Category Archives: religion

Gods have birthdays too. In Kathmandu, none is more bizarre than Shiva’s

Thousands of Hundu devotees stand on line to enter Pashupatinath on Maha ShivaRatri © Donatella Lorch

Thousands of Hindu devotees stand on line to enter Pashupatinath on Maha ShivaRatri © Donatella Lorch

Nepal boasts 330 million gods and counting but none garners a more unusual collection of birthday well-wishers than Lord Shiva, the creator and the destroyer. In non- Hindu terms, Shiva is like the patron saint of Nepal. His spiky trident and his bull are ubiquitous from big city temples to impromptu shrines sprouting up in the middle of fields and roads.  In fact, one of Hinduism’s holiest places, Pashupatinath, in the heart of Kathmandu, is one of the most renowned Shiva shrines as well as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This year Shiva’s birthday fell on February 27.

Maha ShivaRatri (Big Shiva Night) is a national holiday in Nepal. On the big day, thousands of devotees inched down the main road towards the main gate, tightly packed in a several kilometer-long snaking line waited to enter the holy room where they can worship the Shiva Lingam, a phallus symbolic of the regenerative power of nature.

Sadhus come to Nepal from all over the Indian subcontinent to Pashupatinath in Kathmandu ©Donatella Lorch

Sadhus come to Nepal from all over the Indian subcontinent to Pashupatinath in Kathmandu ©Donatella Lorch

But some birthday guests had come many days before. This year, more than 5,000 Sadhus or ascetic holy men who give up worldly possessions to achieve enlightenment, walked, biked and bused from far reaches of the Indian subcontinent and set up camp in every nook and cranny in the vast complex of Pashupatinath, making for a rather kooky birthday party.

 

Most of eastern Kathmandu roads were closed to traffic to accommodate the crowds. The massive temple complex on the banks of the putrid but very holy Bagmati River was crammed with people. Tiny shack shops were doing brisk business, loudspeakers were blaring and thumping a Bollywood religious song.

Pashupatinath is well known as a cremation site and on Maha Shivaratri festival it was business as usual. © Donatella Lorch

Pashupatinath is well known as a cremation site and on Maha Shivaratri festival it was business as usual. © Donatella Lorch

Pashupatinath is famous for its open-air cremations and the very distinctive both sweet and acrid smell of burning flesh and scented wood hit me even before I reached the three pyres that were brightly crackling, the smoke curling upwards into the grey sky. Amid the relatives of the dead squatting near holy men and asking for blessings, a young boy on very high stilts was entertaining a crowd of devotees. But this was not the scene that distinguishes Pashupatinath.

 

On an upper terrace, in between several small temples laid out around a square were hundreds of saffron robed Sadhus, scores of devotees, some tourists and about a dozen police. Some Sadhus, called Naga Sadhus, were naked or almost so. Many were smeared in ash with massive dreadlocks piled on their heads, colorfully painted faces and long beards.

One Sadhu sat shivering covered only by a blanket. © Donatella Lorch

One Sadhu sat shivering covered only by a blanket. © Donatella Lorch

One, with only a loincloth and a blanket, his eye rims bright red sat shivering and mumbling. In the chilly, drizzling morning, they shared home-made fires smoking more than burning on the stone pavement.  The cremation scent quickly mixed with wafts of ganja (marijuana) that grew more and more intense as I walked deeper into the complex, stinging my eyes and coating my lungs.

This Sadhu greatly enjoyed his ganja. © Donatella Lorch

This Sadhu greatly enjoyed his ganja. © Donatella Lorch

This year the police were not allowing the open sale of drugs but some of the Sadhus were doing a brisk business with young Nepali men as police looked on.

 

Religion aside, this is a money making venture for many Sadhus. A tourist pays one who then allows him  to take pictures. © Donatella Lorch

Religion aside, this is a money making venture for many Sadhus. A tourist pays one who then allows him to take pictures. © Donatella Lorch

While many devotees want to pay their respects to the Lingam, some do gather for blessings from these yogis who are thought to be very wise and gifted with special powers. Some Hindus consider them saints and the government of Nepal feeds and lodges them for their entire stay. The Pashupati Area Development Trust (PADT) estimates that about $14,000 will be spent on their room and board. The government also provides each one with a financial ‘gift’ when they leave.

Devotees come to ask for guidance from Sadhus and pray together. © Donatella Lorch

Devotees come to ask for guidance from Sadhus and pray together. © Donatella Lorch

The yogis may have been saintly and one claimed he was 110 years old but a lot of their holiness and their weird charm was lost for me as I watched their aggressive demands for money from anyone who wanted to take their pictures. In fact picture-taking was a brisk business. They may claim to forgo all worldly possessions, but many had easily available change for big bills. I photographed one foreign tourist busy posing one Sadhu in a variety of different poses against a wall. No doubt for a hefty fee.

 

Thousands of people throng to Pashupatinath on  Shiva's birthday. © Donatella Lorch

Thousands of people throng to Pashupatinath on Shiva’s birthday. © Donatella Lorch

Sadhus belong to different sects. There was one much smaller group of Sadhus that were given a wide berth by their fellow ascetics and by the crowds. These men, dressed entirely in black, are Tantric or followers of the occult and worship Bhairav or Shiva’s fiercest manifestation. Some Hindus believe that they live near cremation grounds and feed off of human remains. When I saw them they were eating rice.

 

Then of course, like at every huge party anywhere in the world, there are also the Birthday gate-crashers. Beware, not all Sadhus are real Sadhus.

By air, by land and by Karma – transportation in Nepal’s Himalayas

 

 

The Canadian Twin Otter is the war horse of airplanes and an expert at treacherous routes through mountains and short take-offs and landings

The Canadian Twin Otter is the war horse of airplanes and an expert at treacherous routes through mountains and short take-offs and landings

I learned a new expression this week: Controlled Flight into Terrain or CFIT meant to describe a plane crash where a pilot unintentionally flies into the ground or a mountain. For anyone who flies around Nepal, this is a stark reminder of the risks. The day I read about CFIT on Twitter, a Nepal Airlines Canadian-built Twin Otter, the war horse of all planes, one of the few able to navigate Nepal’s uncompromising and unforgiving mountains and its short airstrips, crashed into a fog enshrouded mountain side, killing all 18 people on board. The flight bound for Jumla in the high Himalayas took off in dense fog and then asked to be rerouted before contact broke.

Traveling around Nepal is surreally beautiful but far from simple.

Winding road into Western Nepal with goats the only ones able to navigate the precipice © Donatella Lorch

Winding road into Western Nepal with goats the only ones able to navigate the precipice © Donatella Lorch

There are few paved roads and the dirt ones, mostly carved out of perpendicular mountain sides next to 1000 meter plunges are listed on maps as “fair weather” which means they are impassable for four or more months during the monsoons or by the frequent landslide. Many of the remote and desperately poor communities are only easily reachable by plane and on dirt airstrips that require STOL or short take offs and landings. But snow, fog and rain make navigating mountains treacherous so much so that airports, including Kathmandu’s, regularly close down for hours.

 

Paved roads in Nepal are few and far between. This is the only paved road into far Western Nepal. Here two UN vehicles navigate a narrow section © Donatella Lorch

Paved roads in Nepal are few and far between. This is the only paved road into far Western Nepal. Here two UN vehicles navigate a narrow section © Donatella Lorch

This is the land of the Twin Otter. Maybe this crash was an anomaly?. Kunda Dixit, a renowned journalist and flying aficionado burst my bubble. Sixteen of Nepal’s fleet of 25 Twin Otters have crashed. According to Dixit, Nepal Airlines has now lost 70 percent of its 12 Twin Otters to crashes and has only one still airworthy. Even more heart stopping, Dixit’s article in the Nepali Times pointed out that of all crashes since 1955, about 90 percent were due to CFIT.

The reasons are multifaceted. Cut throat competition in the airline business and thin profit margins coupled with political and local corruption has decimated safety nets. The government, struggling after a decade of a vicious Maoist revolt, has shown itself too weak to implement reform in that sector. Many of the smaller planes, such as the one that just crashed, are not provided with weather radar or de-icing. Flying has become a booming business and some pilots are careless and not as well trained as the veterans. Flight dispatchers should also be held responsible but the biggest pressure is on the pilots to fly regardless of bad weather and cash incentives are given for successful landings at destination. Last year a plane crashed at Jomson, when the captain refused to heed instructions not to land in a tail wind.

Late last year, the European Commission blacklisted all Nepali planes from European airspace. Some might think this move irrelevant since no Nepali airline flies that far. But more to the point, they advised Europeans not to fly in Nepal. We have also been advised not to fly on any plane except for Buddha Air which has my eight-year-old son teasing me at take-off that this may be the fastest way to get to Nirvana.

Nepal ---- in Sign Language © Donatella Lorch

Nepal —- in Sign Language © Donatella Lorch

So what are people to do, stick to the roads? Nepal has one of the highest accident rates in the world.  Despite a plethora of signs saying “Dead Slow”, “Sharp Bend,” “Push Horn” and “Accident Prone Area,” trucks, buses and taxi jeeps are overloaded, have non working signals, don’t use headlights and their drivers rarely slow down when they see you coming in the other direction on a road barely the width of a lane and a bit (with a precipice on one side).

Road signs are an obvious alert to drivers © Donatella Lorch

Road signs are an obvious alert to drivers © Donatella Lorch

Truck windshields are an artistic collection of colored stickers, plastic multi-colored flowers, and religious paintings leaving two small slits through which to see the road. Breakdowns are marked by a few tree branches stuck in the back of the vehicle held immobile by a rock behind a wheel gathered from the nearby recent landslide.

Truck windshields are festooned with taped decorations and plastic flowers making driving more challenging © Donatella Lorch

Truck windshields are festooned with taped decorations and plastic flowers making driving more challenging © Donatella Lorch

After driving 1000 kms from Kathmandu to Western Nepal, I quickly learned to give up my American road etiquette. Asking “how far” provides useless information. The key is “how long does it take to get there.” The only paved road snaking uphill almost 2000 meters into remote districts of western Nepal is a 134km stretch or a six-hour drive.

A bus drives through a recently cleared landslide on the road to Dadeldhura, Western Nepal © Donatella Lorch

A bus drives through a recently cleared landslide on the road to Dadeldhura, Western Nepal © Donatella Lorch

It is marked by 18 roadside rock shrines, engraved with the date and location where a vehicle plunged into the abyss. It is so steep here, that the wreckage remains untouched.  Even the country’s vast population of stray dogs participates in making driving challenging. They curl up and sleep in the middle of the road and like everyone else on the road, they do not give way. In fact, they don’t even wake up.

Nepali stray dogs consider the road home. Why move? © Donatella Lorch

Nepali stray dogs consider the road home. Why move? © Donatella Lorch

My Nepali friends shrug their shoulders at the dangers. It all boils down to Karma, they say.  If it is your time, it is your time. I have yet to reach that zen acceptance.

The Buddha Air flight back to Kathmandu © Donatella Lorch

The Buddha Air flight back to Kathmandu © Donatella Lorch

I thought I’d alternate risk. I flew back to Kathmandu on Buddha Air.

In Nepal’s Himalayas, the uphill battle is against plastic

A huge pile of plastic garbage outside the Upper Mustang village of Lo Matang. The villagers have no means to reuse or recycle it. Copyright Keith Leslie

A huge pile of plastic garbage outside the Upper Mustang village of Lo Manthang. The villagers have no means to reuse or recycle it. Copyright Keith Leslie

As any tour company will tell you, Nepal is the land of the Gods. It is the birthplace of Buddha and home to a vast pantheon of Hindu deities. The power of these gods is taken seriously. Even the secular government has decreed that certain sacred peaks cannot be summited as that might anger the god who lives there.  Yet dumping garbage in the country’s national parks and in the conservancy areas apparently does not bother these divine beings. Nepal’s holiest River, the Bagmati that flows into the Ganges, is fetid and dead. Garbage and in particular plastics, are not only a health hazard but fast becoming the biggest threat to future tourism in this country.

“If it continues at this pace, in 10 to 15 years, it will be impossible to trek in Nepal,” warns Jerome Edou, owner of  Basecamp Trek, a travel agency, and also senior advisor to an NGO Plastic Free Himalayas.  www.plasticfreehimalaya.org

Sunrise over the Annapurna Massif and sanctuary. Copyright Donatella Lorch

Sunrise over the Annapurna Massif and Sanctuary. Copyright Donatella Lorch

In 2013, over 800,000 tourists came to Nepal. The vast majority of these were trekkers as well as Indian pilgrims going to the holy site of Muktinath among others. If each drinks two bottles of water a day, and uses plastic bags for every purchase, the mountains become home to millions of plastic bottles every year.  As the joke goes: What is Nepal’s national flower? The blue plastic bag.”

Waste management is a critical problem throughout Nepal especially in the Kathmandu Valley with its booming population, polluted rivers and lack of a system to dispose of non- biodegradable garbage. But Edou says cleaning the mountains first can set an example and build a system for cleaning up the entire country. A plastic water bottle takes 450 years while a plastic bag takes 100 years to decompose.

Local mountain communities have tried on their own to ban plastics but the government’s lack of policy and legislation make it a sisyphian struggle. In Chhomrung, in the Annapurna Sanctuary, one of Nepal’s most visited trekking areas, Hem Bahadur, a lodge owner, followed by a dozen others, banned plastic bottles 13 years ago. But how can villages of a few dozen households deal on their own with the garbage detritus of tens of thousands of trekkers and religious pilgrims?

Waste management in Chhomrung in the Annapurna Sanctuary where the local lodges want to ban plastic bags. Courtesy Jerome Edou

Waste management in Chhomrung in the Annapurna Sanctuary where the local lodges want to ban plastic bags. Courtesy Jerome Edou

There is no ability to reuse or recycle plastics in the mountains. It is dumped in makeshift sites or burned, releasing dioxin, a carcinogen.

Lo Manthang, a stunning medieval village, is the capital of Upper Mustang District, and has been proposed by the Nepal government as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  In 1992, when Upper Mustang opened up to tourists, plastic bags and bottles were removed from trekker bags at checkpoints. But the Maoist insurgency and lack of government leadership, stalled the anti-plastic movement. Until recently, the garbage of tens of thousands of tourists was just piled up on the town’s outskirts.  The town understood that it was an eyesore and moved it one kilometer away from the main tourist route. Out of sight. Out of mind.

“It could be so simple,” Edou stressed. “Just don’t buy plastic bottles along the way. Use filtered water.” For Edou, there is only one solution in the mountains: a ban on all plastic bags and bottles.  But to do this successfully, the government must promote clean environment in schools, encourage local businesses to produce alternatives and above all require lodges to provide filtered water. There must be a code of conduct for trekkers.

In Nepal, the mountains are a symbol of national pride. Thirty years ago, the mountains were all plastic free. Critics insist there is a lack of political will. Plastic bags are made in Nepal. And plastic bottles are a booming business here as well.

A 15 foot mountain of plastics and garbage lines the holy Bagmati River recently dredged as part of a road expansion project. Copyright Donatella Lorch

A 15 foot mountain of plastics and garbage lines the holy Bagmati River recently dredged as part of a road expansion project. Copyright Donatella Lorch

In Nepal, much of everyday life is about access to clean water. Municipal water supplies are inconsistent and unreliable. The history of bottled water in Nepal dates back to 1992 when there was only one brand on the market. There are over 55 now but studies and testing of water quality show that more than 50 percent of mineral water brands do not match World Heath Organization drinking water standards.

The simplest and less expensive alternative, says Edou, is an EPA-approved gravity filter that is already used in some villages. To change a way of life is always difficult. But the alternative spells ecological disaster.