I’ve never been to a place where there are so many festivals.
I thought India was bad, with Navratri and Diwali and Eid all falling within the same few months, but here it’s even worse (well, better). We’ve had gaijatra and teej and now indrajatra, all in the space of a couple of weeks. Monday saw another day off school, which we fully took advantage of, heading out to see some temples (for the second time round for Dan and I) before going to Kathmandu durbar square to see the Kumari, around whom the festival is based.
The Kumari is a living goddess, chosen from amongst the Newari caste, and every year on this one day she has a procession during which she blesses whoever happens to be the state leader at the time, and goes round on a chariot with adoring crowds (and hundreds of tourists) cheering her on her way. It’s a bit of a mental tradition: this goddess is actually a prepubescent girl chosen at a young age to lead this privileged (read: odd) life. She is not allowed to touch the ground, so she either gets carpets laid out for her wherever she goes or gets carried around; and when her first period comes she is no longer considered a goddess and a new one must be chosen. The process by which they choose the new goddess is equally confusing: 32 separate characteristics must be met (including “a neck like a swan”, “thighs like a deer”, and other such goddess-like qualities), and there is some kind of initiation ceremony by which the girl is locked in a room with a load of severed animal heads, and if she shows no fear then she is obviously the chosen one.
Anyway, we fully embraced the hype and went to the durbar square to see her on her merry way, and it was insanely crowded. There were designated temples for press, public and foreigners to sit on and watch, so we found ourselves a cosy step to sit on and settled down to wait. There were various different rumoured times for the kumari’s appearance, so we arrived at about 1 to have lunch, just in case. The square was already packed, and while we sat munching on our momos some guys decked out in army fatigues emerged onto the rooftop and politely asked if they could set up their sniper rifles next to where we were sitting. We acquiesced (what else do you say to men with guns?) and continued on with eating our food, now debating the appropriateness of asking the military for a selfie.
Once we had some surreptitious selfies under our belt, we headed back down to the square to settle ourselves down for what we assumed would be at least an hour wait.
We weren’t wrong. But we weren’t exactly accurate in our estimations either. An hour soon passed, then another few slipped by. Rain jackets came out of bags, were put on for a while and then removed. Every so often another foreign ambassador would pull up outside the presidential palace to cheers of varying volumes, and shake hands with lots of official looking people before disappearing off inside. After this had happened uncountable times, the crowd began to get really excited at yet more things that we couldn’t actually see. Only this time it was actually a little bit exciting.
All of a sudden streams of people came hurtling into the main square, beating cymbals and shouting. They were quickly joined by a dragon (don’t worry kids, not a real one) who looked dangerously out of control the whole time, tipping precariously from side to side with every advance. After the dragon had danced about for a bit, the first chariot appeared and the crowd went mental.
Before the Kumari appears, two young boys are paraded through on chariots, acting as representatives of two different gods. However, it’s very difficult to actually see what’s going on from a vantage point on a temple that’s actually quite far away, so we took lots of excitable pictures of this first chariot before realising that it wasn’t actually the goddess, just some boys in fancy dress. It was still funny though; it appeared as though the organisers hadn’t really thought through the chariots + crowds equation, so a lot of their journey was impeded by hordes of adoring fans, and even from a distance it was very amusing watching the attendants frantically trying to wave people away from the wheels.
Considering we’d been waiting around for about 4 hours, when the Kumari finally arrived it was a bit of an anti climax. At the end of the day she is just a little girl, and just looked a bit overwhelmed by the whole thing. But we got some pictures anyway, and that was that.
We started to head out of the square vaguely in the direction of home (not that we had any real clue which direction that was), and got back to school for just after prayer time (aka just in time for dinner).
Emma and Lukas left early the next morning to head off to Chitwan, leaving our numbers depleted once again. That day was also sadly Clare’s last day, as she’d had to change her flights to leave earlier than planned. Clare, Cat and I took the opportunity to visit Boudha nath, the Buddhist temple, in the afternoon, and had a great time buying useless things like tiny tiny pots and paper lanterns and horrifically cheap bracelets. We went back to the cafe that I’d been to the last time I visited, to satisfy Cat’s craving for chocolate crepes, and all round had a lovely afternoon.
Unfortunately we got back a lot later than anticipated (classic Nepal), so Clare and Cat had to rush to the tailors before it closed and the planned mega prayer session was very delayed in starting. Ella and Ellen were also back from their last bit of travelling, and also flying the next day, so it was a case of three goodbyes in one.
It turns out that goodbye prayer sessions are of epic proportions. Never has so much dancing been done for so long by so few. I cleverly managed to escape most of it by acting as the camera person, capturing some seriously excellent footage of an epic dance off between Nathan and Yuvraj, which was an image that will remain imprinted in my heart forever (Nathan’s still suffering from the aftermath).
We sung and danced and prayed for what felt like hours, and were treated to some pretty impressive guitar playing by Saurav and Soru, and a nice rendition of the Hindi song ‘te amo’ by Bibek. Even when we thought there couldn’t be more to come, Vishnu sir produced some presents for the girls: a HVP school sweatshirt and belt, as well as a certificate to say thank you. Some of the kids made speeches and it was all very sweet (and made me begin to dread our own leaving).
At last it ended, with only a few tears (v impressive if you ask me), and we went upstairs for our last dinner together. It did not disappoint: we had as much pakora as we could eat and prawn crackers and all the usual trimmings. It was a great night that I didn’t want to end, but end it did. We went to bed not particularly looking forward to the morning.
7 o’clock came with a quiet knock at the door: time to say goodbye. It was very surreal; we couldn’t quite believe that Clare wouldn’t be there any more, and she has since said that it feels more like she’s left home than arrived home.
So that was sad. And we promptly all managed to catch varying degrees of Cat’s cold: Dan, David, Nathan and I were all struck down and miserable, and barely struggled through the school day. I’m exceedingly pathetic when I’m ill, and being stuck in a sweaty classroom with a load of restless kids does not a happy Ellie make. As soon as I made it through my last lesson I went to bed, while some of the others headed into town to do some sightseeing and shopping (apparently there are still more things we need to buy). I snoozed a bit, then woke up, then snoozed some more, then tried to do some marking, then gave up and decided to get a taxi to meet the others for dinner in Thamel.
We went to Or2k again, the Israeli restaurant that we’d visited before, and got some much needed comfort food. Realistically it probably wasn’t really worth my making the trip to Thamel just for a nice meal and to stay a night in a different place (albeit a place with hot showers), but equally I wasn’t in a positive enough mood to be able to sit and chat to the kids, so it was probably still the right decision.
Despite our initial hopes of hitting the town for the night, it turned out none of us were even slightly inclined in that general direction. Instead we had a chilled evening up on the rooftop, reading books and drinking beer and trying to recover from our various illnesses. We went to bed relatively early, as Cat and I had to be back the next morning in time to mark class 7’s tests and plan the majority of our lessons. Sometimes teaching just gets on top of you.
It all panned out okay though; our classes weren’t disastrous (although I was grumpy because I was ill, and decided that I couldn’t handle class 3 so begged Sumitra miss to take it for me), and it turned out to be a really good day.
We had been graciously invited to the ashram by the women’s education centre for lunch, so Cat and I got our class 6 covered and set off with the others at about half 11, keeping our fingers crossed that we would be able to make it back in time for our next commitment, a lunch-time school spelling bee. It was slow going because it had been raining, so we had the somewhat delicate task of trying to hurry things along when we got there whilst also trying to be gracious and polite. In fairness, it wasn’t that difficult to appreciate it: the lunch was delicious, each of the women had made a different dish and was all hot and fresh. They had also kindly bought two massive bottles of Mountain Dew for our consumption (I hate the stuff, but the thought was very much appreciated). It was really nice to see Kriti again, Chintamani’s niece, who had just returned from her trip to Singapore.
We scoffed our food as quickly as humanly possible whilst also being polite, then thanked everyone profusely and headed back to the school. Dan, Cat and I had promised to help out with the senior spelling bee after the success of the junior one last week, so we headed straight up to the prayer room when we arrived at the school.
It was a great laugh. Tulsi sir had come up with all the words they had to spell already, so all we had to do was to fulfil our main function (speaking English) and read out the words. The level of some of the spellings was genuinely quite impressive: some of the words even we struggled to remember the meanings of (promulgation, anyone?), and we nearly caused a riot over the correct pronunciation and spelling of ‘genealogy’.
So that was a nice way to end the day, and as a bonus the competition ran over into the next lesson, so we didn’t have to deal with making class 7 finish their tests – result!
We almost managed to forget that we had to teach the class 1s last period, and Cat snuck off to change money, leaving me on my own to deal with the (adorable) monsters. I managed to distract them with colouring and passed the lesson mostly also distracting myself with colouring, occasionally pausing to yell at some children for surreptitiously punching each other, or to stop them from hoarding all the colours.
After school, for the first time in ages, we played sport with the hostel kids for a full two hours. Though I still always feel inadequate compared to their fleet-footed, sandal-wearing football magic, I have a great time flailing about pretending to be helpful. At least Bibek passes to me. Once the younger kids had gone to study, we played for a bit with our basketball pals until it got dark. It’s stuff like this that I will miss.
In typical fashion we had decided to go to Chitwan the next day, but not really given much thought to the hows and whens. We had a half-formed vague notion that we might like to do rafting along the way, but by half past seven still nothing was planned.
As ever, with a little help from Bibek and Vishnu, it all turned out fine in the end. But that’s a story for another day.