Saturday, May 24, 2008

On Monasteries

Sometimes a sense or a feeling only happens for only a moment, but lingers, and when such happens it's best suited to poetry, better suited to a free flow of words than the implied causality of narrative. Such is the case with Pharping; but I am not a poet.

It's in Pharping, about 20 kilometers south of Kathmandu by road, that, for a moment, the desire to join a monastery, to detach from the world, comes together: a leaf fallen on a clear, languorous mountain stream, stuck by surface tension to something with no form at all, only mass and movement. I am looking along the railing of a gompa, a monastery, up on the hill, nestled against and at the joints concreted to the exposed stone of the hillside, to see a kettle boiling tea above a small stone stove filled with firewood, and an old monk beating the dust from his welcome mat. A faint breeze blows off the hill, but we are in the lee.

The peace is like the peace of the mountains, the feeling of splendid self-sufficiency without the feeling of loneliness, of isolation. It's gone after a moment, though, and just after a very light rain begins to fall, barely enough to tickle the hair on my arms.


Travelers come to Nepal, often, to find something, because they are looking for what is more or less a religious experience. They are looking to get something out of Nepal; they have come because they think that here, finally, they can find peace—or can learn to find it. Some come to be among practicing Buddhists, in Buddhist places like Pharping or Boudha, though avowed Buddhists are only about 10% of Nepal; others come for a different kind of spiritual experience, something akin to being one with the mountains.

That one would go anywhere in search of a specific experience is somewhat odd to me, but yet also familiar: many of us Westerners come with metrics on which we gage our experience, an y-axis list of goals. For all our exoticization, Buddhism as proffered to Westerners is very much in line with this: we take classes at Kopan Monastery,we participate in vipassana, because the experience is the goal; or else the goal is to be the person we imagine we will be when vipassana is over, and the ten days' silence itself is a means.

This is not the only local religious tradition of introspection, however: India has sanyasa, in which successful men whose children are raised leave home (wives included) and become itinerant beggars—that they don't know what they're looking for is, in the end, the point. And while sanyasa is certainly more explicitly religious than vipassana, it's also in many ways more human: less about renouncing the world than it is about interacting with it and in it.


Pharping is a far quieter town than Kathmandu, more peaceful but still familiar, still built with stone and mud huts, with brick buildings in the Newar style, with protrusions of elaborately carved wood sills and screens for windows and posts and lintels for doors. It's familiar and yet not, like a visit from Thamel in Kathmandu to Lakeside in Pokhara.

Like Boudha, you see monks and nuns in robes walking upright through the town in beautiful crimson and gold robes, men and women who carry themselves with the posture of calm of the devoted, who wait a fractional moment and temper their voices before speaking. And though most are Nepali, some are not: they are French, South African, American. I don't mean to suggest that it's the Tibetan Buddhist influence that gives Pharping its feelings of calm, of quiet; but as an outsider, as a foreigner, it feels like that's the case.

Save a few—those whose paths led them to Pharping (or Boudha) by chance—these monks have come for the destination, rather than the journey; it is not the moving that interests them, but the long rests in between movements.


Nepal is a religious country, and because to Westerners its rituals and forms of religiosity are usual and exotic it's an easy place to exoticize, an easy place to presume spiritual depth in someone you can't communicate with and whose daily life is far different from your own. That much of Nepal can appear to a Westerner, to use a Deepak Chopra line about India1, like an early archaeological dig where all the layers are inadvertently mixed up, it's also easy to romanticize Nepalis, especially rural Nepalis, as more virtuous, as more connected to the land and the earth in some vague, spiritual sense, to identify them with your own ancestors, also romanticized.

And this, I think, is the essence of the tension of living, and traveling, in Nepal. While it's easy for a place to provide a totally external experience—it's easy for Paris to provide a view of the Arc de Triomphe, or San Francisco of the Golden Gate bridge—it's hard for even the Vatican to provide a communion with the divine. Tourist-driven adventuring, here, is safe: it is guided treks, bungee jumping, a mountain flight above the Himals to see Everest. The exhilaration, or the relief, or the sense of confidence or pride that comes from real adventure, here, often, is a consumer product; it is, or seems to me, canned.

I don't wish to harp on this point too much, so I will leave things at this: unburdened travel is not vipassana but sanyasa; it is not a guided meditation into the divine but instead a journey of mud and hunger that fulfills a purpose you cannot define, even to yourself. And that purpose could, very easily, be vain.

1 Being able to quote anything by Deepak Chopra is of course a tad bit embarrassing, but also, because of his passion for Ayurveda and his semi-medical, semi-religious writings, rather fitting.

Pharping, Nepal

Friday, May 23, 2008

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Siphal, Kathmandu

I'm not going to claim that it's the best photograph I've taken, but it might be the most accurate.

On the way to Pashupati I was wandering around the pothole-infected roads of Siphal, and saw down an alleyway a large temple in an empty square, with a lone red motorcycle and a boy sitting by it. As I took pictures, the boy cautiously approached me, usually from behind, to see the picture on the screen. When I looked toward him he would turn away, shyly.

Eventually I figured out that he wanted me to take his picture, but was too shy to ask. And just as I was about to push the shudder, he looked down at his feet.

I waited a moment, for him to look back up, then took the picture just the same.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Monday, May 19, 2008

The ghats of Pashupati

The first time I visited Pashupati, I abstained from taking pictures of the cremations.

Pashupatinath--the nath suffix1 refers to a holy place, here the main temple with its enormous golden image of Nandi, Shiva's bull; likewise the stupas at Swayambo and Boudha become Swayambunath and Boudhanath, respectively--is the most holy Hindu site in Nepal, on the banks of the Bagmati River, which far into India feeds into the Ganges. The temple is so holy, in fact, that non-Hindus are forbidden to enter, as are leather goods (shoes, belts, watch straps), cameras, tape recorders, and binoculars.

Accordingly, Pashupati is a popular place to be cremated; there are, apparently, cremations here every day of the year, even through Monsoon. Indeed, when the royals were massacred in June 2001, they were all cremated here, including Crown Prince Dipendra, in a ceremony that also included Brahmins defiling themselves in something like 84 ritually prescribed ways and then riding elephants out of the valley to help shepherd the souls of the departed. For this the Brahmins gave up their caste forever, but were very well compensated, at least in worldly terms.

Among tourists who go to Pashupati—and most tourists in Kathmandu make it to Pashupati, though the less elegant Swayambo seems to be more popular—an interesting phenomenon occurs: those that don't photograph the cremations feel superior to those, unnamed, that do. It's the imposition of a camera, perhaps, the feeling that somehow by taking pictures we are commodifying someone's grief. It 's also our feeling, collectively, that privacy is somehow necessary for grief; and that as upright and ethical citizens, we ought to respectfully allow grief to come out in whatever way, in whatever terms, the grieving find necessary.

Foreigner and Nepali alike come to watch cremations at Pashupati: Nepalis mostly from the terraces on the eastern bank, high above the ghats just next to the main temple, foreigners from a rampart just south of the bridge across the Bagmati, clustered in huge tour groups or far enough interspersed around the Ram Temple to feel separate and individual, adolescent-like. A number of these tourists do come prepared: professional-level SLR cameras and bulky telephoto lenses, khaki fisherman's vests with pockets blooming up everywhere, fertile with filters, lenses, accoutrements and paraphernalia. At certain moments it can give the walk the feeling of the photographers' well at an important baseball game, a bustle of relatively polite, mostly professional paparazzi activity.

For whatever reason, avowed amateurs like myself—those of us with with compact point-and-shoots in a pants pocket—are spared. It is a case, perhaps, of signals given and signals mis- and understood. That I should have an SLR signals that my photography is serious somehow, that I have committed something material—and likely something of myself—to its pursuit.2 That in actuality I shoot with a camera the size of a back of cigarettes, a camera that is battered from tumbles onto rocky trails and, most notably, a short ways down a mountain in Montana—this signals something else, and somehow exempts me from disapprobation.

This, obviously, is not altogether fair, nor is it altogether accurate. Our collective assumption, and I am not immune, is that these semi- and wanna-be pro photographers have a single notion in mind: That of getting the shot. That is, that they are getting their pleasure, and in a sense their power, from the grief of others, succubus-like; that they have little regard for their own imposition; that they are trying, with the capture of a "good" photo, to increase their own reputation--increase their own status--within their local or extended communities. Or so we other Westerners understand them, and judge them.

But there is another use of photography, more benign and less self-conscious, and altogether more common: That of photography as an incitement to dialogue. Physically the actions are much the same—capturing a scene or a landscape with a light-sensitive sensor or light-sensitive film—but the intents diverge. It is the photography not of look at my pictures but the photography of look what I saw.

We are familiar with the idea of photography outside narrative: the posed family portrait, everyone wearing white and khaki with a neutral backdrop that gives no bit of location away, save in its own sort of negative information; the band's hi-res; the actor's glossy; the MySpace self-portrait with camera held at arms'-length. These are meant to convey something at once general and specific about the subject: a cheerful disposition, the right, artistic attitude, a certain "look," certain visual signals of class and of personal interests.

But the idea of non-narrative photography is a construction, for each photograph takes place within a narrative: the creepy photographer's run-down studio in a strip mall in El Cerrito, his long, wavy gray hair matted to each sheet and office chair; a publicist whose idea of cool involves leather jackets and dreamy looks just past the mercenary photographer's right ear; a seemingly endless day of black-and-white smiles and half-smile and no smiles, only to have not a single shot be the right one; a bored Friday night during private school's ski week, and the realization that an entire evening could be spent finding just the right angle to hide a pimple and highlight the elegance of high cheekbones smoothed by the last remnants of baby fat. The thing about such staged photos is that the stories are expressly, intentionally hidden; the idea is not as much look what I saw as it is look what I want you to see.

Photographs of strangers or of strange places, like the photos we take at Pashupati, are different. In the pessimistic assessment they serve as creators of status, of power: look at how I see. There is a certain element of pedagogy in this, and a certain arrogance, or confidence, of pedagogy, the certainty that you have something worth teaching. Like soccer, or negotiation, or writing, you improve both by doing and my watching how others do, but there are far more soccer matches or negotiations or books than one could ever peruse.

In certain situations, with certain signifiers, we find this sort of creation of culture almost inconceivably gauche: at funerals, at highway accidents, at times in churches, at public bathing sites and bathrooms. We assume, because of the trappings of wealth, because of a certain manner of dress and a camera that costs what the typical Nepali makes in 10 years, that this is exploitation of grief, of poverty.

And sometimes, often perhaps, it is. There are more generous ways of seeing, however, and other intents. Put into an album, stiff pages protected by plastic film and leafed through casually by our friends, our photographs allow us to say, Let me tell you about this person; we can say, The photo may read like this, but let me tell you about the beauty and horror of this place, Let me tell you how people live here. We use our photographs to tell stories, but also to open the doors to the stories we want to tell.

For example: I want to tell you that burning bodies pop loudly, violently, much louder than the pop and crackle of sweet sap boiling between bark and heartwood, but it has taken me an entire essay to come out and say it.

1 Pronounced nat+h, or in approximate English phoenetics, NAHT-h, but with the tongue on the teeth, like in Italian. Nepalis, at least those in and around Kathmandu, also tend to pronounced the letter u, when mid-word, similarly to its pronounciation in Japanese, which is to say almost not at all, as in the Japanese word hibakusha, meaning the atomic bomb survivors. The best, still-rough equivalent I can give in text is to the e in Oregon, which kind of sounds like a hiccup in the middle of organ.

Pashupatinath, then, is closest to pash-pa-tee-NAHT-h than any other way I can think of syllabicating it.

2 The paradox here is that oftentimes point-and-shoots require more imposition, more posed photography, than SLRs, because it's difficult to get sharp pictures from a distance far enough to be surreptitious; but also that people are more at ease with their portraits being shot with a point-and-shoot than a fancy camera. Perhaps the lack of communicated "seriousness" signals a lack of desire to exploit of the images--that the images are to be used only personally, and therefore no reciprocal (and unoffered) consideration is in order.