Silence descendsBy the time I huff and haul my way up Swoyambhu, the Gyanmala Bhajan Khaala is just about wrapping up their morning session.
Sanjit Bhakta Pradhananga
By the time I huff and haul my way up Swoyambhu, the Gyanmala Bhajan Khaala is just about wrapping up their morning session. On a clear, crisp morning like this, you can hear their bhajans reverberate all the way down the hill and I have been trying to keep track of the songs as I weave my way past the “nouveau riche”, out walking their German Shepherds, fugitive lovebirds playing coy in their college uniforms and a congregation of beggars unable to profit from either. When I reach the final stretch—some 30-odd, near-vertical steps below the Stupa—the Bhajan Khaala breaks into the Triratna Yae #3, spurring me to instinctively push harder.
This is usually their last song.
To be clear, I’m not really a bhajan person. I’m only keeping a tab on the songs because the group serves water in red Gems plastic mugs to sweaty joggers like me. Sometimes, there’s even lemon water with a hint of birey noon. Just as long as you make it to the sattal before the final song.
The Gyanmala Bhajan Khaala has been based here since the 1930s. In that time, they’ve lived through persecutions, book burnings, Rock n’ Roll, psychedelics, the television, earthquakes and somehow still survived. Today, the group is a ragtag mix of middle-aged men and women, some of whom are drawn by devotion; the others, much like me, are in it more for the exercise than they are for the songs. Either way, they’re here each morning, singing themselves into a trance, not the least bothered by the curious glances and the hail of camera flashes that they invite.
What do the uninitiated think of their songs? I’ve often wondered.
You see, bhajans rarely sound very pleasant. Today too, the harmonium, around which they’ve huddled in a circle, sounds a bit off-kilter; the Tinchhu’s clangouring rings petulant; and an overzealous “aunty” is loud and horribly off-key, again.
Nearby, a couple of bleary-eyed tourists are only half-listening to a guide tasked with explaining the melee to them in broken-English. But this gig was not in the brochure; they’re more interested in the rhesus monkeys plotting raids on unsuspecting humans, and they wander off, one after the other, leaving the guide talking to himself.
When the song finally culminates in a frantic crescendo and ends, snacks are already being served in disposable plates alongside hot cups of tea. Today, it looks like someone has hauled a bag of samosas up the hill.
I, their only audience, am not offered any—much like the band of monkeys looking on expectantly.
We, if it wasn’t abundantly clear, are not part of the circle.
I went to a fair share of bhajans as a kid growing up in Asan. Each day, after dinner and a gurgling tambakhoo, my grandfather would join the neighbours in song as they congregated at the dilapidated Krishna Mandir at Balkumari. At the time, it seemed to me that these men I knew by day as grumpy, senile annoyances, transformed as they sat around the harmonium by night. It was as if they’d left the world behind at the threshold. There, sat in a circle, neither money nor judgements or even God really mattered.
Bhajans were always about something else.
Oftentimes, when returning home from a party or a nakthya that spilled over into the night, you’d follow the different bhajan mandalis home.
At Bangemuda, then Nyaakhin Twaa, then Asan chowk, then Balkumari—illuminating the streets like beacons harkening those lost at sea ashore.
Bhajans brought with them a sense of security, a sense of mooring.
A quiet confidence that all roads would eventually lead us home.
Milan Kundera believes that circles are magical.
“If you go away from a row,” he says, “you can still come back into it. A row is an open formation. But a circle closes up, and if you go away from it, there is no way back.”
A circle is complete, self-contained but infinite—its different points merging into a single body, a single soul.
Which is why, once someone breaks off from the circle, like a rock coming loose off a planet (which also moves in circles), they’re carried off by centrifugal force into the vast unknown.
“And these others,” Kundera writes, “always retain a kind of faint yearning for that lost ring dance, because we are all inhabitants of a universe where everything turns in circles.”
This magic of the circle becomes clear to me as I sit on a park bench halfway up Swoyambhu.
I divide the ascent up to the Stupa from Bhagwan Pau into three manageable parts. The climb starts off easy, as you leave the city below and gradually make your way up to a little clearing without breaking any sweat. Here there are a few little chaityas, a couple of benches, a sattal and a broken swing that has been repurposed into a pull-up bar.
There on, the climb becomes increasingly steeper, until you reach another clearing just shy of the Stupa. The last bit is the steepest—the 30-odd, near vertical steps under the giant Vajra—that sometimes feel like a giant, precipitous treadmill.
Anyhow, every morning, at the little park, you will find your usual suspects. The “nouveau riche” are here, letting their dogs piss on the chaityas. The lovebirds are here, looking for abandoned benches. Sweaty joggers are here, pulling up and pushing down hither thither. The monkeys too are in attendance, lustily eying a fruit vendor as he sets up shop for the day.
Among this crowd, unfailingly, you will also find the occasional person humming word-for-word the bhajans emanating from the top of the hill. Usually frail or greying, these castaways, I presume, were part of the Bhajan Khaala, before arthritis or age finally caught up. Now, unable to make the steep climb up to the Stupa, they make do with circumambulations of the chaityas at the park.
What strikes me the most about these outcasts is not how longingly they look up towards Swoyambhu, wishing they could still climb it; or how they always look so winded and sad. What does strike me is how quietly they sing. The fear of judgement has crept back into their mornings. From a public celebration of oneness, the same words have transformed into a private mourning of solitude.
They, much like I, are not part of the circle. Not any longer.
The other night, after a boisterous evening boozing in Thamel, I decided to walk back home, unwilling to pay a cabbie more than he was due.
Stumbling out of Jyatha, I walked towards Tyauda, confident my senses would lead the way. Often, when growing up, I had bragged about how well I knew these streets. “Leave me blindfolded anywhere in Asan,” I’d say to friends from the outskirts, “And I’ll find my way home sailing by ear.”
But that night, the streets were dead quiet, as they were eerily dark.
I closed my eyes, concentrated, and scanned for the familiar wail of the harmonium.
Squinting, I looked ahead, hoping to catch the warm glow of a bulb spilling into the street like a beacon harkening those lost at sea ashore.
It took me a while to accept that I might actually be lost.
It took me a little while longer to realise that I should have been walking “home” towards Swoyambhu and not Asan.
Flustered, I turned around, staggered, and began groping in the dark.