Although Nepal’s earthquake last April visited our television screens with images of seismic devastation, the disaster has probably had little impact upon the prevailing western impression of this country. For many the mountain state remains steadfastly exotic and remote.
This is not just a consequence of those sublimely unattainable Himalayan peaks. For generations Nepal was a source of western fantasy that bordered on the obsessive and carried an undercurrent of late-imperial eroticism. What had so stirred European appetites was the long-standing Nepalese policy of playing hard to get. A short, bitter conflict in 1814–1816 with the East India Company inspired its militant Gurkha elite to pursue the rigorous exclusion of all foreigners.
It was not until the 1950s that the country relented on its self-imposed purdah, by which time Nepal beckoned the modern world as a last frontier for high-octane mountain adventure and fresh, often drug-fuelled spiritual fulfilment. While something of this misty Shangri-La-like fiction still clings to Nepal, it should truly be blown away by Thomas Bell’s wide-ranging, deep-delving, clear-headed exposition of all things Kathmandu.
Technically this is a travel book, in the sense that its heterogeneous contents on a foreign country are bound together by a free-roaming first-person narrator. Mercifully, however, Bell intrudes little of his personal story into his major historical, political and ethnographic themes; and, like many of the best works of travel, it is really a book of foreign residence.
Bell was the Daily Telegraph’s regional correspondent for more than a decade and has now settled permanently in the country. He thus has the necessary linguistic skills and personal connections to produce something beyond the superficialities of many standard travel books. He also takes his time: this is a long text of 500-odd pages.
Yet Kathmandu requires space. Its ancient origins are embedded in contradictory creation myths. The two great Asian faiths of Buddhism and Hinduism still mingle in its labyrinthine streets and their physical architecture is as ubiquitous in Kathmandu as their different religious traditions are confusing. It is famously said of the place that it has more temples than houses, more idols than residents. The city has also long been celebrated as a centre of Tantric practice, whose subversive emphasis on sex and blood sacrifice as parts of the path of enlightenment supply yet more spice to its long-simmering exoticism.
The city became the capital of a semi-modern state in the late 18th century, with the establishment of the Gurkha-dominated Shah dynasty. (It was their expansionist policies that had been checked by the war with the East India Company.) Bell constantly demonstrates how this past has deep links with Nepal’s present political morass and sometimes the resulting sense of déjà vu is shocking. One infamous episode from 1846, when an entire generation of the country’s leaders was slaughtered in main political forum, has come down to us as the ‘Kot Massacre’. The murder of more than 40 aristocrats launched the violent career of the Rana family, whose leaders first supplied those kukri-wielding Gurkha troops that are still so lionised in Britain’s armies. The Ranas also managed to cling to power until another court putsch, when Nepal finally abandoned its isolationism in the 1950s.
Yet, as if to prove that the country could not let go of its medievalism, in 2001 the heir-apparent Prince Dipendra took an arsenal of assault rifles and murdered most of his family including his mother and father, the king and queen, and then turned the gun on himself. It is Bell’s unravelling of Nepal’s recent history, particularly the years that he covered as a newspaper correspondent, which form the real heart of his book.
The author is an admirably fair-minded guide to the origins and character of Nepal’s Maoist insurgency, which rose to prominence at the end of last century. While many western visitors come back from trekking holidays with impressions of rustic self-sufficiency and contentment in Nepal’s countryside, Bell tells us that the number of people in absolute poverty doubled from 1977 to 1996.
Two fifths of the population cannot even meet their nutritional needs, while wealth is concentrated in the hands of a small elite, with just 16 per cent of families owning around 60 per cent of Nepal’s land. When the Maoists triumphed in 2006 they forced the abdication of the monarchy and the creation of a democratic secular republic, yet they too have since been ejected from power by more political shenanigans among a self-serving establishment.
Bell puts other central parts of Kathmandu life under the spotlight, such as the shortcomings of its ubiquitous development NGOs and the scandalous trade in art objects that drains the capital of its spectacular heritage. But for all his realism and his urge to expose the unadorned truth, Bell never loses sight of one key fact: Kathmandu is irrepressibly vibrant, eternally fascinating and still one of the great artefacts of Asian civilisation.