He stands alone, seemingly neglected at first glance, if you notice him at all. The traffic and people bustle past, the small shops conduct their business as usual. A small, crude, tiled concrete arch gives him some protection from the elements and human encroachment. The knee-high Buddha has stood there for 2,000 years.
'There' is now the Bangemudha Square, just in from the lively Asan Tol. Who quarried the stone, who carved him, who put him there, what has he witnessed?' These are not questions we normally stop to consider as we rush about our daily lives. But it is exactly the kind of pause John Child encourages in his new book, Streets of Silver, Streets of Gold: Ten Easy Walks among the Gods, Legends and Bazaars of Kathmandu, published by Himal Books.
The book's title might more appropriately have been 'of Kathmandu Valley', since the author takes you on walks that range from Swoyambhunath to Bhaktapur, in addition to the bylanes of Kathmandu itself. This excellent guide is written by a person who clearly loves the Valley and knows a lot about its history, its people, and its places. His passion is infectious.
The walks are not long gruelling treks, but strolls through the past alive in the present, through the spiritual manifest in the everyday. Child alternates between the minutiae in front of you and more thorough informational digressions. It is a good balance. He does not overburden the reader with information, but does a commendable job of giving the average person an initial taste, or perhaps a reminder, of the political and cultural history of the Valley and of the different but intertwined religious practices.
But the walks are not just tours of the curious and the notable, though there is plenty of that-an exquisite Shiva and Parvati in the sensual Uma Maheshwar posture is next to Newa Chen. The largest lingam in the country is on the banks of the Bagmati. The first house in the Valley other than the palaces to have glass windows is near Kel Tol, and there is a 6th century stele granting tax relief to local villagers behind the Jaisidewal temple.
After a few outings, you begin to get a sense of the larger mosaic that is the Valley. The contours of the previous eras emerge through the concrete, asphalt, and exhaust. It is not an endless sweep of houses and shops in front of you, but open land. You can imagine the space that actually existed between places that now seem to differ only in name. The author untangles the layers of history from modern sprawl and brings your attention to the faint outlines of the old Rana estates, the original settlements, or the intermediate kingdoms. This history puts the present political and social turbulence in a different perspective-intrigue, greed, and ego are not new among the leaders of Nepal.
Child flips your view so it is not the traffic-choked street you notice, but the calm quiet of the courtyard bahals that lie just out of sight through narrow passages. You look through the utility wires at not just another stupa, but a reminder of the circularity of time. Your vision does not glaze over an anonymous idol, but focuses on the Bodhisattva of compassion, worn smooth by millions of hands of worshippers. Kathmandu and its environs can be overwhelming, especially to a visitor, but this guide teases meaning out of the apparent chaos. It gives you points of reference, both physical and intellectual.
I did some of these walks alone, some with local Newari friends, and some with tourists on a short stay. For me the content added texture and detail to a place I have known intermittently over the years-there is always something more to learn here. My local friends here delighted in walking lanes they would not normally use. While much of the religion and culture was innate to them, they now looked at details they had never considered, like the scars of Shams-ud-din Ilyas's invasion or the sadness of a forgotten hiti, its water choked. For the tourists, the walks help give a little clarity to what can appear like confusion to the western mind.
There aren't many weaknesses in the book, though it would have been nice to have a glossary and an index. Directions are sometimes a bit difficult to follow, but this is largely due to a landmark, like a sign or a business, having changed.
There are a few minor errors; for instance, it is the delightful Caf? Mitra in the old house in Thamel. But these are insignificant when considered in the context of the great effort on John Child's part. Is there a 'best walk'? Well, Bhaktapur is a gem and not somewhere most of us routinely visit, which adds to its charm. If you are a tourist with limited time, definitely do Pashupatinath and a walk in each of the three cities so you get a sense of the real differences in their characters. If you are a resident, do them all. Start close to home, somewhere that has faded into the background of your everyday routine. You will be surprised with what you did not know, or have forgotten, about the space around you.
Jerry Meyer is a former American diplomat who served in Kathmandu in the 1980's. He is currently working on a book.