Dakshinkali is a small temple, maybe a kilometer from the town of Pharping, cool, shaded by pines and settled in a small gully. It's a pleasant place for a picnic, and on Saturdays—the one day of the week Nepalis have off—you hear tinny versions of Green Day and Bollywood classics through the trees, from the clattering stereos that families have brought, along with woks and pans, piles of tomatoes and cucumbers, to the thatched-roof gazebos on the way to the temple.
If you walk to the temple down from either carpark and along the paved footpath—not the dusty road packed with stalls selling tiny apricots and colorful roosters, framed pictures of the idol of Kali in the temple and garlands of marigolds—you'll notice a faded red streak in the square concrete gutter next to the path. This is blood.
Kali is an incarnation of Parvati, the consort of Shiva, and to (simplify greatly) is Hinduism's goddess of time and change, and ergo death. She demands sacrifices of uncastrated male animals to appease her, and Dakshinkali is a center of her worship for the Kathmandu Valley.
Other than that the butchers at Dakshinkali decapitate the animals—and for bigger animals like goats and buffalo, this involves sawing through the aorta and jugular vein, the tendons of the neck, and the spine with rough jerks and pulls—the ritual is extremely matter-of-fact. There is little ceremony: the goat is handed over to the butcher and he starts in without prayer or delay. It's certainly gruesome, but quick—over, for a goat, in perhaps 15 seconds, and throughout you hear the din of people calling to their relatives for other offerings—coconuts are popular—the rapid, uneven chop as another butcher dispatches and bleeds a series of chickens put into his hands, the ringing of bells around the temple and casual talking all along the coiling, stretched queue.
The Lonely Planet guide mentions "swarms of tourists" at Dakshinkali, but when I visit he only other foreigners are a film crew from National Geographic shooting a story on Dakshinkali.1 And perhaps on leprosy as well—Andy, the crew's sound guy, points out a man, a leper, waiting to make his sacrifice at the temple. To me the man looks normal, but then I am trying not to look to hard—he has already seen Andy point at him.
The film crew leaves for lunch soon after I spot them, though, and I go back to feeling both extremely visible and totally invisible at Dakshinkali. I've finally learned to say the polite form of "sorry" in Nepali—mas ghonhola2—and I pronounce it well enough that it induces a number of beggars and sadhus then speak rapidly to me in Nepali, trying to divest me of coins or 10-rupee notes. But because Dakshinkali's a religious place, striking up a conversation is hard—there is no obvious avenue of approach, especially when it seems that few here speak English.
I am curious what the consequences are for not placating Kali. Andy's gesture, a brief wave of the hand, makes me wonder whether Kali is the bringer of leprosy—which, by the way, I thought was more or less extinct. Though I try to ask here and there in a rudimentary way, the best conversation I can have is with Rajnat Tiswari, a student reading in Hindu scriptures, one of the many men who apply tikas3—the red dots on Hindu foreheads—to the penitent for a donation of a few coins. He also hoses off the paving stones in front of the temple from time to time—he had been doing it when I wandered in.
Rajnat is nice enough, and his accent in English is good, but little communication takes place. When I ask what happens if Kali gets no sacrifices, Rajnat says, "Yes, yes, Kali...very powerful goddess." I try to correct, to ask what Kali does when she gets angry, but Rajnat looks at me blankly and I let it go.
On the way to Dakshinkali, perhaps an hour or two before, I had stopped at a small restaurant at the intersection of the main, wavily paved road to Pharping and Dakshinkali and a rocky dirt road up to a pagoda-style temple not far. I stopped both because it was hot—the Kathmandu official temperature, which is nearly always low, hit 30º C—and because I wanted to make sure that the other temple was not Dakshinkali. Sitting at the small stand, asked to join a table with a pair of Nepali brothers, I was asked by Prasad, the older—"I am older and he is fatter!" Prasad said gleefully—the standard Nepali questions: where am I from, how old am I, am I married, do I have girlfriend?
It was this last serious of questions that the woman who ran the shop picked up on. She said something to Prasad, who translated: "You like to meet Nepali girl? She has sister, good, sister."
I tried to demur but the woman insisted that I promise to call her sister—the name next to the number I wrote was Parvati KC3, but I was unclear whether that was the shopkeeper's name or her sister's. Even when I told her that I wasn't looking, that I had broken up only a month ago with my girlfriend, that she broke my heart, etc., the woman wasn't having it. "Take," she said. "Number." So, to not offend, I took.
I only mention this because something was lost there between us, between me and this woman, even with the intercession of Prasad.
Prasad and his brother on the way back from Dakshinkali.
1 I watched the crew film an interview with a woman waiting in the queue with a rooster in her hands. The film crew had a Western-dressed Nepali translator with them, and the producer whispered questions in his ear for him to ask the woman. The producer—a big, ruddy man who looked immediately English from afar but was likely Australian (I talked only with Andy and Wes, the cameraman, who were both Aussies and liked me because they liked San Francisco)—also carried with him a clipboard with a stack of participant releases on it. I presume this was for National Geographic's liability company rather than National Geographic itself: written contracts involving foreigners are on the whole completely unenforceable in Nepal; and the releases were written in English.
2 I actually only learned this because it's the first phrase of the message you hear when the phone isn't working. It's fun: All the expatriates immediately recognize it, because you hear it all the time. But Nepalis understand as well—it's almost certainly the most comprehensible thing I can say to a Nepali who doesn't speak English.
As always, these transcriptions should be understood as very rough.
3 Called tilakas elsewhere in South Asia, but in Nepali the word is tika.
4 KC is a common Nepali last name—it took me a long while, and many questions, to learn that. That it's not spelled in English "Kaysi" or something similar may be a quirk of transcription, but I don't know if the name is just spelled with letters in Devanagari script (which I can't read anyway).