The Heart of Old Kathmandu: Life in Downtown Ason

Features Issue 48 Aug, 2010
Text by Eva Manandhar / Photo: ECS Media

It is 2 am, and a couple of girls are already preparing tea in a corner. Life begins early at Ason, the heart of old Kathmandu. Their early customers are mostly taxi drivers and other young people. Gradually more customers are seen, as vegetable sellers arrive laden with fresh vegetables, triggering the daily hustle and bustle of life in Ason. The devout Nepalis perform their daily morning rituals while health freaks do their rounds of morning walk, as daylight breaks in. As the day progresses, more shops open, adding to the commotion that one can identify as the sound of Ason. Ason is essentially one large shopping complex and it seems an impossible task to list what you can buy here:  spices, ghee, oil, dry fruits, sweets, tea, incense, vegetables, fruits, rice, lentils, beans, fish, flowers, plastic goods, utensils, clothes, bags, batteries, ayurvedic herbs, the list goes on.

In the center of Ason, little boys pester passers by to buy steel wool or plastic clips. The older ones carry a load of bags and do manage to sell quite a few. On the roadside, Buddhilal sells flower seeds and saplings, while directly opposite him sits Daicha selling pliers, locks, dog-chains, scissors, etc. A tall boy stands on the road asking tourists to look up to his shop for t-shirts, waistcoats, etc. Shyam has been running a tea stall for many years and delivers tea

at specific times throughout the day to his clients, the shopkeepers. There are many such tea stalls in the tiny courtyards around Ason as these saujis are heavy tea drinkers. A lady in one of the courtyards sells Tibetan rock salt in a large wooden vessel, a tradition that goes back centuries.

Ason is normally a crowded shopping center, but when religious festivals arrive, the roads are clogged with shoppers making last minute purchases. The biggest crowds are witnessed during the two important festivals of Dashain and Tihar during October and November. But people come shopping even for Lhoshar, celebrated by certain ethnic groups and other festivals like Maghe Sangrati. And during the wedding season, shopping at Ason is a must.

83 year old, Macha Bhai Maharjan, has spent a life time in these crossroads and recalls how seventy years ago, Ason was visited by about only fifty people in the entire day. Life here would come to a standstill at 6 pm. Ason to Maru was recognized as the central part of the city. Nobody is sure where the name ‘Ason’ came from or what it means, but, legend has it that there once was a huge Ashok tree with branches spreading all the way to Maru and the place was named after this massive tree. Another story tells of a person who came carrying a heavy load and rested a while in this place. When asked where he had been, he replied, “Ana San,” which means ‘just nearby’. These two words were later condensed to ‘Ason’. But it seems plausible that the dabali in front of Annapurna temple called Ashwok mandap is really the source of the name.

Annapurna Seed Centre is one of the oldest shops in the valley and is so named because of its proximity to the Annapurna temple of Ason. As ‘anna’ means ‘grains’ and ‘purna’ means ‘filled’, this deity is worshipped for prosperity and she is said to be a form of Lakshmi. Inside the temple a pot overflows with grains, signifying abundance. It is also known as Ajima dyo or goddess Ajima. One of the most remarkable festivities at this temple is known as ‘Taya Ma’ in Newari, and is the special ceremony held once every eighty years. The last ceremony was held five years ago. On such special occasions, the whole temple is covered with a net made of rice grains (puffed up).

Ason was once a major rice market where many kinds of rice were sold alongside beaten rice, beans and lentils near the Annapurna temple. In the old days, the place would be choking with sacks filled with such foodstuff. Custom demanded that a certain amount was offered to the Goddess Annapurna before they were sold. It was a time when Ason was truly the center of Kathmandu city and people came from as far as Thankot, Nuwakot and Sankhu to buy and sell goods. There was no other place to shop.

The Narayan temple (beside the road sign) was known for the vegetables that were sold there, and they were brought all the way from Bhaktapur, in the wee hours of the morning. As time went by, this central temple lost its importance although it occupies a prime spot in Ason. The two-storied Ganesh temple (in the north-east) with its distinctive brass roof is another place of importance. Higa dyo which lies in a sunken area is towards Bange Muda . It is believed to be the shrine of Bhairab. According to hearsay, whenever a sacrifice is made here, this space is always filled with water. Another temple that lies in the lane that leads to Tyora is the Shivalaya. A small space encircled by bars between the Annapurna and Ganesh temple is known as ‘Nya lon’, which translates as fish stone and is worshipped by both Hindus and Buddhists.                                                           

Since ancient times, the Dabalis (platforms) have played a major role in the lives of the citizens. They were at the heart of entertainment and rituals during festivals. The dabali immediately in front of the Annapurna temple is used for keeping the chariots of the gods and religious dances are also performed here. There was a time when if one had to exchange money, he visited the dabali. But today, things have changed and during the day, this platform is occupied by shops selling incense. Behind it, is a huge Satal, which was previously used by people to gather and sing Bhajans (religious hymns) but is now being used by policemen who provide security during the night.

It is believed that there was a gate at either Bhotahity or Kamalakshi, (both lead into Ason) which welcomed people to the inner city. Ason chowk is probably the only crossroads that has six roads converging into one spot. Besides the two mentioned above, there are roads leading to Tyora, Bange Muda, Mahaboudha and Indra Chowk. Bhotahity would be the right place to go looking for stationery; the lane next to it leading to Kamalakshi is the center for purchasing bicycles along with men’s garments and kurta surwals for the ladies. Tyora has a lane filled with miscellaneous goods from lentils, beans, dried fish, titaura, and little toys to chocolates. The lane to Bange Muda is where you would visit for electrical as well as sports goods. Towards Indra chowk are all the shops filled with metal goods and hardware. The last lane going towards Mahaboudha is famous for China, electronic goods and kitchenware.

You could make a round of Ason and its nearby lanes on foot or on a rickshaw. Hop into one of those scattered about the chowk, for an entertaining ride through the heart of Kathmandu.