– By Anand Parameswaran

This for me was a trip which was about looking at Nepal beyond the obvious, beyond the mountains and the trekking and the natural beauty. Going Beyonder in Nepal. Kathmandu has its sights, Pokhara its beauty, but I had done all these in my previous trip-the ancient Pashupathinath temple, the Bhooda Neelkanth with its unique architecture, the Boudhanath, the Swayambhunath, Patan, Bhakthapur, and Pokhara. This is what I had covered in my earlier trip to this country. This time I wanted to see what lay beyond all this.

My first stop was a small village called Panauti, mainly populated by the Newari community.

Panauti

Fascinatingly, all the houses are built on a single piece of rock, and this is why the earthquake didn’t affect them at all. Legend has it that many years ago there was a severe drought here which caused a lot of hardship to the people. They prayed to Mahadev for a solution to this, who in turn convinced Indra to bring thunderstorms to Panauti and end the drought. An ancient Indreshwor Mahadev temple stands here, with fascinating architecture and lore.

Panauti, situated at the confluence of the rivers Roshi and Punyamata, has a fascinating belief surrounding it. It is believed that there is a third river called Rudrawati also converging in Panauti which creates a Triveni, in the shape of Mahadev’s trident. But this third River can only be seen by intellectuals and seers. A fascinating custom is that every girl here is married thrice- at around 6–7 years of age, she is married to the wood apple or Ber fruit. At puberty she is married to the Sun God and finally at adulthood she is married to her human husband. The ber fruit, to which she is married to first, always stays with her, and till it breaks she isn’t a widow, even if her human husband dies. Isn’t this a fascinating way to combat the traditional ill-treatment and suffering that is meted out to a widow?

The objective of my visit to Panauti was to interact with the locals and learn about the unique culture they have preserved, their future, and of course, their cuisine.

I visited Ram’s family in their small but extremely clean house. After a fabulous local lunch, I sat down with them, eager to talk to and learn more about them. Ram had lost his job at a hotel after the earthquake and is now unemployed. But despite this he wants to send both his daughters to study. The eldest one spoke fluent English and is studying IT. She wants to go to either Japan or Australia for further studies. My feelings were very mixed after visiting this family as, even though I was glad to see the development here, it was also very disheartening to think that the traditional life of this community might be lost to development. With these thoughts on my mind I left.

Next stop- Dhulikhel

A fairly typical small town off the highway, with a few lodges, a few temples, tea and cigarette shops, Dhulikhel is possibly a blink and miss highway town. I stayed at a lovely hotel called Himalayan Horizon, from which the view of the sunrise was supposed to be spectacular. I stepped out from there and went for a walk on a small road and suddenly found myself on a rambling mountain path, sometimes steep, sometimes flat, but always with a beautiful view on the right. A long walk later, I got back to the hotel for a quick sun downer, hypnotized by the sight of lights slowly flickering on against the dark mountain landscape. Next morning, with sunrise scheduled for around 5 am, I woke up early, but the clouds played spoil sport and I didn’t get the spectacular sunrise I hoped for. But what I got was still a magical experience, amidst those perennial mountains and the sun.

Chitwan

Chitwan is well known for its forest reserve and for being the home of the one horned rhino. While most people stay in the reserve with one point on their agenda- to see the one horned rhino, my agenda was different. I wanted to meet the people. I stayed at the Sapana Village Lodge. Speaking with its owner, a first generation entrepreneur, I found that his story was as fascinating as it gets. Born in a poor family, he worked as a waiter in a restaurant – a time of great hardship, labour and hunger. A few years into working at the restaurant, he met a Dutch couple who asked him what his dream was, and he told them that it was to own a hotel and develop his community-the Tharu. The couple asked him about how much money he would require and they sent it to him from the Netherlands, using which, he set up the lodge. It is a lovely place to stay in, with fascinating community initiatives. He has built a school and set up a women’s community centre, where the local women make handicrafts and trinkets to sell. Inspiring, isn’t it? I then visited the Tharu village and spent the evening there with a Tharu family, cooking food, chatting and learning about their way of life. They look a lot like Indians and on further inquiry I learnt that they are originally from the Thar desert in Rajasthan, who had moved to Nepal. Theirs is a fascinating example of subsistence farming, behind their bamboo and mud houses are paddy fields where they grow enough rice for their families. They also have vegetable gardens, where they grow ladies finger, tomatoes, chillies, etc. I went there with three other friends – the four of us plucked and washed the veggies and started cooking on the wood fired stove. There was really weak electricity there and we had to work using the light from our phones. After a delicious meal that we helped in cooking, we sat and chatted with the family, drinking rakhsi, the home brewed rice whiskey. While I was there, I noticed something very strange; almost all the older women had tattoos! There are some interesting reasons for this…

The first reason is extremely shocking. During the era of the Kingdom of Nepal, the royal family used to spend their summer in the Chitwan area. They used to abduct the beautiful girls of the tribe. To stop these abductions, the tattoo trend started and the girls got inked in order to deform themselves, so as to look ugly for the royal men.

Tattooing was mandatory for a girl during the teenage phase, else there was a risk of estrangement from her family and community. She wouldn’t be allowed to talk, marry, and maybe even ostracised.

With thoughts filled with the customs and ways of the Tharu people, I went back to the lodge, tired.

The next morning was the day of the jungle safari. We went out on open topped jeeps hoping for a sight of the rhino, but were disappointed because most of the animals didn’t come out – possibly due to the sound of the vehicle. We did manage a few glimpses of wild boar and deer though. The forest itself was beautiful, with elephant grass as tall as our jeep surrounding us. After the jeep ride I set out on a canoe ride on the Rapti river. The canoes, called dugouts, are made by carving out huge logs of wood. We had to sit one by one on our haunches in the dugout, and a sudden movement by anyone would capsize the canoe. The canoe ride was through the forest, and it was a beautiful experience, winding through the tall trees, on the lookout for glimpses of animals. One of our group seemed very happy, playing with water, but suddenly let out a shriek that startled all of us. On looking down into the water, all of us realised what had scared him so much, surrounding the canoe were long snouts, with sharp rows of teeth – gharials! Though they are harmless, being fish eaters, those rows of teeth did quicken our pulse a bit. We soon got out of the dugout and were asked if we wanted to go on a walk into the forest, accompanied by a naturalist. Some of us opted for it, while the others went back in the canoe, disheartened because they hadn’t seen any of the animals they had hoped to see. We had a lovely walk through the forest, visiting water holes, and looking around for animals. We did see a few deer who warily watched us, and a wild boar that seemed in such a hurry to get away that he probably felled a few trees while he ran. All our hopes of seeing a rhino were gone because we were nearing the edge of the forest, when suddenly; we saw a huge rhino, ambling towards us, not even bothering to glance at us. It slowly walked down, so majestic and proud, and walked off, and presented such a contrast to the deer and the boar we had seen, who had seemed so frightened of us. This was a true example of “where does an 800-pound gorilla sleep in the jungle? Wherever it wishes, nobody will bother it”. This high ended my quick foray into a different side of Nepal. But I need to do few more of these to understand this fascinating country, with so many treasures hidden under this façade of being a country for climbers. Adios till the next time!