The Soul of Kathmandu

On the day the Islamic State seized control of the 2,000-year-old oasis city of Palmyra, Kathmandu reminds us that while sites of heritage may crumble, deep-rooted cultural spirit remains firm.

Guided by the cooling Himalayan breeze, a spicy chai aroma wafts through the brimming November rooftops of Thamel district – the backpacker abode of Kathmandu. Below, in the dusty labyrinthine metropolis, men squat eagerly around an intense chess game as a rickshaw-laden chaos ensues behind them. The peaceful zip of rotating prayer wheels turns to the effervescent chatter of youth, as the soothing scents of Asan Tole’s spice market gives way to the clamor of Newar style bazaars. The pendulum rhythm of life is entrenched in the capital’s fabric. It is how the Nepalese derive their energy.

As April’s earthquake devastated the Kathmandu valley, local volunteers, young and old, have mobilized quickly to provide relief supplies and aid to impacted villages. Accounts of resourceful living, makeshift employment and the reopening of certain heritage sites are intermeshed with the wider humanitarian struggles. For the national and international response, transmuting the resilience of the Nepalese people to the country’s state and infrastructure is the future. To rebuild and emerge stronger from the rubble is to harness the soul of Kathmandu.

Kathmandu, as it was, November 2013:

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Saris for sale: A woman crouches beside her vibrant fabrics

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(L to R) Clamoring bazaar: Stall owners soak up the chaos on Siddhidas Marg,  The Urban Jungle: Intertwined chaos

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Soothing scents: The spice market on approach to Asan Tole

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Faith: A family worship to the God Mahakaala

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Checking the accounts: A suave boy runs through the days earnings

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(L to R) The universally embracing Jana Baha temple: A father and son emerge from prayer,  Entrepreneurs: Creative teens meld together sale items from scrap metal

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(L to R) Silhouettes in the alley to Kathesimbu Stupa, Beard shaver and financial advisor: A man offers his services on Thamel Marg

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A peaceful escape: A dog finds dinner off the chaotic Chokchya Galli

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Gridlock: En route to Durbar Square

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Towering temples: Peering out from a once heaving Durbar Square

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The Monkey Temple: Worshippers encircle the now damaged Swayambhunath Stupa  

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Kathmandu from above: Prayer flags blow over the ancient city

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Hidden Perspectives: A Photo Essay

The developing world is often seen through a monochrome lens: a grey picture, yearning for the brush of western modernity. Yet, sandwiched between the emergent Elephant and Dragon economies of the new world, Bhutan challenges our vision of development, illustrating that under a new light the ‘developing’ world can also lend us its own color.

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The land time forgot: Prayer flags traverse Bhutan’s Himalayan terrain like arteries. Each color represents its own sādhanā, or spiritual purpose, pertaining to the five elements; Earth, Water, Fire, Wind and Sky. With every mountainous breeze the verses they contain flutter off into the ether, spreading faith and blessing the Kingdom.

Untitled1The lonely hope: En-route to Punakha a woman roasts maize as a roadside refreshment to entice the intermittent traffic. Poverty prevalence in some rural areas is as high as 52.9%, compared to about 1.7% in urban regions[1]. Remoteness and mountainous terrain can isolate rural dwellers from significant markets.

[1] United Nations Development Programme, Bhutan: Rural Economy Advancement

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Holding onto the past: At the Zorig Chusum School of Traditional Arts in Thimphu, youth undergo 4 to 6 years of training in Bhutanese traditional art forms. Global development policies for education often target more modern technical and industrial skillsets, to prepare students for the international job market and to stimulate innovation.

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A refuge to religion: Almost 10% of the Bhutanese population is part of the monastic system[1]. Children as young as five are sent to monasteries by their parents who cannot afford to feed their families or pay for government schooling.

[1] Bhutan Youth Development Fund, December 2014

Untitled4Aged techniques: An elderly woman begins an arduous day’s labor, crushing chili after sun drying them upon her tin rooftop. Modern technology such as solar dryers would not only ease her strain, but it would allow her to sustain her livelihood throughout the year, including during the wet monsoon season[1].

[1] Fuller et al, Technical and financial evaluation of a solar dryer in Bhutan, 2005

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Out of school: Young children wander through the Punakha valley. Owing to Bhutan’s undulating terrain, school coverage is often thin in rural areas. As a result, these children would have to walk miles across rugged terrain to their closest school.

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Hard labor: Near Sopsokha in the Punakha valley, a subsistence rice farmer begins a day’s work under the heat of the Himalayan sun. The lack of modern farming equipment means rice harvesting is not as efficient as it could potentially be.

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Community ties: The lone farmer is soon joined by fellow villagers. By mid-morning the Punakha valley ebbs and flows with the rhythms, laughter and spirit of its rice farmers.

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A lesson in morality: A Zorig Chusum School student carefully cleans his paintbrush aside his ‘four harmonious friends’ portrait.  It is a universal Bhutanese image of a bird, rabbit, and monkey standing on each other’s shoulders upon the back of a patient elephant, symbolizing social and environmental harmony.

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Entrenching traditions: Velvet robed monks wander into the colossal Punakha Dzong courtyard. Traditional arts not only teach morals, they become part of the fabric of the country, painted and etched into the walls of its regal religious architecture.

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The poster-boys of Gross National Happiness: several monks beam with excitement as they initiate a fire purification ceremony. By their late teens, children who have been through the monastic system are well versed in Mahayana Buddhist teachings and spirituality.

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Keeping faith: A husband and wife enter the Memorial Chorten in Thimphu. Buddhism transcends secular life. It creates an affinity between people, environment and traditions, which in turn brings meaning and happiness to everyday endeavors.

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Two sides of the coin: A trio of monks softly hum verses outside the Gangteng monastery in the Phobjikha valley. When viewed from a different lens, the developing world can be as humbling to us, as it is to the countries we put under the microscope.