Today, we will once again retain the services of the same car, driver, and guide, Ganga, to visit two traditional Newari farming villages, each about 15 km from Kathmandu. They are Bungamati, known for its master woodcarvers, and Khokana, known for its cottage industry of making mustard seed oil. The term, “Newari,” by the way, refers to the indigenous people of the Kathmandu Valley, who have lived here since prehistoric times, and who now represent a little over 5% of Nepal’s population of about 28 million people.
Villagers in both towns engage primarily in farming, and they supplement their incomes with their handcraft skills. The average monthly income for a family with two wage earners, living in Kathmandu, is approximately 14,000 Rs, or $200, although the minimum wage in the city is just $40 per month. Reflecting the large number of rural villages in Nepal, the national average monthly wage is just $20 per person per month! So it’s easy for me to see just how important the supplemental income provided by handcrafts can be for rural villages like Bungamati and Khokana. Currently they earn about $300 per family per month by wholesaling most of their work to local traders; if they were able to develop the ability to sell directly to tourists, they could significantly increase their incomes.
Because we are at the peak of rice replanting season right now, most everyone who is able is hard at work in the surrounding fields, leaving in the villages the women with small children, and the “senior citizens.”
Ganga explained that the fields are worked communally, though owned individually by the village families. Once the crops are harvested, they are divided proportionally, according to land ownership.
We strolled through the narrow streets and alleys of both villages and photographed many of the townspeople, who live much of their lives outdoors, doing their chores, resting in their doorways, and visiting with their neighbors, much the same as you and me.
Afterwards, we visited the well-known Kopan Monastery, located on a beautiful hilltop just north of Boudhanath, not far from our hotel. Kopan is home to about five hundred Nepali and Tibetan students studying to become monks, and also offers meditation programs that Westerners can attend. The search for the reincarnated lama associated with Kopan is the subject of the movie, “Little Buddha.”
There is also a neighboring nunnery, a part of Kopan but down the hillside a bit, that we visited. With Ganga’s translating help, we had a chat with a student nun from western Nepal who was about twenty years old. She had been there for seven years, and would have to complete eighteen more years of study and examinations before she would be eligible to elect the life of a nun. She was studying Tibetan language, Nepali language, Buddhist scriptures, maths, and philosophy this year, and in time would also study painting, sculpture, and the other traditional arts. She hasn’t been back to visit her family in about four years, but was very happy in her life in the nunnery.
The life of contemplation and study that these monks and nuns have is enormously appealing to me, and even though I don’t live in a monastery in this lifetime, I have always been attracted to monasteries like Kopan.
After we came back to the hotel, we upgraded our room to the Club Level, which gives us access to snacks and drinks before (or instead of) dinner, use of the sauna and Jacuzzi, and free transportation to the airport. To celebrate the upgrade, we had snacks instead of dinner!