Print Edition - 2015-07-11  |  On Saturday

Places I remember

  • I watched the world go by sitting at the window of my grandmother’s house behind Kasthamandap
Places I remember

Jul 10, 2015-

My mother will not look at pictures of the pile of bricks that Kasthamandap has been turned into. It’s too painful, she says. Her maternal home where she was born and grew up is located right behind Kathmandu’s name giver and trademark edifice. Its immense sloping roofs and carved wooden struts were what she saw when she opened her eyes in the morning, and they were the last things she saw before going to bed. Only a lane separated Kasthamandap and the house, and its red roof tiles looked reachable by stretching an arm out the window. Better known locally as Maru Satah, the centuries-old pagoda was a travellers’ rest house, community centre and specimen of the valley’s artistry. It was a place everybody grew up in and came home to. And looking at pictures of its destruction would be more than painful.

The first images out of Maru showed the horrific force of the earthquake and the incredible wrath that nature had unleashed. All that was left of Kasthamandap was a mound of masonry and wooden beams scattered over it, like a crumpled person lying on the ground with broken bones sticking out all over. The triple-roofed building had withstood a deadlier tremor in 1934, but this time its strength gave way. The majestic structure collapsed into a heap, and the work of a thousand years was gone in an instant. People stood aghast as growling bulldozers moved in and started clearing the debris. The machines sank their steel teeth into the rubble and scooped it up by the truckload. Maru today is like a community with its heart torn out.

I too spent a large part of my childhood in the shadow of Kasthamandap in the 1960s. My maternal grandmother lived alone, and one of us kids was assigned to keep her company in rotation. My grandfather had died young and I never saw him. He seemed to have been a versatile person from what I have heard. He was a compounder at Bir Hospital, a trader who imported cloth from Kolkata and an amateur photographer who maintained a dark room in a corner of the house. The traditional occupation of the Tamrakars of Maru is making copper and silver handicrafts, but my grandfather’s family had gone off in a different direction and become vaidyas. He was in his late 30s when he came down with TB, which was like incurable in those days. After his death in 1942, my grandmother and mother lived by themselves in the house. And when she got married and went away, grandmother was all alone.

So I divided my time between our home at Asan and Maru, spending most of the school holidays at my grandmother’s. And in the shadow of Kasthamandap means in the shadow of Kasthamandap. The roofs were so wide and tall they blocked out the sky, which wasn’t good for flying kites, something we did a lot of during my sojourns there. My cousins and I would clamber on to the terrace and they would get the kite airborne before handing over the controls to me. They were experts at executing a vertical take-off which was necessary if you were to clear Maru Satah’s roofs and not tear your kite to shreds. At other times, we ran amid the intriguing interior of the cavernous hall. It was large enough to get lost in.

Maru was the most happening place with regard to festivals, and living there was like getting a grandstand seat at Kathmandu’s year-round cultural pageant. I watched the world go by sitting at the window of my grandmother’s house, the displays changing with the seasons. Masked performers impersonating fierce demons and smiling goddesses passed in endless processions. Swaying chariots rolled through the streets led by musicians thumping on barrel-sized drums. After the chariots passed, we sat down on the temple steps and collected piles of butter lamps that relatives commemorating deceased family members presented to my grandmother.

And I listened to the legends behind the construction of Kasthamandap. Everyone has heard how it was built out of the timber from a single tree. In fact, so they say, there was enough wood left over to build another rest house across the square, and then some more which they buried under a stone platform there. According to another version, Kasthamandap actually refers to the wooden altar which is erected in front of Maru Satah during the alms giving festival in August where donors serve rice to wandering priests. The story that it was made from a single tree is more plausible according to this account, some say.

Be that as it may, the grand pagoda was never consecrated due to a thousand-year-old diktat requiring the fulfilment of a precise condition. It is said that the consecration can happen only when oil and salt prices become equal in the bazaars of Kathmandu. So every year on the day of the would-be dedication, the custodians of Kasthamandap go shopping to find out if extraordinary fluctuations have occurred in the market lately. If the values of the two essentials have not settled at the same level, the dedication is postponed till the following year. And a simple service is performed on the winter solstice, the highlight of which is fixing a bitter orange on a stick to the finial. Photos of Maru Satah often show the fruit on a stick and a banner unfurling in the wind on the highest roof.

In the late 1960s, Kasthamandap became a popular hangout among the hippies who came over the overland route from Europe. They stayed at Maruhiti nearby which would be Kathmandu’s first tourist street with its hotels, restaurants and pie shops. That last earned it the name Pie Alley. These long-haired visitors often congregated at Maru Satah and blew clouds of fragrant smoke towards the ceiling as they contemplated peace and love. I was away in school during their heyday, and the treat of staying with grandmother had been handed down to my younger siblings. I used to visit her during the holidays and look over the familiar faces, the oil seller sitting cross-legged surrounded by tins, the spice merchant with bundles of herbs hanging from the ceiling, and the fruit vendor behind a bamboo shutter. The budget travellers had been replaced by tour groups wading through cars led by a guide waving a small flag.

The memories seem to have become sharper after the dreadful event. My grandmother’s house, newly remade with traditional carved windows and exposed bricks, looks over ground zero. Maybe I should take my mother out to show the picture of Maru Satah painted on a streetside wall at Babar Mahal by a group of young artists. The giant mural should raise her spirits until the real thing gets rebuilt.

Published: 11-07-2015 09:51

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