Balazs Szasz Sally Beirman


The destination is certain, the journey untold. It is 6 am at Boudha and we are eager to catch the misty morning in the green of the Valley. The day is special; the gray mist around the stupa promising frosted golden light. Pushing a tenner into the hands of the bahini for the morning tea, we get up to seek, at last, the secret location of the magic of the Valley. We set off towards our vision -— the black saint, Kali Baba of Changu Narayan. Our first steps take us to a stone wall where our small friend, Binod, lies asleep, his head wedged between rag and concrete, his comfort a little black puppy, an orphan like he is. Binod is sleeping under a leaking roof. The picture brings back to us the memory of a distant promise. “Binod, it is Saturday. We promised to take you to that orphanage, remember? Do you want to go today?” He is silent, vulnerable, without the feisty crust of street-strength that is his usual exterior, so early in the morning. Then he shakes his head. He lets us go.

We slip over the hill leaving the saturated city behind and a new world lies open at our feet: the village of Mulpani, Mulpani meaning “source of water”. Water or the memory of it is everywhere. Plants heavy with dew, water gushing forth from open taps, and the silversand we walk on, once the bottom of the lake that filled the sacred Kathmandu Valley. Looking at Changu Narayan from afar, the place with a cluster of houses around the fourth century Vishnu temple has the feel of a medieval Tuscan village. Changu means ‘to cut’ in Newari, Narayan is a name of Vishnu himself. According to legend, the temple was founded after a gauwala, a cowherd, complained to a local Brahmin that one day his cow stopped giving the daily gift of milk. The next morning, as the cow was grazing on a forested hilltop, they witnessed a little child emerging from behind a tree and sucking her dry. “It must be a bad spirit,” raved the Brahmin, and they promptly cut down the tree. Suddenly, a huge face of Vishnu appeared on the trunk. Seeing his mistake, the Brahmin founded a small shrine dedicated to the god. He promised his family’s lineage to be the priests of the temple and the cowherd sacrificed himself and his future generations as guardians who would upkeep the temple grounds. Still today, the “untouchable” Kushal caste are the caretakers of the temple.

It is the oldest temple and the most important Vishnu shrine in Nepal. According to historical records, the pagoda-style building dates back to the Licchavi era, when King Haridatta Varma ordered that a shrine dedicated to Vishnu. The temple area, displaying outstanding pieces of stone, metal and woodcraft, also boasts the oldest inscription in Nepal. Changu is one of the cardinal power places in the Valley, and was also acknowledged by the UN, which appointed it a World Heritage site. Entering the temple, we are welcomed by the sound of ritual. The priest, maybe a descendant of the legendary Brahmin, is chanting the story of the great hero Ram, an incarnation of Vishnu, himself. Old women, children and goats gather listening in the carved courtyard, among wonders of medieval art. The village is a testament of traditional Newari life. The brick and mud houses with the exquisitely carved pillars and windows, women in red garb and local Newari delicacies, everywhere. Kali Baba’s little kuthi, (a traditional round hut) sits on top of a circular grassy knoll, an hour’s walk up along the ridge of Changu. This hill is the last island before the jungle, where the tiger of Changu is king. Alongside the hut there is a huge Shiva trident, a small temple and a majestic tree. The tree is 500 years old and full of Ganesh: you see elephants in its trunk, branches, in the rock it grew around, even its shadow. Kali Baba is an aghori baba. Aghora means deeper than deep, and an aghori is a Tantric practitioner who has superseded all ritual limitations. Aghori seek out the dark side of life. They worship death as the Great Transformer and some embellish this thought by eating deceased humans. Not Baba, though: he warned us against an American aghori baba who practised this rite. All aghori babas carve out their own pujas and customs and their whole life becomes their practice, a spontaneous meditation. Even going to the toilet becomes a spiritual exercise, a victory over the mundane!

Kali Baba is a dark figure with jet-black clothes, black skin, black matted hair, a benevolent black face with a cheeky smile… and a black dog, Bhagwan. “Paraaam Ananda. Aaalways bliss!” Says Baba. This is “no problem” land. All hiccups cease to exist as they are handed over to Shiva. Having lived fifteen years in the burning ghats, Baba has perched himself on the hill. He believes everyone is God and accepts all people that show up at his little door. “All are God. You power, me power,” he smiles. Everybody is welcome for a tea, a talk, a puff; all are greeted with that loving twinkle in his eyes. Baba is a Medicine Man. Ganja, rosemary, lemongrass, ganja, black salt, cardamom, fenugreek, and ganja are offered by him to his guests. His hands are constantly in mudra, magical Tantric forms that accentuate the flow of energy in all that he does. As the chillum makes its kora around the hut, the soft light revealed photos - pictures of his guru, Kali, Shiva, the royal family, himself with his tree. Everything has that aged look as the constant smoke left its tan on the interiors of the round hut. Sometimes Baba tunes onto the outside world through his little black radio. “Song gives life and happiness,” he says as he gives himself over to Bob Marley, classical Indian or Nepali folk music, even rock. He parrots the BBC World Service: “Chinese action, it said… Movie City is on…” and laughs. He gets serious, though, about the world, when it came to wars and cricket. He knows all the cricket scores, but doesn’t barrack for his homeland, India (he comes from West Bengal) even against Pakistan. It is all one country to him. Still, Nepal has a special place in his heart. “Nepal loving me 45 years running,” he beams. Baba believes that politicians and their parties are the source of the problems in the recent years. “The king is good. Write that down,” he says, pointing to our notebook. He talks of his plans, too. A new kuthi is being built for people who wish to retreat to Baba’s savoured power place with a 360-degree view of the whole valley’s splendour. Baba cares about the locals, too, and is funding the building of a school just below his home.

It is night now, the warm light of the lantern wraps all of us in its mystic beauty. As the countless stars begin to trace their way across the sky, Baba prepares his vegetables with black salt and a myriad of herbs and spices. He has not eaten rice for thirty years now. “No teeth,” he says. Everybody delights in the super spicy medicine food, as he shares all he has. As the night rolls on we get ready for sleep, and a puff or two on the goodnight chillum is an essential part of this rite. Suddenly Bhagwan runs out barking. “Tiger ayoo… The tiger is here,” Baba says in a soft voice, without a tinge of worry. “Tiger coming, dog catching, dog going… No problem.” We all wrap ourselves in our sleeping bags around the smoking fire as he slips into a red one. We wiggle our feet in the air. “Like caterpillars,” we say and unite in celestial laughter. Caterpillars yes, but butterflies in the morning.