are gone now. When he sings by the window, it’s like hearing Rapunzel in her tower.

The top floor consists of a balcony floored with corrugated tin, which feels a bit precarious given that, by this point, you’re five stories above the ground, but at one point it offered an unobstructed bird-height look at the Durbar Square. That view is now mostly concealed by taller buildings, and the pagoda roofs can only be seen through a gap.

It may be tiny, but it would be hard to beat the location. Rikson doesn’t like those cement towers and is aware that the municipality now discourages their construction. He’d like to improve his home in the traditional style, with elegant carved wooden windows. But those cost a lot of money, and in spite of Patan’s sky-high land values, cash can be hard to come by. While guthi often preserve buildings and commission new windows in the traditional style, many private homeowners, strapped for cash or just preferring the more comfortable life they envision in a newer house,end up tearing down their old homes to build cement ones. That is probably what will happen to the abandoned home across the square when its squabbling family comes to an agreement over who controls it. These courtyards and their homes may be national treasures, but they’re caught in a tug-of-war between competing futures, and many of them are unoccupied.

The Second Square: Humble Home to an Ancient Goddess
In a corner of this first square, near the abandoned home with its shuttered windows, is a dark opening in a wall. Enter it, and you’re in a low tunnel that leads into another courtyard, still part of Haugal. We’re now leaving the square of sweetmakers and entering the square of woodcarvers, associated with a third square another minute (and another tunnel) further along, the old monastic square of a now-missing monastery, Jom Baha Jagat Kalyan Vihar, now known as Jom Bahal.

In this second square, woodcarvers ply their craft in the sun, seated on the ground by a sunken shrine surrounded by candleholders.  The shrine is four feet below the courtyard and houses a weathered goddess. An old plaque in Nepali gives a recent date; but that refers to the surrounding framework created by a reverential patron.

Look at the goddess closely. She sits on a throne-like stool with her muscular arms akimbo and her thick-thighed legs planted squarely and spread widely. Her simple ornaments include large plate-shaped earrings; much like Tamang women have traditionally worn. These are the tell-tale characteristics of only a handful of shrine statues in Nepal: One in another part of Patan, another in Hadigaon, a third in Balkhu. Such imagery can also be seen around Tilaurakot, the ancient seat of the Buddha’s family kingdom. All of them date back to at least the second century. That’s 2,000 years ago.

There aren’t many scholars in Nepal equipped to identify her age, but there are a few, such as Devendra Nath Tiwari, director of the Patan Museum, and archeology and monument expert Kumar Rajbanshi. They agree that this statue – unmarked and unlisted in guidebooks– is one of the Valley’s oldest. It’s impossible to say for sure how the inhabitants of this area in Kirat times saw her, over a thousand years before the sweetmakers and woodcarvers moved in. But later arrivals continued to venerate her as Harati, a Buddhist protector-goddess of children also known to Newars as Ajima, or grandmother goddess. That’s how the residents of the square see her today. Her features have been worn by the pouring of water, sprinkling of powder, and the passing of two millennia, but she’s still here.

A Third Square: Flute-makers and Carvers
Find another dark portal and pass through it. Now you’re in a square belonging to flute-makers and carvers of wood, stone and ivory, whose lore says they were also called here, presumably with the sweetmakers, to provide services for the Krishna Mandir at Patan Durbar Square, which was built in 1637. Instrument maker Bajra Bahadur Shilpakar, who is well versed in area legend, lives and makes his highly regarded flutes in a home whose symbolism is startlingly complex and still intact. There are three windows on one floorto symbolize the Three Jewels to which Buddhists look for guidance (the Buddha, the dharma or path he taught, and the sanghaor community of Buddhists); above those are five windows to represent the Five Wisdom Buddhas, an esoteric but popular concept that involves previous Buddhas in past times or alternate worlds who are, at the same time, representatives of energies or attributes.

That’s a lot of symbolism for a simple house with narrow rooms that, as in the sweetmaker’s home two courtyards back, are dominated by a stairwell with steep creaking stairs. But as it hasn’t been subdivided, the warren of rooms is larger. Some six people can fit in the front room overlooking the courtyard, with its wall of photos featuring the eldest son with the Dalai Lama.

There is no family yard here that is not also a common space. It’s, at the same time, a quiet private refuge from the streets outside, a busy workshop, a play space for children and a walkway for those who know the way. And it’s always, also, a sacred space: a shrine to the Reclining Buddha in the first square, the Mother Goddess in the second one, and here in the third is a 17th century shrine to Buddha. From here you can continue through three more squares – all of them the traditional homes of woodcarvers – where greenery spreads across the brickwork and birds chirp around sacred chaityas, creating a series of quiet oases from the maddening traffic on the other side of the solid-walled homes, only a few score feet but a world away.

Ultimately the winding path will emerge into that traffic and spill intoTichuGalli, the metalworker’s street (which is indeed on many tourist maps), near a striking shrine with an unusual façade of embossed copper. Linked intimately to the courtyards we just passed through, it’s a shrine to Biswokarma, the god of artisans and architect of the universe. 
The artisans who pay respect to Biswokarma have built an extraordinary universe of their own that has endured for centuries. But in each square, there are empty homes, and the people who live here now say that, while the traditional homes are cool in summer and warm in winter, the young people don’t like the low ceilings and prefer, if they can, to build new homes of marble and concrete in other areas, where they live behind private gates. Woodworkers struggle with the high cost of wood, which translates into a loss of customers; their children study computers and visit manpower agencies.

There are many well-maintained buildings with beautifully carved newer windows that carry on the artistic tradition, but they’re often owned by the guthi rather than families, and may even, as in one of the squares, be used primarily to house visiting relatives who come from places like the US and Australia.

Certainly, there are changes happening. Yet, for at least 2,000 years, people have lived, worked and worshipped in this area, with each generation choosing the best of the past and continuing it in their own ways. The mysterious Mother Goddess of the Kirats became a Newar Mother Goddess; an old monastery for the unique practice of Newar Buddhism became a neighborhood shrine and a guthi hall; courtyards pushed inwards as homes were built and rebuilt. There is magic in these old neighborhoods and the way they go on and on, seemingly without end, from one subtly changing scene to another. Inside are scenes of abandonment and hardship and loss, but also scenes of survival and beauty.  Every few hundred square feet has its own story of a rich past.And the future, like the way through the courtyards of old Patan, is still uncharted.

“Uncharted” Nepal Stars in Top-Selling Video Game

Have you been on the train to Tibet lately? You can find the station in the vicinity of Kathmandu’s gigantic lake. That, at least, is how it works in “Uncharted 2: Among Thieves,” a top-selling video game where you can battle Serbians in the streets of Kathmandu. And it’s surprisingly realistic – except for the train, the skyscrapers, Kathmandu’s Phewa Tal-sized lake and the perplexing number of washing machines that apparently litter our streets.

If you’re not a video enthusiast or don’t have a teenager, you may not have run into Uncharted 2.  But it’s a big game in the world of videos, and was considered a major advance in movie-like storytelling when it was released four years ago. The winner of numerous Game of the Year awards, it remains one of the all-time top-rated action-adventure games for Playstation3. There are even rumors that the series will become a Hollywood film.

And much of it takes place in our own backyard. So let’s take a look at how millions of players around the world are experiencing Nepal.

The storyline begins in Borneo, but we’re soon off to “a field of temples that stretches as far as the eye can see,” which is supposedly Marco Polo’s description of the place where, it seems, one can find The Tree Of Life. That, of course, is right here in the Himalayas. Nepali and Tibetan words are scattered all about: Shambhala, a cintamani (wish-fulfilling) stone, a phurba, even dialogue in Tibetan.

The plot makes oblique references to Nepal’s civil war, although the Maoists aren’t identified by name and the insurgents aren’t the bad guys. The villains, actually, are Serbians. That’s right. Serbians. It seems that a Serbian war criminal and his army of mercenaries have managed to smuggle an entire fleet of tanks and helicopters and flatbed trucks with machine guns into Nepal. Not surprisingly, this makes both the army and the unnamed insurgents unhappy, and they all engage in periodic three-way slugfests as the Serbians to find the Tree of Life to become transformed into an undying killing force with blue skin, like those yetis who guard the tree.

Sure, it’s confusing. But don’t worry: fortune hunter Nathan Drake is on the case. None of the bad guys, soldiers or insurgents are any match for him. Watch out for Drake: wherever he appears, in any of the Uncharted games, armies crumble and ancient cities fall as he makes amusing quips and clambers up buildings like a monkey. The developers have helpfully supplied Kathmandu with skyscrapers for him to scramble up, some of which have a view of our gigantic nearby lake. In spite of the extra add-ons to our landscape, the video creator, Naughty Dog, did devote an enormous amount of effort and money to capturing a high level of accuracy. It’s not just the prayer flags and semi-recognizable temples; it’s the metal shutters, the teashops, the advertising, the ubiquitous tanks of cooking gas (that conveniently blow up a lot), and the signs in Devanagari letters that say things like “Laundromat.” Although that does bring us to one of the game’s oddest obsessions: washing machines. This game has more washing machines scattered about, in and out of blown-out buildings, than have probably ever been seen in Nepal. There must be more washing machines on the street than there are Nepalis, all of whom are apparently cowering indoors while our hero fights, climbs and leaps. You’d think at least one person would go outside to wash their clothes.

Of course, it all leads to Tibet, because what’s a pop-culture plot about mysterious Nepal without a trip to mysterious Tibet? Luckily there’s a train that goes there. This is important for Nathan because it allows him to fight on top of it, which is particularly fun when it’s in the huge long tunnel that has apparently been blasted through the Himalayas. The farmland looks as if the train takes a detour through Vietnam, but who’s complaining? I’d like to find our alleged train. It would make traveling in the mountains so much easier. Unless Nathan Drake was on board, in which case you’d better call a game-savvy teenager to help him get rid of all those Serbians with tanks. Maybe the shipped them in on the train, with all of the washing machines.