Photo Credit: Jeff Greenwald

Nepal:We shall rise again


Outside the ancient temples and in the bazaars of the Kathmandu Valley, garlands of brilliant marigolds overflow street stalls and hang from the doorways of shops. Images of Laxmi, the Hindu goddess of wealth, are stacked on overloaded tables, along with incense sticks and packets of red tika powder.

It's early November, and Nepal is preparing for Diwali: Laxmi's Festival of Lights.

In her pictures, Laxmi is portrayed with gold coins pouring from her hands. The popular goddess is often seen seated beside the elephant-headed god Ganesh, remover of obstacles. This Diwali, there's a keen irony to the pairing. Prosperity and good fortune have been in short supply here since April and May, when two devastating earthquakes rattled the country two weeks apart, killing more than 8,000 and forcing half a million others to seek temporary shelter.

Nor was that the end of their troubles. In late September, unhappy with Nepal's new constitution, India slapped a blockade on the two countries' shared border, cutting off the flow of fuel, medical supplies and cooking gas. During my visit, the population was trying desperately to cope, while the Nepalese government postured and wrung its hands.

Note from the author: The border blockade

For travelers, the blockade is a mere inconvenience. Some restaurants have closed, while others offer limited menus. Transportation by taxi has become expensive. Domestic flights may be canceled with little notice, though not often to popular destinations like Lukla and Pokhara. Read More


But Nepalis are among the most resilient people on the planet. Despite their hardships, they're as open and welcoming as I'd seen them during my 36 years of reporting from the country. And, against all odds, the spirit of celebration is alive. Balancing its mythic traditions with grass-roots projects to rebuild, the country is as captivating as ever. 


•   •   •

On the morning of April 25, Joshua Sherchand was visiting Nuwakot, a hill resort north of Kathmandu famous for its clear water and fresh trout, where he and some friends were staying in a lodge. When the earthquake struck, the roof caved in; only the fact that they were eating breakfast in the common room kept them from being injured as the bedroom walls crumbled.

Within two weeks, Joshua, 25, (whose American father and Nepali mother are active in development and human rights work) was delivering food and supplies to hard-hit communities. Once some basic relief needs had been met, he wanted to start a project with more substance, and the Tamang ethnic community of Nuwakot's Ward-6 seemed the perfect location. We drove into the foothills together, leaving Kathmandu's urban sprawl for a landscape terraced into planting fields. Water buffalo raised their heavy heads to watch our jeep pass; dogs slouched lazily off the road. Drying laundry hung on barbed-wire fences.

"In parts of Kathmandu, Tamangs are very well-to-do," explained Joshua, a warm and intense young man who, like many of his locally born friends, wants to use his skills in a meaningful way. "Elsewhere they're one of Nepal's poorest populations. The Nuwakot ward we're visiting is close to Kathmandu and has a population of 565. The problem seemed manageable."

Joshua began studying Nepal's previous tremors. The homes that fared best, he found, were those in southern Nepal, which are made of a thick, strong species of bamboo. A member of Joshua's nonprofit traveled to the south and found two traditional builders who were willing to come to Kathmandu and assist with construction. One had more than 2,000 homes to his credit.

Nepal still needs your help

The country's hard-working nongovernmental organizations still need the support of the world community. Contributions to the following projects, some of which are cited in the story, will provide direct help to victims most in need. Please visit their websites and determine which projects align best with your values. Read More


The Nepal Villagers' Earthquake Fund is working to build 60 homes, for 60 families. During our walk around the village-in-progress, Joshua showed me the completed houses, roofed with blue tin and already draped with Diwali marigolds. Even if the mud insulation collapses, the framework will stand.

Joshua brought me to the site of an unfinished house and directed me to shake a tall bamboo beam. I gave it my all, but the stalk hardly budged.

"It comes down to this: Will people living here die in the next earthquake? They will not," he said with satisfaction, "because of the lightweight materials we're using. But this isn't just about house-building. It's about community-building. We supply the materials, but the labor is done by the people who will live in them." 

•   •   •

There are many reasons I keep returning to Nepal, and one of them is the Kathmandu Valley. Its sister cities of Patan, Bhaktapur and Kathmandu itself, bisected by two rivers and surrounded by the Himalayan foothills, are jewel boxes of South Asian art and architecture.

Wandering down the old market streets of Asan and Indrachowk, I leave small offerings at the beautiful pagoda-shaped temples to Annapurna, goddess of abundance, and to Akash Bhairav, lord of the sky. Though these structures remain standing, many important buildings in each city's historical center (all Unesco World Heritage Sites) were leveled in the quakes, and restoration is just beginning.

But to my eye, strange as it might sound, there was something wonderful about seeing Kathmandu Valley's durbars (old palace squares) in the process of renewal. These parts of the city had always felt static to me, locked in myth, which was perfect. But now they were works in progress, stage sets for an equally fascinating drama. I watched archaeologists and engineers mapping the ancient foundation of the collapsed Kasthamandap, the iconic temple from which Kathmandu took its name, and marveled at piles of carved wooden window frames and stone figures rescued from the rubble. A forest of frail-looking beams buttressing the old Royal Palace's cracked masonry walls added a breathless tension to the scene.

•   •   •

Hinduism and Buddhism are artfully blended in Nepal, a country sandwiched between the plains of India and the peaks of Tibet. And the greatest Tibetan Buddhist monument in the Kathmandu Valley is the Great Stupa of Boudha: a huge, white dome, crowned with Buddha's all-seeing eyes that draws pilgrims the world over.

A statue of the Buddha, no matter how beautiful, doesn't have any innate spiritual power. One might see it as a sacred object, but in fact, Tibetan lamas say, the object must first be consecrated to be filled with divine power.

The same goes for Buddhist monuments. For the Great Stupa (and all Tibetan Buddhist monuments) that power is provided by a strange object called a tsok shing, a "tree of life." This is a holy beam from a sacred sal tree (shorea robusta), sculpted from a single piece of wood and wrapped in thousands of blessings and prayers.

Damaged in the earthquakes, Boudha's topmost level was taken down for restoration. The old tsok shing, installed 49 years earlier, was removed, and a new one, 15 feet long, weighing two tons, was made. During my visit, it was being readied for its installation in the ancient stupa's core.   

Arriving between prayer sessions, I was able to meet with Khenpo Phuntsok Dorjee, the religious leader of Boudha's spiritual restoration process. He and a group of orange-clad monks had set up their meditation room in a broad white tent beside the shrine. Hanging drums, thigh-bone trumpets and cups of salty Tibetan tea sat on the low tables. For a total of 20 days, he explained, the monks will pray over the tsok shing. To take part, Dorjee said, "you have to be very pure. During this prayer period, the monks cannot eat meat, onions or garlic." Nor can they touch the tsok shing. Humans are filled with defilements, he explained, and any touch could compromise the sacred object.

When the consecration is complete, a team of monks will carry the tsok shing up a rickety bamboo ladder to the top of the stupa. There, it will be inserted into an opening (or "vase") built within the white half-dome of the shrine. Prayers and ceremonies will follow. With this accomplished, the stupa's rebuilding can commence.

"What you are seeing," Khenpo Dorjee told me reverently, "is a good opportunity coming from a very bad thing. This is history in the making. You may not see this again for another thousand years."

•   •   •

Nepal's Festival of Lights lasts five days and is filled with vibrant rituals, from the formal blessing of crows and dogs to the painting of colorful mandalas near doorways, enticing the goddess Laxmi into one's home. Butter-lamps and strings of holiday lights are everywhere. But my favorite Diwali tradition is the trick-or-treat-like Deusi ra Bhailo. All night, costumed girls and boys dance and sing in front of homes and shops, collecting rupees and bestowing blessings for wealth and happiness. Even the most humble shopkeepers spare a few coins for these gleeful performers.

After Nepal's earthquakes, a like spirit of generosity prevailed. Individuals, nonprofits, corporations and foreign governments stepped in with aid. The most effective have been those that already had active Nepal projects. Many industry partners fit this category, from Cathay Pacific, which has been flying in doctors and organizers to help Possible Health build clinics and hospitals in Nepal's underserved areas, to the Yeti Foundation, a branch of the company that owns Nepal's largest private airlines.

Yeti is helping build housing and create opportunities for young students orphaned by the quakes. They're also working with Boston's Grand Circle Foundation to revitalize a largely destroyed village called Dharampani, just above the wild Seti River.  

Why Dharampani? The Seti is a popular rafting river that sees lots of tourist traffic. When tourists leave the rafts, they can hike up to see the hamlet, which is an ethnic Gurung village, then, three hours of walking later, have dinner at the Dharampani Resort, owned by Yeti.

OK, so it's good for Yeti, but there's no doubt the remote village will benefit, as well. Twenty-one houses in Dharampani were destroyed by the quakes, and 34 were badly damaged; all are being rebuilt or repaired thanks to Yeti and Grand Circle. Each will have a water catchment, and the whole village will have community toilets.

I visited Dharampani a few days before Diwali. Their Mothers' Group (the most important action group in many Nepali villages) served me sweet Nepali tea and cookies and performed their own version of Deusi ra Bhailo.

After Diwali ends, said Birkha Maya Gurung, the illiterate but inspired matriarch of Dharampani, a home-stay training program will begin. The villagers are being given courses in hygiene, cooking and (my words) how to cope with tourists. The idea is that visitors won't just hike through Dharampani; they'll stay a night, experiencing daily life in a typical Gurung village.

I met many people in Dharampani, including Shanta Bahadur, a wizened old man whose home had been leveled. As he watched the foundation for his new house being built, I asked where he was living in the meantime.

"In the goat shed," he said, pointing to a low one-room structure across the lane."

"And where are the goats?"

"In the other side," he replied.

•   •   •

In 1991, the New York Yankees had one of the best team slogans ever: "At any moment, a great moment." That's how I feel when I'm trekking in Nepal. Any turn might reveal an unforgettable sight: a train of yaks clanging up a hand-hewn stone trail; a dizzying panorama of razor-sharp, ice-covered peaks; a creaking prayer wheel spun by the energy of a mountain stream.

In Nepal, I was privileged to trek in two of my favorite areas: the Khumbu (home of Mount Everest) and lower Mustang, near Niligiri and the Annapurnas. There was much more damage in the Khumbu, but despite the sad sight of cracked and crumbling Buddhist shrines, I was happy to see the Sherpa, devout though many of them are, rebuilding their neighbors' houses first.  

Since the earthquakes, many geologists have traveled these popular routes, assessing their damage and how fit the routes are for trekking. Their verdict: While the main trekking routes are deemed safe, there are always risks in the Himalaya, just as there are in Yosemite or in any raw, living landscape. Trekking is giddy, high-altitude fun, but tectonic plates are not theme parks; rocks can tumble, and earth can slide. Be mindful, and you'll come home with some amazing tales to tell.

•   •   •

The most moving of Diwali's celebrations occurs on the final day. This is bhai tika, when sisters bestow a beautiful blessing on their brothers and are blessed by them in return. I knew where I wanted to be for this celebration, and that was Camp Hope, a tent village not far from Boudha. The camp's residents had been relocated from Sindupalchowk, a district east of the first earthquake's epicenter. More than 3,550 people died in that area, and 97% of its 66,688 homes were destroyed.

Project Hope is largely the brainchild of Sangita Shrestha Einhaus, proprietor of Kathmandu's architecturally stunning Dwarika's Hotel. Shortly after my arrival in Nepal, we had visited the camp together. It looked ordinary at first, a cluster of square, green tents and tin-roofed outhouses arrayed on a former soccer pitch. From the moment we entered, though, the kindness and charm of the 350 refugees, 81 of them children, warmed me to my core.

Laxmi, the author's 10-year-old guide around Camp Hope and through the rituals of Diwali.
Laxmi, the author's 10-year-old guide around Camp Hope and through the rituals of Diwali. Photo Credit: Jeff Greenwald

During that first visit, Sangita had left me with two 10-year-old girls, Laxmi and Benita, and appointed them my guides. Self-declared best friends, they took my hands and dutifully showed me the kitchen, with its huge cauldron; the health clinic; the study rooms, monastery room and television room, where a pack of rapt children sat mesmerized by a Hindi soap opera.

The settlement is divided into departments, and everyone shares tasks. "It's from my training as a hotelier," Sangita said with a laugh. But there's a larger motive beneath this: Camp Hope is the first phase in a project called My Dream Village.

"Our goal," Sangita told me, "is to eventually rebuild these villages as genuine, sustainable communities that include everyone equally and have evolved beyond Nepal's caste-based society." (The project is under way, with geologists and architects determining where in Sidhupalchowk the new homes might best be built.)

The bhai tika ritual was held in one of the tents. I took part, along with Sean, one of Sangita's two sons. This experience was so moving, I can scarcely put it into words. Sean and I were surrounded by the young girls of the camp: our bahinis, or little sisters, including Laxmi and Benita.

We were draped in marigold garlands, sprinkled with flower petals and holy water and finger-fed chunks of banana (gleefully messy). We leaned forward as spectral lines of tika powders were applied to our foreheads. The girls placed their palms on our heads and blessed us with health and prosperity; we blessed them in turn and handed them gifts of crisp rupees.

Then we all took selfies.

When the ritual was over, I found Sangita. She was sitting in the community tent with an infant napping on her lap. "This earthquake, as terrible as it was, gives these people and Nepal a second chance," she said. "I want to help them take advantage of it."

She shook her head, as if genuinely confounded by her luck. "I can't believe what an opportunity I've been given."

•   •   •

The day before leaving Nepal, I wandered the Kathmandu streets. The marigolds and Laxmis were gone, but outside a shop near a small pagoda I spied a souvenir T-shirt on a hanger. It held an image of Kathmandu's lost monuments, and a promise: "We Shall Rise Again."

It was encouraging to see. Nepal's destroyed towers and temples were, and will be, beautiful. But they're not the whole story. Nepal, for me, was never about the buildings. It's about the people.