About 20 minutes walking distance from Boudhanath, the world-famous stupa, is a place called Pashupatinath. Pashupatinath lies on the banks of the Bagmati River and is the biggest Hindu temple in the world dedicated to the Lord of Destruction, Lord Shiva. In Hinduism, destruction also bears the meaning of transformation or rebirth, and hence the male reproductive organ, the lingam, is a representative of Shiva’s divine powers.
Since Pashupatinath Temple is only open to Hindus, one has to observe its pagoda-style architecture quietly from the fort of lingams across the Bagmati River. However, to be completely honest, most tourists come to Pashupatinath not to witness the splendor of its façade a hundred meters away. Instead what they come to see are the cremations along the Bagmati at the Arya Ghat Crematory.
We arrive in Pashupatinath on a late afternoon. The sun is about to set. The whole of Pashupatinath is enveloped in a heavy layer of smoke. Only scant rays of sunshine manage to struggle through the haze and land themselves gently upon the cremation pyres. Like India’s River Ganges, the Bagmati River is the center of religious life in Nepal. And like Varanasi in India, Hindus all choose to die at Arya Ghat because they believe that dying here, along the sacred river of the Bagmati, cleanses them of all sins and releases them from the continuous cycle of reincarnation.
We walk along the banks of the Bagmati towards the end of the Pashupatinath strip. In the caves on the left lie people waiting to die, amongst them heavily diseased grandpas and old, crippled grannies. On their doorstep is their daughter-in-law, fanning a fan as if to brush away the choking smoke. She is here to accompany them walk their last stretch in life. A monkey appears from out of nowhere and brushes through us in a flash. I am startled and turn around in irritation, ready to lash out at him. It is only then that I realize that the poor thing is severely handicapped. He forearms have been severed, perhaps by a monkey trap, and is left to walk on his two feet like humans. He is fighting for food amongst his fellow monkey friends.
I cannot bear to look at this anymore and turn to walk the other way. Now I have come to performance central. On the upriver side of the Bagmati, Brahmin priests are performing rites for the upper castes while downriver, the lower castes are mourning for the loss of their loved ones. A body is wrapped in white gauze like a mummy and supported by wooden planks beneath. On top is piled layers of hay. When the body is lit, usually performed by the eldest son in the family, all you can see are the soles of his feet sticking out from underneath torn pieces of gauze and in a fiery ball of fire. The family members, by now exhausted from all the crying, are hastily escorted to sit by their relatives. On the pyre next to this, a body had finished burning and a man is sweeping its ashes down the river with a broom. Below, where the ash fell, I see a young woman washing her clothes in the Bagmati, a bucketful of laundry sitting next to her. Amongst our group of Buddhist friends, some are reciting mantras, another trying to lighten up the situation, “Hey, doesn’t this remind you of barbequing in Hong Kong?”, and me, I am busy taking pictures while anxiously asking, “Do you think these people would mind me taking pictures?”
“Haha, I’m sure they’re used to it by now!” Lama Tenam shrugs.
In the rush of such an overwhelming concoction of colours, sights and smells, I cannot help but wonder - Wow, if at the end of all this, all that remains is nothing but a BBQ fest until we crunch up into nothing but a pile of dust, what does it mean for us now? Is it all just child’s play? What is the point then, in fighting for power, status, and money, often hurting our loved ones in the process? Are we not just simply looking for happiness? Those in the upper caste and those at the bottom, do they not all come down to the same river? – The armless monkey now comes running by to this side of the river. A young sadhu emerges from his cave with a handful of biscuits having noticed what a hopeless this monkey was fighting. Seeing how happy the monkey is, the sadhu gently strokes its head and smiles. Sometimes, those things that make us the happiest are oftentimes also the simplest.
I have to share a little secret with you, a very heartbreaking one – Julia Child may be in danger of falling off my idol list.
Julia was my latest idol acquired after having watched Meryl Streep’s interpretation of her in Julie and Julia a couple of weeks ago. However, recently I am beginning to wonder, perhaps what I love so much is the idea of her as portrayed by Meryl Streep and not Julia Child per se? This thought came about as I overheard the other day a fellow diner compare the food at El Bajio to that from La Superica, supposedly Julia Child’s favourite Mexican restaurant in Santa Barbara.
“Julia Child must be insane to think that La Superica has the best Mexican food. This place is so much better!” This guy was sipping from a bowl of almost Chinese looking beef and corn soup at El Bajio.
And he was right. We were on a Mexican food roll that very morning (enough to have us back off Mexican for a good couple of months) having first arrived at La Superica at 11am sharp, which is when it opens, to queue, and then again to El Bajio after a brief stroll around Santa Barbara to allow our dear stomachs to digest. La Superica was good, but was it worth the wait and the rave? At El Bajio, the asada (marinated beef, pico de gallo, avocado and sour cream), carnitas (shredded pork, avocado, tomato, onions, cilantro and jalapeno) and rez, the beef and corn soup which attracted my attention in the first place, was super good, the service friendly, there was no wait, and most importantly, there were actual Mexicans eating there! Perhaps then, Julia’s French cooking might not be that authentic after all?
Julia Child died age 91 in Santa Barbara. I watched the real her making an omelette the other day on Youtube and interestingly, saw her using chopsticks for beating. Ah yes! Julia’s lived in Shanghai for a few years during World War II. For some reason, my heart skipped a beat at the sight of those chopsticks – they have always been my favourite tool for beating and have often despised the likes of Nigella Lawson for not knowing this useful little secret.
Sorry Robert, Julia might have just squeezed herself back onto the top of my list.
La Superica is at 622 North Milpas Street, Santa Barbara (tel: +1 (805) 963-4940)
Taqueria El Bajio is at 129 North Milpas Street, Santa Barbara (tel: +1 (805) 884-1828)