This is Lakshmi the Hindu goddess of wealth, and wife of Lord Vishnu. Today is Lakshmi Puja (celebration) when people clean their houses inside and out and decorate them with lights, candles and paint intricate mandalas on the street outside their front doors with a red stripe (sometimes candle lit) leading into the house to encourage Lakshmi in to visit her devotees. People leave offerings of sweets and other delicacies for her. The happier she is with her visit the more likely she is to bestow wealth and happiness on the family.
The narrow streets around us are ablaze with lights strung from houses, lights are also burning inside. Everywhere the power is on. A band is playing down the street, firecrackers are bursting here there and everywhere, dogs are barking. Groups of young people cruise the streets singing and shouting, bands come to houses and play a few tunes, the girls scream when a firecracker set by mischievous boys goes off. And outside the shuttered shops and leading into houses are the offerings and encouragement for Lakshmi to bestow her blessings and wealth on those within. Walking our local streets this evening was riches enough for me.
There are times when Kathmandu feels a long way from anywhere. This city built on an ancient lake bed and cradled by hills it squats alone in the darkness. The first chill is in the air, the clarity of light growing richer at dusk, clouds still stacked, their nooks and crannies, valleys and billowing mountains sculpted by the light of the setting sun. Light is what Tihar is about. In a stuttering economy and irregular power supply suddenly there are lights, curtains of them, blue and white, red and yellow, falling like waterfalls down the sides of office blocks, warming the dark streets. Once, just once in the year Kathmandu will be lit up, all the lights in all areas of the city will be on at once. From a passing aircraft high in the sky this city will look like a jewel, light refracted, lying like an offering at the feet of the Himalayas. Sacred, inscrutable, grey, ethereal they stand like ghosts in the moonlight.
In August this year a massive landslide killed scores of people, destroyed homes, fields and a hydroelectric power station about 90 miles outside Kathmandu. It also took out the road (the main and pretty much only trade route) into China. The Dashain and Tihar festivals occur close together and it is a time when people buy stuff — everyone gets a double months pay for the holiday and the shops are well stocked to meet demand. But backed up at the boarder were something like 1000 trucks full of Chinese exports unable to get through to Kathmandu. Just before the start of Dashain a new track was opened through the landslide and the goods started to arrive. By then it was too late and there was nowhere to put anything. The chaos remains as witnessed in a local store and much arrived too late to be sold, hitting the stores very hard.
Manaslu is off to the right, where much of the worst weather was. (Photo: The CoP and me.)
Before I write this my heart goes out to those who have lost loved ones and for those who wait for news. I have a small sense of what they are feeling, experiencing the reactions when I heard there had been an avalanche on the Khumbu Icefall on Everest earlier this year where my friend was climbing. He and his Sherpa managed to escape the worse of it.
It should have been ideal weather for a trek around the Annapurna.
The storm we experienced in Kathmandu over the past three days was unusual for the time of year. It should be getting cooler and drier, it got cooler certainly, but lashings of rain and thunder. And unusual thunder, bursting and popping in the sky around our heads like popcorn in a giant bowl, the result of Cyclone Hudud. While I turned over in my bed, on the Annapurna Circuit people began to die, caught by the full force of snow and freezing rain at high altitude.
From the comfort and hospitality of the lodge at Ghandruk last week we looked on to Annapurna South. To the right the deep, steep Modi valley led up to the lower slopes and Annapurna base camp. Our guide said, pointing at the valley, “people do not live there. Just teashops.” As we talked mist began streaming up the side of the valley where the lodge perched and within moments much was obscured from us. I retreated into the warmth of the room. But up there you are far from shelter and at this time of year unprepared for the intensity of what must have struck the Nepalese and the foreign Trekkers. Indeed, you wouldn’t plan to be up there during the storm season.
In the garden of the lodge there is a shrine with carved slate tablets and offerings to the ancestors. It frames Machhapuchchhre Mountain. Morning and evening people go to it in order to pray, light incense and candles.Women and children mostly. I think now of those still missing amongst that treacherous beauty.
I’m behind the railings of the first floor balcony. It’s damp, cool and moist with an overcast sky from unseasonal rains – lightning and a large clap of thunder during the night. The plants love this early morning weather, it’s more mountainous. A familiar voice calls out from the track behind the wall, deep, with a tinge of despair, advertising his flowers. Tall, dark skin (Indian origin?) long coat of indescribable colour, black hair, gaunt cheeks. But there is colour: red, white, orange, purple, green pushed along on the flat bed of a three wheeled bicycle. The Nepalese are equally colourful, so many facial and physical varieties you could not point to one and say: she’s Nepalese. That exists in the heart of these tough, resilient people. The flower seller, shoulders hunched, turns right onto Sri Marga, a white plastic bag dangling from the handlebars and walks away, calling out until he is lost to sound and sight.