Dark Star of Kathmandu by Rabi Thapa: An ancient city’s beating heart
A few pages into this book, you might find yourself preparing for a trip to Nepal, wondering how much it could cost. You might check out flights to and hotels in Kathmandu and the weather conditions there at this time of year. Or you might find yourself telling your friends about what used to be Kathmandu’s hippie/drug heaven, hoping to entice them into going with you. I was.
To some, Thamel might seem like a version of New Delhi’s Paharganj but it is much more; it is a place with a spirit unshaken even after the April 2015 earthquake.
In his book, described as a biography of a place, Rabi Thapa delves into the past, present and the hopeful future of Thamel, Kathmandu’s tourist district. It’s a place filled with “rockers, junkies, dopers, drunks, all-singing, all-dancing party bitches,” he writes. It’s also a place transited by Buddhists, Hindu saints, Nepali royals, hippies and all who came after. Through the centuries, passersby have formed the face of the place that formed them while they inhabited it.
The book opens a window into how Thamel was established and, by extension, into Nepali geo-political history. A Buddhist-inspired Himalayan folk tale says blood thirsty, man-eating demon lovers beguiled a caravan of gold traders who passed through often on the way to Tibet. After seven days of love making the rakshasis ate all the traders save one, the leader Singhasarthabahu. He later persuaded the rakshasi who followed him to become the guardian goddess of the region. The shrine of Jatika Ajima is still visited by thousands.
Thamel’s mix of temples and Buddhist monasteries attracted the patronage of the successive kings of Nepal. Over the centuries it grew into a local trade centre. When Kathmandu first opened up to foreigners in the 1940-50s, they lodged in the homes of Thamel’s low-caste residents as those who were socially superior didn’t want to risk their ritual purity by being in contact with outsiders, considered lowest in the caste hierarchy. Thamel became a destination on the hippie trail in the 1960s. Travellers came from across the seven seas in search of the famed Himalayan hashish that grew wild in the Kathmandu valley. They made the freak street of Thamel their mini universe over the next decade.
Here’s Yugoslavian travel writer, Steven Pesic’s account of Thamel in the 1970s: “There are also a few hippie restaurants…The Yin and Yang is run by three Nepali brothers. More than food, they serve the best Jumla hashish here. The statues of Hindu Gods sit, lie down or stand alongside the guests. Waiters drift through hashish smoke as if through Himalayan fog, and they have to keep their eyes wide open not to place a teacup in front of a statue instead of a guest.” Pesic’s observations of Kathmandu’s hippie culture will make you ponder your untimely birth. This is especially true if you are someone who frequently vanishes to Kasol for you know what.
Further into the book, the reader begins to understand what Thamel means to its permanent residents. Their dilemmas touch the reader: like the police officer trying to contain a possibly fatal situation being seen as a villain by those who lack his foresight; or the domestic servant whose journey from rags to riches in Thamel, is a tale of hard work and self-control; and the hairdresser who refuses to budge from her own house as those around her turn into cafes, bars, clubs, tourist offices and massage parlours.
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Thapa explores a side of Thamel where humour is hard to find, where street kids distrust NGO workers, whom they assume are paedophiles. And why shouldn’t they? According to this book, Thamel was once the hunting ground of foreign sex offenders who preyed on its population of 1,500 street kids. World attention has also been drawn by recent documentaries on Nepal’s flesh trade. Thamel is an important junction for this. It is also impossible to run an innocent business here without paying protection money to the local gang.
This colourfully written book with black and white photographs provides a clear view of India’s northern neighbour. By the end, readers start thinking of Nepal without first bringing the rest of the subcontinent into the picture.