It had been 15 years since I’d been to Nepal. As a result our buy-out of my former partner, our supply chain had broken down on so many fronts: malas, tingshaw, Ghanta & Dorje, gongs: we had run out of most of these items in the past year. And although I managed to find antique bowls, it always meant pulling a numerous reproductions into the net as well. So our supply chain had to be repaired. It was ambitious to the point of crazy, really. How was I to pack a three-week buying trip to Nepal into just nine days? That, in a country itself still in repair after the horrific earthquakes of April and May of this year. Still, nine days, plus the onerous travel time on either end, was all I could be away. So it had to work.
But as it turned out, the upheaval from the earthquakes was only the beginning. After a decade or longer of political infighting, On September 20th, Nepal formally adopted a constitution; its first, following a civil war that killed 13,000 people and ending 239 years of monarch rule. But it was not to be a unifying event that we had hoped. The Madhesi people of the southern plains, on Nepal’s border with India, complained of becoming “second class citizens”, and protested that the constitution diluted their vote. Almost everyone I talked to had a different understanding of the Madhesi situation, but protests became violent almost immediately gave rise to paralyzing strikes and 40 deaths. Violence broke out in Western Nepal, also for the charge of under-representation. The constitution created a second class citizenship level for children born of Nepalese mothers and foreign fathers. Some called the constitution a “conservative backlash”.
Then India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modri, spoke out against it, which created an uproar in Nepal and the great fuel crisis began. India, surrounding Nepal on three borders, closed their borders, and as Nepal was reliant for fuel from India, cars had no petrol; restaurants lacked cooking oil. The Nepali government rationed petrol to keep government and tourism vehicles running, but petrol sales to private vehicles slowed to a trickle. This created long lines of vehicles parked in the roads extending for blocks, some waiting for gas for two days. A competitor called me and asked it I was going to cancel my ticket. “Jimmy Carter canceled,” he said. “I’m not Jimmy Carter,” I observed. I had to go. Canceling my ticket wasn’t an option, so off I went on my first buying trip to Nepal in 15 years in the middle of an unprecedented fuel crisis.
But the Nepalese are an endlessly resourceful people. As there were no taxis, I hired a driver to get around who procured
gas from the black market. So much had changed in Kathmandu. The air was clogged with pollution. Where once platoons of bicycles were the Nepali middle class mode of transport, now armies of motorbikes choked the streets; entire families often sandwiched together on them. Nearly everyone wore masks, respiratory illness was rampant. In addition to the gas shortage, restaurants taped limited selections to their menus due to lack of cooking oil. Getting milk was a problem, so I never knew if Chai would be served. So this was not the Nepal I remembered.
In Thamel, the tourist section of Kathmandu, my perch at the Kathmandu Guest House was an oasis. The first hotel in Thamel, it had a huge, manicured garden trimmed with pots of bright marigolds and dotted with garlanded statues of the Buddha. My nine day visit coincided with Navarati; (meaning nine nights) a holiday commemorating the triumph of the Goddess Durga over the evil demon Mahishasura. The Autumnal Navaratri precedes Nepal’s biggest festival, Deshain (meaning 10th day), when the country sacrificed goats and went back to the villages to celebrate the festival with their families. My goal was to be out of the country before the bloodletting began. I booked full days with my singing bowl suppliers, while trying to carve out time to locate the vendors of incense and mala beads, and to hopefully connect with Seejan’s family, as well as do a little pilgrimage to Pashupatinath.
As I’d heard from my suppliers many of the small Tibetan dealers where we used to buy the findings for our malas were breaking early for the holidays due to the gas shortage. So on the day after I arrived, I set off with a Nepali friend to go to Boudhanath Stupa to try to find a Mala supplier I had not seen in 15 years. The Stoupa had suffered damage on its dome, and I was crestfallen to see the dome completely barren – its brick steeple and been removed, and the aerial array of prayer flags missing from the empty sky above.
The smooth, polished Bodhi seed malas we got from dealers 15 years ago were abundant – we used to sell them wholesale. Now shops and alleyways were overstuffed with garlands of malas with huge, course Bodhi seeds, and there was no evidence anywhere of our old quality. We spent the afternoon flitting from shop to shop with samples, until, until we found one shop with one, lone mala of the smallest, smoothest Bodhi seeds I had seen in years. The young man behind the counter wanted a ransom for it, and it took us a little while to put it together, but he was in fact the son of our former supplier – in a new location. Once we were reacquainted, he combed his displays and pulled out some beads of our old quality – the last in stock he had.
Fifteen years ago, we had to go through rooms of antique bowls to find the good ones. Now, I had to go through a warehouse of singing bowl reproductions – tens of thousands of them – just to find the real antiques, good or bad. All of our suppliers had tons of this material – all of which, they insisted was “old”. Some of it was, but the great majority of it was new. It was remarkable how beautifully crafted so much of it was. Still, one supplier had been holding rare material for me for some months’ time. When I got into the room with the material, a reverential feeling came over me. I had never seen so much rare material in one place. My only limitations were time and budget, although I pushed the envelope on both. Then, The next push was to get it out before the city shut down. I had so much competent help from my supplier’s workers! I kept them working late until the Nepali equivalent of Christmas Eve.
On my one morning off, I paid a visit to Seejan in his village to see his Mother-in-law’s house and to meet his family. Although his wife was doing Puja at their temple for Navaratri, I was able to connect with his daughter Ritisha, (9), and his son Yunish (6), and bring his mother-in-law a coconut from Pashupatinath. The countryside was rebuilding, but Seejan’s mother-in-law’s house was cobbled together by stacked bricks on a dirt floor. They are still trying to amass enough funds to rebuild. To rebuild a home in Nepal takes $3,000 – $5,000; they still have $2,500 to raise. If you would like to help Seejan and his family rebuild, please donate to firstname.lastname@example.org and write “Seejan” in your notes.