Bottom of the Ocean on Top of the World
Eight of the ten highest peaks in the world are located in this unusual country. Buddha was born there, the goddess Kumari lives there, there are as many temples as there are houses, there are as many gods as there are people. The Bagmati River carries away the sins of the living and the ashes of the dead. On the mountain where the World Peace Stupa is, an inscription awaits you: ”Please respect the Silence.” On the street you can buy shells and marine fossils from the Himalayas. Painted mandalas teach us that all this is just a blink of the universe. And when everything is over, and everyone, there is still a ”road to Kathmandu”

Text and Photo: Ivana Ašković

Landlocked on the continent between two giants – India and China – Nepal rarely draws attention to itself. And when you pay attention to it, it will begin a magical story spanning tens of millions of years and, humble as it is, it will slowly reveal all the riches it hides in its depths and heights, so much so that you will want to hear more. Eight of the world’s ten highest peaks are located in it, including Mt. Everest at an incredible 8,484 meters. Buddha was born in it, the living goddess Kumari lives in it, it has as many temples as houses, as many gods as people, it respects diversity, believes in kindness, preserves cultural heritage, prays for world peace and believes that one day there will be no borders. And the vast peaks of the Himalayas hide fossils of shells and other sea creatures that will take you back 70 million years and begin the story of the climate in which this magical country was born.

Embrace of two continents. The Himalayas, the largest mountain range in the world, were created as a result of the collision between the Eurasian continent and the Indian subcontinent, which separated from Africa about 70 million years ago and continued to drift towards Asia. In the collision of India with Asia, the Tethys Ocean was closed, whose sedimentary rocks from the bottom of the ocean piled up into the Himalayan mountain range, and the bottom of the ocean rose into some of the highest peaks in the world.
Fossil shells, fish and molluscs from the peaks of the Himalayas are sold as curious souvenirs on the streets of Kathmandu and Pokhara. Along with them, the offer includes wooden or bronze sculptures of deities, many of which are real works of art, then painted mandalas, pieces of clothing made of cashmere or yak wool, Tibetan religious objects and many other curiosities with which the tourists can, for pennies, take back home a part of Nepal (and ancient history).
From monarchy to republic. For most of its history, Nepal was a monarchy. It was ruled by the Shah dynasty from 1768, which united small kingdoms. During the British colonial rule in India, Nepal remained independent, and the price it paid for that was economic and industrial underdevelopment and isolation from the outside world, as well as some of the main trends in the development of modern society. On the other hand, the long period of isolation contributed to the survival of many elements of ancient culture that nolonger exist in other parts of Asia that were exposed to the Western world during centuries of colonial rule.
Centuries of royal dynasties were brought to an abrupt end by the famous ”Royal Massacre” in 2001, when Crown Prince Dipendra killed the then king and queen – his father and mother – and seven other members of the royal family, before turning his hand on himself. Some say that the cause of this tragic event is forbidden love: Dipendra loved an Indian woman and as the heir to the throne he had to marry a Nepali. Others argue that the reason is more political in nature. In any case, the tragic death of nine members of the royal family was the prelude to the 2006 Revolution that abolished the monarchy. Two years later, Nepal was declared a federal democratic republic.

Kathmandu Valley. ”There is only one Kathmandu on earth and in space; unless it is, as some believe, a reflection of some heavenly city, but even that does not change the matter, because that reflection is the only one on earth. The word ‘dream’ is the most suitable to describe it, but a dream is images and feelings and cannot be conveyed.”
This is how Stevan Pešić begins his famous book Kathmandu, probably one of the most beautiful descriptions of this city, the valley and the entire country ever written. His Nepal from 1982 has largely disappeared, because since the beginning of this millennium the country has been opening up and receiving influences from the West, and the elements of the ancient culture are slowly fading. But there are still incredibly beautiful and warm people, life is still full of magic, Hindu and Buddhist rituals and customs still abound, deities walk the streets in the general bustle of passers-by, cars and motorbikes, rickshaws, stray dogs and cows, and on festival days, of which there are many, there are also traditional dances with magical masks and wondrous music. It is not always clear who has the right of way in this traffic humdrum, everyone lives, passes, rejoices, dreams and dies together in that incredible multi-peopled dream called Kathmandu.
There are fewer cows today. In fact, they are almost gone. As in India, the cow is a sacred animal here and that can be a problem. The guide told us that a while ago, a cow decided to take a rest in the middle of a big intersection in the city. No one was allowed to move it, the vehicles created a nod that could not be untangled, and this lasted for 2-3 hours until the sacred animal decided to go to another place. Someone missed a date, someone a plane, someone a job interview. But the cow was not to be touched. The burden of sanctity was too much for these beautiful animals, so they were moved somewhere where they would be less disruptive to the already dense and confusing traffic in the city.
The Kathmandu Valley is the central, most beautiful and most populated part of Nepal, at the crossroads of ancient civilizations of the Indian subcontinent and the rest of Asia, with numerous cultural monuments, places of pilgrimage for Hindus and Buddhists and seven UN World Heritage Sites. It consists of the old centers of the monarchy, the cities of Kathmandu, Lalitpur, Bhaktapur, Changunarayan and others, in which a total of five million souls live, and this number is constantly increasing, because the valley is one of the fastest growing urban areas in South Asia.

Marijuana, hippies and other tourists. Tourism in Nepal is still primarily centered on mountaineering, on the peaks of the Himalayas, but this country has attracted other types of visitors in the last hundred years or so.
In the 1960s, the country’s mystical and spiritual traditions, especially Buddhism and Hinduism, attracted many hippies from around the world. They visited holy places and participated in religious ceremonies, seeking enlightenment and a deeper understanding of themselves and the world around them. And in addition to spiritual reasons, this path to enlightenment was complemented by abundantly available local marijuana, which was legal until 1976. Entire fields were planted with cannabis, and one street in Kathmandu is still called ”Freak Street” – a street once crowded with marijuana and hash shops, a gathering place for hippies from all over the world. Although officially banned, marijuana continues to grow in remote rural areas, with authorities looking the other way, partly because of tourism and partly because Nepal has a centuries-old history of using cannabis as an Ayurvedic medicine, an opiate, and as part of sacred offerings to Shiva, one of the supreme deities.
Many political currents in Nepal are currently fighting for the re-legalization of marijuana, and the outlooks are encouraging.
Cultural tourism is developing, but still not at the level that Nepal deserves. One of the reasons is the poor traffic infrastructure. There is a 200-kilometer road from Kathmandu to Pokhara; with a few minor stops, it took us almost 12 hours to cover that distance. You can travel that way by plane, but you risk delays due to unpredictable weather conditions. Another reason is frequent earthquakes. The one from 2015 devastated the Kathmandu Valley, destroying numerous historical monuments and roads. The country is still recovering from that, both culturally and financially.

A living goddess. Many have heard of the living goddess Kumari, even those who do not know much about Nepal. The tradition of worshiping the virgin as a manifestation of the divine feminine energy or Shakti in Nepalese religious rituals arose from the belief that the goddess Taleju, or Durga, manifests herself in the body of a specially chosen virgin. She can be seen in the Kumari Gar Palace, and she presents herself to everyone when summoned by appearing in the palace window for a few seconds. Taking pictures is strictly prohibited, under threat of confiscation of the phone or camera.
A pre-pubescent girl is chosen by a group of Buddhist priests as well as a royal astrologer. The girls are chosen exclusively from Buddhist families, and the selection criteria are rigorous: she must be in excellent health, never shed blood or suffer from any disease, be flawless, have a set of twenty teeth and have not yet lost a single tooth, must possess the so-called ”thirty-two perfections of the goddess”, show signs of serenity and fearlessness… The list is long and complicated, as is the selection process. Just as an example, a young candidate is taken to the Taleju temple and released into the courtyard, where the severed heads of animals are illuminated by candlelight and where masked people dance. If she truly possesses the qualities of a goddess, she shows no fear during this experience. If she does, another candidate is brought in to try the same. In the next test, the living goddess must spend the night alone in a room among the heads of ritually slaughtered goats and buffaloes without showing fear. The fearless victor has proven that she has the serenity and fearlessness that is becoming of the goddess that will inhabit her.
Kumari lives in the palace all year round, and comes out only once a year, on the festival of Indra Jatra. When she gets her first period, the girl retires and can return home. She receives financial support for the rest of his life, but he must never marry. Nepalis fear retired Kumaris and believe that if she marries against the ban, her husband would lose his life within the first year of marriage.
Another burden of sanctity, this time for the chosen serene and fearless girls.
Durbar Square, Hanuman Gate and Pashupatinath – Temple of the Dead. Durbar Square is the heart of Kathmandu and a focal point for visitors to Nepal. There is an old royal palace, the palace of Goddess Kumari, Hanuman Gate, numerous temples, other shrines and sculptures of deities. Although it was largely destroyed in the 2015 earthquake, it has been successfully restored to this day.
Hanuman Dhoka is dedicated to Hanuman, the monkey god, an incarnation of Shiva, the culprit behind many of the plots in the Hindu epics, whose figure is worshiped by most of the world’s 1.2 billion Hindus. His magnificent statue guards the entrance to the temple complex.
Pešić narrates that if the gods may be sleeping somewhere, they are certainly awake day and night in Pashupatinath. Every day is a holiday here. Prayers are held there both day and night, ”candles burn, incense smells, people and temples are colorful with flowers, the songs of believers and the voices of animals mingle, bells ring and gongs resound, the Bagmati flows carrying the sins of the living and the ashes of the dead, all engulfed by the smoke from the bonfires. Every day is a holiday here.”
Pashupatinath is a huge temple complex on the Bagmati River where cremations of the dead take place. All Nepalese believe that they will be freed from the karmic cycle of birth and death and attain nirvana if they are cremated in this shrine. Families with the deceased from all over the country come here, perform the last rituals, burn the remains of their loved ones and give their ashes to the river. And the Bagmati River, which springs in the Himalayas, flows south andempties into the Ganges, in native India, whose waters are believedto carry away all our sins and impurities and purify everything they touch.
There is an interesting piece of information related to this tradition and the temple that speaks of the emancipation of women in Nepal and its openness to change. According to tradition, the eldest son was in charge of performing the cremation ritual of his parents. If he was prevented, the duty would pass to the younger son, and in case of his inability – to the sons of the brothers of the deceased. In recent years, under pressure from increasingly vocal women’s rights activists, women have also been granted the right to cremate their dead. It was a small but big victory for women and a big plus for Nepal in maintaining the delicate balance between preserving tradition and accepting the currents of modern civilization.

Pokhara. The second largest city in Nepal, situated on the beautiful Phewa Lake, has historically been an important stop on the route between India and China. The streets are wider and cleaner than in Kathmandu, people are more relaxed, the pace of life (and traffic) is calmer. The attractions around the city are a nature lover’s paradise and, in addition, provide some of the most beautiful spots from where, if you’re lucky with the weather, you can see the Himalayas without having to climb them.
The most important attraction of the city is the World Peace Stupa, which offers a magnificent view of the Pokhara Valley. The idea for this stupa was given by the Japanese Buddhist priest Nichidatsu Fuji, who, under the great influence of Gandhi, initiated a project to build such stupas around the world in 1947. The first were built in Hiroshima and Nagasaki; stupa in Pokhara is the first monument of its kind in Nepal, and the 71st in the world. On a mountain surrounded by a sea of clouds and the distant outline of the Himalayas, visitors are reminded in a simple but poignant way of the purpose of this place, with signs that read: ”Please respect the silence.” It was an unusual reminder for us who come from another world: how much we need both Silence and Peace.
In addition to museums, lakes, temples and monuments, one of the attractions for tourists are the beautiful suspension bridges that connect the surrounding hills and invite you to visit parts of this city on foot and take some unforgettable photos along the way.
Another must-see site in Pokhara area is Sarangkot, a lookout point that offers an unreal view of several important Himalayan peaks. You need to get up very early and get there when the sun is just rising. Then the view opens before you of, among others, the peaks of Annapurna II (7,937 meters) and the so-called ”Fish Tail” – the only peak in the Himalayas that is considered sacred and on which climbing is prohibited. You also need a lot of luck with the weather because the local climate is unpredictable. It may happen that you climb up to the lookout and see nothing but thick fog. We were lucky, the morning was sunny and a large part of the largest mountain range in the world appeared as if in the palm of our hands, while the Pokhara valley was obscured by an amazing ocean of clouds. The beauty of this scene was so great that awestruck visitors need not be reminded to respect silence.

Astronomical prices for astronomical heights. We come to one (for some) of the most important questions. How to climb the Himalayas? Relatively easy. To conquer Mount Everest, for example, you need to allocate 60-70 thousand euros and about 60 days off, although it can be shorter for professional climbers. The price includes Sherpas who climb with you (each climber must have theirown Sherpas), carry your belongings, food and other necessities. It also includes ahelicopter that brings food andequipment to the base camp. It also includes a fee to the Government of Nepal, a liaison officer, equipment, oxygen cylinders, satellite phones, environmental fees and much more.
In order for the expedition to be successful, it is best to start in the spring. You can try in winter and summer, but the chances of reaching the top are slim. And the most important thing: when you start this adventure, you have the right to only one attempt; if you fail, you are back to square one, because behind you is the next group of climbers who have also sacrificed a lot to achieve their dream of climbing to the top of the world.
The top of the world that was once the bottom of the ocean.

Mandala. The culture of Nepal is the result of a complex centuries-long permeation of the influences of Hinduism and Buddhism. Hindus make up about 82 percent of the population, Buddhists about eight percent, but devotees of these two religions share similar beliefs, believe in the same path of goodness and nobility, visit each other’s temples, inspire and complement each other.
On the streets of Kathmandu, Pokhara, Lalitpur and other cities, among the abundance of souvenirs, attention is drawn to painted mandalas. The mandala is a symbol of the transience of everything. The beauty of this world, its suffering, all our pains and despairs and loves and dreams and hopes, everything is just a blink of the eye of the universe. Impermanence, nothing is permanent, everything changes, our emotions, values. Because of attachment we suffer. When we understand (and accept) the transience of everything, there is no ego, no pride, only compassion.
They say that Buddhism is not really a religion, but a teaching that represents a combination of wisdom and compassion. You have to fight against three negative emotions: anger (with which you destroy only yourself), desire (which is inconsolable because you always want more) and pride (because nothing is permanent, today you are young, tomorrow not anymore, today you are rich, tomorrow you have lost everything). Let your karma be like a lotus flower, growing beautiful and white from the mud. Shine with purity of spirit regardless of the environment and circumstances in which you grow.
And if you need more advice for spiritual enlightenment, you always have somewhere to return to, because, as Pešić says: ”When all hearts turn deaf, and your own with them – there is a road to Kathmandu. When all the roads are closed, you lose a friend and everyone you love leaves you – there is a road to Kathmandu. When everything passes, disappears, the wind of dawn blows away dreams, and when you think there is no hope – there is a road to Kathmandu. When the sun gets colder and the stars above your sky begin to fade – there is a road to Kathmandu. And when you are gone, your heart will remain, empty and big as the sky, with a star in it. The name of that star is Kathmandu.”


Mother and homeland
Nepal has about 27 million inhabitants, and the capital Kathmandu, at 1,450 meters above sea level, about 850,000. The national motto is: ”Mother and homeland are more important than the heavens.” The coat of arms of Nepal features the Himalayas, and the national anthem, from 2007, is entitled ”We are hundreds of flowers”.


Serbian writer Stevan Pešić (Kovilj, 1939 – Belgrade, 1994), poet of the ”Moon Encyclopedia” (1965) and the author of the poetic-philosophical drama ”Tesla, or the Adjustment of an Angel” (1988), is especially remembered for the book ”Kathmandu” from 1982. With this book, for the first time in that way, the Serbian readers were introduced to the wonderful world of Nepal.

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