Lifestyles of the humble and pious

Features Issue 137 Jun, 2013
Text by Thagendra Bittulwa / Photo: ECS Media

Can we learn from our ancestors and delineate a universal perspective, that defines us as Nepali firsts and our ethnic identities second?

A few days ago, I found myself running frantically around town, trying to catch up on the history of indigenous settler of the Kathmandu Valley. As with any assignment, this too warranted a bit of anxiety. I was concerned that my complete lack of knowledge would be a set back if not an obstacle to stretching out the topic into thousands of words and counting. I was between rock and a hard place with phone numbers and titles of books on any piece of paper I could weed out from my bag pack. Each led me down a never-ending spiral of confusion and questions, eventually leading to the following reflection on the intuitive lifestyles of Kathmandu.

As I see it, my first obliging step to contracting the assignment was following up on a casual tip, “they have opened a museum at the Jyapu Pragya Bhavan, maybe it could be a cover story,” which of course meant “we need you to start on this right now.” Two days later, I was invited to Chyasal for a tour of the exhibits with a forewarning “there are almost 17 types of mud in the collection,” said a Narayan ji, as he read out a number from his phone for my benefit, “he will be there to take you through the collection and explain as much as possible.” I arrived late afternoon the next day, the sun low on the horizon cast a warm glow on the building in front of me. The edifice was daunting and immediately familiar with its Malla embellishments, thatched roofs but, without their complimentary struts. Three stories, and matching number of peaking roofs shed an empty shadow on the glazed bricks below. All culminating in a blushing gajur, climbing the sky in the shape of a vajra. An old man sat by the door, his Dhaka topi fully embracing the last of the daylight, as he chaperoned his eyes from the street to me. I entered.

Inside I met Santa Man Maharjan, General Secretary of the Jyapu Samaz Samiti, an amicable short man with a swarthy complexion collecting my eyes under a genuine smile. Santa’s stature reminded of my relative place in the changing generations of our country- how our heights reflected passing time. After a brief introduction, I suggested walking around the building as we talked. Few steps from the office towards the main gate, a second ornate door stared right back at visitors entering or walking about the building. Hollering to the staff, a key is produced to unlock the door, Santa opened the doors to a reception hall, “this is the biggest hall in Patan, even bigger than Ashok Hall,” he says, pointing at the walls he continues, “as you can see its sound-proof, that too is one of a kind, we can accommodate up to more than 250 people easily.” I stop him from continuing with the tour and remind him that I would rather head straight to the ‘museum part’ of the building.
“From the front, the building looks like it only has three floors, but its actually taller” said Santa ushering me into the basement. Two mannequins kneeling in front of the door greeted us, clad in traditional attire of the Jyapu people, hands locked in a Namaste pose. Santa, slid the door open to an inadequately lit hall, we step in hollering for lights and a round of (the customary) cup of tea.

From the entrance a short white corridor led to an opening to the north of the room. Lined up against the west wall, the first column of exhibits were the different kinds of mud, I had been warned about. All found in the Kathmandu Valley. The samples were atop tables dressed in red velvet cloth. Colorful lumps of dried mud accompanied by a yellow piece of paper with its description. Each item was enunciated in Newari and its approximate transliteration into English.

“There are about 15 different kinds of mud, dirt found in the Valley; these are all of them,” Santa picks up one of the samples and brings it to my eye-level, “this one is what you might call black mud, an important resource for the farmers of the Kathmandu.” For the farmers of Kathmandu, from antiquity till now, the ability to differentiate between mud, say, extracted from river banks or from the side of a steep hill made difference the between a good and bad harvest.

Just about 5 minutes into the tour, I got the big question out of the way, why do it? Why start a museum? The abruptness of the question didn’t throw off Santa, he explained in plain words, what I had already suspected to be a simple retort, “we are losing our identity, these artifacts explore the lives of our forefathers, and we…” I knew my story shouldn’t be restricted to the artifacts unless I wished to only interject my thoughts in the bylines. Without dates and description, the utensils and instruments, gadgets and garlands all relied on Santa’s extraneous presence for explanation, but he wasn’t writing the article.

Three hours later, we exited the room. Santa led the way, still wanting to explore more of the building in my company. I started feeling disorientated, physically my direction was attuned but mentally I was searching for common ground, a viable angle for my story. Right below the exhibition hall (where the museum is housed) was its twin room. Black and white vintage portraits of Kathmandu hung on its wall. Those pixilated and barely recognizable townships of the valley concluded my tour, followed by the following epiphany: I can only understand the subject of these photographs by exploring first the fundamental of photography. If I could bestow a mentality to inhabitants of Kathmandu, I might be able to understand their creations better.

I was convinced that the artifacts, although communicative of their creators’ intention, were coming from the end of an larger organized thought process. They had served well to confound and ridicule me on behalf of my ignorance, and left me feeling like a harbinger. A culprit who had let his identity fall in ranks to a simple conversational topic. Uneasiness surmounted as though I had been crude and insensitive like a peddler advertising Shoyambhunath as the ‘Monkey Temple.’ The only silver lining in the clouds was the opportunity to learn, more importantly there was freedom and relief to be found along the way.

That night, I began reading a book on Newari architecture: the specific features and planning executed in the ancient cities of the Valley. Reading the preface, it became easier to excuse my inexperience. Connections between the text and the previously unknown tools of the Jyapus were slowly becoming apparent. At the end of a rather lengthy paragraph, I recalled a chance encounter with Anil Chitrakar. He was leading a tour of the Patan Durbar Square so I tagged along. The most intriguing fact that he presented that day had been something unceremoniously obfuscated by its ubiquity.

The elaborated archways above doors in most significant buildings of the valley, all depict the same image. Replicated many times over to the same form, human figures encircled by mythological animals in harmonious unity. “If the natural system doesn’t work, we do not work, if we do not work the natural system again doesn’t work,” Chitrakar had said. Everything is connected. Human systems wherever they have civilized have left remarkable evidence of their affinity to nature. The case of Kathmandu is no different. Like the Jyapus and their knowledge of different kinds of mud, the natural conditions of Kathmandu have defined the lifestyles and mentalities of those who have inhabited it. Additionally, a controlled flow of immigration and limited invasions assured the preservation of these perspectives, which have their roots in the pre-historic era.

I went back to the book, as the author observed, “migrant groups, tribes or dynasties moved into the Valley, ruled for a certain period and were then either driven out or absorbed into its population.” A tradition that I felt was still being reenacted in our present day city. Kathmandu is still a city of immigrants, and it falls to the forces of nature every now and then - a centennial tabula rasa . The book went on to describe the structures and their construction showing mostly concern for land. Buildings were vertically orientation to curb the use of arable soil, the first floors were used for storage or a shop and so on. It painted a remarkable picture of Kathmandu circa 13th century and beyond. Judging by their houses and my notes from the museum, it was easy to conclude that inhabitants of the Valley have been skillful, and self-sufficient.

An enthusiasm about life emerged from these first few connections. The author quoted several studies of surviving evidence, travel accounts and books to also build a communal sentiment in the arrangement of houses. Observed through the prevalence of mandaps and patis, and much like the ceremonial artifacts and recreational aides that were in the museum tour, life in Kathmandu seemed celebrated with rigor and cultivated with hard work. And it was contagious, even the successful invaders of the Valley were unable to dictate drastic changes to the settlement: who would want to change happy?

The next day, I made my way to the Department of Archaeology that functions under the directive of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, to get my hands on some scholarly sources. Like any other governmental building I have been to, this was painted a similar burnt yellow with red and brown accents. The corridors looked freshly swept, and the walls crouched from old age. On the second floor, I waited in a room where a group of men sat reading newspapers. A modest collection of books on Nepal in different languages was on display. I read the titles of the lonely publications through its metal and glass shell. “Ramji is here, but he’s just gone to the director’s office, he is wearing a blue jacket,” said the man in his office, when I arrived through referral. Now I just needed to spot him, from the impending foot traffic.

“We can’t really answer that question, its hard to say exactly who we can call the indigenous people of the Valley, however I can tell you that the oldest artifacts found in excavations come from Hadigaon,” Ram Bahadur Kunwar, Chief Archaeology Officer, answered my first question. Although the “indigenous” designation wasn’t important, time was an essential aspect. It reflected to the integrity of what is survived. Jyapus are some of the earliest settlers of the Valley, their pro-active contribution to Newari customs is unmatched, and culturally have bequeathed adherence to Buddhism without trouble from the rise of Hinduism in Kathmandu. They made a great subject.

Back in the library, I asked for the book Kunwar suggested I read and turned to the first chapter. Page 14 read “…suggesting that among the Jyapu are to be sought the closest ties with ancient Nepal. Coming from an anthropologist, this statement about the Jyapus is portentous.” The author further excused himself by introducing the importance of intangible heritages in the next page, “any attempts to uncover the past, therefore calls for approaches reinforced through the analysis of unconscious remains and intangible heritages.” Folklore, legends, festivals and spiritual practices are common practices around the world to pass down universal knowledge about life and beyond. My exploration into the psyche of ancient Kathmanduites had arrived at the core.

Like the garuda and makara bordering the doorways, a new system encircled my human figures. As their loyalty to nature was symbolically plastered around the Valley in works of art, their reverence to the celestial system and faculties of faith were paralleled through piety and spirituality. After leafing through a few dozen pages in the small library, I made my way to Patan. My appointment there was with another student of archaeology. “You know why we observe days of mourning without eating salt? Because, salt was mostly brought down from the mountains by the Tibetan traders in leather pouches,” said Suresh Lakhe, coincidentally the random assertion had anticipated my synthesis from before. Lakhe and I chatted on the uncertainty and obstacles surrounding the study of Kathmandu’s history. Somehow it reinforced my attempt to completely ignore academic conventions in writing this story, in fact I shed all remorse of proposing generalized opinions. I never had a dissertation in mind, but as the pieces came together, my vision for Kathmandu was being realized as the greenest of pastures, swallowing foreigners into their celebration of life.

My final conversation on the Jyapus and the traditions of Kathmandu happened in Naag Bahal with a Gurju, a Newar priest, named Deepak Bajracharya. For a half day I took notes on esoteric legends and got to witness many meetings between the Gurju and his “clients”. On the Southeastern end of the bahal (courtyard), I had climbed the steps to my first Newari home. A memorable attempt as it turned out I had entered the wrong building. Houses of many bahals are surprisingly accessible, luckily, my second attempt was guided by the Gurju himself from a window overlooking the road.

I put myself down on the floor in front of my host, who was surrounded by papers. Texts in Sanskrit, calendars and numbers were everywhere. I began by asking if he could describe why Jyapus and other Newars celebrated any particular festival throughout the year – a terrible idea in hindsight. The answer nearly continued for two hours. I rectified my question but interruptions were plenty. Middle-aged women walked in, in pairs, with patros produced from colorful scroll covers. They came to consult auspicious dates, times and quotations on the type of ceremonies for a range of concerns. I quietly observed with a deaf ear to the Newari words spoken, a thriving institution part mathematics, astrology and faith.

“There is a belief that the Grahas (planets) influence our life,” explained the Gurju, “for example, the celebration of one’s 1000 full moons within one lifetime is a great achievement.” Of the 12 grahas, Mercury and Venus do not make the list, instead the Sun and the Moon are worshipped and also the magnetic poles of Earth. The moon represented by the color white, is worshipped for good mental health and in rituals is represented by offerings of rice, kapoor and cotton. Furthermore, the satellite and its phases define both the Newari and Nepali calendars. Most remarkable of its observations since antiquity is the accuracy with which weather is predicted on religious days. I have yet to go through a Shivaratri or the week following Rato Machindranath without rain.

The Gurju on my request, made extra effort to connect things together. Talking about Naags, he launched into a detailed legend that was more about the Valley than its religious background. It captured everything I had learned in the past few days in its symbolic narrative. The story begins at a local tavern in Kathmandu; at a regular bhatti where a sage is tricked into getting drunk, thanks to a nine-headed snake (navanaag) that is placed in the liquor’s container. Angered by the owner’s insolence, the sage enters a meditative state appropriating the snake for his seat. “It is said, that’s when it stopped raining in Kathmandu,” Gurju added the historical premise. People were concerned but good news was around the corner. Lokeshwor Buddha had been reborn in Assam as Machindranath. Blaming the drought on the sage and his methods of retribution, they knew Lokeshwor’s avatar could solve the problem. His arrival in Kathmandu would definitely get the sage to come out of meditation and visit his lord.

An epic journey ensues, and a King, a potter and a holy manmake their way south from the Valley, where they run into a Karkato Naagraj laying in the middle of the road. When nothing gets the innocuous man to let entourage pass, the potter kicks the man and the serpent king reveals his true form. The Gurju was unable give me sensible measurements for the height and girth of the snake, but he assured me it was stupendously big. Afraid, they were already stopped short on their journey, the priest tricks the serpent to also reveal his smallest form, and entraps the little creature. Bested by the priest, the serpent king forgives and journeys with his new partners. Two obstacles then are overcome with the help of the snake king, who becomes large to form a bridge over a river of acid, and small to poison the barbarian King whose son Lokeshwor cannot be approached without risking death. The troupe is of course triumphant and rain blesses the farms of Kathmandu once more.

The Gurju’s story was elaborate, a unique account of the legend (it is rather widely accepted that a farmer was responsible for bringing Machindranath to the Valley). The version narrated to me, I couldn’t dismiss specifically for two reasons: one the precise details in the account and two the narrator himself was an authority on the cultural underpinnings of different festivals and ceremonies. Besides, my concerns lay in what the story represented, and how it could help me delineate the connections between the human, natural and systems of Kathmandu.

Whether one consults the Buddhist or the Hindu angles for the establishment of Kathmandu, the starting point is the same uninhabited wetland of Naagdaha, the abode of the snakes. These creatures have existed in the language of Kathmandu since pre-historic times - symbolizing nature and its gift to the Valley. At the heart of the Machindranath story is human struggle - influenced by the natural system and maintained by the heavens. Different times and their requirements it seems necessitates avatars to bring back harmony. The beliefs of Kathmandu thus can be summarized as such: in the most visible realm, life is about work and enjoyment. Living within ones own means, with open-mindedness and reverence for ones vocation. First extension of the human system is towards nature, irreplaceable and influential. Finally, the universe at large overlooks the conditions of the elemental faculties and govern fate.

Strangely enough, although life under the mandate of these elaborate systems might seem restricted, the Jyapus, Newars and other people of the Valley tended to live empowered lives. Work and beliefs, and a handful of attachment aside, life here used to mean opportunity, an achievement as it is lived. n