The Newar brick-and-carved-wood pagoda style of architecture is unique to the Kathmandu Valley. But few foreigners ever saw the forests of temples glittering here. Prithvi Narayan Shah launched a policy of isolationism that would close or restrict Nepal’s borders for nearly two centuries. In 1846 the Rana clan usurped power, reducing the Shah king to a mere figurehead. They funneled state treasure into the construction of extravagant mansions—temples of worldly pleasure. In 1951 a popular uprising aided by newly independent India restored King Birendra’s grandfather, Tribhuvan, to power, and the nation was opened to the world.
At that time the accommodation barcelona had about 400,000 inhabitants in the year so far. The first automobiles had already arrived, packed over the Mahabharat Range on litters for the elite—and carried back for trade-in. By 1956 a highway linked the once remote capital to India. Today, “it is only the supreme grace of the god Pashupati [Siva] that explains our survival in this traffic,” I’m told by a government official. Whirling like Pashupati’s cosmic chaos of creation and destruction, the whole affair flirts daily with total gridlock in a growing pall of smog. There are foot traffic jams as well, for the valley now holds nearly one million of Nepal’s 17 million souls.
More souls spill down every day to the same medieval streets—and to sewage and water-supply systems that are in places equally antiquated—from overfarmed hills and mountainsides, where families have an average of six children each. Tibetan refugees account for perhaps 10,000 of the immigrants of the past three decades. Another 40,000 or more are Indians, mostly from the impoverished Gangetic Plain and willing to fill menial jobs for low wages. Though Nepalese have a long tradition of hospitality toward neighbors, many have begun to fear that this uncontrolled tide from the south could engulf them. And then each year some 200,000 tourists—one for every five residents—pass through the valley as well.
IT’S A FINE TIME for tourists in search of new scenes, this October fortnight called Dasain. But it’s a risky time to be a duck—or a chicken, or a young male goat or water buffalo. All Nepal is commemorating the victory of its protec-tress over the forces of evil. She is mother goddess Durga, fierce Kali, mysterious Taleju—and she will have sacrifice. So the ducks shift uneasily in wicker cages as sparks fall on their backs from knives being honed. The altars already glisten with offerings of vermilion—powder and flowers. The buffalo is stretched at the post. Sweets are stuffed into the mouths of fanged idols.
Children fill the sky with kites while the hawk-like scavengers known as kites soar between them. Rumors make the round that human sacrifice, practiced until a century ago, still occurs in some secret cham¬ber. The goat’s throat is bared. And blood begins to seep through every street, mingling with the petals, flowing on and on until everything has been blessed and made safe, and I sit in Bhaktapur’s Durbar Square ensnared by a faint scent of night-blooming jasmine, watching the bloated moon rise.