In the Realm of the Gods


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 Taumadhi Square, 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.



Painted Manuscript of the Matrikas from a Devi Mahatmya text


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Waiting For the Light


January; short, dark days dragging on. Hard to go out – outwards – when the instinct is to curl up like an ammonite and wait for the light. One smoky morning in the park, it’s as if the sky has descended. Black-headed gulls, disturbed by dogs, rise from the grass and drift away, spectres of the mist.

There is a Welsh folktale called The Daughters of the Sea set in Cardigan Bay in which Dylan, the sea god calls up a fierce storm to steal three sisters away to his kingdom under the sea. When he comes to regret his action, he is unable to return the sisters as they were. So he turns them into seagulls, able to move between land and sea. When their old father walks along the beach and calls their names, three white gulls fly to him from over the waves.













Rain, Plastic Spiders and the End of the World


October. The bike and I take shelter under the awning of the Summerhouse cafe in the park to wait out the heavy downpour. I order coffee and join the other stranded folk watching the water bounce off the picnic tables and slide down the sides of a plastic ice-cream the size of a child. It seems to have been raining for weeks.

I think about a film I saw recently – Blade Runner 2049. It presents a terrifying dystopia in which organic life has been all but extinguished, and everything is commodified. I wonder for a moment how prescient sci-fi writers like Philip K. Dick were, and what’s going to happen to us when the ice caps melt. Shouldn’t we be taking to the streets to protest against fossil fuels or something?

A collie dog shivers at the feet of an old man in a cap. We sip our coffee synchronously,  the man and I. Snatches of Stevie Wonder’s Superstition strain through speakers that are screwed to a post next to a CCTV eye. One of the cardboard skeletons strung along the front of the awning has its arm hooked up in green cotton wool that is sprinkled with plastic spiders. You find it festooned copiously all over the shops at this time of year, a prelude to the tinsel.

I crumple up my cardboard coffee cup and deposit it in the bin. The rain hasn’t lessened a bit; it is falling sheets of pins dissolving on impact with the tarmac. The old man and I exchange a glance.

    It’s in for the day, he says. No point in waiting. 

He pulls up the collar of his jacket, gives the peak of his cap a small tug downwards and steps out, the dog slinking at his heels.