There he sits on the crumbling steps of a temple, its tiered roof offering shade from the midday sun. With arms folded across his lap, he watches the traffic racing by, stirring a cloud of dust around his shoulders.
The crinkles around his eyes deepen as he squints through the dust and sunlight, as his eyes meet mine his face cracks into a wide smile and his hands raise to make Namaste. Returning the gesture, I follow his gaze to the square opposite, where make shift tents, colourful flags and decorations have been erected to border the river of people weaving their way through.
Once again Durbar Square has been transformed. It seems that with each visit, the magnificent Old Town is host to yet another cultural celebration. Newari Women, matching in their black and red traditional dress, sit closely around a row of hotplates and bowls, filling the streets with the smells of traditional food and drink on offer. Behind them, music from the main stage echoes between the temples and courtyards, mixing with the laughter and chatter of the crowded street. Home to the Old Royal Palace, many temples and Kumari Che (house of the Living Goddess, Durbar Square is often the centre for celebrations of Newari Culture, the main ethnic group of Kathmandu Valley.
Taxis, motorbikes, rickshaws and people carrying loaded baskets on their brows continue to make their way through the crowded square, near oblivious of the festivities, or perhaps too busy to partake. In Kathmandu Valley, culture seeps seamlessly into everyday life, becoming one and the same.
A main stage has been erected in the centre of the square; the surrounding temple stairs filled with onlookers, eager to witness some of the most celebrated Newari performers in Kathmandu. Men dressed in the traditional red and black of Newari culture take to the stage, musicians delivering a rhythmic drumbeat while another member balances a long bamboo pole, covered in flags (nearly three body lengths tall), in the air, twisting it around his body and performing tricks, even balancing the pole in his mouth from time to time.
A tribute to the Living Goddess, Kumari, is made with an energetic dance imitating the feminine deity, followed by traditional folk dances and musical performances, a blur of red, black and gold bracelets, tassels and drums. Eight hours later of dance, drums and delicious traditional food and we are on the streets of Thamel, eerily empty, as the roads are blocked to continue the celebrations. Three traditional bands arrive at once on the empty road, each erupting in a clash of music, sent reverberating against the surrounding canyons of high rise shops and buildings.
The music leading our way, we march alongside the bands as they perform their own traditional songs, a contrast of flutes, horns and drums against the beeps, engines and shop sounds of city Thamel. Kathmandu Valley is a mix of the old and new, of tradition and innovation, of culture and culture shock.
The valley is home to the nation’s capital and two other large cities, some of the most famous Hindu and Buddhist temples besides monasteries and politics, schools and sports fields. On the outer edges of the valley lie a number of smaller villages where you can be immersed in local culture, in traditions and languages rooted deep in the history of Nepal, just a short journey, but a world away from the city lights. Here Newari Culture dominates, with villagers speaking in language and cultural practices forming the backbone of village society. Lying on the outskirts of Bhaktapur, Siddipur Village’s paved streets border temples, homes and regular wells, still used for washing dishes and clothes.
Small tunneling hallways lead from one village square to another, each dedicated to a temple or shrine. Women and men sit on woven mats edging the streets, as they sieve rice, grind corn and weave rice leaves into rope to be used in the home and village centers. Culture is seen as a means of community empowerment and identity, with women’s development groups and youth groups each learning and practicing cultural craft, dance, music and language in their educational programs.
I find myself seated on a woven mat, sheltering from the rain part way down the mountainside overlooking the Valley, with a group from the village. A bottle of clear liquid is brandished towards me and, despite my best efforts to politely decline, the liquid is poured into the small clay bowl next to my meal of beaten rice and curried vege. I can smell the liquid at an arm’s length, but in favour to the smiling faces watching me, I take a sip. A thing about Newari wine; it’s strong, very strong. Much like their culture, I think.
We have been hiking and exploring the beautiful area, a refreshing break from the dust of Kathmandu. The Siddhipur villagers are eager to show off their home, the people and their many talents. The streets are literally lined with men and women who are still able to practice their cultural traditions, even in our modern world. They welcome us like we are old friends, we sit together, sharing language and stories, eating and drinking as the sun sets over the mountains.
The backbone of any community is arguably the culture. Shaping the customs, language and lifestyle of its people and creating ties to persons, places and things, this cultural network forms the very foundations to support daily living. Within Nepal there are many different ethnic groups, each with their own unique culture, language and history, each fiercely proud of their origins and traditions. As more people relocate to the city areas, this cultural whirlpool deepens, each intertwining as the bands weaving through Thamel, their songs mixing into one sound, along with the ebb and flow of the city itself. This is modern day Nepal, and it is rooted in thousands of years of tradition.
*Created during my Internship with VCD Nepal, Kathmandu. Published Online.
Special thank you to Bikram Paudel and Santosh Pokrel of VCD Nepal for helping me to find and explore these beautiful cultures, and to Ronkia (the lady from downstairs) for always coming to take me to cultural outings and teaching me to cook traditional Newari dishes.