I was lying on my Calcutta Hotel bed , keeping a vigilant eye on the bathroom door, as beyond lay the fast growing green black slime of the tropics which was threatening to break in to the already dank bedroom, when the phone rang and my brother said all was arranged and his accountant’s cousin would pick me up at Kathmandu airport the following day.
I suppose for many years I had had those great opening lines of Anthony Burgess’s ‘Earthly Powers’ always nagging somewhere..’In bed with my catamite when Ali announced the Archbishop was here to see me…’. and this was a weak attempt at some similar sort of phrasing..
Im pretty sure that Burgess had never stayed in such a sleazy hotel but most who spent time in the tropics have had tales of frightening bedrooms..this was mine and I couldn’t wait to leave, The Hotel , not Calcutta which I sensed had so much more exploration left in it.
I had wandered the city for 10 days and the heat and humidity was beginning to take its toll so the mountains , well not just mountains, the Himalayas were an exciting and life saving prospect.
I had witnessed the beginnings of India’s most famous festival, The Durga Puja, here in Calcutta , In fact it was the precursor to the festival, The Mahalaya, where the goddess was called down to earth for the Durga Puja Festivities, and would see the main part of the event in Kathmandu although referred to in Nepal as the Dashain.
Serendipity had intervened and on the Kolkata , Guwahati , Kathmandu flight I was given the window seat. We flew close by Everest .. Mountain or not , with a childhood of Edmund Hilary and sherpa Tenzin , the tales of Mallory there is some thing magical at seeing Everest so close up. , By now with late middle age creeping up I didn’t think I was ever going to climb it, but I also never thought I would see it so close in reality.
The Kathmandu valley is quite a magical site after barren mountains with a vivid lush green surrounded by high mountains. The valley has been occupied for some 11,000 years with evidence of neolithic sites.
Somehow I had overlooked the crossing of borders and the need for a Visa, and I wasn’t the only one. I filled in the form and by chance I had the required fee in dollars but no photograph. As there was neither a photobooth or an ATM I was one step ahead of the crowd who didn’t have the necessary foreign exchange to buy a visa. The border control man looked at the money and stamped my passport and I was on my way into Nepal to meet the relative of my brothers accountant.
Historically certainly for the last two thousand odd years ( up to post 1950), as there are reasonably reliable records, from the outside world nothing momentous really happened, just a shifting of personnel from pretty much the same Hill Caste Elite tribes of the Ghorka region, running the Empires of Nepal from the mountainous regions to the populous plains abutting India, with the capital in the Kathmandu valley.
(see end of article for references)
However Nepal’s history is highlighted throughout the Asian world at least, as the birthplace of Buddha. In 623 BC The Lord Buddha was born in Lumbini, a small town on the plains. It is the spiritual home to over 500 million Buddhists and has 400,000 pilgrims visiting yearly. Today though Nepal is a Hindu country (80%) with only 10% Buddhists.
We drove into the centre Thamel, the centre of Kathmandu and the hangout place for all the 60’s and 70’s travellers, artists and hippies.
The drive into town from the airport is always one long traffic jam ..the fallout of the civil war was that tens of thousands of Nepalese fled to the capital and rough and ready brick houses were built everywhere without planning permission. As there was no real government to enforce any rules, and bribery and corruption were rife,
houses and shops ended up being built right next to roads. So today these roads cannot easily be widened. There has been no real urban planning for generations, thirty years of autocratic monarchy a dozen years of insurgency and a further ten years without a constitution the country has been in a state of paralysis.
Thamel..I must admit that Thamel rather shocked me. After spending the last month in the decidedly non tourist cities of Chennai and Calcutta here I was in the midst of what suddenly appreared to me as a tourist hell. Although Thamel is actually the oldest part of Kathmandu with some interesting architectural buildings one has to look up above the plethora of trekking shops that even squeeze out the touristy trinket emporiums. From being totally ignored by shopkeepers in Calcutta I was positively feted by the dodgy vendors of dodgy Nepalese artefacts. The streets were full of European men and women of a certain age sporting fluo lycra leg hugging walking gear and hobbling along trying to break-in their new hiking boots before heading off to the 3 or 4 trek around the base of Anapurna at Pokora, mixed in with young would be hippies. Perhaps I am a little hard on the Thamel and it’s tourists, tourism is after all Nepal’s main source of revenue for one of the world’s poorest countries.
I was surprised by the number of Israelis in Thamel but found out later there are a few agreements between the 2 countries , one being that there are some 12,000 Nepalese women caregivers in Israel and in turn visas are easily obtainable for the many Israelis finishing their military service.
The streets around Thamel, especially near Durbar Square, the religious centre with the main the temples, were far more interesting, the shopping streets for the city, with life half-lived on the streets, many too narrow for cars. Carpets, clothes and material hung from every available spot, toy makers found little spots to make and sell kites and everywhere there were dried spice and food shops. Small shrines and temples filled in any available space and stupas were everywhere, sometimes right in the middle of the streets.
During the Maoist insurgency someone wrote “I had spent much of that day on the road from Kathmandu to the Tarai, shuffling past long queues of Tata trucks from India, through a fog of dust and thick diesel smoke, ragged settlements occasionally appearing beside the road: shops made of wooden planks, selling food fried in peanut oil and tea in sticky clouded glasses, mud houses with thatched roofs – a pre-industrial bareness in which only the gleaming automatic guns of young soldiers and the tangle of barbed wire behind which they sat spoke of the world beyond Nepal”
For my trip to Chitwan in the humid hot and malarial south to see the elephants, rhino, and no tigers nothing had changed, except there were scarcely any soldiers. The Tarai is very little different from India in the landscape and the faces of the people.
I had organised the scary bus trip back the Kathmandu for the main day of the Dashain festival. Durbar Square was a full market day as well with animals for sacrifice alongside the weekly shopping. People queued outside the many temples and the streets holding trays of items for the gods and the streets ran thick with animal blood. There were many small bands of minstrels to add a musical track to this noisy affair. The highlight for many and I was certainly impressed, regardless of the ethical dimension, was the parading of the living goddess.
All the photographs in this blog were taken during the main days of Dashain in the Durbar Square area with all it’s temples ( perhaps one day will write and display photographs of Chitwan and the lake of Pokhara).
Throughout all the problems that Nepal has faced during the last half century the rites and festivals of the Hindu religion have remained the only constant. The history of Nepal since the Second World war has been a labyrinthine tale of politics, regicide, cold war spies, Maoist insurgency, corruption and nepotism. That’s just for starters.
I made the mistake of deciding to write about the politics of Nepal today as when I was there just before the tragic earthquake Nepal had been without a constitution for 6 or 7 years and the country appeared in a state of inertia.
The British were the first outside player to have any lasting effect on Nepal, After the 1819/20 Anglo Nepal war , which took place on the plains as the British were incapable of fighting in the mountains, , which naturally the British won they realised the usefulness of the Gorkha sodiers and recruited them as mercenaries in the British Army as the Gurkhas. So useful were they that they probably saved the Raj by being instrumental in putting down the Indian Mutiny. They went on to fight for the British all over the world including the rather bloody put down of the communist insurgency in Malaysia.
The British never bothered with mountainous Nepal, happy to pay off the Hill Caste Elite and monarchy, naturally this was not passed on as no economists had even thought of trickle down economics at the time!
The cold war changed everything with the west happy to support the status quo of Monarchy, Elites, Landlords and Peasants by providing cash and small arms to the ruling classes. Kathmandu was the front line for the CIA listening in on China. In fact Nepal was full of Spies from Britain , USA, and especially India with the Chinese keeping an eye on all the Government was doing and each other. I’d like to imagine that during the seventies there were all these spooks dressed up as hippies, smoking dope and trying to fit in !
One of the enduring problems of Nepal is the failure to integrate the some 60 different Ethnic and caste communities. The monarchy and Hill Caste Elites , the Bahun and Chhetri, happy to live under and rewarded by the hegemony of the west attempted to enforce their own hegemony over these other pooorer communities.
A weak form of Parliamentary democracy was suspended by King Mahendra in 1960 and the new political construct , based on the Indian Panchayat system was introduced in 1962. These Panchayat representatives were chosen by the king and came solely from the elites, and with no opposition they helped themselves to most of the foreign aid that the west sent to Nepal. Further aggravating the poor and diverse communities the King declared Nepal to be a Hindu state and imposed on these differing ethnic and linguistic communities the Nepalese language.
Little changed for thirty years with the west supplying arms and intelligence to the Monarchy, little real development in rural areas as aid was just enriching the elites and the poor leaving Nepal in their millions to find work in the oil rich gulf states, Thai and Malaysian sweatshops, Indian brothels and latterly in Iraq war zones.
All this added up to fertile ground for the rise of a Maoist opposition ( the Communist Party of Nepal was rather weak toothed) and as with Maoist parties split followed split until finally armed insurrection seemed the only answer.
We mustn’t leave the IMF and World Bank out of this, as they, as in South America, as slaves to the early neo con philosophy had in 1986 deigned to give aid to the Nepalese government on the condition that subsidies were cut to farmers and the public sector slash their budgets and make redundant a good part of the civil service. The IMF and World Bank,ignorant and short sighted people as they were then as now, just added more dry tinder to the fire. Alienated from the Hills, it’s financial aid and decision making, the Maoist revolution first took off in the Tarai, the plains led by a peasant, Prachanda, who as it happens has just been (2016) elected Prime Minister.
In 1996, after the Maoists gave the Monarchy / Government a list of demands including a secular state, the stepping down of the Monarchy, privatisation of land, autonomy for ethnic groups etc, Which the government refused to contemplate. This refusal to negotiate led to the insurgency, with attacks on police stations providing the Maoists with modern arms. The west provided support for the incombant regime, The US with rifles, The Uk with helicopters and both with intelligence, the CIA and MI6 were active in Nepal during this period.
A curious incident happened in 2001, although having no final bearing on the outcome of the Nepalese situation is a strange tale. On June 1st 2001 the Eton Educated crown prince Dipendra armed with assault rifles killed the King Birendra and his brothers and sisters, wiping out one whole side of the Royal Family..This left the other side under the new King Gyanendra in sole power. The obvious conspiracy theories put the CIA behind this as Gyanendra was seen as more likely to help crush the Maoists.
One of the other stand out incidents was that the Chinese ended up supplying the Nepalese army with arms, whether this was a snub to India who had that point refused to supply weapons or as is widely believed that by the early 2000’s the Chinese state had ditched Maoism and was moving wealth from the interior to the burgeoning power house coastal cities and were not keen on a successful Maoist revolution on their doorstep.
The death toll continued to rise, by 2006 more than 15,000 people had been murdered twice as many by the state than by the Maoists. The general strike of April 2006 led to a backlash by the Monarchy / Government with a curfew imposed in Kathmandu. Now the demands for a change in how Nepal was run were on the streets of the capital, no longer just in the rural areas. The King ordered curfew breakers to be shot on sight. After weeks of pro democracy protests, dead curfew breakers and an ungovernable country the Prime and the Maoists agreed to a ceasefire and peace negotiations that led finally to the November Peace accord. The Maoists entered Parliament and became the largest party in the subsequent elections and the King stepped down.
The mishmash of Political parties, the Congress, The Communist Party and The Maoists with the most seats then spent the next nine years trying to agree on a new consitution. There were certain gains for women, minorities and transgender people , all holding seats in the new parliament. I think that the worlds first Transgender Passport was issued in Nepal. After the earthquake in 2015 and given that the Maoists had dropped to third place in the 2013 elections and the Congress Party was now the largest party, the Maoists after 10 years of the soft life in the capital caved in and a Constitution was finally agreed on.
Many feel that this constitution, ignoring federalism and the needs of the Ethnic and Linguistic minorities, with especially the southern plain states, the largest and most productive region, that the next Nepalese Revolution is inevitable. The Two communist parties with no socialist or federal policies, no trade unions to represent oppressed farmers and workers there are no representatives for the poor and the ethnic minorities to look to. After the constitution was announced there were riots in the south.
There have been long blockades at Nepal’s southern borders leading to shortages of food,fuel and cooking gas.
As always there is a conspiracy theory here too. The Nepalese monarchy was the only Hindu monarchy in the world and the recently elected BJP Modi’s right wing Hindu party in India would love to see the reinstallation of the Hindu Nepalese Monarchy, and are behind the blockades.
The southern and western states of Nepal will never be happy with this constitution and there is still potential for another Nepalese revolution.
Nepal is a wonderful place to visit, with warm helpful people, although travelling on the roads can be a little frightening and the alternaive small sixteen seater planes, where you feel a little like Fred Flintstone with your feet running along the ground on takeoff and landing, are only marginally less so.
Since the tragic earthquake of 2015 which destroyed so many beautiful buildings in Durbar Square and the stunning Bhaktapur it is important that people visit, as tourist income is so important for the rebuilding and the morale which jobs give to Nepal.
The next Nepali revolution https://www.jacobinmag.com/2016/01/nepal-liberal-constitution-maoists-protests-monarchy/
The People’s war http://www.lrb.co.uk/v27/n12/pankaj-mishra/the-peoples-war
And asssorted Newspaper articles
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