Hinduism and Buddhism are the main religions followed in Nepal. They are both practised freely and colourfully, with temples and shrines littered throughout the city streets. In Kathmandu in particular, Tibetan Buddhists and Nepali Hindus worship side by side without division or discrimination. And nowhere is this more evident than in the adjoining villages of Pharping and Dakshinkali on the rim of the Kathmandu Valley.
Roger and I set off one fine Saturday morning to run out to these two villages (Richard bailed at the last minute with a text claiming he was hungover). The quickest route was up and over the Champadevi Ridge, then down the long pine-forested ridge running straight into Pharping.
We knew we were approaching Pharping by the ever increasing numbers of prayer flags threaded between the pine trees. Soon we could no longer see the foliage beneath them as we began to run through a forest of prayers. To the left and right of the ridge, we could make out large monasteries down below full of Buddhist monks in training and meditation. After a long descent of a steep staircase, we stopped for a quick drink at a kiosk. Sitting under a tree, sipping our cokes, men in the next shop sat drawing intricate golden pictures of Buddha. From the tree I could also make our a temple and retreat centre where inside a giant stupa of Buddha stood, his all knowing eyes looking in all four directions.
I had barely adjusted to this serene Buddhist settlement than we were running on to the next village on our religious tour. Down some more stairs, in less than 5 minutes, from out of nowhere Dakshinkali Temple appeared.
Dakshinkali is a major Hindu pilgrimage site where Hindus flock every Tuesday and Saturday. It is a temple set at the meeting of two sacred streams in a rocky valley in the forest. The temple is dedicated to the goddess Kali, the consort of Shiva. Like most Hindu gods, Kali likes to get offerings, but not just flowers or rice or fruit or yoghurt like the other gods normally get at daily morning puja time. Kali wants animal sacrifices to keep this goddess happy. So a long line of pilgrims were lined up with chickens under their arms and goats on leashes to be slaughtered by the temple priests.
These priests however resemble more skilful butchers as they carve up the animals and place them in a bag for the pilgrims to go away and barbeque in the forest on their pilgrimage day out.
I was amazed how close together these different pilgrimage sites resided in apparent harmony. After growing up in Northern Ireland where protestant and catholic churches stood resentfully apart, I wanted to rush home and show everyone how religions in Kathmandu can function quite peacefully side-by-side.
However I was soon reminded that, though religious divides don’t really exist within Nepal, other divisions do. The caste system of Brahmins (priest caste), Chhetri (soliders or governors), Vaisyas (tradespeople and farmers), Sudras (menial workers or craftspeople) and dalits (untouchables) firmly put people in their place. Somehow we always manage to find some way of grouping and dividing ourselves.