Boudhanath is a beehive of activity when I walk in through the gates early in the morning. Boudha, as it is known locally, has been awake for a while. Monks in maroon robes and yellow shawls are circumambulating the stupas, gently spinning the prayer wheels or rotating the prayer beads in their hands. Their mantras are murmured in rhythmic low voices and blend into the louder sounds of the primaeval Buddhist mantra, Om Mani Padme hum, emanating from hidden speakers.
In spite of the hundreds of people praying, working, or visiting, it is a silent tableau save the occasional whoosh of dozens of pigeons taking flight. At a tea shop, a couple of young monks are feeding a stray dog, as it jumps and yelps playfully. A few older Buddhist men squat on the ground, weaving an intricate pattern using coloured chalk powder, perhaps recreating an earthy version of the mandala.
The Boudha complex is a self-contained universe of its own, with temples and tea shops, souvenir stalls and study centres lining the square around the central stupa. This massive stupa — Asia’s largest — was originally built around 600 AD before it was destroyed and rebuilt sometime after the 14th century. But to me, Boudha seems eternal, the compassionate gaze of the Buddha’s painted eyes following everyone on the grounds.
Boudhanath is in complete contrast to the other major Buddhist temple, atop a hillock overseeing Kathmandu. Swayambhunath, also known as the Monkey Temple — a clever marketing ploy by local touts and taxi drivers — has similar architecture and iconography, including the white stupa with a gilded spire and the painted eyes of the benevolent Buddha. But while the faith at Boudha seems personal and subdued, here it is much louder and more open. Even the visitors are more raucous and vendors more aggressive.
So, what makes Kathmandu great? Is it the visibly unique blend of Hindu and Buddhist faiths? Or the vibe of downtown Thamel that has been drawing Westerners for decades? The great bargains on everything — from Thangka paintings to handwoven shawls? Or the fact that the tiny area of Kathmandu Valley — comprising the capital city and neighbouring Patan and Bhaktapur — contain no less than 10 Unesco World Heritage sites?
All of that. But for me, it is also about the way this city has found its feet after the 7.8-magnitude earthquake of April 2015 that left unimaginable destruction in its wake. Boudhanath and Swayambhunath may have escaped practically unscathed, but the city centre, the Hindu heritage Durbar Square, is where the damage was most severe. Not too surprising, given that its latticed windows and tiered pagodas were made with old wood and exposed red brick, which are, perhaps, more vulnerable to quakes.
Durbar Square is buzzing at all times of the day, with decrepit taxis squeezing through its cobbled lanes and scooters blaring their horns to announce their passage. When I reach late in the afternoon, I find chaiwallahs doing brisk business from makeshift counters set up on the broad stone steps of more obscure temples, where men, oblivious to the heat and noise, are stretched out napping unperturbed.
In the midst of the backpacking hordes, there are local families out on an evening stroll around the palaces and temples. Groups of old men are huddled on wobbly wooden benches at street corners, while children chase errant balloons and nervous pigeons with glee.
Durbar Square is where the kings used to live and rule from, and the royal palace — the Hanuman Dhoka — is one of its highlights. Austere from the outside but with elaborate courtyards and carvings inside, the palace also suffered great damage during the earthquake and is slowly getting restored.
The kings may have moved to another part of town, but the Kumari, Nepal’s living goddess, still resides here, in Kumari Bahal, which is closed to visitors, but devout hopefuls still land up at the entrance for a rare glimpse. Besides these, there are dozens of temples and pagodas, with multiple levels of sloping roofs, wooden-pillar carvings and slanted beams supporting the ceilings. Most of them are partially ruined and awaiting restoration.
Long after the sunset, I walk through the narrow lanes crisscrossing Thamel, happy to lose my way and walk in circles. I have had enough dal chawal on the trip, so I walk into a pizza parlour, open till late night, with live music and happy hours on cocktails. Everything stays open well into the night, even travel agencies offering tours on the Annapurna circuit.
I feel perfectly at home amid people speaking fluent Hindi with a slight Nepali twang, shopkeepers happy to accept Indian rupees — no aggressive vendors, the constant cacophony of car horns, and the food, teasingly familiar but with distinct local flavours. Perhaps I am not seen as a “foreigner”. It is what we Indians call “same but different.”
This article appeared in print with the headline: Back in the Game: A day in the life of an Indian in Kathmandu