Festival time in Kathmandu

Jeff Greenwald witnesses some mind-opening -- and pocket-emptying -- rites at three of Kathmandu's great spring festivals.

By Jeff Greenwald

Published March 20, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

Spring has arrived, bright and sudden as a dropped coal. I know it by the dry scorching of my forehead and arms, by the kicked-up dust that blows down the lane and settles on my "Escorts 100" motorcycle seat, by the flowers bursting into bloom like fireworks. All over the Kathmandu Valley, pariah dogs are emerging from their winter stupor and barking their idiot heads off. Spring, and I'm itching to flee into the mountains, where the air is lead-free and endless granite walls ring at you like bells. But the past weeks have been a riot of festivals, and I dared not leave town.

Kathmandu, people are surprised to learn, is on the same latitude as Miami. The fact that it's about 4,000 feet higher accounts for the cooler weather; but spring does arrive early. The first day of the season was formally welcomed a few weeks ago, with a Hindu festival called Basant Panchami. This is also celebrated as the birthday of Saraswati, goddess of learning and the arts. On this day the goddess herself drops into town, visiting her temples and listening to the specific petitions of students, artists, writers and bet-hedging expatriates like myself. Supplication did not come easy; I throttled my rented Escorts up and down Gharidhara at least three times before locating the impossibly funky lane leading to my friendly neighborhood shrine.

It was a riotous scene. There were dozens of families, jockeying for position as they tossed fruit, paise and rice over the gilded image of the goddess. The brick walls of the building were covered with names, scrawled in chalk, of schoolchildren who'd visited through the day. Outside the grounds, vendors sold popcorn and candy and helium balloons. I didn't see any of the more traditional Basant Panchami offerings: severed goats' heads, with candles mounted between their horns.

My mission at the temple was a simple one. I'd brought the galleys of my latest book -- "Future Perfect" -- for a blessing. After making three circuits of the shrine I ducked inside, where the pujari draped my silk cloth offering over the lithe shoulders of the vina-strumming goddess. Then I backed out through the seething crowd, the manuscript smeared with red tika powder.

And yet I was dissatisfied. No epiphany had occurred, no sign that the goddess had bestowed her blessing. I decided to creep in again, this time through the left side door (the temple is only about eight feet on a side). I stealthily mounted the steps, failing to notice the low lintel -- and smacked my head on it. It was a dizzying blow. Stars wheeled before my eyes, and I almost fell onto a cow. Clearly, the goddess had noticed me. I spent the rest of the day trying to decide if the blow was a face slap or a love pat; or the kind of wake-up call that a roshi might give a student of Zen.

The last days of February brought a much larger, and far more outrageous festival. This was Shivaratri: literally, the dark night of Lord Shiva. sadhus and mendicants from all over the subcontinent swarmed into Kathmandu and set up camp on the grassy grounds of Kathmandu's Pashupatinath, a Shiva temple so sacred that (and this is unusual for Nepal) non-Hindus are forbidden entrance. (A few daredevil expats, mostly of the Latin American persuasion, have managed to sneak a look inside.) The dreadlocked, ash-smeared sadhus sat by their bonfires through the wet, moonless night, offering supplications to the potent Creator and Destroyer of Worlds: the very god invoked by J. Robert Oppenheimer when he witnessed the first atomic blast.

The next day the rains ended, and the valley felt warm and fresh. Pashupati was mobbed. Thousands of sightseers thronged through the temple grounds, gawking at any hint of grotesque or unusual sadhu activity. I made a tour of tableaux: I watched the Indian snake charmers, visited the ashen pilgrims singing bhajans (devotional songs) above the holy Bagmati river and gazed down at the mile-long queue leading into the main temple. I dropped by the modest shelter of the Milk Baba, a well-known local sadhu who claims to live exclusively on the lactations of sacred cows. (I happen to know he cheats: One morning I saw him scarfing down a jumbo-sized bar of "Milky" brand chocolate.)

There were loads of sadhus, many looking like they'd arisen out of Asia's ancient and magical past. Some were performing penances, writing the names of the Hindu gods in endless repetition, or standing on one leg, covered head to toe with the gray ash of recent cremation pyres. Try as I might, I couldn't find the most famous one of all: the notorious "Penis sadhu," who draws huge crowds by hefting a huge stack of bricks with that oft celebrated appendage.

Toward late afternoon, the light became plain spectacular. While
Pashupati temple itself was lost in backlight, the shrines and robes of
the sadhus fluoresced with color. Smoke rose from dozens of devotional
bonfires, diffusing the light in swirling clouds of smoke and ganja. One
of Lord Shiva's aspects is as the greatest of ascetics and meditators;
devotees evoke his otherworldly consciousness with alcohol, or by
smoking vast quantities of hashish. Working on a contact high, overcome
by the munchies, I bought a packet of roasted peanuts and sat on a bench
overlooking the river.

After a minute I realized that my little peanut
sack was folded from a scrap of paper discarded by a sadhu (nothing is
wasted here). It was easy to tell; the whole sheet was covered with a
fine Sanskrit scrawl. Sita Rama Sita Rama Sita Rama, it read: the
names of the divine couple in the great Hindu epic, the Ramayana. This seemed
an ominous receptacle for peanuts, and I contemplated how this omen
applied to my own love life. But my meditation was short-lived. A
shrieking monkey leaped to my side, scaring the piss out of me. He
grabbed the peanuts and jumped away, taunting me from a nearby limb.

Sunset was gorgeous. The crystal peaks of the Himalayas emerged from the
clouds, covered with fresh snow. Soon the steep lawns and small stone
shrines were illuminated by countless bonfires. The tourists went home.
As the stars emerged, I found myself one of the few quieras (white folk:
literally, "clouds") on the temple grounds.

There was something wild and sinister about Pashupati that second night.
Aside from the sadhus -- many of whom were wrapped up in blankets,
or sleeping on the porches of the hostelries -- the place was populated
mainly by teenage Nepali boys, outfitted in knock-off Bulls gear and
black leather jackets. They were wild-eyed; many were drunk or stoned.
Shivaratri is one of the few nights when anything goes, when all
inhibitions can be dismissed. In odd corners, the blazing of small fires
illuminated young locals puffing on clay chillums, under the amused
supervision of squatting sadhus. Others formed tight circles, joking
loudly or calling out to me. I grinned, nodded and moved on by.

Along the broad stone stairway leading up from the river, I spied a huge
crowd. Hundreds of Nepali men and boys had gathered around a rough
canvas pup tent, where a pot-bellied Shaivite was working them into a
frenzy. The Penis sadhu! I pressed into the mob, wincing with amazement
as the penitent clamped his dick into a set of long, narrow tongs -- and
twisted it up like a rubber band propeller. The crowd cheered wildly as
he released the tongs; I half expected him to take off. He followed this
act by tying his member into knots. It wasn't a pretty sight, but hey --
the crowd loved it. Their feverish chants -- "Jai Nepal!" -- indicated
that this seemed the zenith of manliness. In fact, the exact opposite
must have been true; a pool cue probably has more nerve endings than
this guy's schlong

As I watched, the crowd's pitch built to a crescendo -- the grand finale
was upon us. As the mob shouted encouragement, the old man tested the
weight of a big stack of bricks. I kid you not: They must have weighed
100 pounds. He wrapped them up in a cloth, secured it with a strap, and
again clamped the tongs around his cock. He tied the strap to the metal
tongs, tightened the strap, and -- as the crowed roared, surging forward
like an El Niño undertow -- began to lift.

That's when it happened. Quick as lightning, I felt a hand dart into my
front left pocket. I felt at once for my wallet; it was gone. But when I
whipped around I saw only a seething crowd of Nepalis, pressing against
me, cheek to jowl. Every eye was staring forward. Every hand was empty,
or jammed into a pocket. "Look for someone looking at you funny," I
thought cleverly to myself. But everyone looked at me funny.

It is amazing how diabolical everyone appears the moment after one has
been pickpocketed. I realized instantly that nothing could be done;
that I hadn't a hope in hell of getting my wallet back. But hope springs
eternal, and I actually followed one especially unsavory character as he
escaped the scene -- giving up when he, too, turned around and looked at
me funny.

Finally I just had to laugh. I'd been taken by a pro. I knew exactly
what was in the little Guatemalan purse: about 700 rupees, or
10 bucks. Providentially, my two most precious items (my Escorts 100
key and a little agate marble that my godson had given me) were still
loose in my pocket. My main regret, of course, was that I'd been
distracted during the climactic moment.

It was 11 p.m. when I left Pashupati, poorer but wiser, and zoomed
back home through the damp and empty streets. But it wasn't until the next
day that John Sanday, my architect friend, pointed out that my
pickpocket had without a doubt been in the employ of the Penis sadhu
himself: a cunning, chubby Fagan with his own band of Artful Dodgers.

Still, it's tough to hold a grudge against the guy. Whatever he earns,
it's not enough.

March 1 brought another lunar festival: Lhosar, the Tibetan New Year
(of the Tiger). Spent the morning on the huge white plinth of the domed
Boudha stupa, listening to the blasting blare of copper longhorns and
the bleating of thighbone trumpets. Monks in vivid maroon robes paraded
a portrait of the Dalai Lama around the stupa, singing long-life chants
and wearing high, frilled yellow hats that look vaguely like taxidermed
sea anemones. The shrine and surrounding kora (the processional walkway
circling the monument) were mobbed with Tibetans, all in their finest
gear: bright woven chubas (traditional woven aprons) and heavy turquoise
beads, gold earrings, magical striped zee stones, the fur of exotic
animals on their cuffs, red blessing cords around their necks. Some were
recent arrivals: refugees who had spent weeks or months crossing the
Himalayas and evading the Chinese.

In Nepal, as in Manhattan, the New Year descends in an instant. As the
astrologically auspicious moment fell, a huge shout built up. Ten
thousand hands tossed tsampa (roasted barley flour) into the air,
creating a sweet cloud that smelled like a kosher bakery. I threw a bit
of the stuff at an old Tibetan man; he leaped on me like a snow leopard,
rubbing the powder into my cheeks and hair. Rode home basted like a
Shake 'n' Bake chicken, totally exhausted by the week's festivities. You
know how it is: that oddly relieved feeling when these richly
anticipated events are behind us.

I grounded myself later that evening, decompressing in the usual way:
with a mushroom/salami pie at Fire & Ice, the best pizzeria west (or
east) of The Original Ray's.

Life in Kathmandu! You can't beat it with a lathi -- er, stick.

Jeff Greenwald

Jeff Greenwalds latest book, "Future Perfect: How 'Star Trek' Conquered Planet Earth," was recently released in paperback by Penguin.

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