"Full many a ray of purest ray serene the dark unfathomed caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen, and waste its sweetness to the desert air."
from "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" by Thomas Gray

Friday, September 5, 2014

Kailash 2014 Day 02 : Kathmandu, Friday Sep 05 2014

Just before 7 in the morning, Anish and I hurried to the Sai temple in one of the buildings at the end of the resort where a few people had planned to chant the Rudram. 
Sai baba temple, Gokarna resort, outside Kathmandu
The Sai Baba temple in the Gokarna resort is a small temple at one end of the resort. A beautiful Sai baba statue in white marble commands the presence of the small temple that can seat 60-odd people, sitting cross-legged on the floor. At the back of the temple is a Ganesha statue in white marble in saffron robes. Our group grew in size as the Rudram chanting progressed for more than half an hour. As we completed our chanting, the temple priest came out and started the ritualistic worship – at first lighting a lamp, and then starting an aarati to Ganesha. All of us dutifully took turns to do the aarati to Ganesha and to Sai Baba, and just as we were thinking we were done, the priest handed out a double-sided printed sheet of bhajans – hymns, and we went on to sing all of these and then at the end, he started an aarati all over again, inviting people to once again perform it individually. At this point, Anish and I had to slip out to be in time for breakfast and boarding the bus by 9, for the temples of Pashupatinath and Buddhaneelkantha, and the Bouddhanath Stupa.
ready to go, waiting for the travel agent to show up
As we hurriedly ate a slice of bread, it was already 8:45, most of the group had breakfast by now except those still in the Sai temple. We went over to remind the travel agent who was still sitting at a breakfast table that the group was waiting in the hotel lobby. He contiued to eat, again walked over to him at 9 to say we were all waiting. Finally the Travelorg/Travelorg India agent came out to the lobby at 9:15 and said he had something else to do, so we could go ahead with a guide in each of the two buses. So the travel agent has come here on our money to stay in the resort, and punctuality is not his strong suit, which we value so much at the Chinmaya Mission. Two strikes for Travelorg/Travelorg India at the beginning of a day. Our bus guide knew the local sights well and he was a good speaker, ready to answer the questions of the yatris, knew about the temples and the distances in the city, which was a welcome change from Travelorg/Travelorg India.
in the bus, listening to our energetic guide
As we were boarding buses, Nirmalaji pointed out it was Friday - the day of the Mother, and expressed a wish to visit the temple of Guhyeshwari devi – one of the 51 Shakti peetha. The Shakti peetha are the spots of energy in the Indian subcontinent, where the burnt body parts of Sati fell after her self-immolation. She was not invited to her own father's house for a yagna, because Daksha felt that his son-in-law Shiva had insulted him, not knowing that Shiva is the personification of the Supreme Consciousness in the universe. Sati went nevertheless, and when her father asked why she had come and spoke insultingly about Shiva, she jumped into the yagna fire, humiliated that her father was such a dishonorable man. Shiva sent his hordes to take revenge, and he picked up Sati's burned body in rage. As he stomped in rage and sorrow, the earth groaned with death and destruction. Vishnu let fly his discus to break Sati's burnt body into pieces, to bring Shiva out of his reverie and dance of death. The pieces of Satis's burnt boy fell in different parts of Bharatvarsha - the Indian subcontinent, one of them here in Kathmandu.

Our bus guide accommodated the temple of Guhyeshwari Devi on the bus tour, the Devi temple is on the way to Pashupatinath - both temples are on the banks of the river Baghmati. Of the main 51 spots where Sati's organs fell, her private parts fell in Assam and Kathmandu. She is worshipped as Kamakhya in Assam where her reproductive organs fell, and she is worshipped as Guhyakali in Kathmandu where her external female organ fell.
the river Baghmati, on whose banks are the Shakti peetha of Guhyeshwari Devi and the temple of Pashupatinath
uncle and nephew in front of the bridge to the temple complex across the river
the Guhyeshwar Devi temple complex
This temple of Guhyeshwari Devi is the associated Shakti peetha for Pashupatinath. The deity, Guhyakali or Guhyamba - both meaning the secret Mother, and referred in the Lalitasahasranama as Guhyarupini – the secret form, is installed in the main temple while there are several individual temples to the ten mahavidyas. Being a Shaktipeetha, this is a seat of power from the dawn of time. However, the current temple complex was built in the 17th century by a Nepali king on the banks of the river Baghmati, that comes from the merging of some headstreams about 10 miles north of Kathmandu, at a place called Baghdwar – the tiger’s door.  
Jayanthi, the perfect front person for my Devi temple shot

Like all temples in India and Nepal, this Devi temple abounds in our closest evolutionary cousins. There is something positively divine about monkeys, perhaps their innocence and trust that their more technologically evolved cousin, man, has lost during his technological advancement.

can't name who this reminded me of, but a child is a child is a child

the innocent eyes, the trusting look, the simple life  

 The last time I was in Kathmandu, I had visited a Devi temple with Mallik, and it had suddenly showered for a few seconds just as we visited - a blessing from above. On the way back to Delhi, Mallik had a later flight and he had visited this Shakti Peetha. It is my good luck that Nirmalaji had remembered this temple today. 

outside the Shakti peetha that I missed in my last visit
Cameras were not allowed inside the temple. Once we climbed up to the temple courtyard, about twenty steps, there was a temple in the center of the courtyard where we had to climb down a dozen steps to the sanctum sanctorum. The deity appears to be a shivalingam - an irregular rock lingam, like at Kedar. But it is not a shivalingam, this is how the Devi manifests here. There is no temple to a godess in red and gold, you worship the rock formation, While most of us offered money, the locals had other offerings. The lady before me offered a boiled egg, sliced into halves. This is the first time I had ever seen an egg inside a Hindu temple, leave alone boiled and sliced, and being offered to the deity. The priest accepted the offering and added some flowers to it and gave it back to her as a blessing. One has to remember that the Shakti peethas are seats of Tantra, and at the temple of Guhyeshwari Devi, offering eggs and wine is routine. Here, Devi is worshipped as Mahamaya, and Shiva as Kapali.

newly-married couple at the temple of Guhyeshwari in Kathmandu

A newly-married couple was at the temple to take the blessings of the Mother. Once outside the temple, they took group photographs and sportingly allowed us to take their picture as well. The blessings of Guhyeshwari Devi are around conjugal bliss. Singles visiting her are bound to found a soulmate soon, the married ones are blessed with a long and happy marriage. She blesses and gives what Pashupatinath has read as your wish. Tip to Kathmandu visitors, this temple is 1 kilometer from Pashupatinath and is likely not in your itinerary, please ask the tour guide to include it. The goddess keeps herself hidden while her lord is worshipped at Pashupatinath by people from far and wide, you have to seek her and get her blessings.

surrounded by our evolutionary cousins
As we left the temple, every girder on the bridge had a monkey sitting on it. As I walked past, I saw that they made way for a person walking by. They would move slightly towards the walls of the bridge, and turn away as the person walks past but would keep an eye on you.

I had a little plastic bag with a bunch of cash in it, and as I passed the bridge, a monkey swatted swiftly at my little plastic bag, and with my heightened awareness in re-living this scene from the Planet of the Apes, I clung to it instinctively or I would have lost it for sure. He was looking for food that I did not have, I was protecting cash that he did not want, I look back at the swat-and-clutch as a win-win transaction.
The temple of Pashupatinath (caretaker of the animals) in Kathmandu – is not one of the twelve officially recognized jyotirlingam temples. Each of the twelve jyotirlingam temple has Shiva manifest as a pillar of light. Pashupatinath is however unofficially considered equivalent to one by all Shaivites. Cameras are not allowed inside the temple, but later in the temple, we saw several foreign tourists walking around in shoes, taking pictures. Security was not tight, though there were some policemen walking around. 

A couple of enthusiastic priests who had shown up earlier at the hotel, had come along with us. Now, at the temple of Pashupatinath, they performed a worship ritual in the temple courtyard. One of them introduced himself in Sanskrit, and explained his education and background to the Swamijis. He had collected half a dozen other priests to chant as a chorus with him. Some of the regular chanters from our group tried to chant the Rudram with them, but the difference in the meter and the off-hand skipping of a few words or a line would throw them off. Ultimately, it appeared we had all decided to listen siently to the priests, who may not be accurate in the meter and the chant as we are relentlessly trained to be, but made up with fervent devotion.
For the next hour and more, we did as we were told – now raise a hand, now take a flower in your hand, now offer a few grains of rice and it went on - familiar steps of worship but not exactly in a familiar sequence. Half the group was sitting in the sun, the other half in a bit of shade that reduced in size as time went on, and it was a very welcome finale when the priest finally asked us to offer the cash for the group of priests - which all of us did. Apparently, it did not stop there, next one of the supporting priests who had been chanting along, asked for a cash donation to feed the priests who have been chanting - this was confusing, what was the previous donation for? But everyone was hot by now, including the people who were in a spot of shade, so we rose as a group - slightly roasted and very eager to visit the temple.
The deity in the temple of Pashupatinath has four faces, looking out at right angles in the four directions – there is a small window from each direction to peek at each face of the deity on the four walls of the sanctum sanctorum. The temple priests operate from inside, and we get to peek in from the windows, one at a time. The long line keeps moving with enthusiastic prompting from the temple staff who make sure each person gets a few seconds, and then it is the turn for the next person to peep in. Only one window was open, so we just got to see only one face. After the quick glimpse, we went three times around the temple for the parikrama – circumambulation, jumping with a start on intermittently burning hot tiles as the Kathmandu sun beat down relentlessly. There are temples in the courtyard – the temple to Ganesha, to Bhairava, the idol of Hanuman in the courtyard – and we swarmed to the various temples. There is no end to the exotic beauty of the various temples and structures. Finally, Swamiji told us to line up to leave, we had planned for half an hour, it has been a couple of hours already, and people have yet to buy rudraksha - the seeds of a tree that grows on the lower Himalayan slopes. It is one of the traditions for the yatris for Manas Sarovar to get rudraksha to dip in the holy waters of Manas, and then distribute them to family and friends back home.
The Sanskrit-speaking priest who had accompanied us from the hotel, took me to a temple terrace. Far below, flows the Baghmati. He pointed out the funeral pyres burning below on the banks of the Baghmati - the temple of Pashupatinath is one of the few Shiva temples where cremations are still performed in the temple complex. He asked me where I was from. Far into the twenty-first century, we still have a natural tendency to prefer facial features common to our own. The people of Nepal, Tibet and China have been specially kind to me before. I told him - Uttarakhand in India. The Indian state of Uttarakhand borders the kingdom of Nepal - his ancestors and mine have battled for centuries till the nineteenth century. In this century, as friendly neighbors, our similar facial features make us one. He said - we are all Bharatvarsha, you start your worship ceremonies with recognizing the prayer spot as Bharatvarsha, and so do I. That is so true - Bharatvarsha is the ancient name of the Indian subcontinent, and its history covers a region far beyond the boundaries of modern India, and the influence of Aryan culture is everywhere for us to see.     
The shop directly outside the temple has established contacts with the travel agents so it gets marketed as the recommended store to tourists. We had kept our shoes here before leaving for the temple. Now that we are here to shop, the prices are even higher than the inflated prices at which the limited stock had been shown a day earlier at the hotel. The adjoining shops are smaller, and sell much of the same at lower prices, but do not have the inventory volumes. Basically, we are working with the Walmart (in terms of volume, not in terms of price) of rudraksha stores in Kathmandu that is eating up the mom-and-pop businesses, so we scuttle off to give business to the mom-and-pop stores on the street, with smaller inventory volumes at acceptable prices. The only thing to be careful when buying rudraksha is to have a person authenticate them. Since the multi-faced rudraksha sell at high prices, it is a practice among dubious vendors to break the rudraksha and then seal them with gum so that it appears to have multiple faces. People from our group bought all the rudraksha malas, the single-faced rudrakasha, the three-faced, and many different multi-faced rudraksha.  A lot of rudraksha, a bucket-load per person of rudraksha later, we were ready to board buses for the next stop.
It was close to two in the afternoon, and we were now off to see Buddhaneelkantha – the 5-meter long statue of Vishnu reclining on the eleven-headed divine serpent Shesha Naga in cosmic waters.
Buddhaneelkantha, Vishnu reclining on Shesha in cosmic waters
Neelkantha - the blue-throated one, is one of the names of Shiva, the personified form of the Supreme Consciousness, who ingested the poison from the churning of the ocean in primordial times, that turned his throat blue. So why is a Vishnu idol called Buddhaneelkantha? The legend in Nepal goes that Shiva struck his trident to the ground to create the lake Gosainkund, and with those waters he cooled the burning sensation in his throat. The waters that surround Buddhaneelkantha are believed to be the waters of Gosainkund. And it is believed that the image of Vishnu is above the water, there is a similar image of Shiva under the water. Around the 17th century, a king of Nepal had a prophetic dream that anyone from the royal family visiting the Buddhaneelkantha would bring a curse from the royal family. Since then, Nepal royalty has not visited the temple. It is believed that the crown prince of Nepal who took his own life after killing his parents and siblings in 1996, had visited this temple. The temple is open to all Hindus - to touch the feet of the reclining Vishnu and to offer worship.

the Chinmaya group at the feet of Vishnu
Buddhaneelkantha, as he appears when you stand at his feet
The idol of the reclining Vishnu is spectacular in size, detail and beauty. A few steps above is the temple of Lakshmi. It was now past three, and Swamiji instructs the guide to skip our third destination – the Boudhanath Stupa, and take us back to the hotel instead for the much-delayed lunch. As expected, one of the people that Travelorg has forced upon us, has lots to say – he has paid to see the stupa, why should he not see it? The buses returned nevertheless to the hotel with the hungry travelers, while the travel agent who had stayed behind, had had his lunch in time. He was now subjected to a hissing fit by the one unhappy passenger about skipping the stupa, so the travel agent sent him off in an individual cab to the Stupa.

10-person cab for sight-seeing
After lunch, people made their own plans for the afternoon – some had to shop for things they had forgotten to pack, others went to see some Kathmandu landmarks. Anish and I visited the Swayambhunath stupa outside Kathmandu – an unplanned trip made possible by a sudden invitation from Anup - I am booking a car, you wanna come along? Sure enough, Veni, Anish, Urvish and I are in with the gang from Minneapolis in the car to Swayambhunath . 

Swayambhunath Stupa

Buddha fountain
There was a little gambling game with the Buddha fountain, if one could throw the coin into the little pot. Anup and Veni managed it in, the rest of us added to the coins at the bottom of the fountain.
Anish chanting the OM Mani Padme Hum 
beauty in every detail
the gang from Minneapolis, with the Kathmandu valley behind them
the Kathmandu valley as seen from Swayambhunath
the main dome at Swayambhunath
The main dome at Swayambhunath has the eyes of Buddha looking out in all four directions. The current structure is from the 6th century, with remodeling and reconstruction by kings through the centuries, the fifteenth and last renovation in 2010 when the stupa was re-done with 20 kilos of gold. The original site is believed to be visited by Ashoka the Great, in the 3rd century BC, but the temple Ashoka built at this site has been long destroyed.

Each face of the stupa in one of the four directions has the five Buddhas carved on it. The five Buddhas are - Virochana (occupies the center and is the master of the temple), Akshobhya (faces the east and represents the cosmic element of consciousness), Ratna Sambhava (faces the south and represents the cosmic element of sensation), Amitabha (represents cosmic element of Sanjana and always faces the West) and Amoghsiddhi (represents the cosmic element of conformation and faces the north).

the stupa faces with the five Buddhas

The original Stupa was built after Boddhisattva Manjushri, a significant figure in Mahayana Buddhism, located this spot in Nepal in the fifth century, after having a vision of seeing a lotus here. The valley of Kathmandu used to be a lake in which grew the lotus that Manjushri, the boddhisatva of transcendental wisdom, had seen in the vision. The legend goes that he cut a gorge that emptied the lake, and the lotus became a hill on which is the Swayambhunath stupa.  

the temple of wise monkeys
We had entered from the eastern gate into the fountain, and then climbed the 365 steps to the top. Slightly out of breath, we looked around the courtyard with the many shrines and stupas, and we could not have missed the monkeys. In Nepal, the temple is known as Singgu as well meaning self-sprung, the same as Swayambhu. And it is also known as the Monkey Temple because of the many monkeys that live on the north-west portion of the temple. These monkeys that live in the region founded by the Boddhisattva of wisdom Manjushri, are believed to be wise. I saw this monkey unwrap candy, and start sucking away at the candy - see picture, holding the wrapper in his hand. Truly smart. Wise? Not sure yet, I should have waited to see if he threw that wrapper in the trash can.  

meanwhile, Urvish was having his own conversation in body language with this monkey


could we look any more like tourists?

among little statues of the Buddha and the rudraksha, we suddenly noticed woman-in-a-bathtub
We had to reach the hotel by 7, so we had to leave this beautiful Stupa complex. Our cab coursed through the challenges of the evening rush hour in Kathmandu, accentuated by the lack of infrastructure and traffic control. Very delayed, we knew the evening chanting of the Rudram would have already begun. Others had to rush back through traffic too, so we joined a half-group that grew up to its full size by the time the Rudram chant ended just before dinnertime.

Dr Raju and some others had re-visited Pashupatinath. They had been chanting the Rudram in the courtyard, when they were spotted by a Board member from the Hindu temple in Irving who was visiting Pashupatinath. Through this amazing coincidence - and we do not believe in coincidences - they were introduced to one of the head priests at Pashupatinath who allowed them to step into the sanctum sanctorum, and watch the evening worship ceremony first-hand. The headpriests gave each of them a rudraksha garland offered to the deity, and asked them to come back with the holy waters of Manas Sarovar, and offer it to the temple when they return. Regardless of this lifetime experience, Swamiji chastised us to make sure we show up in a timely manner next time.
As we filed in to the restaurant at 9pm, we spot the travel agent already at dinner, unconcerned with the group whereabouts. As people finished their meal and left for their rooms, he was still eating and we have no word on the plan for the next day, nor do we have our passports that were to be distributed this evening, nor the Diamoxx tablets that were supposed to start from tonight. Again, I have to interrupt his meal to ask him. Diamoxx – the altitude medication has already been packed and sent in trucks, so it will now only be given at Nyalam – he is unapologetic despite the fact that the group has to travel over 15000 feet before stopping Nyalam at slightly higher than 10,000 feet tomorrow, and many will suffer from altitude-related symptoms because of his lapse. I also find out that we will not be getting our passports till the next day after the helicopter ride over the landslide – not sure why he has not informed us earlier. And finally, we now know when half the people are in their rooms that we are to leave at 9 am the next day, breakfast would be served at 8 in the morning.

Travel tip for the yatri - Most people do need to start taking altitude medication from Kathmandu - this helps with altitude adjustment. Not everyone reacts well to Diamox, please check with your doctor before leaving for this yatra.

I reminded the travel agent that this was the second day of the yatra, and this was the second time I was asking for timely group updates, after meeting and confirming with Swamiji every day. From now on, he needs to stick to the plan - if he has announced we are leaving at 9, he needs to be at the door at 8:45 like the Chinmaya group did this morning, not show up at 9:15. He appears to listen, and leaves soon after without a group update. So it is for the Chinmaya group to make sure that those who have left for their rooms get the message. We ask everyone to leave the packed duffel bags outside our rooms, and our suitcases that we are leaving behind in the hotel – the breakfast would be served at 8, and we leave at 9. Three strikes a day is not sufficient for Travelorg, sometimes the travel agent runs through these in a couple of hours.
Like in our trip four years ago, again, the Chinmaya group will need to stay on top of the logistics on our own, to keep the trip going as planned. But unlike the travel agency then, we cannot even trust Travelorg/Travelorg India to provide timely customer service.

As I walked back to my room, I remembered that those in the group who had confirmed earlier to Travelorg that they needed heavy jackets have not been provided one. Seven strikes?? I am beyond counting at this point. 
Tomorrow Tibet.
Aum Namaha Shivaaya!

No comments:

Post a Comment