The majesty of the Himalayas need to be experienced to be even savoured while describing it. As my flight neared Nepal, the white, serenely beautiful range of mountains materialised as if out of nowhere, perched amid cottony clouds.
I had resolved early that my stay in the Himalayan Kingdom could not end within the luxurious confines of the hotel and the false sense of decadence it lent to my first impressions of the country. So when a couple of friends suggested a visit to Bhaktapur, I leapt at the chance. Bhaktapur was the capital of Nepal once, I’m told, during the reign of the Malla kings till about the late fifteenth century. Walking into this world heritage site was much like stepping into a time warp. I wish there was an easier way to describe the scale of architectural splendour that Bhaktapur proudly claims as its own. For, unless I explain the splendour, I cannot give you a sense of the struggle life must be for those that live and eke out a living in that mausoleum of royalty.
Turn your camera in any direction and you are offered an exquisite frame. Temples, pagodas, shikharas – Hinduism and Buddhism melt symbiotically into one another, into a blend that is uniquely Nepalese. Little has changed, except for the single lines of electricity wires untidily criss-crossing the skies and snaking into houses through the elaborately carved latticed windows. The grand carvings speak of a prosperous past, but the rot in the buildings is unmistakeable, so are the the dirty tattered curtains on windows – daily life struggling to keep its head afloat among the glorious ruins of a royal past.
As you walk into the majestically vast expanses of the Durbar Square, the dragons guarding the gates appear cold even in the hot merciless sun, stonily staring back at gawky tourists invading their grounds. The local population have learnt to ignore the invasion of their privacy, the constant clicks of camera shutters focussed on their doors and windows, voyeuristically capturing their daily lives.
If the dragons could talk they would have narrated their years of glory, soaked in the knowledge of their importance and relevance, and also of the sharp fall from grace as Bhaktapur gave way to Kathmandu as the capital – slowly slipping off the radar completely till UNESCO rescued the city from oblivion, marking it as a World Heritage Site.
Tourism, for the locals of Bhaktapur is the only way of life, this is a city that the tourists keep afloat. Every shop has roughly the same wares – while some have cheap trinkets, masks and souvenirs, the others make a killing on the soft as a cloud Pashmina shawls. I must say I came back much more knowledgeable about Pashminas and far lighter in the wallet too…but that’s besides the point.
The narrow alleyways that once housed prosperous merchants now are barely functional residences, with their fronts converted into roadside stalls. I wonder if there is a fixed price for anything across Nepal, Bhaktapur was no different. The same woman that sold me a Buddha statue and a pair of earrings for about three fifty Indian rupees fleeced another for cheap earrings for about a thousand rupees. And she did it without batting an eyelid! Bargaining is the only way out, but somewhere you wonder if the value of the trinket that you coveted wasn’t too cheapened by the ruthlessness of the trade. Then again, I guess, when survival boils down to a few rupees cajoled here and there, ethical selling is the last thought on the shopkeeper’s mind too. If you are gullible, you are the fool.
The slaps of bright paint advertising Coca Cola appear rather incongruous, like an assault on the landscape that has largely changed little. The rickety boards that advertise ‘Internet Cafe with lightning speeds’ in dark pigeon-holed rooms deep inside the walled city leaves you bubbling with laughter at the irony. These are chords of dissonance – the attempt by the twenty first century world to make its presence felt in the forgotten metropolis
As the sun climbed higher and fatigue began to dim the need to explore the hidden alleyways, we sought ‘modernity’ – a cafe that wasn’t in darkness, that offered a modicum of hygiene and perhaps clean, western loos. The relief that we felt when we chanced upon one such is indescribable. Calling it quaint and charming now sounds hypocritical, for it had toilet paper and coffee machines churning out cappuccinos and moccachinos. Ohh and did I mention free wi-fi? As I sat in the cafe, sipping my coffee and re-connecting with the civilisation that seemed light years away, the sound track playing in my mind was the much stereotyped Dum Maaro Dum and Kaanchi Re Kaanchi Re from the film that made Nepal famous on the Indian silver screen – Hare Rama Hare Krishna…
I was the quintessential tourist, intruding into every corner that I could, exploiting the lost splendour of a once proud city and its inhabitants. Today they are voiceless as I invade their privacy and thrust cameras in their face as if they were in a living zoo and in exchange throw a few rupees their way. I haggle my way, look for cheap bargains and consider everything overpriced. I am not proud, I was the tourist and this is how tourists behave. Each local calls himself a guide and offers his services for a hundred cheaper than the previous offer. I wait for the dirt-cheap offer and finally decide I could just read it all off the wikipedia.
As I leave Bhaktapur hours later, my van kicks up a massive cloud of dust. I cover my face and hide my eyes behind sunglasses. But a terrible sense of unease tells me if I were to visit this forgotten city ten years from now, little would have changed, except for maybe an odd dab of paint here or there. It’s a relief that history lives on, but I wonder what about the forgotten people who still live there?
(This post was first published on my now abandoned blog Word Sketches. It is of 2012 vintage- the Bhaktapur piece is among my initial pieces of travel writing, the seed for this blog was planted then!)