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Wednesday, March 24, 1999

Kathmandu's bazaar of dreams


By JON BURBANK

Some "old hands" are lamenting what they see as the passing of Asan Tole, that magical path through old Kathmandu where it seems Kipling's "the wildest dreams of Kew" really do come true.

The old hands moan about concrete replacing handmade bricks and multinational logos replacing exotic sculpture. Of course, there is truth to these complaints. Even in the three years since my last visit, there has been a significant metamorphosis from character-filled old brick to bland concrete.

The old brick, however, has still not disappeared. The great bronze lions still snarl at the crowds passing the temple entrance they have guarded all these years, and the bazaar swirling around remains one of the most exotic and exuberant you'll find anywhere. Some homes have lovingly retained their old character; the owners have even restored the centuries-old, elaborately carved windows.

Rani Pokahari (the Queen's Pond) anchors one end of the route. Built in the 17th century, its waters were used for trial by ordeal. Then it became a suicide site for thwarted lovers, until a high fence was built around it. The white temple in the middle of the pond strikes tourists as picturesque, but the place still gives most Nepali the creeps.

As you walk toward Asan Tole, there's still not a department store in sight. Some stores are scarcely wider than the chair the shopkeeper sits on reading the morning paper -- which could easily be dated 1799, not 1999, so little has changed.

Asan Tole itself revolves around Annapurna Temple. Annapurna is the goddess of grain, and rice used to be sold here out of huge jute bags. The rice sellers are gone, but the small cluster of candle shops at the head of the alley leading off to the Mahabaudha stupa is still there, with shopkeepers sitting cross-legged on floors shining from generations of wax worked into the wood. A sweet smell still wafts in the air as candles are made and sold.

Where the main road leaves the square is the small corner shop where I bought raisins from Iran, dried apricots from Kashmir and almonds from California. The fruit is on display in large glass jars, waiting to be weighed out.

Farther up is an octagonal wooden gazebo that has settled into a lopsided tilt, with rows of carved soldiers marching around its architrave. Just beyond, the road widens slightly. Metalware shops display their goods on the pavement. Brass, bronze, copper and stainless steel glitter and shine as everything from tiny butter lamps to huge water jugs are held up for inspection. Polished brass masks of the Buddha smile down from the doorways. Up the stairs you can hear the tap-tap-tap of metalworkers' hammers.

Across the street sparrows perch fearlessly on the roaring countenances of two huge bronze lions guarding the nondescript doorway of Seto Macchendranath Temple. The temple fills a large square, and multistory houses line the courtyard's perimeter. Here it is quiet, domestic, contained -- a completely different feeling from the busy bazaar just a doorway away.

Back on the street you can see dozens of low, plain doorways leading to similar courtyards surrounded by tightly packed multistory buildings, each its own neighborhood. This is the old way of Kathmandu, a complete separation of commerce and domesticity, of bustle and calmness.

Next comes Indrachowk. The Vedic thunder god Indra is the Hindu version of Zeus. His huge purple mask presides from the second floor of Akash Bahairav Temple here. This mask is brought out in the street only during the 10 days of Indrajatra, Kathmandu's biggest festival, when Indra returns to visit the valley. The huge mask is wreathed in flower garlands until only the eyes are visible. Then it is cleaned off and the whole process begins again in another neighborhood, asking Indra to continue the monsoon rains that guarantee the harvest.

Around the temple during the rest of the year it is possible to buy delicious tangerines, thick hand-woven wool blankets from the hills and mountains beyond, a roadside haircut or shave, a steaming cup of sweet milk tea.

About 150 years ago, the king of Nepal invited Kashmiri traders to come and set up shop, and their descendants are still there today, still selling the glass bead necklaces and glass hoop bracelets that almost every married woman in Nepal considers a fundamental part of her wardrobe. On the left are shops selling tanks, religious paintings with Buddhist themes.

There are all levels of artistic skill and price displayed, but the key phrase here is "buyer beware." A true antique can't leave the country, but most paintings claimed to be antique aren't anyway.

The road ends at Durbar Square. The narrow street opens into a wide square filled with the cluster of temples surrounding the old royal palace's entrance.

Kathmandu probably grew around Asan Tole. That's a lot of history, a lot of culture for one place to have -- more than a few chunks of concrete can wipe out.



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