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Kathmandu Diaries by Farzan Navab

A Bit of History

Royal Massacre
From Monarchy to a Maoist Republic Religion and Culture
Roaming the Streets Rug Weaving in Nepal
From Bauhaus to Your House A Final Glance

As our plane made its final descent into the Kathmandu airport we realized that we were no longer in the flatlands of Delhi. This was a different terrain, consisting mostly of mountain dwellings and small valleys that seemed to have been deforested for agricultural use. The breathtaking aerial view was reminiscent of Swiss villages in the Alps.
  Upon arrival we were struck by the sense of quiet and by the relative ease with with which people went about their daily lives. Paved roads were less common than narrow, sinuous passageways, well trafficked by streams of cars and motorcycles

Durbar Square Kathmandu  
God of Justice in Kathmandu Durbar Square

 

 Once known as ‘Kantipur,’ Kathmandu, a city of fourteen million people, the largest in Nepal, is a political as well as cultural capital. Nestled within a large valley it has a pleasant climate second to none and is relatively safe. Like any big city, Kathmandu has seen rapid expansion in the last decade. The hustle and bustle is typical, and yet, the people remain refreshingly friendly. The old, fabulous palaces, the superbly crafted pagodas, and the monumental stupas are reminders of the Golden Age of architecture in Nepal.
  Late September was the height of the tourist season and the droves of European, American, and Chinese tourists showed the popularity of this Shangri-La like destination. The more prosperous streets are lined with gift shops selling Nepalese handicrafts and trekking gear. The variety of religious and spiritual practices expose visitors to a simple, yet profound life experience. But, none of them have led to the kind of conservatism found in India and other surrounding nations. In fact, the opposite seems true. Liquor stores are prevalent and drug use common. It’s not hard to see why Kathmandu is the ideal place for young travelers curious about eastern spirituality and looking to trek in spectacular hillsides.

A Bit of History
The Nepali Kingdom was founded in 1768 by Prithive Narayan Shah (r. 1768-1775), a Gurkha king who succeeded in unifying the kingdom of Kathmandu, Patan, and Bhaktapur into a single state. It existed for 240 years under the formal rule of the Shah Dynasty.
  Having faced major threats from China during the war of 1790 and from Great Britain’s East India Company in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Nepal began making steps towards democracy, albeit a colonial version, in the 1950s.

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Royal Massacre
More recently however, Nepal has witnessed some tumultuous periods. The 1990s saw the beginning of the Nepalese Civil War (1996-2006), a conflict fought between the government and the insurgent forces of the Communist Party. The situation for the Nepalese monarchy was further destabilized by the 2001 royal massacre during which Crown Prince Dipendra shot and killed ten people, including his father King Birenda (r. 1972-2001).

From a Monarchy to a Maoist Republic
The decade-long Civil War culminated in several weeks of mass protests by all major political parties and finally, in a peace accord. The ensuing elections for the constituent assembly voted overwhelmingly in favor of the abdication of the last Nepali monarch Gyanedra Shah. A federal democratic republic was established on May 28th 2008. .

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Religion and Culture
The majority of Nepal’s population is Hindu. The country prides itself in being the world’s only Hindu kingdom. However, there are many variations of the faith, and there is also a substantial Buddhist and Muslim population.
  Most Nepalese speak Nepali, the official language and de facto lingua franca of Nepal, also spoken in Bhutan and in parts of India and Myanmar (Burma). But many speak both Hindi and Nepalese and some have at least speaking knowledge of English.
  The Chinese and Tibetan influences seem equally palpable. While China makes its presence known politically, acting as the “big brother” watching over the precarious Nepalese government, Tibetan refugees keep Tibetan Buddhism alive.

Sadhus
Sadhu Mystics in Kathmandu

Roaming the Streets
The semi cosmopolitan nature of Kathmandu makes it easy to meander through the streets until the early morning hours. Shops and restaurants remain open late. I noticed many signs for “Dance Bars” and “Clubs.” There are also a number of casinos. Inside a refurbished colonial era building is “Casino Royal,” where you find Chinese gamblers sitting in smoke filled rooms, amidst old, clanking slot machines and black jack tables.
  Western-style pastry and coffee shops carry everything from donuts to the most sophisticated French éclairs. At our hotel I tasted a lemon mousse tart, which was delicious. Besides fast food restaurants, authentic Nepalese food is generally good and is close to Indian and Chinese cuisine.

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Rug Weaving in Nepal

Sadhus
Hand-Spun Wool

The historical roots of Nepalese rugs can be traced to Tibet, where rug making is an ancient, traditional craft. Rugs there are woven with changpel, a local highland sheep’s wool. Tibetans began migrating to India and Nepal in the 1950s during the Chinese communist occupation, bringing along with them their knowledge of rug making. While the rug business has remained relatively undeveloped in their homeland it is now one of Nepal’s largest export industries. Interestingly, Nepal has also become the center for hand knotted rugs with modern and contemporary designs. This can be credited not just to new market trends, but also to Nepalese knotting technique.

Simplified Technique
The Nepalese use a “rod aided” knotting technique that makes it easier to make hand knotted rugs. Typically, a weaver uses his fingers to make knots. However, in Nepalese tradition a rod is first inserted between two or three warps, bringing them forward. Knots are then wrapped around the warp lines making it much easier to tie the knots. Once an entire row has been knotted the rod is removed and the knots are pushed back into place. This technique considerably speeds up the knotting process.

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From Bauhaus to Your House

Eileen Gray
Eileen Gray

The flexibility, willingness, and hard work of Nepalese manufacturers, designers, and weavers have put them at the forefront of today’s rug-making industry. They are able produce the most experimental designs, from the minimalist to the abstract, in a short amount of time. A “strike off,” or, sample can be made in a couple of weeks. Bauhaus type rugs inspired by the work of notable designers such as Walter Gropius and Anni Albers, or the Irish modernist architect Eileen Gray are now being reproduced by European and American companies in Nepal.
  In Kathmandu we were able to closely observe the making of Nepalese rugs and teamed up with manufacturers who provide custom made rugs for our company in the Twin Cities. Our production in Nepal is based on a variety of samples ordered on our trip to Kathmandu. These samples are currently on display in our showroom in St. Louis Park. Rugs of all sizes can be ordered based on these samples. Color; design, and knot count may be altered by client choice.

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A Final Glance
As we said goodbye to Kathmandu we were reminded of the simplicity of everyday life in this mountain city. Religion and belief live in harmony with nature and give western visitors a glimpse of the elusive inner peace we all seem to yearn for. The airport was packed with tourists; there was scarcely a native Nepalese face in sight. n.

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