Last year we visited the beautiful city of Bhaktapur, twice. We fell so in love with the place that after our Annapurna trek we returned to make a short film there.
Set in the Kathmandu valley, Bhaktapur feels nothing like crazy hectic Kathamandu city. Populated by Newar people, the earliest inhabitants of the Kathmandu valley and its surrounding areas, Bhaktapur is so full of ancient culture, a visit there feels like stepping back in time. Among other things, Newar people are known for their contribution to the arts and this becomes apparent as soon as you set foot in the city.
Beautiful wooden temples – many of which are still being rebuit after the 2015 earthquake – are not just available for tourists to poke about in, they are the backbone of daily life. Early morning rituals, cobbled streets, secret pathways as well as a totally different language and cuisine from the rest of Nepal are just some of the things that make Bhaktapur such an exciting place to visit.
During our time in Bhaktapur, we stayed at the wonderful Swastik Guest House. From the roof top we had views across the whole city and could even see the himalayas on clear days. From our bedroom window, we could see and hear people bringing their morning offerings, ringing bells and carrying out various rituals at the many temples that line the streets. The owner of Swastik Guest House, Bishwo, who we now consider a dear friend, bent over backwards to show us the beauty of his hometown. From introducing us to vegan versions of the local food, to taking us on early morning walks to hidden temples. We would never have been able to get under the skin of the place like we did without his kindness.
We spent about 3 weeks in total immersing ourselves in the Newar culture and lapping up the sights and sounds of this magical place, taking early morning walks, visiting neighbouring villages, eating way too many vegan donuts. By far the most enchanting thing about Bhaktapur though was the music which echoed through the streets every morning and every evening. Every single day, groups of friends and neighbours would gather in various places around the city to sing bhajans – devotional songs. Some in temples by candlelight, some on the streets, some in schools, hospitals. Depending on their beliefs, some would be singing to and for Lord Krishna or other Hindu Gods, while some prayed to Buddhist deities. (One of the many unique things about Newar culture is the way it incorporates both Hindu and Buddhist traditions. This makes for particularly fascinating temples.)
After Bishwo first took us to an early morning bhajan session, we knew we had to find a way to document this beautiful daily practise. After chatting to various people, it became apparent that bhajan group was not just a good old sing-song. This was a huge part of daily life. For some it was a life-line, a place of security, comfort and healing.
So, despite not knowing how to speak the local language, despite not having made a short film before and despite our lack of gear, we made the decision to tell the story of the Bhajans of Bhaktapur. We got to researching and began firing off emails and speaking to whoever we could that was knowledgable about the topic. Bishwo escorted us all over town and introduced us to bhajan leaders, doctors and different members of the community so that we could get as broad a picture as possible. All our interviews with Newar speakers were done through our 15 year old translator (Bishwo’s niece, Christina), who then sat with us and watched the footage back, translating several hours of footage and showing us when one sentence ended and another began.
If you’ve ever been to India, you’ll know people often talk about IST (Indian stretch time). In other words, see you in 5 mins could actually mean, see you in 10, 20 or maybe 30 mins. Well, when we began making our film, we realised Nepali people took stretching time to a whole new level. We went from being pretty patient people to being more patient and accepting than we knew possible.
I had interviewed people before, in both English and other languages, but they had always been talking about fairly straight forward stuff. Interviewing people in Newar talking about spiritualism was a whole new kettle of fish. Translating the interviews was like waiting for lottery results.
In spite of this and the endless other challenges we faced, making this little film was one of the most rewarding parts of our travels. Telling the story of something we find so beautiful and being able to include people for whom this was a huge part of their lives was a great thing to be able to do.
So, without further adieu, we hope you enjoy the finished film.