The countryside is still a few minutes outside Kathmandu but imperilled as the city races to expand. The Ring Road, only a few years old, has encouraged a rash of new buildings so that what is now a roller-coaster drive through fields and hamlets about the city shows signs of becoming a highway through busy suburbs.
A drive along the Chinese road past Bhaktapur to Dolalghat on the river Sunkosi, or to the Chinese frontier beyond, carries one through some of the most enchanting scenery I have ever seen. Before it leaves the Valley, it climbs and dips and snakes through fields so luminously emerald in summer, so vividly mustard yellow in spring that the colours almost hurt. Willows weep beside meandering streams across which old bridges arch, and bottlebrush bleed.
Huts and hamlets glow white and ochre and terracotta red, draped in season with scarlet chillies and green garlands of drying vegetables. Golden corncobs are piled against trees or sprout like fungus below overhanging eaves. There are geraniums and marigolds in tins on window ledges. In the hedgerows are pink and white roses, bouquets of Lantana and wild flowers I cannot name. Above this profusion of loveliness the mountains rise ridge upon ridge to meet the snows and there are no two hours of the day when they look the same. Often they wear blossoms of clouds or are truncated by brewing storms. And though one may have seen them a thousand times, the great snow peaks when bright with day or flushed with dawn or sunset are breathtaking, humbling, unforgettable.
Hardly a village in the Valley is without a history of a hundred legends. They sat across trade routes, faced invaders, were commissioned by kings or inspired by gods. So Sanga owes its legendary origins to the God Bhim Sen, who, when the Valley was a lake, used to moor his boat where the village is now. Bhim Sen is the patron saint of traders and so Sanga, straddling the trade route to Tibet, built him a shrine. A Malla king of Bhaktapur, while out hunting, met and loved a girl of Pyangaon who bore him several children. To them in time he gave exclusive rights to manufacture the bamboo measuring pots called hapa. To this day Pyangaon goes on making hapa which are used throughout the Valley.
For centuries Thankot has guarded the trade route to India where it enters the Valley. Its ancient name is Shonitapur, which commemorates a battle fought between the son of Krishna and the demon brother of a legendarily beautiful woman who lived here. Much was the blood spilled and Shonitapur means the place of blood. The Gurkha King Prithvi Narayan Shah realising the strategic importance of the village posted a military garrison there and changed its name to Thankot?a place of garrison. The quiet beauty of Lubhu attracted a Malla queen so powerfully that she abandoned her palace in Patan and settled in the village. There she sold a golden dish to raise the money necessary to expand the village. Her endowment is remembered in the name Lubhu which means dish of gold. Royal passion of another kind gave the village of Sanagaon its popular name Thasi. The settlement was infamous for its destructive malaria: so much so that political prisoners of the Malla era were sent there to perish. When a king once visited Sanagaon the inmates of this penal colony begged him to settle them elsewhere to which the king said Sisa thasi which translates more or less, I do not care if you die or not. The word Thasi stuck but happily, the malaria disappeared.
I remember Sankhu on a rich northern trade route as a handsome village of five houses and four gates. It is greatly changed but the story of its origins remains. Above the village on a wooded hillside and approached by a long flight of stone stairs is a temple to Goddess Bajra Yogini. She once lived there and legend has her inspiring the Saint Manjusri to visit the holy Kathmandu lake and drain the water from the Valley. An early king of the Valley humbly offered himself to the goddess to sate her great hunger. She obligingly ate him and later one of his sons built Sankhu in her honour which makes one wonder whether he particularly liked his forbear or not.
Self-sacrifice gave Namo Buddha, a beautiful spot actually outside the Valley, its name; it seems that in the dawn of time three princes were out hunting near the spot when they happened upon a tigress and her cubs that were so starved they were near death. The youngest prince fed them his own flesh until he himself died, an act of such grace that the Buddha himself recognised the prince as a Bodhisattava.
One of my favourite hamlets, distinguished by a small Rana palace, is Nagarkot from where one can see Everest and almost forever. Apart from being the retreat of an endearing Rana Prime Minister, Nagarkot has a connotation of happy indolence one cannot help appreciating. It seems a ruler of Kathmandu once imported a large force of mercenaries from the Punjab for defence against the encroaching Gurkhas. He settled them at Nagarkot where these staunch and valiant fighters soon succumbed to the local air, local wine and local beauty. So much so that when the Gurkhas invaded and were at the city gates, the imported stalwarts were merrily useless. The years have reduced their shame and identity. They now pass as Nepalis but to this day are known as Nagarkotis.
In this story lies the moral; those who taste of the delights of the Kathmandu Valley are forever blissfully enslaved.
(Excerpted with permission from My Kind of Kathmandu, HarperCollins, 1994)