A cat adopted by the Dalai Lama wrote a book and introduced the world to the basic tenets of Buddhism— I read it, and its sequels. Buddhist monks chanted for positivity on youtube – and became the un-official soundtrack of my life. Prayer flags deck my bedposts in Bombay – transporting me to the mountain states of India where they flutter in myriad corners, as if making silent music. My anxiety-prone mind and I have been gravitating towards Buddhism for a while now, so I’d be lying if I said the idea of my holiday in Nepal, the birthplace of Buddha, didn’t give me rather lofty ideas of finding peace, happiness and myself in the mountainous kingdom. But my first stop, Kathmandu – had other lessons to offer.
With its brushed blue skies, blossoming lilac Jacaranda trees, a nip in the air even in May, the comforting momos at every corner and of course, the omnipresent prayer flags — the capital city, set in the Kathmandu Valley, appeared as the antidote to the frenzy of my home city — a starting point, to relax my anxious mind. But the biggest lesson I learnt from Kathmandu was that nothing is ever as it seems; or as promised. The Hyatt Regency Kathmandu set amidst 37 acres of lush greenery – with a view of the mountains in the distance, was a pure oasis and my temporary home. Plus, it is happily situated within short driving distances from the city’s most famous cultural spots – Boudha, home to the largest stupa in the valley and the Pashupatinath temple, one of the most important sites dedicated to Shiva, the guardian deity of the largely-Hindu nation. I was convinced between the hospitable people I’d heard so much about, dozens of spiritual as well as holy sites and the idyllic mountain stories my parents told me from their visit, I would find the balm to calm my millennial mind. If not, I’d find it at Durbar Marg Street – the shopping hub. Because, retail therapy.
But Kathmandu wasn’t the same spirited city of casinos, cafes and culture that my parents remembered from their honeymoon 30 years ago. Since air travel was established in 1956, tourism began to grow – and Kathmandu, both a pilgrimage spot and hippie-haven in the 60s and 70s, saw an influx thanks to its cultural significance and chill vibe. Today, however, crowds (of tourists), chaos and cynicism seemed to have infiltrated the metropolis. Devastated by an earthquake in 2015 that resulted in thousands of casualties, Kathmandu also lost many of its heritage, religious and cultural sites. Along with the physical loss, perhaps the soul of the spiritual city took a hit too. Not able to rebuild as quickly as they hoped and facing population saturation common to an urban metropolis, presently, a few streets still lie in disrepair, streetlights, including those immediately outside our hotel, are few and far between. A spirit of indifference seems to have permeated the consciousness of even those still knee-deep in the tourism business – I witnessed fewer smiles, more aggressive altercations, endless sad stories of the ravages of mother Nature and the inability of many to rebuild their homes three years later.
Perhaps even a nation so rich in faith, can lose it when faced with such seemingly permanent devastation. And while foreign aid was provided, the cracks left in the bustling city and the hearts of its people understandably, seem to be far from being filled, no matter how many tourists toast to Kathmandu’s resilience. I did learn a lesson – perhaps one of the most pertinent Buddhist lessons of all, that of impermanence, that *“one of the reasons we’re all able to continue to exist for our allotted span in this green and blue vale of tears is that there is always, however remote it might seem, the possibility of change.” And while Kathmandu may not have been the spiritual epicentre I expected, when I saw its “Welcome to The Land of Buddha” sign at the airport, or the welcoming city that my parents remembered—instead, it was a city physically rebuilt, but in its heart still inching its way to recovery, in spite of and because of its circumstances. Mirroring the resilience of the human spirit… and perhaps, reminding me of mine, as we both inch our way to being whole again, cracks and all.
Location: Kathmandu, Nepal
Getting there: Direct flights from major cities in India, Stop-over flights from the US, UK and more
Best time to visit: September – November
Visit: Hindu and Buddhist religious sites: Boudhanath, Pashupatinath Temple, The Living Goddess, Budanilkantha, Garden of Dreams; Thamel and its hotels, cafes, shops; Casinos: Casino Shangri-La and Casino Tara at the Hyatt Regency Kathmandu
*An excerpt from Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman