At 5am I was easily woken by the sound of donging bells, as I had an upset stomach (I guess my belly isn’t as into traditional food as my brain). Every morning the locals tour all the temples in the area to pray and leave offerings. This can take a few hours (!) and often they do the same in the evening – every day! Bhaktapur translates as “City of Devotees” and you can see why. Both Decent and Mohan, who live in the city, told me their mothers take part in this daily ritual. Decent also explained that many houses have a prayer room where the family can make offerings and clean the effigies every morning before doing the temple rounds. For the mothers it’s part of their routine to spend countless hours of every day honoring the gods. After an offering is made at a shrine, you ring the bell to let the gods know. This early in the morning I didn’t really appreciate the religious dedication – and this is one of the better guest houses for noise. Some of them are right next to the temples and bells and Decent says you can spy bleary-eyed tourists looking out the windows in dismay at the din outside!
Although the dinging and donging continued, I managed to get back to sleep eventually and rose late. I set out on a mission to visit Changu Narayan, a really old temple up a hill about 6km away. It’s supposed to be one of the oldest in Nepal, a favourite of history buffs and is another World Heritage site. Finding the bus stop turned into a ‘mare as I tried to interpret the vague map in the guidebook. As Bhaktapur is peppered with small roads and alleys, I felt like a rat in a maze. I had to ask for directions a number of times, each time not spying my goal, but getting closer.As usual, getting lost had its benefits, I saw the backstreets and life away from the tourist trails of the old city, where hens, ducks and children roamed, people worked out on the street, drying corn, sifting rice and hanging washing to dry on their walls.
I discovered a few of the old public water spouts, which are still in use, which is pretty cool considering they’re hundreds of years old. People were collecting water there, washing clothes or taking brisk showers. In fact Bhaktapur and Kathmandu show a remarkably carefree attitude towards the sanctity of their historical sites, people can clamber all over the ancient structures, and away from the big tourist attractions the old buildings and shrines are used for the same purposes as they were hundreds of years ago. Temples and statues are stained red from offering dyes, and covered in rice and flowers cover them. Sometimes the engravings are so smooth you can’t make out the original design, but they’re still used. It’s nice to see them still serving their purpose, though you wonder what condition they’ll be in for the future generations.
Eventually I found a tourist map which led me to the bus stop. As it’s not marked in any way it’s not surprising I’d walked past it earlier. A man arrived and asked me where I was going, then confirmed I was in the right place. Then an Indian-looking chap pulled up with a blue trolley serving round wafer parcels. They are filled by hand with a mix of potato, onions, garlic and spices, with water on a silver saucer. I’d seen these before and Mohan had told me it’s like a cleansing food, good for the throat and quite popular. After watching a load of school boys merrily wolfing down one after another, I decided to try and ate about five. They were strong tasting but served as a weird breakfast. That evening, Decent scolded me saying I was crazy to try them as they can be really unhygienic, particularly the water which usually isn’t filtered. A western girl I met weeks later said she’d tried and immediately had to run to the nearest loo to evacuate in a hurry! Guess I got lucky!
A large mini bus finally arrived with padded seats and an aircon system that wasn’t used. Like most buses was packed with locals crammed in the aisle. Hindu music blared from the speakers. People of all ages and types were inside from school kids to old men with canes and Nepali hats. We set off, soon entering the countryside, where green, picturesque maize fields spread out with white storks dotted among them. We coiled up a steep hill through small villages and past woodland. Up here the views over the Kathmandu valley were awesome, though you couldn’t see too far because of the haze/pollution. A friendly Nepali girl beside me talked to me, and told me a bit about Changu Narayan village where she was from.
After half an hour we reached the hilltop and got off. You could see for miles and miles on both sides. One other tourist got off the bus, a Swiss woman, and we bought tickets for the temple at the base of the steps leading up to it, along a street lined with souvenir shops. The village was old and charming, with lots of corn cobs and grass hanging from the buildings to dry in the sun. Old women had spread out big piles of rice on mats across the path, and sieved it whilst an abundance of dogs, ducks, chickens and chicks ran around. One woman chased off some happy ducks who were treating her pile as a giant restaurant!
Many of the souvenir shops sold big colourful demon masks and I saw women painting them. At the top of the village stood the temple. It’s not very big, just one building in a courtyard but you can tell it’s seriously old. Bhaktapur is mostly 16th century, this is 6th century. Considering its age, and that it’s made from wood, it’s in surprisingly good nick. Worn carvings of multi-armed goddesses made up the roof beams. Around the building were assorted stone carvings, statues and smaller shrines. Me and the Swiss woman were the only tourists here, but a few locals were sat around too.
From the site leaflet I could see a point of interest down the hill on the other side of the temple so I descended a big flight of steps past wandering ducks and dogs and dilapidated houses. Locals went about their business. I went out the village gate to find myself on a grassy hillside with a stone path meandering down into the forest below. The views across the valley were very nice. A big tree was encircled by a little stone wall – one of the holy trees. You see these around Nepal, sometimes with coloured string around them or offerings left on the trunks. A legend tells that one of the gods turned into a tree when he visited earth, hence the worship. Little black pigs rooted around in the pool alongside.
I explored the area and came back to the temple where more tourists had arrived, and investigated the rest of the village, which was much the same as the souvenir street. People stared and children waved, I guess the tourists usually stick to the temple!
I hopped on the departing bus which announced its leaving with a blast of its musical horn. The sun was low and the light was nice over the terraced farming as we descended. Back in the city I walked through the backstreets, passing a big green water reservoir filled with fish and turtles.
In the Durbar Square there were loads of people hanging out and I knew something big was going on. Then I heard a shout and Mohan, my guide from yesterday waved at me. He was meeting a friend and told me it was the last day of the Indra Jatra festival and the white elephant was on its way. We climbed up one of the old stone temples and the crowd numbers swelled as the sun set. The local kids all wanted their photos taken so I obliged.
After half an hour the square was packed and all the temple steps were full, .an array of colour. In the distance, men with trident torches appeared at the old city gate and paraded into the square to the sound of drums and cymbals. Soon afterwards the “elephant”came. This was a cloth covered scaffold with a big white mask on the front, carried on the shoulders by a gang of men. They picked up pace and the crowd was parted by the police to form a corridor which it charged along. People crammed me to try to catch a glimpse. A westerner’s height advantage proves useful in these situations! Unfortunately it was too dark and cramped here to take good photos. The elephant did three rounds of the square, chasing children, before moving off into the old city, and the crowds dissipated to follow it.
I went to the square with the 5-tier temple to discover them attaching a banner with fresh entrails hanging from the top, to the smaller temple. Blood dripped down the canvas. There were lots of people making offerings at this temple and people sitting playing drums, cymbals and singing. I returned to the Golden Gate guest house after taking more photos around the area. Decent invited me to dinner. He took me to a nearby rooftop restaurant next to the 5-tier temple and we chatted the evening away. He told me the entrails I’d seen were probably from the goat I’d seen tied up yesterday, sacrificed for Indra Jatra. After dinner I retreated to the guest house roof garden and caught up on my diary as the moon shone weakly above. Decent joined me later and we chilled out smoking until bedtime.