Wednesday, April 15, 2009


Yesterday was New Year's in the Nepali calendar. To usher-in 2066, I went to my friend Yamuna’s house in Bakthapur, an ancient town outside of Kathmandu famous for its Newari culture. (Newars are the indigenous people of the Kathmandu Valley.) I met her large, jovial family and ate round after round of meat and boiled eggs (Newari festival food). After lunch we went to watch the celebrations in the center of town. Nothing could have prepared me for what we saw. Here's my account:

We walk downhill with a sea of Nepalis in their holiday clothes. (Sparkles and colors for the ladies; ironed grey and hats for the men.)

I see old lined faces leaning out of second and third story windows – windows framed by intricate wood carvings. Not a 90 degree angle in sight – the tiles in the street, the beams holding the roofs, even doorways are crooked and warped from centuries of recurrent frost and soggy heat.

Windows and watchers

We descend with the crowd. Steel symbols and wooden drums beat behind us and I hear shouts and murmurs and hushed conversations all around. They’re speaking Newari and I don’t even know the words for excuse me. We squeeze our way down – hands held, then pulled apart, held, then pulled apart. We round a corner and see The Spectacle below: a pole, the height of a pirate ship’s mast, erected at a slanting angle to the ground.

The pole from our vantage point

I focus my eyes and see a man clinging to the side of the pole. He is three quarters to the top. I gasp. I take three pictures. I watch the crowd watch the clinging man. Old men squint, small children stretch their necks from their father’s shoulders, faces stuff out of every window in the square, like clowns in a VW. Everyone is focused on the pole.

The man next to me

(A small part of) the crowd.

Before I can ask, ‘Why is he climbing the pole?’ and ‘What’s his aim?’ I see his ant-sized figure detach from the pole and free-fall to the ground. The crowd nearby rushes to where his body would have landed. The old men squint harder; kids strain their necks higher; the faces push farther out windows. And the murmurs grow louder.

The man on the pole, seconds before he fell. (He's on the left side. Blue-ish shirt.)

Is someone at the bottom to catch him? I ask.

No, Yamuna says. His only safety is the dangling rope. If he catches it on his way down, he lives.

He didn’t catch it. I imagine the thud of his body on the cobblestone and the shatter of his bones. I hope I’d misunderstood.

Do you think he’ll be OK?

No. He most probably died. Many people die each year during this festival.

Images from history books flash my mind –witches burning at the stake; Jews marching into gas chambers; villagers stoned to death. Encouraging men to climb a slippery pole without safety feels on par.

I learn later that it’s an honor to climb the pole. If you reach the top, you communicate directly with God. You come down a hero and God will forever protect your family.

When I ask Yamuna what thinks of the event, and whether she supports it, she says, It’s our tradition. And then, Ke garne? meaning What to do?

Other random photos from the day:

Sanjeev and Dil! My co-guests at Yamuna's family's house.

Round one: Boiled eggs, papadam, prawn chips and... Red Bull!

Yamuna and younger cousin in front of their home

Chickens! Bound for the pot...

1 comment:

Elizabeth said...

I'm trying to picture Rosie Hughes on RedBull... miss you!