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Destination: Nepal : CROSSROADS KINGDOM : Himalaya trekkers gather here, but they're only the latest pilgrims to this valley where cultures and religion have mingled for centuries

October 09, 1994|RICHARD HALLORAN | Halloran, formerly a New York Times correspondent in Asia, is a writer based in Honolulu

KATMANDU, Nepal — This is a tale of three cities in a green valley astride a Himalayan crossroads in the middle of Asia. In ancient times they were known as the kingdoms of Kantipur, Lalitpur and Bhaktapur and were the repository of a deep Hindu and Buddhist culture.

Today, they are called Katmandu, the capital of Nepal; Patan, which now abuts the capital to the south across the Bagmati River but maintains its separate identity, and Bhaktapur, seven miles to the east. Throughout the Katmandu Valley in which they sit are scores of Hindu temples and Buddhist stupas, medieval palaces and struggling museums, Tibetan monasteries and craft centers in a complex of riches that could take weeks to explore.

The most popular time to be in Nepal begins this month and goes into November. The weather is clear and dry; the monsoon rains that sweep up from India have passed, and the Himalayan peaks can be seen almost every day in their full glory. If the past is any indication, the trekkers are arriving in droves from Germany, Britain, France, Japan and the United States. After a day or so to meet their guides and pack up their climbing gear in Katmandu, they will fan out to the northeast to trek toward Mt. Everest and Kanchenjunga, and to the west toward Annapurna and Dhaulagiri, the world's mightiest mountains.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, however, government reports on tourism indicate that most visitors come to Nepal for non-trekking holidays, many to delve into the nation's ancient and diverse culture. Indians from next door are by far the largest single group of tourists, with the vast majority coming to visit cultural sites--or, a more recent development, to gamble.

The foundation of Nepal's culture is religion that exerts a pervasive influence in everyday life. Everywhere are small shrines at which passersby, men going to work and women with children in tow, stop to ring a bell, to touch hands or heads to stone, to sprinkle flower petals, to dab a dollop of vermilion on the god depicted there.

At first glance, it would seem that the Kingdom of Nepal, the only nation in which Hinduism is the official religion, is tolerant of Buddhism, once a competitive faith. It soon becomes clear, however, that Hindus in Nepal have fused into Hinduism elements of Buddhism that have roots in India and Tibet. Unlike Christians or Muslims, Nepalis see no contradiction in holding beliefs from two religions.

One Saturday, an elderly Nepali gentleman stopped to chat as my wife and I came down the long stairs from Swayambhunath, a Buddhist stupa--a place of worship much like a temple--just west of Katmandu. During the conversation, I asked: "Do you come here often?"

"Oh, yes, from time to time. I like this place."

"You are Buddhist, then?"

"Oh, no," he said with a puzzled look, "I am Hindu, pure Hindu."

Later, another Nepali explained that Hindus see Buddha as the ninth incarnation of Vishnu, one of the trinity of Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver and Shiva the Destroyer.

To most Westerners, Nepal seems a remote land, caught in a vise between Tibet and the Himalayan massif along its northern border and a lower range separating it from India to the south. The Katmandu Valley itself may be the Shangri-La of James Hilton's famous novel, "Lost Horizon," although other sites have been named as the inspiration for that storied location. The kaleidoscope of faces on the streets, however, shows the impression of remoteness to be mistaken. Rather, the valley is an ethnic crossroads. We saw people who could be cousins of my ancestors, the Celts, and others who could be cousins of my wife, Fumiko, who is Japanese, plus those whose forebears came from northern or southern India, from Tibet and Mongolia, from Persia and even Greece.

*

The valley that is home to these people is said in legend to have once been a shallow lake that was drained when the god Manjushri cleaved a gorge with his sword and spilled the water into India. Over the centuries, the valley and surrounding hills drew Indo-Aryans from around the Volga River in Russia who migrated through Central Asia and across Afghanistan and Kashmir. Mongols, Manchus and Tibetans seeped through the forbidding but porous Himalayan barrier that separates Indian and Sinitic cultures. They were the ancestors of the Gurung and Gurkha hill people; for more than a century, the Gurkhas provided the British army with valiant soldiers. Indians came to escape the searing heat of the Ganges plain; Persians wandered in from the west, and Tamils came from the south of India. Greek blood is carried by descendants of Macedonian soldiers commanded by Alexander the Great when he invaded northern India in the 4th Century BC. Recently, Tibetans have come to escape oppressive Chinese rulers.

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