In Kathmandu, the gods are part of ordinary life

THE BALTIMORE SUN

On the wall next to the customs check at Nepal's international airport,there is a poster that reads, "Kathmandu -- Where Gods mingle with mortals." This maxim, I soon discover, exemplifies the mystique behind this capital city. In Kathmandu, there are more gods than people. They live in temples and monasteries, on street corners and in shopkeeper's windows. They live in the minds of the pious and in the body of a young virgin named Kumari, "the living goddess," whose period of aristocratic splendor ends at puberty, when she is replaced by another pre-adolescent girl.

The deities that adorn Kathmandu are still largely unknown to the outside world. For they, like the rest of the city, were concealed under a reign of political isolationism for hundreds of years. By the time Kathmandu finally opened its doors to foreign travelers in 1951, open worship had become a dominant characteristic of local life. I first notice this when browsing the city's cobblestone streets. Around every corner rise pagoda-style temples where worshipers clang bells and mumble sutras. Barefoot children peddle chunks of turquoise, prayer wheels made from yak bone and stone lions that pour sweet incense from their nostrils. There are multicolored gods hanging from alley walls, and Buddhist monks conversing with ragged hippies who smoke long wooden pipes. Everywhere I turn there are more alleys and crooked temples, more gods and pie shops.

Kathmandu possesses a wondrous allure, the kind that draws children to magic. Like many first-time visitors, I had expectations based on a sprinkling of common lore. I knew it was in the homeland of mighty Mount Everest, and the elusive Abominable Snowman. I knew Indiana Jones ventured here to save his sweetheart, and I knew Bob Seger was always crooning of coming here, too. But until the moment I catch my first glimpse of this ancient Himalayan city, I never knew there would be so many gods.

For 3,000 years Kathmandu Valley has lured mystics and philosophers seeking both seclusion and spiritual enlightenment. Cradled on all sides by the Himalayan mountain range, the valley is proprietor to three urban districts: Kathmandu, the oldest and most populous; Patan of Lalitpur, "the beautiful city," just to the south; and Bhaktapur, several miles to the east.

Walking through downtown Kathmandu, I enter the famed temple complex known as Durbar Square. There are more than 50 Hindu temples here, most crammed so tightly together that one is indistinguishable from the next. Vendors are here too, garnishing the steps of the red-brick temples with fruits and fabrics. An elderly worshiper holding a leaf of saffron paste stops quietly in front of me. Using his thumb, he paints three vertical lines across my forehead. I bow in thanks, and he smiles a toothless smile and continues on his way.

After leaving Durbar Square I cross a small footbridge into a highly revered Hindu temple called Pashupatinath. The temple is built on the bank of Nepal's sacred river, the Bagmati, where worshipers come from hundreds of miles away to bathe and offer puja (prayer). Hindus believe that dipping both feet in the river before you die cleanses your spirit of sin. And to have your body burned on one of the cremation ghats is to let your spirit travel with your ashes -- up the Bagmati and directly to the gods.

I sit down next to a statue of Ganesha (the elephant-headed son of Shiva, the creator)) and watch Hindu devotees engage in a perpetual variety of worship. Brahmans rotate burning corpses on cremation ghats while, a few feet away, Hindu pilgrims immerse themselves in the sacred river. Indian sadhus (holy men who practice asceticism) smoke hashish from chillums as they perform improbable feats of yoga. Vendors sell garlands to religious devotees who move from temple to temple, leaving offerings of flowers, rice and rupees.

There are gods here too. Thousands of them. I can feel them here, concealed among the temples, watching this timeless scene, from chiseled faces ad erotic carvings, from bronze statues and gilded towers. They are in every niche of Pashupatinath, in every crevice of Kathmandu, thousands of gods with thousands of eyes.

The next morning I climb a green hillock to Swayambunnath, a 2,000-year-old Buddhist shrine called a stupa. A young monk approaches me and asks why I haven't entered his monastery. "Am I allowed?" I ask. He frowns at my question and leads me in by the hand. For an hour I watch 50 monks pray and chant and blow numbing sounds from 6-foot-long copper horns. Four teen-age monks then serve me yak-butter tea and lead me outside, eager to have me help shave their heads. They are so excited to be with me that to someone watching I would seem an old friend.

Such openness is characteristic of the Nepalese. They exude an innocence of character that in most other countries would be reserved for fellow citizens. The inhabitants of Kathmandu take genuine pride in displaying the lures of their city. Not once do I observe a festival without being asked to attend. Like a museum without the glass, this ancient city incites a truly cultural experience. There are temples one can explore, ceremonies in which one can participate and sages with whom one can discuss the great questions of life.

On every street corner, vendors go to great pains to peddle nirvana more quickly and cheaply than their competitors. On sale are hundreds of religious adornments, from Tibetan thankas to Buddhist prayer scrolls. Though it probably happened by accident, much of Kathmandu's religion, art and culture have become stylish, even chic. Yogis, karma and meditation are resurging with '60s nostalgia, and mountaineering is at an all-time high.

When I decide to go on a Himalayan trek, the choice of guides and agencies seems overwhelming. The Gorkha, Sherpa, Yak, Yeti and Ganga trekking agencies are all highly recommended, but Lama Excursions is offering a year's worth of free incense with a trek. The agencies will promise anything for business, from an encounter with the Abominable Snowman to a conversation with the Hindu god of one's choice.

Despite all the promises, I opt to trek alone to the base camp of a 26,000-foot mountain called Himalchuli. I take a bus west to a small village named Dumre (elevation 3,000 feet), and in three days I climb to the base camp, which is nothing more than a small hut at 16,600 feet. My head is pounding with a mild case of altitude sickness, so I decide not to climb any higher.

Over the next two days I sit on a bluff that offers an extraordinary view of the Himalayan range. Perched at this altitude, I can gaze across the entire width of Nepal, from the plains of India to the peaks of Tibet. And all throughout this dramatic expanse, there is neither a person to be seen nor a sound to be heard.

During my three-day descent, I have no chance confrontations with a Hindu god and the closest thing I see to the Abominable Snowman is a red panda scampering beyond the tree line. Once in Dumre, I rest for a day and night and then climb into a battered local bus marked "Valley." After three breakdowns, it rattles over the final hill and all at once the fields of the Kathmandu Valley spread out below me like a giant quilt. The view from the top of the bus is spectacular. Spring harvest is under way, and the patches of rice and millet are as green as billiard tables.

That night my feet are too swollen to fit in my shoes, so I hobble in flip-flops to Spam's Spot for a plate of the city's best Tibetan dumplings. The Tibetan cook, who is more than a little inebriated, informs me that it is Losar -- the Tibetan New Year. He adds that tomorrow there will be an enormous celebration at Bodhnath (a Buddhist stupa east of Kathmandu) and that I must attend with as many friends as possible. It is an invitation I eagerly accept. With only a few days left in the country, I welcome the chance to celebrate before my departure.

Bodhnath is by far the largest stupa in Nepal. Worshiped primarily by Tibetan Buddhists, the stupa is said to hold a relic of the Lord Buddha within its white dome. My friends and I arrive at daybreak, but the festivities have already begun. Worshipers are blessing hundreds of multicolored prayer flags with juniper incense. The rows of flags are then tied to the spire that mounts Bodhnath's dome and left to flow in the wind. Dozens of lamas in burgundy robes and tall yellow hats kneel to the stupa and chant mantras. Tibetan worshipers arrive from as far away as Bhutan and India to take part in the year-opening ritual, and by 11 a.m. there is barely room to stand.

Tibetan women pass out barrels of tumba and the crowd cheers jubilantly. Tumba is a strong mountain drink made by pouring hot water into a hand-held cask of fermented millet and rye. After sucking the drink out through a straw, you simply refill the cask with hot water and repeat the process.

Several lamas carry from their monastery a framed portrait of the Dalai Lama and begin to circle the stupa. Everyone follows in one great procession, cheering and tossing handfuls of tsampa (ground grain) into the air. When the procession is over, worshipers sing and dance in drunken circles. My friends and I are pulled in by some wrinkled Tibetan women who hang chunks of turquoise from their necks and ears. Lamas and monks quickly join us, and for hours we dance arm in arm.

Kathmandu is a city of endurance. Through foreign invasions, tyrannical rulers and abject poverty, the city perseveres -- endowing its visitors with 3,000 years of myth and culture. Even now this realization is strikingly clear: When I return to the routine of everyday life I will drift hopelessly back to these mountains and gods and temples. It will happen at odd times; when I'm sitting on the subway on my way to work, when I'm at home eating dinner and at night, in bed, when I enter that listless state between consciousness and sleep. Memories are the enduring gift of this forgotten little valley, where the strains of modern survival don't stand a chance against so much to discover.

IF YOU GO

Getting there: Singapore Airlines is currently quoting $1,610 plus tax for a round-trip, economy-class ticket via New York and Singapore.

Where to stay: Kathmandu has a tremendous range of accommodations, from budget inns in trendy Thamel to first-class hotels near Tribhuvan International Airport.

When to go: Despite its 5,000-foot elevation, the Kathmandu Valley has mild temperatures year-round. The best time to visit is October to March, when the sky is clear and surrounding mountains reveal their awesome stature. With summer come monsoons, landslides and leeches.

Information: Lonely Planet offers the most comprehensive travel book on the region. For more information, contact the Nepalese embassy at 202) 667-4550.

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