Bhaktapur: City of Devotees

Just after 4.30 am, when the night sky turns to charcoal, life gradually starts to spill out onto the streets of Bhaktapur, Nepal’s best preserved Medieval town. A man shuffles past my open window. Over his shoulders a wooden beam balances two hanging baskets on the ends. They contain big pottery bowls filled with Juju Dhau, a sweetened bean curd Bhaktapur is famous for. Most of the early risers, though, are the devout who visit their neighbourhood shrines and temples. The morning is considered to be the holiest time of the day. Small trays filled with uncooked rice, vermillion powder, flowers, incense, eggs, etc., known as puja ko saamaan, are gracefully carried to these holy places as offerings. The clanging of bells rise and fall in the cool of the morning, as people give meaning to their lives through age-old rituals of devotion. Flickering flames dance in the dark, when tiny oil lamps filled with ghee, are lit. Holy spots can be found in the most unexpected places: the enormous girth of a tree, flower inlays on the street, niches in walls that shelter divine images, a little pile of mud, or a door lock. The majority of people who live here are Hindu, and evidence of their faith can be found all over the city. Bhakta in Sanskrit means devotee, and pur means city, therefore Bhaktapur literally means city of devotees. An apt name.

The month of Sawan or Shravana is considered to be one of the holiest months in the Hindu calendar, especially for women. It is devoted to Lord Shiva, and each Monday Hindu women gather at Shiva temples to pray for the long lives of their husbands and the prosperity of their families. According to Hindu mythology Shiva’s wife Parvati had to carry out a rigorous fast, lasting for 108 years, before she could win the mind and heart of her husband. It is believed that when unmarried women, during this month, wear mehendi (henna), green bangles, and worship Shiva, they will find the husband of their dreams.

When I stumbled upon this special sight, on the second Monday of Shravana, Dattatraya Square was transformed into a spectacle of colours, sounds and smells. Women of all ages, in their finest and most colourful clothing gathered to pray to Shiva at the Dattatraya temple, which, dating from 1427, is believed to have been built from one single tree trunk. Red is said to be an auspicious colour of fertility, and many women chose it for the exquisitely embroidered saris they were wearing. Vendors made good use of the opportunity to sell plates of offerings, as well as red, green, and yellow necklaces and bangles.

A couple of enterprising young boys and girls spotted a golden opportunity for an income, and provided a valuable service of guarding piles of shoes. One boy obsessively spent his time arranging and re-arranging the shoes in his care in neat little rows, dispensing stickers to the owner’s hand and shoes alternately. An energy of joy and expectation filtered into every corner of the square, which, despite the masses of worshippers, still supported the mundane activities of daily life that included motorised vehicles rudely inching their way through the imperturbable line.

As the hot, sunny morning faded into midday, the smell of incense got stronger and the queue longer. It eventually disappeared around the corner into one of the side streets, and a welcome bit of shade for those who didn’t bring along an umbrella. To the side of the temple a handful of men were sitting with an assortment of little bowls packed out in front of them. Every now and again a single or group of women would gather in front of them for a ‘consultation’ and blessing. I can only guess at their exact function, as I have yet to find someone that can give me accurate information.