If you are reading this from your place of work, a place you happen to deeply dislike because it makes you feel overworked, underpaid, unchallenged and irrelevant, I urge you to look at these women at work and think again.
Here she comes. Hunched back and small, she makes shabby bags for tourists. The locals know better than to buy cheap sachets good to carry virtually nothing, which seems to be exactly what tourists like. So she chases any foreign-looking face. She asks a ridiculous price for a bag, then lowers it, throws in another bag for the same price, three bags, okay, okay, five bags for the same price. But the tourists are stingy today and they pass her by like she is a pocket of air. She changes the price, 50% off, throws more bags into the deal, nothing. Japanese tourists, Australians, British, Koreans, anyone with a different skin color could put some food on her table tonight. Anyone. Damn tourists aren't buying, though.
There she is. Leathery skin from decades of working around the kiln, decades of staring hard at the fire, each flame an unreliable friend. There she is, squatted over the dirt floor, oven to spot, spot to oven, back and forth until the miniature vases are arranged in exactly the way that appeals to the foreign eye. The cartilage on her knees is long gone after years of squatting, the constant contact with the heat has dried up her eyes, and the wrinkles on her neck look like stab marks. If she could just sell twenty of these useless, beautiful little clay things, she could buy some bread. Then again, the damn tourists aren't buying today.
Look at her. She hauls her sewing machine for blocks under the sun, finds an unclaimed spot on a little plaza in Kathmandu, and waits for someone in need of alterations. She knows it’s crazy because the sari makers are excellent in Nepal, and, truth be told, nobody needs their clothes adjusted nowadays. And who would hire a street seamstress anyway? But she has no option. That’s what she does, that’s her skill, to put things together, to mend and to alter, to make things fit.
Sometimes she just shakes her head and laughs at the absurdity of her mission.
Her job is to fetch water from the public fountains, the rivers, the ghats. Gathering water is a woman’s job. The metallic containers are extensions of their own vessel bodies. A vessel within a vessel. A woman made of bones, tissue and water, fetching water. All day long.
In Tibetan Buddhism, the mandalas--those symbols of the universe in the form of a circle enclosing a square--are made out of colorful grains of sand, painstakingly aligned, combined and designed according to intricate religious patterns. They take weeks, sometimes months to be finished....then, they are destroyed, the artistic epitome of impermanence. The mandalas are also drawn. Free-hand, no tools used other than her hands, her eyes and her devotion; the assurance that those who devote their lives to replicate the universe with their backs hunched over a canvas are a step closer to ending the cycle of reincarnation.
This is how she makes 25 cents a day. A woman fills another woman's basket with 50 pounds of sand. The woman straps the basket around her head and hauls it to the construction site where men make $1 per day. I don't know how much the woman shoveling the sand makes, but it's less work so she makes less than 25 cents a day. They do this in silence, hour after hour. Kathmandu has a new hotel to build and a whole 25 cents are at stake. They don't have benefits, a retirement plan, a promotion, a glass ceiling, affirmative action, unions, salary raises, vacations, sick leave. They have nothing. But they plod on.
And so it goes.
Okay, okay. Let’s get it out of the way. If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it is a duck. Or rather, if it looks like a phallus, then it is a phallus. But it is not your ordinary, run-of-the-mill penis. This is a lingam, which is a Sanskrit term for the images representing the genital organ of Shiva, the god of destruction in the Hindu tradition.There are thousands of lingams (not to be confused with the millions of penises going about their business) scattered across Nepal; they are all pervasive, popping up on street corners, back alleys, temples, and just about every village square. Hindu devotees worship these lingams for it is believed that in them resides the generative power of nature.
And how do you worship a phallus? A Holy phallus?
The same way you worship anything else. With pure devotion. You touch the base, kiss the head, caress its length, light candles, and offer rice, flowers, or fruit to it. Let the artist in you rub red ocher onto its surface. Or if you are all out, perform the abhishek--the bathing of the lingam with milk, or water, or yogurt, or ghee, or honey. The possibilities are endless.
And what does the Phallus worshiper get in return? Concentration of the mind; help to communicate with god Shiva; an uncanny ability to focus their attention, which is to say, to rise above body-consciousness.
But, what's Yin without Yang, right? Would it not be wrong to have a phallus all by itself without its beautiful counterpart? Of course!
That's why each lingam has its yoni--the feminine vessel, a representation of the feminine generative power, and symbol of the goddess Shakti.
So, there you have it. A god and a goddess. A lingam and a yoni. The masculine and the feminine generative powers of and in nature. And what a better place for a lingam to be than inside a yoni! Shiva's organ is depicted in communion with Shakti's sex; their union representing the eternal process of creation and regeneration.
I had to go. I had no option. We were in Chitwan—The Heart of the Jungle— right on the border with India, one hundred miles and a few torturous hours on the tortuous road away from Lumbini, the birthplace of Buddha.
So I had to go.
I prepared myself the same way I did before I visited Saint Peter’s Square in the Vatican. I committed myself to ethical and mental self-improvement. I worked on resisting the pull of desire, anger and aversion. I tried not to think or act cruelly, violently, or aggressively. I focused on compassion, on being the best person I could possibly be, so that if the Pope came out on his balcony he could spot the halo hovering over the brain of my spotless mind and bless me and only me. But as luck would have it, the Pope was not in Rome on that particular day; he was at Castel Gandolfo, his pontifical holiday palace. And so I stood in the middle of the Square along with thousands of equally misinformed tourists, all elbowing each other, tripping each other, being selfish and unholy, all of us wishing to be able to steal a gander from the pope and feel special.
This time would be different, I just knew it. Siddhartha Gautama, a prince who in order to become Buddha had to leave behind his material riches in favor of a path of self-sacrifice (starvation, isolation, sickness, nakedness, the list goes on), would have surely left a mystical aura at his birthplace. I was on a mission: to walk away from Lumbini with that aura tucked under my belt.
On my way, as the bus perilously negotiated wandering cows, cars driving against traffic, wrecked trucks left on the side of the winding, pothole-filled road, I trained deliriously. My mind and heart slowly melted into a peaceful continuum. I fervently focused my attention on my breath, and used each exhalation as a means of spreading kindness and goodwill throughout the bus (hey, you have to start small). I visualized each breath as one ray of light gradually sweeping over my body. I directed patient kindness from within to the world ahead. If I open my heart, I thought, Lumbini's holiness and Buddha’s aura will find their way into it.
Of course, I’ve tried that one before. Unsuccessfully. Once, many years ago, I saw the sunrise at Mount Sinai, where Moses allegedly received the 10 commandments. As the sun came up, I quieted my mind and waited. I waited for a moment of revelation, for thunders and lightnings, the thick cloud upon the mountain, and the biblical loud trumpet blast of the Genesis, so that I would tremble. I got distracted by a group of tourists taking pictures of the sunset, each other, and the monastery down below. There went my moment of transcendence. Nothing descended upon the mountain, nothing was set ablaze, and the earth, very definitely did not quake greatly.
Once at Buddha’s birthplace—a Unesco World Heritage Site—I kicked my sandals off, bowed as I entered the place, and braced myself for rapture. Instead of ecstasy, this is what I found: an impossibly long line of Asian devotees and tourists pushing and stepping on each other; a stern Nepalese guard with the meanest gaze I ever saw in Nepal enforcing the strict No Photography rule; a donation box right by the pillar with the inscription in Pali which states that Buddha was born right there in 623 BC. And a few plastic bottles because it was hot as hell. And Cheetos wrappers because even devout Buddhists get the munchies. And petals, rice, and debris from the offerings left at the site. And dust, and noise, and the inevitable desolation that fills your soul when you go around the world temple-hopping looking for that which has always been inside you.
Right beside Kathmandu's Durbar Square stands the Kumari Ghar, a palace with magnificent intricate carvings. Inside its walls lives God. Well, not God, God as we know it, but a little seven-year old royal Living Goddess known as the Kumari Devi.
The Newari community—Hindus and Nepali Buddhists—settled in Kathmandu’s valley painstakingly select and fervently worship a pre-pubescent girl (pre-pubescent=virgin), who for the duration of her reign, remains as their main source of supreme power. The Kumari, literally meaning virgin, is no ordinary girl. She must be between 2 and 7 when chosen to represent Taleju, a Hindu goddess. Her selection is a highly elaborate tantric ritual, which includes her passing the 32 tests of ‘perfection’ among which are:
A neck like a conch shell
A body like a banyan tree
Eyelashes like a cow
Thighs like a deer
Chest like a lion
Voice soft and clear as a duck's
Dainty hands and feet
Her hair and eyes should be very black
Small and well-recessed sexual organs
A set of twenty teeth.
Additionally, her horoscope must also be appropriate (it has to coincide with that of the president of Nepal). Once she passes the physical tests, she is taken to a dark room in the Taleju temple where her courage is challenged. There are several killed goats, buffalo heads, chicken parts and demon- like masked dancers jumping at her from all directions, while terrifying noises fill the room. And while there might be a few virgins capable of passing the physical perfection tests, only the real goddess has no notion of fear; she remains calm and collected throughout the tests. If the candidate is fearless during this experience, then she would be selected as the Kumari and yet another highly secret tantric ritual is held to erase all past memories from her body so that she can be a pure vessel for the Taleju Goddess to enter.
Et voila. The Newari have a new living Goddess, who for a whole year, is removed from her parents, taken to the God-House, and trained in all divine things. After this initial training, her parents and spiritual leaders (elders) live with her in the royal house, until she menstruates, at which point she is declared impure and replaced by another virgin.
And because she is a Goddess and she can do whatever the hell she wants and follows no orders or set schedules, Kumari comes out to bless visitors from a tiny window (think Pope in the Vatican) only when she feels like it. The randomness and unpredictability of her appearances make it very difficult for anyone to plan a glimpse of, let alone, a blessing from the Goddess. That is, unless you are me. I was right underneath her window when she came out. It must have been the wonderment revealed by how low my jaw dropped when I saw her, which made her look straight at me. I'm sure she didn't look at anybody else. We held gazes, the Goddess and me; me and the Goddess, for a few seconds. By the time I realized that I had never looked God in the eye and that I didn't know the proper protocol for divine encounters, she had already retreated into her palace. Someone closed the tiny window and she disappeared as mysteriously as she had appeared a few seconds earlier.