Saturday, April 26, 2008

Mahendra Park, Balaju

Every city contains within it several metaphors for itself; one of my favorite ones for Kathmandu is Mahendra Park, in Balaju.

The suburb of Balaju sits just outside the Ring Road, though really it's all one contiguous and continuous urban area now. About a kilometer or two north of the Ring Road is Mahendra Park, back in the 1700s a pleasure garden for the Queen but now filled with Nepalis picnicing, hanging out, and using the modern, full-size swimming pool. The flat at the bottom of the park is the formal garden, and paved paths climb the hillside with almost-Japanese curves and contours. There's a fair bit of litter, but this is Nepal and there's trash pretty much everywhere, even in the corners and passageways of Buddhist gompas; up at the top of the hill is a pretty clear campsite for the homeless.

Down at the bottom, the grass is unhappy and grows wearily; the old Malla buildings are crooked and cracked. Nepali teenagers roam through the park, either making out under the tree canopy on the hill or making fun of the statues and temples, their laughter crackling and derisive.

If you didn't know the basic history I've laid out, the park would be, well, just a park in Nepal: spottily maintained, ill-treated, taken for granted. But with that little bit of information there is another park inside, for it's not hard to imagine flowering formal gardens, with the peace of birdcalls and the wind rustling the tall, skinny trees on the hill; it's not hard to imagine choosing a pool--not green and algaeic, as now, but then clear and reflective, perhaps koi within--and meditating by it, or simply swirling the water with your ankles; it's not hard to imagine the gardens as they were once, what the organization and beauty and elitism they have faded from.

Recreating is much easier than inventing, of course.

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