“Are you religious sis?” asks Nazareth. We had just stopped the car for a prayer before we set off on the road. Westlife ballads are emitting from the stereo. I distractedly admit I’m not. I am busy wondering if the prayers are necessary because the roads are that bad. We are on the way to Chinland, a mountainous, inaccessible state in the west of Myanmar. One of the poorest and least developed in the country, it is home to the ethnic Chins, who are predominately Christians.Read More
‘Rasta kada goa?’ my guide asks his son in their local tongue. He is surveying the eroded rocky slope. I get nervous. It is never good when the guide asks where has the path gone. The rain has started and we can see the small wooden bridge that we are aiming for at the bottom of the gorge, but not the path down to it. Eventually they find a trail of sheep droppings covering rough, muddy foot-holds. Like Lord Shiva, we follow the sheep track.Read More
A crack comes from the direction of the mountain, like a pistol firing. Dust is rising from behind a rocky crag. Then I see it, gathering speed, ploughing over the scree down the mountainside, a trail of debris behind. I watch as the huge boulder continues unforgivingly, crossing our walking path and slapping into the river. It bounces twice and crashes to a stop.
‘Did you see that!?’ I exclaimed to the man who had cooked us daal and rice the night before. My heart was pounding. Tenzin seemed unfazed. ‘It’s God’s Mountain’, he shrugged.Read More
The three eyes of the Buddha look down on me from the top of the perfect, whitewashed dome, as I clamber up the last few steps. They remain present as I join the Buddhist worshippers circumnavigating the stupa, clockwise, pulling the prayer wheels into motion as I go. Two eyes like all of us, and a third eye set above, the Buddha’s all-seeing eye. The four golden faces, looking north, south, east and west, are crowned by a 13 staged spire, representing the 13 levels a sentient being has to go through in order to reach enlightenment. The width of each layer gets smaller and smaller, creating steps up to the crown, from which Buddhist prayer flags flutter down in all directions. To my surprise, to the north west of the stupa sits a Hindu shrine to Hariti, the goddess of fertility, and a long line of Nepalis are queuing up to make offerings.Read More
We are hunched on low wicker stools, drinking chai, at the edge of the road. The afternoon sun is hitting me face on, I am squinting, and it is a second or two before I realised Tulsi is crying. “He opened his shoes to buy vegetables.” She demonstrates by putting her feet on top of her sandals. This is a reference to the custom of untouchables taking off their shoes in front of a person from a higher caste.
Tulsi Pariyar is a local government representative in Ward 10 of Lalitpur, the neighbouring city to Kathmandu. She is also of the Pariyar caste group, a former untouchable, or Dalit, and a vegetable seller in the afternoons. She had been describing her work for local government when the conversation moved to discrimination. The tears came while recounting a recent incident of a higher-caste person coming to her stall to buy vegetables. “I felt very, very upset… we are all humans.” What would you like this achieve in politics I ask her. “Abolishing caste”, she replies.Read More
Hundreds of curvaceous nymphs adorn the outside of the temple, jewelled necklaces conceal little of their breasts. Between scenes of elephants and soldiers, flute-players and dragons, fleshy, ornamented couples, are depictions of groups of men and women engaging in acrobatic sexual positions. One shows a man in a head-stand penetrating a female who is being held upright by two voluptuous nymphs. Inside the inner sanctum of the temple, a Brahmin priest is chanting in front of a Shiva lingum, the phallic symbol of the Hindu God Shiva.Read More
‘Ram Ram, Jesheri Ram.’ It was on those Pushkar mornings I first noticed the Hindu god’s Rama’s name being used in greeting. From elderly, turbaned farmers in long white cotton shirts delivering milk in brass containers, to lads in skinny jeans sporting the latest hairstyles, this was the universal greeting. I had journeyed to this Rajasthani town to escape the Himalayan winter and bathe my stiff limbs in the continual golden sunlight. As I sat at a street-stall drinking my first morning chai, I watched the Brahmin priests scurry past the crumbling havelis (Indian townhouses) and slowly the spiritual nature of Pushkar started to reveal itself to me.Read More
Inaccessible mountain landscapes tend to preserve ancient traditions and cultures. The Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, famous as the sanctuary of the Dalai Lama, is a state tangled with jagged mountain ridges, gorge-like valleys, thunderous rivers and icy lakes. It is the home of many ancient tribal groups, and moving just a few kilometres over a mountain pass can reveal a complete change in language, dress and culture. One of the most fascinating of these groups is the colourful, transhumant Gaddis.Read More