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Katmandu : A City Of Legend, Myth And Festivals

February 17, 1985|SHARON DIRLAM, Times Staff Writer

KATMANDU, Nepal — The little goat scampered about the yard, chased happily by a young boy who sprinkled the animal with water. A man in orange robes sharpened a large ceremonial cleaver against a leather strop.

Suddenly a man looped a rope around the goat's neck, its legs were seized by another man, the cleaver flashed in the sunlight and chop! The goat's head rolled in one direction and the body in another.

The children clapped their hands and the onlookers outside the gate turned away. The brief ceremony was only the first of many animal sacrifices on this day, the ninth day of Bada Dasain, when thousands of goats and buffaloes are sacrificed and everyone in the Kingdom of Nepal has meat for dinner.

The laps of the gods and the steps of the temples were bloody on this hot, sunny day in Katmandu, and the streets of the city were filled with crowds. Little rickshaws carried carcasses from temple to oven; ducks and chickens squawked their unhappy fate from cages in dark doorways; children sprinkled flower petals, grass and candy into the folded hands of stone Buddhas.

Hardly a month passes without a major festival in Nepal. Bada Dasain lasts for 15 days in October, when the rice is ready for harvesting, the monsoons are over and the days are clear and sunny. By mid-festival, one can scarcely find a bus or taxi out of town as they are booked solid by Nepalis going to visit their families.

On the tenth day, all of the Hindus and many Buddhists (the two religions coexist, often merge, in Nepal) travel to the family home or the home of elders and receive a tika on their forehead. By dusk everyone is wearing a tika (rice soaked in red dye). This assures good fortune for the year ahead.

Nepal is a kingdom of legend and myth. Around every twist of its narrow streets is the breath of history, behind every garden wall the mystery of ancient lore. Nepal is the birthplace of Buddha. It is the meeting place of Buddhism and Hinduism. It contains the greatest altitude variation on earth, from the lowland Terai near sea level to Mt. Everest, at 29,028 feet the highest point on earth. Mountain climbers and adventurers share the setting with primitive tribes, royalty, even a living goddess.

The Kumari, or virgin goddess of Katmandu, is a Hindu goddess but selected from a Buddhist clan. Once a year she is taken around the city in a huge chariot. Once a year she blesses the king. Lines of worshipers form outside the Kumari Devi, her residence, awaiting her blessing on days of Bada Dasain.

Some have caught a glimpse of the girl sitting at her window. She wears black shadowing wide around her eyes and her hair piled high on her head. She is chosen as young as age 5 and is the Kumari until puberty, when she again resumes her less exalted role as a human being and her successor is chosen.

Sooner or later, anyone who spends time in Katmandu also hears the name Boris. Hardly an adventure tale or novel set in Nepal since the 1950s fails to note the presence of the legendary Russian who once ran the Royal Hotel, the only good hotel for Westerners in Nepal in his day. Until recent years Boris ran the Yak & Yeti, which remains Katmandu's top restaurant. It's in a beautifully restored old Rana palace and the menu presents a delicious blend of French and Russian cuisine.

Later, Boris started another restaurant, which he called Boris, just outside of town. The diplomats and Westerners who live in Katmandu frequented the place, but it didn't last. Now Boris is 72 and some of his former loyal employees have opened a new place, on the second floor of an old downtown building. They call it Red Square and the menu is Russian. Peace Corps workers and trekking guides call it a favorite.

The main hangout for old-timers, the original mountaineers and trekkers, is the Rum Doodle restaurant in the Thamel area, just north of downtown where the guest houses are centered. Beer, steak and spaghetti are the draw. The mainstays are stories of risk-taking and hair-raising adventures, of swaggering novices and patient Sherpa guides, of climbers who've attempted to scale Mt. Everest and of those who never came back.

The center of Katmandu is Durbar (Palace) Square, around which are the old Royal Palace, pagoda- and Indian-style temples, vendors and beggars, and in all directions the maze of small dark shops, pleasant restaurants, dead-end alleyways, streets full of life.

All of the people seem to spend all of the daylight hours outside and every street in old Katmandu is teeming with crowds: strolling, sitting, sleeping, eating, children chasing each other, babies asleep in shawls on their mothers' backs, old men smoking their pipes.

Bada Dasain brings two events to Nepal especially for children. One is the flying of colorful kites from every small hand that can find a breeze to catch and a string to hold. The other is the setting up, near temples and all around the countryside, of tall temporary swings for visiting children to play on.

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