Patan .Timewarp in a medieval Square
They had to bring politics into temples too. Pashupatinath in Kathmandu has been made a boxing- ring to decide who is stronger - Tradition or Change. Maoists, the current rulers,have just sent the Udupi brahmins, the traditional priests, packing.
Unchanging Tradition was what i experienced in abundance on a short visit to Patan ( or Lalithpur near Kathmandu), the ancient capital of The Mallas, some years ago. It did look like a land that time forgot, just as the tourist brochure had promised. But it was not love at first sight for me. 'Getting into the skin ' of the place proved a bit unsettling.
Embarking on a stroll around the three Courtyards of The Durbar Square ( The Mul Chowk, Sundari Cowk and Keshab Narayan Chowk), i was enveloped by an effect i was totally unprepared for.
As i stood surrounded by the burnt sienna of aging bricks and strange multi tiered roofs, i involuntarily shuddered . Inspite of the milling crowds of camera toting tourists, there was a strange feeling of loneliness , a desolate sense of being lost , in the famous Durbar Square. It was a most beautiful town square, no doubt, almost like a fairy tale setting. Perhaps precisely because of that, it seemed like a ghostly vision from a time, long dead and gone. The exquisitely carved and painted bracket figures hovering under the thin, ribbed eaves of the various buildings had a menacing attitude , thanks to their multiple limbs and staring eyes and their positioning - as though ready to pounce on the clueless visitor below. The pug faced door- guardian lion figures were not any friendlier. The paved courtyards and avenues were cold , gloomy and wet with a relentless drizzle. There were little heaps of blackened garbage everywhere. Smoke rising from huge but unscented joss sticks, that were stuck at the portals of the dozens of tiny shrines , swirled about like armies of lazy incubus. And unrecognisable stone idols smeared with splashes of angry red vermilion encountered us balefully at every corner.
Patan's Durbar Square is an enchanting place, exuding regal splendor, ancient grandeur and artistic charm. No wonder it is designated a World Heritage Site. But it was the combined effect of the rain, the unintelligible, offkey chanting around the "bahals", the acrid smell of heavy woodsmoke and the vacant faces of the beautiful but expressionless locals that unsettled me for a while, initially.
By and by, however, the dank feeling cleared off, peeping sunlight brought some cheer and by the time we came up to the Krishna Temple, the mood had drastically changed to one of wonder and awe.
( a postcard showing an old engraving)
The three storied Krishna Mandir ( 17th Cent) a stone edifice amidst the more common brick and timber monuments, is a real gem . The five tiered Kumbheswar Mandir seemed much less pretty . The jewel like carvings cladding the Hiranya Varna Mahavihara are a treat to behold. We also took a quick peek at one of the four mounds along the town's perimeter where Emperor Ashoka and his daughter Charumathi had erected their famous Stupas. The guide claimed that the old town itself was designed like the Dharmachakra.
The sky started darkening with impatient, heavy clouds as we tried to grab some souvenirs before returning to Kathmandu. I noticed that the shopkeepers and roadside hawkers were generally indifferent and cold towards Indian visitors, some even belligerently shooing us off with remarks that betrayed their belief that indians are miserly and merely waste their time bargaining. Their interaction with white skinned foreigners , however, was markedly different !
As our van raced through narrow lanes, we caught sight of a curious artifact stationed near a brick courtyard with latticed portals . It was green, thin and improbably tall, planted in a sort of wooden trough . The whole thing was leaning to the wall , though a tangle of ropes and wires tried to keep it rooted to the ground. The driver informed us it was the famous chariot of Lord Macchendranath, waiting to be dismantled after a just concluded jathra.
We beat the rain and sped towards city centre in Kathmandu which looked lovely under a clear enough sky. But appearances can be deceptive !
While we were away in Patan, it had reportedly poured buckets in the locality where our hotel stood, so much so that the basement carpark and the street-level foyer were completely flooded. When we arrived, two pumps were working furiously, with deafening roar, to suck out the flooding mess. There was no point in trying to reach our room, safe and dry. So we decided to drive around some elevated area till things got normal.
And thats how we chanced upon a shop selling carved coral Ganeshas ( we bought two )and a lovely little bookshop that had a tiny snack bar at the far end. Nice place to browse. And to chat. For the english-speaking shop-lady here was warm and very friendly. From her i learnt that the frail looking salesgirl in a faded tunic, who had been attending to us was, in her girlhood, a Kumari ! A living goddess serving us ? I dont know if i was astonished or excited or just plain disconcerted. Later i read a book about the life of these living goddesses. It was painful and tragic. But compared to the lot of many of her ilk, this shopgirl , it seemed to me, had been fortunate.
We ended our jaunt around the street with an impulsive purchase from a footpath vendor. An ammonite fossil . Back home, it was much admired and commented upon, especially by old timers, as a divine saligrama emblem of Vishnu.
"We are like that only" isnt it ! Seeing divinity in everything. Even in extinct , petrified, molluscs.
And why not !