People, Money, and the Hindu-Buddhist Culture

People, Money, and the Hindu-Buddhist Culture

I fell asleep in the hyper-social Islamic culture of Kyrgyzstan, jumped on a plane, and woke up in the densely populated, Hindu-Buddhist culture of Nepal.

Life in Kathmandu reflected all of the familiar principles of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, but had a noticeable difference in acquiring them. The narrow streets of Kathmandu were like any of a third world country: locals bustling through on their motorcycles and cars, venders taking advantage of your every angle of sight, and the scent of delicious foods and spices blended with sewer soiled streets. Though there was something of these streets that set them apart from much of those in Asia and South America, the strong ideologies that influenced the movement of this city.

In the morning, I left the comfort and security of the hostel that I saw as base camp. I exited the hostel gates in excitement but also naturally with my guard on, knowing that I didn’t know much about this country or its people. With only a backpack and a camera on me, I intended to spend the day gathering supplies for an upcoming expedition in the Himalayas and explore the city photographing anything that caught my curiosity. As I walked down toward Old Town in Thamel, a young lanky Indian man approached me.

“Hello! Hello! How are you?”, he yelled as he quickly walked to catch up to me.

“Good how are you? Whats your name?”, I carefully responded.

Part of me wanted to stick with my quick judgment of locals only approaching to sell something that I didn’t need or want. Although, the last two months engulfed in the hyper-social Kyrgyz culture has taught me otherwise, so I gave him a chance.

“My name is Rodge, like Rodger…I’m learning English so if I could, I’d like to practice my English with you.”, he said in an honest voice.

“Well, I’m pretty busy at the moment looking for maps and supplies, but if you want to walk with me and show me where I can buy a trail map then I’ll chat with you.”, I agreed with him.

Rodge happily agreed so we walked and talked about basic tourist subjects.

Then he said, “I am an art student here in Kathmandu. Would you like to see my school? It’s just down the street?”

Normally I would hesitate and reconsider his motives at this point, but my attitude was different today and he had gained enough of my trust that I agreed. Little did I know this was just part of a game he was playing to sell me something. We walked through a small entry way along the street that opened up into a large community area. There was a small cafe with a few locals enjoying some tea. I followed him upstairs and into a small room covered with art, some of which I’ve seen before. He began to explain the different art patterns and the mantras hidden within. Then an older Nepalese man walked in. With confidence he introduced himself as the master of the art school. He continued where Rodge left off explaining the art, its meaning, the mediums used, and if a student or master created it. Rodge stood in the background, allowing his master to finish the job. The master then admitted to me that I was brought here for a sale to benefit the art school. This was a small school that offered a ten year program to students and was free of tuition. The school itself is run off of donations and art sales. That money is used to buy art supplies, pay the rent, and of course pay the master instructors of the school. The art taught was Thangka paintings; Buddhist art displaying deities, scenes, and mandalas. An art used for prayer and guidance.

I wasn’t planning on spending money on souvenirs today, but the art was beautiful and the creators were present so I gave in. I didn’t buy any of the advertised expensive art created by a master, but instead, I insisted on buying only a student done piece painted by Rodge since he was the one who has done the dirty work on getting me to this point. After the transaction, the master and I shook hands. In appreciation, Rodge offered to give me a tour of the city. I gladly agreed knowing that all manipulations were set aside.

The "Wheel of Existence" painted by Rodge. The roots of evil are shown in the very center of the wheel: the cock represents greed, the snake represents hatred, and the pig represents ignorance. The layer around the hub represents karma. The third layer represents the 6 realms of samsara. The boarder of the wheel depicts the 12 links of interdependent cause and effect. Outside the circle represents liberation from the cyclic existence and becoming enlightened.

The “Wheel of Existence” painted by Rodge. The roots of evil are shown in the very center of the wheel: the cock represents greed, the snake represents hatred, and the pig represents ignorance. The layer around the hub represents karma. The third layer represents the 6 realms of samsara. The boarder of the wheel depicts the 12 links of interdependent cause and effect. Outside the circle represents liberation from the cyclic existence and becoming enlightened.

We began the tour in Old Town, where the center of Kathmandu once stood. Rodge began teaching me about the different Hindu gods and the ideology’s Buddhist influence as he took me to the different temples. Everyone here is devoutly connected to this faith and its morals are obviously noticed within conversation and observation. The Buddhist-Hindu believes in Karma; the totality of a persons’ actions and conduct throughout successive incarnations and its influence on ones’ destiny. As we wandered the old streets, I noticed most of the people in this town were generally poor. Most of them stopped by each temple and said a prayer leaving a gift at the foot of the Hindu god represented inside. At the Boudhanath, one of the largest Buddhist stupas in the world, Buddhists and Buddhist-Hindus from all over Asia circled the great stupa in a clockwise direction, spinning the hundreds of prayer wheels that skirted the structure while repeating the mantra, “Oh Mani Padme Hum” translating to, “Hail the jewel in the lotus flower”. The words are powerful but the meaning is ambiguous.

After leaving the Boudhanath, Rodge invited me into his home in a shantytown neighborhood nearby. We walked from the clean tourist sector into what seemed like a densely structured bazaar. Though unlike a bazaar, there were no venders, only beds in small rooms walled off with plywood. Rodge lived with eight other extended family members in two small rooms. There was one twin bed, a large mat, and an old television. Inside, I met Rodge’s cousin and house mom who offered me warm water. Rodge and I sat down on the mat that slept four of them and he began to tell me about himself.

Rodge is from northern India. His father was a cobbler (shoe repair) which made him an apprentice at a very young age. This was to be his life profession. He was a son amongst many sisters. His sisters at a rightful age were to be married off to a man chosen for them. According to tradition, the brides family is to provide a gift of gold to the family of the groom. This became very expensive for his family as there were many daughters to be married. Rodge was set up with a girl to marry at the age of eighteen, but didn’t want to marry yet and he didn’t want to be a cobbler for the rest of his life. He saw something different in his destiny. On a walk through the mountains one week, a friend of his from Nepal spoke of an art school in Kathmandu that took students in for free. Rodge never went to school, so he saw this as an opportunity to gain an education even though he did not know and still does not know what this education is all about. Though a risky move, but with support from his family, he left northern India for Kathmandu, promising his family that he would work as a cobbler in the city and send money back. Rodge carried his heavy mobile shoe-fixing workshop around working while studying. One day while working the tourists sector, a policeman approached him asking for his working permit which he did not have. The policeman took his expensive mobile workshop from him in punishment that of which he has not been able to retrieve back. With no money and no way to earn it, he turned to his school and his friends for help. Now two years into school and eight more to go, he’s wondering what is the meaning of his doing here. He doesn’t want to go back to his old straightforward life as a cobbler in India and his life in Kathmandu is a challenge with no way to make money and an education that he hasn’t yet grasped the meaning of. Through his doubts, you could see the ambition to succeed in his persona. He is an obvious life warrior. Little did he know, his educational path leads to great success within his religion, community, and self as an artist teaching others and painting for monasteries.

Soon it was to be dark and I knew I needed to start finding my way back across the city. As Rodge walked me out of the shantytown towards the bus stop, I dug through my pockets looking for a tip suitable for the experience he gave me throughout the day. I shoved some money towards him only to be denied. I was surprised at first.

Responding to my efforts, he said, “I really believe in karma and accepting money for this is a form of greed that I want to avoid.”

“Well, can I buy you or your family some food?”, I asked, desperate to do something for the guy.

“Yeah, you can buy my family some food. After all, they are the ones taking care of me.”, he agreed.

We walked to a small market that sold the basics. I told him to pick out whatever he needed. A large bag of rice, a box of tea, and flour; enough food to probably last the family for a week. We said our goodbyes and I stuffed myself into the human-jammed mini-bus. I spent $70 that day, money that I didn’t plan spending. In return I received something that I feel is avoided by most travelers, a product that I usually avoid: time spent with a human being facing third world problems on a daily basis. As a first world citizen its difficult to grasp the reality of a third world citizen. Our lowest points in life are usually their highest points. Today, I didn’t find the character and beauty of the city in the bustling narrow streets or the historical town squares like I usually do. The cultural richness and reality of Kathmandu lied in the mind and efforts of Rodge. Sometimes life doesn’t always go unnoticed.

Justin Bowen

Justin Bowen

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