Letter from Kathamandu: November 15, 1985

I’ve been cleaning out my attic and in the process stumbled upon a packet of letters I wrote when I was last in Nepal in 1985 and 1986. It was the winter my brother came to visit.

“…Dave arrived in Kathmandu one day late. His British Air flight was delayed coming into Delhi and the general confusion there caused him to miss his next flight. At first, the Indian officials told him he’d either have to stay in the transit lounge (for 24 hours!) or they could send him back to the U.S. (because he didn’t have a visa to visit India). But he somehow managed to obtain a 24 hour visa and the airline put him up in a hotel. I was quite worried when he still hadn’t appeared three flights after his scheduled arrival but I finally received information from the British Air office in Kathmandu that they had booked him on a flight for the next day.

So his first full day in Nepal was my birthday and Lakshmi Puja—one of the most important events during the 5 day festival of Tihar. Lakshmi, the Goddess of Wealth, along with the family money-box and the sacred cows that wander freely in the streets, are worshipped together on that day. Since cows provide some of the important basic essentials for life: milk, butter and dung (though they are never eaten by devout Hindus), they are considered an earthly symbol of Lakshmi.  Houses are scrubbed with a fresh layer of mud and cow dung, and doorways are decorated with red powder and flowers to welcome the Goddess when she circles the world at midnight, stopping only at those homes that have prepared for her visit. Throughout the day, we saw cows festooned with bright red tikas and garlands of marigolds. Footsteps were painted outside front doors and at night, all the houses were lit up by candles—or, in this modern age, by colored electric bulbs—so that Lakshmi would find her way inside, bringing wealth and prosperity to the family.

Bhai Tika, the final day of Tihar, is when every male in the household is honored. Brothers receive tikas from their sisters (who also rise early to prepare doughnuts for the men in the family). Perhaps I shouldn’t have neglected my duties since this ritual assures the brothers of good health and long life. That same day we climbed the hill to Swayambhunath, a Buddhist temple overlooking the city. We curtailed our visit because Dave’s stomach was having difficulty adjusting and returned to our apartment so that he could rest (sans doughnuts). Now that he’s feeling a little better, I’ll leave room so that he can add a note…”

“…Debka covered the basics. As for my first impressions, well, after spending a day in the dense city of Delhi it was paradise to fly into Kathmandu. The hills, so sculpted by both nature and man, and the city, so active with many sights, smells and tastes all at once. And then there are the incongruities of cooking on kerosene stoves but drinking Cokes, five-star hotels but beggars suffering from elephantiasis– all piled on top of each other. It seems quite normal for everyone who lives here, but so odd to me!”

That was half a life-time ago. Many little brothers who received tikas from their sisters in 1985 are now grown men with families of their own. I often wonder how Kathmandu has changed. How many have encountered Lakshmi’s gifts of wealth and prosperity in the intervening years? And do the cows still roam freely in the streets?


About HomenDunRoamin

Teaching Artist & Writer: fiction, poetry & nonfiction. Recently completed work: a hybrid memoir. In progress: a novel set in an unnamed Latin American country on the brink of war. The book examines violent and nonviolent resistance and the choices women are forced to make to survive.
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