In Asia old objects are not generally considered beautiful
for their age, which is a peculiarly Western taste. New things are preferred,
so ancient wooden carvings are periodically touched up with colourful enamel
paints. The fabric of the temples is layered, as they are renewed with fresh
donations. When temples are rebuilt after an earthquake, which occur on average
about once a century, old pieces of carved timber might be reused even as the
structure is altered and worn out parts replaced. In this way these holy buildings are both old
and new. Rather, like other things in nature, such as a whirlpool, a forest, or
a coral reef, they are constantly occurring in the same place. It is possible,
up to a point, to look at the whole city as just such an eternal system.
hen Sundar Man Shrestha was a teenager in the early 1960s his mother used to wake up screaming because in her sleep she was being strangled by a witch. “Every night she screamed and it was a real problem for us,” he emphasised. He hung one of his brother’s nappies at the door, hoping that might keep the witch away, but it didn’t work.
Waking one morning he found a large cat in the house, peeping at his sleeping mother through a gap in a door. “It was a big cat, this big, and I said ‘Cat, you are a witch. I am going to kill you.’” The cat was trapped in a room, backed into a corner. “I kicked it and it went back on its legs like this, it put its front paws out in front, and it disappeared. The image faded.”
After that the bad dreams stopped, but there were other hauntings. During the spirit-infested season that follows the horse festival, in the spring month of Chaitra, it used to be necessary to eat more garlic, just to keep the ghosts away. Old people remember a large one that would block the passage into Nag Bahal, one of Patan’s biggest squares, and refuse to let anyone pass. Around the corner, at the fountain by the Kumbeshwor temple, the slapping sound of a woman washing clothes was sometimes heard after midnight. If she caught you before you fled the square, you would die. And near the bridge between Patan and Kathmandu there was a rankebhoot—a “lamp ghost”, which may only have been the light of phosphorescent gases escaping from the rice fields. The children who lived down there enjoyed watching travellers running in the evening, to be within the safety of the city before night fell. It wasn’t only the rankebhoot that frightened them. The kitchkandi under the bridge posed an even greater hazard.
“These things have been disappearing since electricity came,” said Sundar Man. “Before, people used to terrify each other with stories.”
“They’ve all gone. They were all scared,” agreed his mother-in-law, Dhana Laksmi. She wore a hat and a hearing aid. Her eyes twinkled and she had one tooth left on top at the front. She poked it forward coquettishly to show when she was teasing. I wanted her to be my informant on the traditions of the city and I returned to her for advice frequently. She considered me pitifully ignorant of the realities of nature. Now she looked at me with concern. Did this interest in ghosts mean I was having trouble with them?
Kitchkandis stalk beneath bridges, in the disguise of a beautiful woman. If she seduces a man then he will die, but he has a chance because her identity is betrayed by her feet, which point backwards.
The only ghost Dhana Laksmi ever saw was in the yard outside
her house, when she went to sweep before dawn one morning, decades ago. It
looked like an old woman but it was smaller than a living person. When she
asked it what it wanted it left without speaking to her. After that she never
stepped out until first light. “You’d be afraid too, if you saw it,” she
The ghosts hadn’t disappeared altogether. Kitchkandis are spectres that stalk beneath bridges, in the disguise of a beautiful woman. If she seduces a man then he will die, but he has a chance because her identity is betrayed by her feet, which point backwards. To keep kitchkandis at bay some taxi drivers hang a charm of women’s bangles from their rear view mirror. I asked them if they were afraid, and the young men mostly laughed, but one driver offered a subtle view. Since the fields around the city had been covered with housing there were fewer ghosts than there used to be, he said. However, although he wasn’t a Newar himself, he believed that the old spirits still haunt those areas where many Newars live.
Sometimes when the electricity returns after a power cut, even if the lights, the kettle and the fan don’t immediately come on, something almost imperceptible changes and you realize that the power is back. Everyone lives surrounded by wires, buried in their own walls and in the houses all around them. When a man and a boy came to install cable television they brought the line from a tangle on a pole somewhere, through a low passage and over a rooftop, looped it from the corner of one building to the next and arrived at my bedroom window, adding another strand to the complicated web of the city’s wiring.
The air is a living vehicle of radio, text messages and wireless internet. The ground is scored and raised by a network of poorly repaired trenches, where extra pipes have been added to the water mains until the pressure is so low that, during the few hours a week when the water flows, people use pumps to get it out of the pipe and into the tanks beneath their houses. The ancient, buried conduits that supply the fountains are little understood. Sometimes a spout that had been dry for decades would flow again after an earthquake, before the depredations upon the aquifers and the deeper foundations of modern developments made half of them permanently derelict. Wells, tanker deliveries, rubber hoses and the copper jars carried on the hips of women complete the city’s water system.
Another infrastructure, no less recognised and more slowly changing, runs through the old parts of the city. A grandmother spirit, who can be nasty, inflicting severe stomach cramps or worse if she is not properly invoked, resides at junctions in the chwasa stones. People bring objects that present a magical threat to their household to the chwasa: the clothes of the dead, a baby’s umbilical cord, or the ashes of a torch that has been used in an exorcism.
Nasahdya, the god of sound, is represented by an empty space; a triangular hole in a wall that opens his passage through the buildings, because he can only travel in straight lines. Every neighbourhood has its guardians; its own full set of those gods (Nasahdya, Ganesh, Durga, Bhairab ...) that daily life requires. Apart from the empty space of Nasahdya, these guardians are uncarved, natural stones, which have never been moved from the place where the earth divulged them. They form a network of gods and goddesses, spirits and ancestors that underpins the city, its genii loci.
Many courtyards have another stone somewhere, which is Lukmahdya, the Hidden Shiva. The old lady Dhana Laksmi told me Lukmahdya’s story on his feast day, wrinkling her nose and poking her tooth at me. The god entered the city after he’d given a demon the power to turn people into ash and, realising that he needed somewhere to hide, he chose the garbage of the courtyards for his camoufl age. “You know that small yard?” she said. “That’s where we used to throw our rubbish. That’s where he is.” Even heaps of reeking trash were holy, if they were in the right place. Even the dogs in the street and the crows on the roof were gods, and had their annual festivals.
[I saw in Patan] a large number of destroyed houses, as the natives rarely repair a house: rather, anyone who regards himself as a man of distinction constructs himself a new house and lets that of his father decay.
—Prince Waldermar of Prussia
(visited in 1845)
irakaji’s son Sunil pointed out a house to me while we were walking together, a low brick building with tiny windows filled by wooden grilles, where as a boy he once paid a few rupees to watch a pornographic film. The same house had belonged to Gayahbajye, who was a famous priest and a powerful magician. His powers were so great that he transported gods from different parts of the Valley and placed them in the temples near his home. A room inside has been left empty since he vanished while meditating there hundreds of years ago.
The low wooden door was opened by a woman who introduced herself as Gayahbajye’s daughter-in-law, by which she meant that she was married to his remote descendent. The lady was an amateur painter and she had decorated the small low rooms with her own watercolours, of birds and local monuments. She showed me the special room, with an electric lamp through a hole in the kitchen wall. It was dark, with a pile of timber in it. Some priests, and offi cials from the government’s Department of Archaeology, had come to investigate the mystery, she said, but when they started digging the room began to fill with water and they abandoned the attempt. She spoke as if it was yesterday, but this happened 50 years ago, before she was born. Every morning she worshipped the wall outside with poinsettia flowers and rice.
Gayahbajye’s house stood in a square of fine old buildings, until old houses on two sides were replaced with new ones in the early 1990s. Enclosing the square to the south was the imposing 15th century shrine of a secret god, open only to initiates of Gayahbajye’s lineage, until part of it was demolished in 1996. In 1997 half of Gayahbajye’s house was torn down too. Kathmandu people do not find the old houses picturesque. Sometimes a magnificent carved window, centuries old, is cut in half when a brother—inheriting his part of the ancestral property—rebuilds his side in brightly painted concrete. There is no charm in inertia; living in a small dark house in the shadow of your brother’s lofty statement, your wife jealous of your brother’s wife. In this way the city is constantly renewed by the ambition of pious family men.
The prayer for consecrating a new house begins:
“Oh well-born son! Any man in Nepal, whether he be a
philanthropist or not, should build a house as follows: assemble carpenters and
brick makers and other incarnations of Bisvakarma as necessary. Then, choosing
an auspicious time, prepare and bake bricks. Have the auspiciously ordained
foundation laying ceremony ... Then build a magnificent house with the proper
auspicious marks and proportions. If a man does this, I call him great.”
The family priest will determine whether or not a proposed building site is auspicious or is, for example, already occupied by naga serpents. An astrologer will determine whether the venture is a wise investment, and the best time to start work.
Dhana Laksmi told me the story of a shopkeeper in Mangal Bazar, called Hem Narayan. He was advised that if he built where he intended then the nagas who lived there would have no outlet, and would bang their heads on his foundation. He took a cavalier attitude.
‘If the nagas bang their heads who will suffer?’ he asked. ‘The oldest man in the family.’ ‘What about the kids, will they be affected?’ ‘No,’ he was assured. ‘The kids will be fine.’
‘I might as well, then,’ the old man reasoned. ‘I’m going to die soon anyway’.
The foundation was laid but before the first storey was complete he and his brother fell ill. When the fever subsided, 21 days later, they found themselves preposterously stooped. Their heads bobbed in front of their shoulders like tortoises. Their caste was Mahaju and people knew them from then on as the leaning Mahajus.
For as long as the streets and courtyards have lain where they do now a house has been about 18 feet from front to back, with a wall in the middle, dictated by the nine-foot span of the floor beams. Wealthy families and kings built four blocks at one time to create a courtyard. For the rest that was achieved more gradually, until a space was enclosed by four houses and an extended family enjoyed their privacy and security within. This courtyard is a chowk, where children play, clothes are washed, grain is dried, men gamble at cards and the family eats feasts. The chowks are the basic unit of the old quarters. The height of the roofs’ ridge beams, where they met each other end to end or at right angles, was roughly the same. The skyline was a hand-knitted pattern of clay-tiled slopes, with the pagoda-roofs of the temples rising above them.
“O client, many lucky signs must be present and many rules of proportion must be observed when a house is built ... First the smoke of the brick kiln goes up to heaven and the 330 million gods smell it and ask where it came from; the king of the gods, Indra, tells them that it is the smell of smoke made on earth by an ambitious man who is firing bricks to build a house to stay in; and the gods, hearing him, immediately give their blessing: ‘Fortunate and upright man! May this house be well favoured; may it be durable; may it be without flaw; may it be a dwelling place of Laksmi; may the builder live long; may his heart’s desire be fulfilled!”
To stop the rain from washing away the mud between the bricks Kathmandu’s builders invented a wedge-shaped brick, which covers the joints and gives the most prestigious buildings a smooth burnished lustre. These walls are prone to bulging under their own weight so a wooden frame is made to stiffen them, like the steel inside reinforced concrete but much more expensive. Where the timbers show on the surface they are decorated with carved serpents and the heads of animals.
In the old parts of the city, when people refer to a house they often mean the site it stands on, and every structure that has ever stood on that site. It is a continuous family institution.
The foundations are not deep so, in time, uneven settlement
will cause the walls to crack. And, because the stones of the foundation do not
rise above ground level, the base of the walls will be exposed to surface water
making the ground floor damp. At every stage of the construction, as the door
jambs and lintels, window frames, floors, ridge beam and roof tiles are put in
place, a puja is done and red and yellow powder is smeared on the unfinished
building. In this way the gods run through the house like the wiring. There
will be a few small gaps in the brickwork where the bamboo scaffolding was
fixed. Th ey will be overlooked when the builders leave and sparrows will nest
there. No nails are used anywhere in the structure. If water seeps in and rots
the pegs that hold the frame together an empty house can be ruined in a few
The ground floor is a shop, storeroom or workshop. The sleeping and living quarters are in the middle and the purest and most private places, the kitchen and the puja room, are nearest to heaven.
“O well-born, may the merit of your good deed help you to attain the four goals of life, the seven kinds of well-being, the eight kinds of property, and rid you of the eight terrors ... may you have good fortune and happiness in all 10 directions and at all three times. Good luck to the whole world!”
In the old parts of the city, when people refer to a house they often mean the site it stands on, and every structure that has ever stood on that site. It is a continuous family institution, of which the fabric (like the people in it) is continually replaced. When someone breaks down the beautiful old brick and timber house his ancestor made, and builds for his family in their ancient place a new concrete home (ugly inside and out, and cold in the winter) the new structure retains the centuries-old shape of the plot and the hierarchy between the storeys above it. Before he starts to build he digs a hole, does a puja in it, and fills it in. Then he digs the foundation.
Hirakaji and all of his neighbours, who were descended from the same ancestor, had each rebuilt their share of the ancestral site in concrete. The old house, before it was divided by inheritance, must have been large, with a passage through the centre into the chowk behind. One afternoon I was working at my desk, and I suppose I was unable to concentrate, because I wandered onto the roof to look out over the rooftops and the pinnacle of the Mahabuddha temple, and someone bolted the door from the inside. I was stuck up there, until a neighbour appeared on his roof. I stepped over the low wall and followed him down his stairs. The upper floors of his house were dark, the walls were unplastered and the windows were unglazed. We passed through rooms piled with the clay moulds of statues, and down unlit stairs, until we emerged not on the other side of the passage, as I expected, but into the chowk behind. The history of the family had made a labyrinth inside that group of buildings.
t its most local levels, of the neighbourhood, or the individual house, Kathmandu is ordered by religious concepts, either around holy stones, or divinely sanctioned carpentry and bricklaying techniques. The same is also true of the city as a whole.
In the sacred diagrams called mandala the principal god or goddess is worshipped in the centre, surrounded by a retinue of related deities, representing the different aspects of the governing spirit’s nature, and their relationship to the power at the centre. A mandala is something like an icon, which channels the power of the god it depicts, and therefore something like a prayer or a spell. I also read that each ancient city is a giant mandala, a diagram of the order of the universe, with the king’s palace at the centre, surrounded at the margins by the temples of the Eight Mother Goddesses, by the twelve sacred bathing places and the eight cremation grounds.
So I went to see a Buddhist priest of the Vajracharya caste—a gubaju—because they are the ones with the power and the responsibility to master and mediate this side of life to the laity. I had a whole sheet of typed questions: What does the city’s mandala mean? Does it belong to a particular god? What’s the meaning of the festival of Mataya? (I thought the tortuous route of that day-long procession might hold some secret.) Can one also think of a single house as a mandala? Would it be possible to draw a map of the city, which wasn’t a map of chowks or streets but a map of gods? I was fascinated by the idea that the city had a secret design, but I couldn’t understand what the nature or meaning of such a scheme could be, so I didn’t know what to ask him.
The gubaju lived in an upstairs room by the bus park at Lagankhel. The passage to his narrow stair was stacked with boxes of the same crockery and thermos flasks as were for sale on the pavement outside. The walls of his room were almost entirely covered by pictures of gods, and tableaux of traditional life, which seemed to have been cut from magazines or calendars. Especially prominent were several large pictures of himself in his robes, adopting special postures, with a bright sunburst inserted behind his head by the photo studio. On the windowsill there were two white doves in an iron cage. It was a bright fresh autumn day and the gubaju had his windows open. On my recording of the interview there is a constant hubbub of the bus conductors and market traders outside.
The gubaju was in his eighties, sitting cross-legged on the floor. He rifled through heaps of paper and handed me photocopied scraps: a mandala of the goddess Durga with a Sanskrit text beneath; a Newari text he’d composed himself on the faults of modern society, and the rituals that would correct them; a list of 49 holy places of the Valley that he had visited and their holy days; and a history of his most illustrious ancestor, a tantric who performed magic acts. He chuckled and pulled his legs tighter around himself as he talked. I asked him about the city’s mandala.
“In ancient times,” the gubaju said, “the Kathmandu Valley was a lake and at that time it was a golden age. In the Age of Treta, the bodhisatva Manjushree cut the mountain and let the water flow out. Only then people started settling here.”
That much I knew. I asked him about the mandala again and he said, “It is like a mandala. The centre is Gujeshwori. In whichever direction you go from there, east, west or whichever, is 7 kos [14 miles]. People celebrate the day Manjushree cut the mountain on the tenth day of the waning moon of Mangshir.” He took out his charts and showed me.
I pressed him again. “Actually, we don’t talk in detail about the mandala,” he admitted. “It includes everything, birds, animals, human beings, everything, but we’re not allowed to explain it. The first god that was created was Gujeshwori, who is both male and female and began creating the other creatures. All the other creatures came out of Gujeshwori.” I was following him more or less. I knew that at Gujeshwori there is a hole in the ground, fringed with stone petals, which is related to female power somehow. It does stand somewhere near the centre of the Valley. And I wasn’t surprised by his secretiveness, because I had read that gubajus reveal the real truth of their religion only to the initiated, and there would be no question of my ever receiving it.
We were interrupted by a woman who had come with her two children to consult him as a healer or magician. The children, she complained, were not doing well at school. He prescribed some rituals. She touched her head to his feet, and she paid him with a small plastic bag of what seemed to be flour. After they’d gone I tried another tack and asked him about the Eight Mother Goddesses, whose temples are in a ring around the city.
“The Eight Mothers are outside the city, not inside,” he said. “We can explain it up to the Eight Mothers, but the mandala inside the circle of the Eight Mothers we cannot explain. Eight is a very significant number. They are for protecting people against disease, fire, water and so on. These goddesses are located in the eight directions.”
He talked about many things. I tried to hold him to what I saw as the point, and to work through my list of questions, but I may as well have been asking “How many hamburgers make a Wednesday?” for all the sense my questions seemed to make to the gubaju. I drew a diagram of concentric circles like I’d seen in a book, representing the location of the most important buildings in the centre of the city and the lowest on the outskirts, and I asked him about it.
“In the past,” he said, “when you are in high rank you go nearer to the centre and if you are poor and of low rank you have to move out of the city. The king, the palace, is in the centre and near the palace are the higher-ranked people.”
“Maybe it was to do with land prices?” I said.
He ignored it. “In the centre are located the gods and goddesses. In the next yoni come ... how to explain it? ... they are just like spirits. Then comes the human yoni. Then comes the demon yoni, then the animal yoni. The furthest place is Narka. Narka is hell. Altogether there are six yonis,” he said, noticing that I had sketched only five. The gubaju spread out a different mandala on the floor between us. “This is simplified,” he assured me. “A small number of gods are depicted—there are 64 gods here. The deeper you go the more gods there are.
“I don’t know about Kathmandu but I know in detail about the Patan area,” he said. “I have a dispute with the priests of Kathmandu. They say I don’t know about the things of Kathmandu, but when we have debates about religion I have defeated them many times, because I have done research on this mandala which they have not done.”
I left when the old man had talked for as long as he wanted to, and at the time I was disappointed I hadn’t received a clearer explanation, perhaps resembling some kind of map. Now it seems he gave as clear an account as I could have hoped for. And for what it was worth I already had a book with a translation of the liturgy that gubajus use, describing the Valley’s mandala. So if he wouldn’t discuss it with me, or if I couldn’t understand his explanations, I could get some impression. When a gubaju begins a ritual he recites in Sanskrit:
“OM, now in the period of the Attained One, Lion of the Sakyas the Buddha] ... in the Kali world era ... in the Himalayas ... in the land of Nepal ... flowing with the four great rivers ... adorned with the twelve holy bathing places ... surrounded by the mountains ... the Eight Mothers, the Eight Bhairavas ... on the south bank of the Bagmati ... in the city of Lalitapattana Patan], in the kingdom of Aryavalokitesvara [i.e. the red god Bungadya, who came down my street in his giant cart] ...”
Working from the inside out, it would go something like this: in the centre is the Buddhist god Cakrasamvara, surrounded by four goddesses and the four Kings of the Directions. Then there are three circles of lotuses, thunderbolts and flames. In life, the king’s palace sits in the centre. He is not exactly a god, but anyone can incarnate aspects of the divine and in the king’s case he incarnates aspects of the loftier lords in heaven. His palace is surrounded by the temples of the greatest Hindu gods. They receive pure, vegetarian, non-alcoholic offerings from Brahmin priests. Courtier families and priests live near the palace and the various other castes live among one another throughout the city. Each caste has its own affi nities to diff erent gods, according to its nature and occupation. In the middle ranks of the caste system, for example, Jyapu men (of the farming caste) have an affinity with Bhairab, Shiva in his wrathful aspect, who is also associated with beer. Jyapu women have an affinity with Hariti, the Buddhist goddess of smallpox, who has power over young children, so they act as midwives.
On the city’s outskirts, the low castes, by performing unclean tasks such as butchery or drum making, or conducting death rituals, absorb pollution of behalf of the community, allowing the high castes to stay pure. The edges of the mandala, or the areas beyond the ordered life of the city, are the land of the dead. Butchers are permitted to live just inside the gates but the lowest, most impure people, the Pode sweepers’ caste, who shovel shit, must live outside, where the demons and the witches also live, and where the ghosts are most numerous among the rice fi elds. They are the receptacles of all the bad omens, of all the pollution, degradation and filth of the city, and their affi nities are with the lower and more dreadful spirits. The cremation grounds are near their homes, each associated with a Mother Goddess to whom the Pode act as priests. The goddesses receive blood sacrifices and offerings of alcohol. Just as the Brahmin priests of the high gods are themselves high and pure, so the untouchables can have great and frightening powers, like the blood-drinking divinities to whom they minister. In the wilds around the edge of the mandala there is a ring of skulls.
The mandala is more than a map of the city. It is a social and political ideology, a description of the order of the universe, which is repeated in a well-ordered city here on earth.
eyond the Khumbeshwor temple, on the spirit-infested and shit-strewn edge of Patan, where the city wall once ran, lives a colony of butchers. The old woman Dhana Laksmi Shrestha was once young and living nearby, on the better side of the temple, in a neighbourhood of high-caste Shresthas, when there was an outbreak of caste-inflected killing in the late 1940s. It seemed to show something about how the different communities lived separately but together inside the mandala. I’d heard her refer to it.
“Did you see the people hanged?” I asked.
“Hang? I’ve seen so many people hang.”
“Who did they kill?”
“Who?” She squinted at me. She thought I was a moron. “Why, they killed themselves!”
I tried to explain which particular tragedy I had in mind.
“There was a place for the men to shit and there were pigs there. We had another place the same,” she said. “You know pigs?”
I offered a different word, the only one I knew for “pig”.
“This kind is a black one. It eats shit and it has hair like this.” She stuck her fingers up to demonstrate a crest of bristles, wrinkling her nose and poking her front tooth at me. “A pig’s work is to eat what we shit. A man went to shit by the stream, a guy like you, and a pig came. If you touch a pig you have to take a bath, and the pig was coming to where that guy was shitting. He was afraid that it would touch him, so he hit the pig with a small brick. Now, sometimes you hit a pig with a brick and nothing happens. But that time just a small brick hit it on the head and the pig died. The pig man saw.”
The butchers owned the pigs. A generation later, Shrestha mothers who weren’t born when it happened would tell their children about the enormity of the crime the butchers had then committed, so that they would not play with the children of the butchers’ colony.
“The person who killed the pig was a [high-caste] Chhetri, but he was poor and lived in a small shed. He was so strong he could carry bags of salt. You know ‘safes’? He could carry a metal safe all by himself. His son sold ice cream.
“That butcher was one who had a lot of money. He could buy you and me together. His name was Dil Bahadur. He was big, the biggest butcher in Nepal! He was consumed by spite. He was waiting for an opportunity. He found the opportune time, he got all his friends together in the middle of the night and went to the Karki’s [Chhetri’s] shed. On that day there were five people in the family—one had gone out. He was working, he hadn’t come home.” This was the lucky ice cream seller.
“Who killed him, how did they kill him? No one knows how they killed that strong man. Two hands would not be enough. But if one person is attacked by many people, if two hands have to defend against 10 hands, then however strong you are it’s not going to work,” Dhana Laksmi reflected. Her eyes sparkled. She was wrapped in blankets, sitting forward, taking her time over every relevant detail.
“There were three small children, two or three years old, in the Karki’s house. They tied rope around the babies’ necks then stuffed cloth and cotton down their throats. That’s how the kids were killed. The wife was also killed. She had a rope around her neck and five knives in her bottom, where she pees.” Dhana Laksmi gestured to show me where she meant. In this way they were killed.
“In the morning, when the men were shitting together, these Karkis didn’t come so people went to their hut and saw the bodies. They were frightened and they screamed. The police came and sat around. There were so many people it was like a jatra [festival]. The police brought the dead people out, including the three kids. I’ve never seen so many people, and then more police came. It was bigger than a jatra, it was like a mahajatra!
“The kids with the cloth stuffed in their mouths, even now the thought of it is difficult ...” Dhana Laksmi turned to a description of investigative methods which still serve the Nepal Police. “They took the people of all the houses. How many people! They took them all. Only the women were left. Everyone was separated and they started choosing people. There are some people who know who is guilty. There was a person who knew whether someone was guilty or not, sometimes just by looking at their face.”
“Who was this person?” I asked.
“It is a person within the police. He is called inespector or something,” she said, satisfied. “Eventually five people were chosen. They were held for many days. They were questioned and three people came out guilty. They were the real culprits.”
I was reminded of the police chief of a western district who had told me, despite accusations of torture, that his men no longer used traditional methods of investigation. Dhana Laksmi was coming to the climax of her story and some aspects of legal procedure had changed since her young days. “There used to be people who would come around announcing a hanging,” she said. “They went through the streets with cymbals and drums and a huge crowd assembled. Outside the butcher’s house a gallows was made from bamboo.” It consisted of two A-frames with a pole fixed between them.
“The men were brought out. They were wearing only that thin yellow dhoti that Brahmins wear and they had shackles around their feet and hands, and around their necks, so even if they ran they wouldn’t get away. They were on a platform with wheels and they were paraded around the city. There were so many people they looked like ants!”
The condemned men reached the lane where they lived, where the gallows stood. “They took the rope, made the first one stand on a chair, they put the rope around his neck like this, and they removed the chair. So they were hung.”
I asked her where she was while this was going on.
“I was in a window right next to it! My daughter was very young, so I ran there leaving her with my mother. He went limp and he died. I didn’t know how people were killed before that. They died very fast. They moved for a while then they died.
“When one man was dead they put another one there. They put the rope in the same place and he died. They had killed two, then they brought the main guy. Everyone shouted ‘they’ve brought Dil Bahadur!’ They made him stand up there and they put the rope here.” She demonstrated how they placed the knot at the side of Dil Bahadur’s jaw. “If they put it here you don’t die. You don’t go quickly. He went phir, phir, phir, phir, phir, phir, phir. His whole body moved for a long time. Eventually he died.
“What kind of justice is that?” she exclaimed. “He died pretty soon. If it was up to me I would have chopped off parts of his skin and put salt inside. Dil Bahadur’s home was right there, and the people from his family had been taken to Nag Bahal and locked in a house. After everyone was dead they let them out and they came to the hanging place. They cried so loud that even the heavens could hear them! The police chased them back inside their house.”
The cops dug a hole and threw the bodies in it and Dhana Laksmi moved on.
“That rope is so scarce and desirable, that the only way you can get one is by hanging yourself. There’d be no point in that, would there?” she speculated. “The cops sold it to the medicine wallahs.
“Two snakes copulating. You don’t see that very often, but I have seen it. They twist their bodies together. You are supposed to cover them with a piece of cloth and the seed will fall on that cloth. The cloth, plus the rope, the medicine wallah will burn them together, and he’ll say a mantra. It’s very expensive, that ash, and if you put it in your hair you can entice anybody. Even if a husband doesn’t like his wife he’ll fall in love with her. Or the other way around. Now the story is over. I need to eat.” But she wasn’t quite finished. “I think they may have used such a medicine on our neighbour’s daughter,” she reflected, returning to the present. “She eloped with the shopkeeper’s son, and he beats her up every day.”
She went for lunch.
(Excerpted with permission from Kathmandu by Thomas Bell (Random House India, 496 pages, Rs. 599).
Thomas Bell is a journalist who moved to Kathmandu to cover the civil war in Nepal for the Daily Telegraph, The Economist, and other publications. He was the South East Asia correspondent of the Daily Telegraph before returning to Kathmandu, where he lives with his family.)