Kathmandu / Patan, Nepal
February 24 – 27, 2013
In one fell swoop, a hawk glided down the busy street and dropped the prey dangling from its claws.
A huge rodent bounced off the trunk of a parked car.
The furry corpse, flattened by the impact, did not even merit a glance from fellow pedestrians. It was a scene straight out of Animal Planet played out in downtown Kathmandu.
The Birds Like the Bees
I reckoned, in densely populated Kathmandu and Patan, birds outnumbered people by the thousands. A multitude of feral pigeons swarmed around temples, perched on shingled roofs like bees on a hive. Fed and fattened by religious fervor, they lived off grain offerings left by Hindu devotees for their idols and bird feed bonanzas thrown at them by Buddhist monks for good luck.
I was shooting a monk feeding a flock of pigeons at Boudhanath, a Buddhist temple in Kathmandu. Without warning, I found myself amid a flurry of flapping wings and flying feathers. Think Hitchcock. I ducked instinctively. A woman had apparently broken up the feeding frenzy as she casually walked right through the flock.
It was only a matter of time before I got a close encounter of the turd kind. Walking through Durbar Square, I felt a tiny splatter on my jacket. I knew it: bird dropping! Gasp – bird flu, I thought. I flicked the smudge off with tissue, but what took more courage to brush off was the fear of flying in this virtual aviary. Quite a number of plane crashes in Nepal had been blamed on bird strikes. I took a total of four flights during my stay, and each take off and landing had me praying for a safe and bird-free passage.
Without a doubt, Swayambhunath was the Monkey Temple, as it was widely known. Trudging up its steep 365 steps, I was stopped in my tracks halfway through. A troop of monkeys came barreling down, hissing for added shock value. A fight had erupted among them further up. I froze to keep from taking a tumble and becoming a human statistic in the simian stampede.
Bhuwan, my guide, told me they were holy monkeys, never mind that some behaved like thugs. Legend had it that a Hindu deity turned his head lice into these monkeys. When not picking fights, they would pick lice off each other, ironic considering their former incarnation.
Even Pashupatinath, the holiest Hindu temple in Kathmandu, was not without some monkey business. My camera caught a monkey in the act of peeking into or, perhaps, trying to pry off a wooden window shutter. Nice try, ‘mate! Monkeys had the run of the temple, as in Swayambhunath, sharing the holy site with humans and various species in surprising harmony.
Holy Cow! Divine Bovine!
In a Hindu country like Nepal, cows were at the top of the food chain, for a change. Credited for their life-giving milk, they were considered sacred animals, not slaughtered for meat. I heard that drivers would rather stop their vehicles than get resting cattle off the middle of the road. I didn’t witness that, but I did see bulls left to their devices, chewing their cud contentedly by the roadside.
On the elevated end of the complex, it was a shocker to see a goat standing precariously on the steeply inclined stone wall. I thought, poor thing, it had wandered off over the wall; one step and it would fall to its certain death. With nary a care, the goat strutted further to the edge and back. Surefooted and gravity-defying, it owned the ledge.
It was on this vantage point overlooking the sprawling temple complex that Bhuwan narrated a Hindu legend:
Shiva had grown restless in his divinity atop the Himalayas. He escaped unseen to Kathmandu Valley, where he lived among earthbound creatures and gained renown as Pashupati, Lord of the Animals.
Over at the clouds, his fellow deities convened to plan for extreme measures – godnapping – to get the errant god home, but the Lord of the Animals had already disguised himself as a deer. Vishnu saw through the deception; the deities – one in divine form, the other as a deer – grappled…
…to the horn-breaking end. A piece that had fallen on the ground eventually became a linga (a phallic avatar of Shiva) on which Pashupatinath Temple was established.
Through time, the temple was buried to oblivion. After a time, a cow was seen sprinkling her milk over a mound.
Drip, drip. drip.
Digging at the spot, herders found the linga and rebuilt the temple in the same spot in honor of Shiva.
The legend made sense in Kathmandu Valley. Birds imbued their temple abodes with a sense of spiritual freedom. Monkeys lived among stone deities sculpted in their image. Goat and cattle roamed freely in Pashupatinath Temple, rightly so as both animal families figured in the legend of its origin.
Kathmandu Valley itself was the incarnation of one of Shiva’s form: a composite of man, bird, and beast. The valley that stole his heart from the heavens had become a shared habitat of species – truly, the Kingdom of the Lord of the Animals.
Tour or trek Nepal with Bhuwan Shrestha. You may reach him through his cellphone (977) 98-5111-1907 or (977) 97-2155-3885 and email: firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.