KATHMANDU Nepal - When I first arrived in Kathmandu, the airport arrivals curb was busy and alive! The locals, noting a foreigner had arrived in their midst, surrounded me asking me all manner of questions as to the nature of my stay. Was I there to climb Mount Everest? Was I in need of a Sherpa guide? Did I have a ride to base camp at the foot of the mountain?
Looking around at my fellow passangers, and the gear they were collecting from the terminal, there among them were backpack frames, ropes, cleated boots, and all manner of climbing paraphinalia. There was no doubt Kathmandu was the launching basin for brave expeditions to climb up the face of the tallest and most formidible mountain in the world. But I was in Kathmandu to conquer a mountain of a different sort; a mountan of tiles—Mahjong.
The destination for this wonderful adventure rests at Hotel Annapurna in Kathmandu, property of the meeting's sponsor CSR Director Shreejana Rana and host locale for the Mumbai Mah-jongg Group's Napalese mahjong retreat. I came to be at the meeting through the generous invitation and sponsorship of Sushilla Singh, matriarch and founder of Mumbai Mah-jongg and daughter of Com.Gen.Sir Bahadur SSJB Rana the son of the Prime Minister Maharaj Joodha SSJB Rana, to be her guest and keynote speaker at the gathering.
While packing for the event, my young daughter Giovanna of 7 years old asked me where Nepal was in the world, and to show her, I could poke an axis right thru the Earth straight down from Amarillo Texas, and that axis would come out almost exactly on the other side of the globe through Kathmandu, Nepal; a location which couldn't be further away from home without leaving the Earth itself to get there, and a trip that for me would take thirty-nine hours door-to-door.
At the meeting, I had the pleasure of addressing the Mumbai Mah-Jongg group discussing my book "Mahjong from A to Zhú", talking about all the varied and exciting ways mahjong is played around the world. But more exciting for me was the opportunity to meet first-hand the touch-stones for two important styles of mahjong. The first being of course Mrs. Sushila Singh herself, who took the generous time to sit down and teach me the details of her group's style. Not being accustomed to playing with knitted and crochet hands, I must admit I didn't do very well, having lost most of my points to another lucky player who just couldn't lose for winning. Mumbai style mah-jongg is noted for having a different set of rules for each round, wherein the East round plays for the traditional four-sets-and-a-pair, followed by South which aims for special hands, then West which is the Goulash round, and last is North; dealer's choice.
The other touch-stone for mahjong that I had the pleasure of meeting was Sagar SSJB Rana, the son of Nepali General Mrygendra Rana, and the one who inherited his father's bone and bamboo mahjong set along with the Rana Darbar mahjong rules (Rana Palace mahjong rules), the very rules he remembers playing in the palace in years past. What makes these palace rules so unique among all other styles of mahjong is the manner in which they play with only ten tiles in the hand, and win with eleven.
Of course, while in Nepal, we also gathered every morning to explore the wonders surrounding us in Kathmandu. The second day took us to the Pashupatinath on the banks of the Bagmati River on the eve of the Shivratri festival. This is a festival celebrated every year in honor of the Hindu diety Lord Shiva, and the Pashupatinath is ground zero for the event. We were lucky to be there, not on the actual day of the celebration, but instead on the day prior, because the next day promised a crush of Sadhus making long pilgrimages across Nepal to be here for this one special day. Not only would the following day be overwhelmed by the crowds, but that day of the festival is also the only day on which hashish is legal in Nepal, a sure catalyst that, when mixed with crowds of that magnitude, were a sure recipie for chaos of epic proportions. But as it were, on our day, the day before the festival, the crowds were very manageable.
We also took this day to explore the Swayambhunath, also known as the Monkey Temple for its holy monkeys living there. The temple sits atop a hill overlooking the Kathmandu basin which can be reached by climbing 365 steps, and is home to a religious complex considered the most sacred among Buddhist pilgrimage sites.
As you climb the steps to the pinnacle, one of the first sights you will encounter is the Vasubandhu Stupa, pictured to the left. Vasubandhu was a great Buddist master who was sitting where his stupa (dome) is now built, looking out over the valley. Legend has it that he saw a monk plowing the fields and sweating under the hot sun, and he thought to himself, "Well, if this is the state of the Dharma, then there’s no point in me hanging around," and he proceded to cite the dharani (long mantra) backwards, after which his head split open and he passed away.
Buddha is said to have encountered a woman eating her own children here, and when he asked her why she would do such a thing, she replied “What else is there for me to eat.” Buddha, from then on, instructed all his followers to always give Hariti the first portion of their every meal. Near to this structure is a building that houses a 3-dimentional Chakrasamvara Mandala. There are five layers to the structure, much of which is under ground. A former king of Nepal once entered the structure hoping to attain special powers. He remained inside for days on end, and when he emerged, he was said to be completely insane. Only Newari Vajra masters (masters of the thunder bolt) are allowed to enter the inner chambers of this structure.
At the very pinnacle of the stair-climb is the Swayambhunath Stupa, considered to be one of the most sacred stupas (temple-mounds) in Nepal. The legend says that the entire Kathmandu basin was once a lake, and a remarkable lotus flower grew up from its center. The Bodhistava Manjushri (one of the oldest enlightened beings and is associated with transcendental wisdom) wanted people to be able to access this lotus to worship it, so he cut a gorge through the vally to drain the water, creating the Kathmandu basin. The lotus became the hill, where the Swayambhunath Stupa now stands. It is a dome structure, with a cubical painted with the eyes of Buddha looking in all four directions. On each of the four sides of the stupa are pentagonal Toran (Buddhist style gateways), behind which are thirteen tiers. On its very top is one of the largest vajra (thunderbolt scepters) ever to be seen. The site is revered by both Buddhists and Hindus alike. Around the base of the entire structure are prayer wheels which those present can rotate with their hands as they walk around the structure clockwise.
After this day's tours, the Mumbai Mah-jongg group gathered in the Garden of Dreams, which was once the garden courtyard for the royal family when Nepal still had a monarchy; a garden Mrs. Singh reminisced about playing in as a child. This same evening the Mumbai Mah-Jongg group hosted a dinner in the Arniko Room of Hotel Annapurna for excellent Chinese cuisine.
The next day our adventures took us to Bhaktapur Durbar Square, which is home to the 55 Windows Palace, and the Golden Gate, the main entrance to the palace. Here also is the Lion's Gate, a work of art that once complete the Bhadgoun King had the hands of the artians cut off so that no rival masterpiece should ever be made. Here also is the Vatsala Temple, known for its Dog Barking Bell that is said to harken a death knell whenever rung.
Also in this area is the Nyatapola Temple, a five tiered structure symbolic of the five basic elements, and which remains the tallest pagoda in all of Nepal. Finally, this area is also the sight of the Bhairava Nath Temple, dedicated to the Hindu God of terror and death. Eight more temples exist surrounding this area, including the Temple of Erotic Elephants, and the Hanuman Statue, entryway to the National Art Gallery. While already extensive, the list of structures in the area used to be even more, until an earthquake in 1934 devestarted many of the ancient structures.
After passing from the main square, through narrow streets lined with many curio and craft shops, we came into another square called Pottery Square, where locals produce handmade goods of clay. Here artisans hand-turn the pots, and place them in the sun to dry. After they are ready, they are dipped in various glazes, and again placed in the sun for more drying. Once these preparations are complete, they will then be fired in the giant kiln built just off the square, which finalizes the creation of the pottery before it is sold in the many shops that surround the site.
Rounding out the third day was a special cultural dinner hosted by Susanne Von Heider at Baithak Restaurant. The meal was complete with an endless supply of rakshi, a local spirit they call rice wine, but it's much too strong to classify it as simply a wine. Of course, me being one of the uninitiated, the first thing I decided to try eating from my plate was the little yellow crispy looking thing, which turned out to be a concentrated radish! And as fate would have it, my water and Coke glasses were both empty. Fortunately for me, my eyes quit watering, and I discovered the rest of the plate was absolutely delicious. During dinner, we were treated to a live show displaying the cultural dances and music of Nepal.
The next day, the last day of our trip before we all went home, we were originally scheduled for a plane flight to the Himalayan Mountains and the base camps of Mount Everest, but unfortunately due to the fog and poor weather conditions that morning, the flight had to be cancelled. We gathered one last time in the lobby of the Annapurna, and said our final farewells.
To all the members of the Mumbai Mah-Jongg group in attendance: Sushila Singh, Maki Mistry, Anita Advani, Maya Merchant, Patricia Patel, Damyanti Chinoy, Rohini Ravindran, Sunanda Nayak, Roshani Mullan and Veera Kotwal; thank you all for the wonderful company and for including me in your group for our many adventures together.
I am eternally grateful for the generosity and hospitality of Sushila Singh, for inviting me to be a part of her gathering, and for sharing the majesty that is Nepal. To Mrs. Singh, thank you for sharing with me mahjong, your Mumbai style, and the cultural beauty that flourishes everywhere in your country. I am grateful beyond measure.