A Land of Isolation, Mountains and Monsoons

In a hundred ages of the gods. I could not tell thee of the glories of Himachal. As the den is dried up by the morning sun, so are the sins of mankind by the light of Himachal. --The Skanda Purana

The mountains, the himals (snow peaks) and the foothills affect the life of every person in Nepal. They shelter the country from icy Tibetan blasts in the winter and protect it from the severity of the monsoon in summer. Not only do they contribute a large part to the extraordinary beauty of this small kingdom, but they also shape many of the religious beliefs of the Nepalese.

For many years the mountains were also responsible for isolating the country and its capital city, Kathmandu, from all but the most intrepid pilgrims, traders and explorers. The Valley of Nepal, where Kathmandu is located, is guarded to the south towards India by the 7-10,000 foot Mahabharat Lekh range the Nepalese "foothills." To the north towards Tibet, the valley is bordered by the towering Himalayas. But this month the country is opening up to an lnvasion of several thousand tourists to witness the coronation, of King Birendra Bir Bikrum Shah Dev, a former special student in Government at Harvard.

King Birendra succeeded to the throne on the death of his father, King Mahendra, in January 1972 but has waited for more than three years for the "most suspicious" moment, as determined by the royal astrologers, to be crowned. The ceremony, which will take place today, is largely a symbolic religious ritual. After the king is bathed with butter from a gold jar, mud from a silver jug, honey from an earthen jug and waters from eight rivers that cleanse the body according to Hindu beliefs, he is then annointed with several clays including mud from a mountaintop and dust from elephant tusks.

Religious ceremony is not reserved for special occasions such as coronations but is an integral part of the life of every Nepalese, It has been said that there is a shrine or temple for each of the 500,000 people who live in Kathmandu. These shrines honor a mixture of Hindu and Buddhist deities, since the Valley of Nepal is an overlapping spot for the two religions. Although traditional Indian and Hindu influences dominate, there are strong Buddhist beliefs-Buddha was born in the Nepalese lowlands and some of the holiest Buddhist stupas (shrines with relics) are in the Valley of Nepal.

But while the people of Kathmandu do make frequent, if not daily, visits to a shrine. Kathmandu is not a city of ascetics. Although the people are poor, the poverty is not nearly as bad as in neighboring India where one can find a million starving beggars in the streets of Bombay or Delhi. While the average Nepalese is lucky to make 150 to 200 rupees ($15-20) a month, there is no mass starvation because of recent good monsoon years and the extensive rice cultivation both in the Valley of Nepal and the lowlands. While the full brunt of the monsoon is not felt in the valley, heavy monsoon clouds hang over the city from June until September, dumping up to 40 inches of rain in that period.

Aside from the farmers on the outskirts, most of the people in Kathmandu today are small shopkeepers who generally make what they sell. The established shopkeepers have stores on the ground level of the several-story buildings that crowd the narrow streets of the market area. These shops are little more than holes in the wall and a good bit of the goods to be sold are hung outside the doors. Most people, however, either trade from blankets laid down wherever the streets open up into a small square or in front of one of the stupas, or string a piece of canvas over their heads and sell food under them.

While many of the alleyways of this part of town are no more than a dozen feet wide, there is still a steady stream of people, sacred Hindu cows, bicycles and bicycle rickshaws, and an occasional Toyota taxi. Everyone, even the upper-class women dressed in their flowing saris, wears sandals or else goes barefoot. During the summer monsoon the dirt roads in many parts of the city turn into permanent mud puddles and generally any clothing that reaches below the knees is assured of getting wet.

In any flat area of the country bicycles are the best method of transportation. While the cost of having a car is prohibitive, used bikes can be purchased cheaply or rented for a couple rupees (20 cents) a day. In the foothills or mountains, however, the only way to get there is to walk. Most of the Himalayan area is cut off in summer as well as winter. This part of the country, still one of the remotest areas of the world, is about as hard to traverse today as it was for the early Tibetans on their way to the Valley of Nepal. Now as then there are, as Li Po wrote, "Myriad peaks and more valleys and nowhere a road."