Chaos and Calm

I’ve never experienced a place as chaotic as Kathmandu. Walking down the streets of the city (sidewalks are a rarity), it feels like one misstep stands between life and death or at least significant injury. Cars, trucks, scooters, motorcycles, bicycles, rickshaws, and pushcarts cram into narrow streets and alleyways with pedestrians and shopkeepers. There are neither stoplights nor traffic signs to moderate the flow. Horn honking is a common form of communication.

I’m wearing a mask outdoors due to Kathmandu’s horrendous air pollution

And yet, somehow the devout find sufficient calm to worship amid this madness. 

Almost as pervasive as the traffic in Kathmandu are the religious shrines. On one morning walk in a 10-block radius, we counted 117 shrines, primarily Hindu, but also Buddhist. 

Ornate temples on every street corner, altars tucked into niches, shrines covered in flowers, stones carved in the street, bells hung by a door. Nepal is 80% Hindu and 10% Buddhist, and unlike Western religions, where worship and prayer generally happen in private or at predetermined times (e.g., church services), Nepalis worship in public throughout the day, perhaps dozens of times per day, literally while walking down the street.   

Ritual, or puja, appears to be the essence of this worship. Hindus place a dot of red paste made from dried tumeric on the depiction of the god before placing a dot on their foreheads. They may circle a temple clockwise and ring a bell before coming to stand before the god or goddess with their palms together and then sprinkling marigold flowers on their head. They place an offering of rice, fruit or marigolds at the foot of the gods, and they light many candles.

Ganesh Shrine with offerings of rice, flowers, leaves, and fruit

Different shrines are devoted to different gods (of which it is said that there are 33 million in the Hindu pantheon). The most common seem to be Shiva, Vishnu (and his many avatars), and Ganesh. The Buddha is present as well. We were surprised to learn how much overlap there is in the worship of Hindus and Buddhists. For example, Buddhists frequently make offerings to Ganesh for good luck. On a visit to the Swayambunath Temple (also called the Monkey Temple because it is swarmed by Rhesus Macaques), one of the most sacred of Buddhist Temples believed to contain the relics of the Gautama Buddha, we noticed shrines depicting Ganesh and Hanuman, both Hindu gods.

On our first day in Kathmandu, we met Sahil, an art student, on the street, and he offered to accompany us to the Seto Machindranath Temple and explained some of the worship rituals. (He also wanted to sell us his art work, but that wasn’t apparent until later.)

Although just a few steps from the chaos of the adjacent street, inside the courtyard of the temple, it was quiet and serene. We lit candles, each holding one in our right hand and circling it seven times in a clockwise direction before placing it on the altar. We then touched our forehead (Om), mouth (Ah) and heart (Hum-pronounced “Oom”) after which Sahil dipped his finger in the tumeric paste and placed a dot on each of our foreheads as a blessing (called a Tika) and then sprinkled the marigold petals on our heads. He explained that this ritual represents the desire to “think right, speak right and act right” in order to manifest good kharma. Although this was only a brief and superficial teaching on the spirituality of Nepal, it felt incredibly important and generous.

Akash Bhairab Temple

Our puja complete, we walked back out to the street where we were greeted by dozens of scooters vying for position in the narrow path; chaos and calm in co-existence.

4 thoughts on “Chaos and Calm

  1. Ain’t it fun and exciting!New Delhi is chaos, too. Except you are looking, smelling, feeling. Love the blogs, Erin. Missed talking before you left. Pam B.


  2. Pingback: Then and Now (Kathmandu and Bhaktapur) | Lower the Bar for More Fun

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