Nov 10 2010

The day after the elephant bathing, we headed to Bandipur, a small town between Chitwan and Pokara that had been recommended to us as a great place to see local Dasain festivities. Here’s what the owner of our guest house told us we had to look forward to: “A sacred sword from Khadga Devi Temple is taken out on a procession by the head priest from the temple to the town square, where a sheep is sacrificed, igniting a tug-o-war between rival villagers to get hold of the sacrificed sheep – considered as a catch of pride.” What’s more, he said, there were festivities in the streets and all-day animal sacrifices at the local temple. This is not the way I usually like to celebrate holidays, but you know how the saying goes: “When in Rome, play tug-o-war with a sheep.” Or, at least watch other people do so. We rearranged our itinerary to be in town for the main event.

But it’s not all fun and games in Bandipur. When we arrived in the town – which is a Newari village with stunning views across a valley to the Himalayas (and which has a blissfully traffic-free main street) – we were greeted by one of the most bizarre signs we’ve encountered on our travels so far – a large billboard that said “Heartly welcome to you in open defecation-free V.D.C. Bandipur.”

I’ve thought about this for a while and still have no idea what it means. I suspect, though, that we may have inadvertently stumbled upon a clue: just before reaching Bandipur, our driver stopped at a waterfall on the side of the road. It was a lovely setting, except that people appeared to use it as a dump. Scratch that. People used it to take a dump – a fact Peter and I learned when we both stepped in an enormous mound of moist human feces. We never identified its original location, but perhaps this type of open defecation was the inspiration for Bandipur’s sign.

Regardless of the motivation, Bandipur’s streets – if not our shoes — were defecation free. But that’s not to say it was clean. As previously noted, it was a day of animal sacrifices, and we saw numerous people, often small children, walking down the street holding on to the feet of freshly slaughtered, headless chickens, blood dripping onto the pavement. We traced the blood drops to the source – the temple – where the steps were bright red and sticky, with clumps of matted feathers fluttering in the breeze. In the courtyard below the entrance, a room of the temple had been turned into a temporary abattoir where an old, guru-like guy, topless, a white robe tied around his waist, was holding court as younger men (also topless and spattered head to toe in blood) killed chickens as he blessed them. I have never seen (or smelled) anything like it.

Back in town we asked a young man when the sheep tug-o-war was scheduled and were both disappointed and a bit relieved when he said that it had been cancelled. Last year, things had gotten violent, he explained – which isn’t particularly surprising, considering that it was an opportunity for inebriated young men from rival towns to show their manhood by pulling apart an animal. Instead, at the scheduled time for tug-o-war, the temple guru simply carried the sword down from the temple, accompanied by a crowd of people and a marching band of helpers banging cymbals and drums, and then carried it back up again. Villagers crowded around him tossing money in his path, which was quickly snatched up by kids.

There was supposed to be a dance performance – held on a stage directly outside our bedroom window – but just before it began, the power went out (we’ve calculated that out of 15 days in Nepal, we only experienced 2 full days of electricity). The delay lasted till just before we went to sleep, at which point the lights came surging on, a cheer erupted from the crowd (which had just waited for the hour and a half of the outage, sitting outside in the dark) and loud Bollywood music began echoing through the street, giving Bandipur the impressive title of the loudest place in Nepal in which we’d spent the night.

The view across the valley.

We were so tired that we somehow managed to fall asleep during a stand-up comedy routine. The next morning we woke up without an alarm at 5:30, and came downstairs just in time to hear the horrible sound of a water buffalo having its head cut off by either an unskilled executioner or a very blunt knife. How do I know that’s what it was? Well, first, there were only so many creatures in town large enough to make that kind of noise. And second, when we mentioned the sound to the guide who was taking us down to the bus stop, he said, “Oh yes, a water buffalo! We cut off the head! There is another. Right there!” He pointed behind us, where a water buffalo stood in an open shed overlooking the valley, several men standing around it with knives. “You want to wait?” asked our guide with a friendly smile. We politely declined.

Luckily, on our way down the hill to the bus stop, we had a Dasain experience that we actually enjoyed. From a kid’s (and therefore our) perspective, one of the best parts of the holiday is when villages around the country erect homemade bamboo swings and wooden Ferris wheels in fields and yes, on hilltops, to play on. Children gather starting around seven in the morning and stay there day long. We found this wheel on the side of the road and asked our driver if we had time to take a break. We did – and he even convinced us to give it a try.

We saw swings like this all over the country.