Photos from this trip are here
To me, Nepal was a place that I could go anytime. As and when I heard about family and friends going to Nepal; “I can go anytime…Its just here!!!” is what I always thought. I was told that its fairly easy for Indians to go to Nepal – didn’t need Visa; sometime back even a passport was not required (this information may need validation). You could just show any Govt of India authorised identification card and get into Nepal. Some people get into Nepal without it as well. Nepal is easily accessible – by air and by road through the North Eastern part of UP and Bihar.
In 2015, a devastating earthquake rocked Nepal. Close to 10000 people perished and countless went missing. Sitting in my house in Pune, I could only imagine the horror of the earthquake as news channels streamed in information and visuals which brought the tragedy to my living room.
Perhaps the trigger for the trip was a late evening phone conversation with my friend and fellow Nepalese photographer, Sachindra Rajbansi, who was in Kathmandu at the time of the quake. He and his family had rushed down from their apartment when the building started swaying. He told me that after 50 days or so, things were coming back to normal and they were not as bad as they seemed.
I was puzzled. How can things be not so bad after a tragedy as horrifying as this?
I fixed a trip to Nepal with another photographer colleague Shiv Kiran. We were disaster tourists; we wanted to see the extent of the damage; the rubble on the street; people sleeping on the pavements et al. While traveling to Nepal, I wondered if there were any happy picture stories that I could bring out.
Air travel from New Delhi to Nepal is pretty smooth. There are multiple air carriers that operate flights to and fro. We booked ourselves on an Indigo Airlines flight that landed us at the Kathmandu Airport promptly in four hours post take off. For a tourist destination, Kathmandu Airport was a bit of a disappointment. Some satellite town airports in India have better airport facilities.
In the first two days of the trip we had the chance to visit the ancient city of Bhaktapur and the settlements besides the river Bungmati. I saw first-hand the destruction wrought upon the land by nature. Heaps of rubble everywhere, making small dunes that one can walk over, without even thinking that a human body could be buried inside. Beautiful ancient structures – reduced to mud and in some places standing partially on their own and partially on wooden supports, made me wonder – what did this place look like when I was a kid. I was beginning to rue my decision of not coming to Nepal earlier.
Sachindra took us to Pokhara for a couple of days. A long dusty road trip in heat gave way to an accommodation in his restaurant, Samay Restaurant, by the Phewa Lake. For a two good days we ate, slept and drank beer with the awesome staff of this lovely place that nests on the banks of the lake and has open air seating and awesome food. Samay (hindi for time) literally stands still here as the sound of the gentle water getting rocked by the oar of a boat brings tranquil to the heart. The trip had now started.
The beauty of Pokhara is in the landscape. Pokhara serves as the foot hills for the Annapurna treks and is haven for those who like a calm and rested life, whose days are accompanied by waits for evenings and evenings await the next day’s sun. I found Pokhara seeping in my senses and as time went by my desire to walk about the land, meet the locals and record these transactions became stronger.
The most memorable part of the trip was the walk to a nearby village, to reach which we rode on two wheelers towards the mountains, then crossed a small river by a wire boat and then walked through the fields. The first settlements of the village greeted us with a site that for me was a never before – settlements on a mountain in front of us. The remaining of the day was spent riding across Pokhara’s small roads, visiting the Shankar temple and the Stupa. We didn’t really get to Stupa – came back as rain started to pelt down and we were in a hurry to reach back to Samay.
At the mid-way between Kathmandu and Pokhara comes a spot where the Nepali version of the thali is served. Its called the Thakali. People who love rice and meat, must stop here to relish this sumptious ensemble of unlimited rice, chicken or mutton curry, spinach vegetable and yellow dal. Down it with some coca cola and move out. All for 100 Nepali Rupees.
Back in Kathmandu, we made a trip to Patan, the second settlement in the capital city. Patan was also badly hit by the earthquake and Sachindra informed us that the place was sealed immediately after the quake and returned to operational efficiency within 48 hours. One reason of the same was the fact that Patan has a lot of precious idols and they had to be safeguarded.
One of the key highlights of the trip were the Virgin Goddesses – Kumaris of Bhakatpur and Patan. While at Bhaktapur, the Living Goddess gave us her glimpse from the window, in Patan we got audience with her in her chambers. Her father carried her to the throne and seated there she saw us for a minute or two before we moved out.
I couldn’t have completed a trip to Nepal without visiting PashupatiNath, one of the most revered shrines of Lord Shiva. Other than the architecture, I was struck by the evening aarti which is a spectacle in itself. The aarti starts softly and grows in crescendo and beats; the crowd joins in with claps and shouts and suddenly someone loses their head and starts dancing in ecstasy. For the faithful this is a blessing; for the observer, a celebration of being human.
It was time to go back home. Leaving Nepal, I felt like a kid going back to school after a vacation full of vocations and happiness. Sadness filled me and I tried my best to delay every minute that took me to the airport. The land takes you in, the stories cradle you to sleep, food is benign and people are warm. The bustle of daily life in Kathmandu mixed with pollution amidst the history of the city makes for an eclectic mix of emotions. In Pokhara, the mountains and Phewa Lake come together to seduce the traveller’s senses. Happiness seeps in the heart with the blues and greens of the land and it becomes just so important to walk to the nearest village to strike a conversation with the locals.
Growing up, I knew umpteen numbers of people who would go to Nepal – either for the casinos or shopping or prayers in Kathmandu. I had not heard of Pokhara, nor of the architecture and neither of the beauty that lies hidden in the nooks and corners of this wonderful mountain laden land. Nobody told me about the beautiful early sun rise and the golden sunsets and I was yet to see the content in the smile of the passerby who uses a rope – dinghy daily to cross the river to get to work.
I guess better late than never.