Early one morning, I go out into the low-lying mist, following the muffled gong of the bells. They are rung at shrines all over Bhaktapur to announce the arrival of the devotee for puja. A woman in a vermillian sari and scarlet haku gacha brings her offering of rice, tika power, and sweet burning incense to a shrine dedicated to Sarasvati, the goddess of learning. She takes some holy water from a little copper pot and flicks it lightly over the idol, circumambulating the shrine clockwise to complete her rite. We acknowledge each other as I pass with a small bow, hands together:
Namaste. I salute the god within you.
Later, in , I sit with a sketchpad on my knee, not really drawing, but trying to absorb the essence of this place with its dusty brick streets, medieval courtyards, communal wells and beautiful Newari architecture. Behind me towers the resplendent five-tiered Nyatapola Temple, sacred to the goddess Siddha Laxmi. Surrounding the city, at eight points of the compass, are shrines to the protective Asta Matrika goddesses, each one presiding over her own area of the city. They are said to demarcate the boundaries between order and chaos, internal and external realms, seen and unseen forces. At the centre of the mandala, a ninth goddess, Tripurasundari has a temple. Her inner shrine that lies within the palace, is out of bounds for all but the officiating priests.
Two girls come over, and I offer them my book and paints. One draws a flower, and colours it bright red, the other, a house. They write their names in Nepalese beneath. I have a blurry picture of them in their aunt’s craft shop, smiling, the famous medieval peacock window, Mhaykhā Jhyā (म्हयखाझ्याः) in the background. They give me a tour of their section of the city, introducing me to relatives and friends at work in their printing, clothing and craft businesses.
We exchange gifts before we part. I give them a silver compact mirror engraved with Celtic knotwork. They give me a small wooden carving of the head of Ganesha.
I hope that the Asta Matrika protected those girls and their families during the chaos that was to come three months later when the earthquake struck. I will never know, only that some of the temples and shrines that I photographed and admired are no longer there. I am certain that amongst all the devastation and loss in Bhaktapur, two things will endure: the deep spirituality of its people, and their close-knit community, both of which I was so privileged to witness.