Research Trip: Everyday Religion in Kathmandu

Curious kids with Shem

Our team here at XYZlab has received a sub-grant from the India China Institute at The New School, for a project they are working on titled “Everyday Religion and Sustainable Environments in the Himalayas“. Our role is to provide a visual and spatial view of the research happening in Kathmandu, one of seven sites they have across the Himalaya region. Jane and I decided to focus the project as in important prototype for “Urban Research Toolkit” (URT), the online tool for collaborative mapping of urban research that we are developing.

As our first major prototype, our job was to gather as much media and documentation as possible, which we will spatialize on URT for the India China Institute (ICI). We have three fantastic students on our team, who helped document our journeys, and will also work on the programming/video/interface of the project.

Kathmandu has experienced 12% population growth over the last few decades, and is now a very polluted, congested city lacking some pretty basic infrastructure. The roads are pretty insane – both physically and experientially. This was our first major culture shock – being driven from the airport in the ubiquitous suzuki taxi’s that feel like they are made out of tin, but can really take a beating on the roads there. No one bothers to slow down for much of anything – pedestrians, bikes, motorcycles or the stray cow here and there.

Our first four days was something of a ‘information download’ with our project leader at ICI, Georgina Drew, who is extremely knowledgeable about all things religion / Himalayas. Our main guide / sherpa was Kashish Shrestha, Kathmandu native and effortless ambassador to all things happening. We spent most of our time further documenting water sites, doing several ‘balloon mapping’ sessions, interviewing several of the researchers and subjects and seeing the major highlights of the area.¬†Balloon mapping is a ‘do it yourself’ method of arial mapping, where you send a camera on continuous shot mode up in a balloon to get hi-res images of neglected, changing or under-documented spaces.

We never saw the Himalayas, but the monsoon did arrive a few days into our trip – a mercy given the blistering heat and dust that greeted us. Things that stay with me from the trip: Nepalis are beautiful, both physically and socially. The many elders and kids we met were very open, affectionate and curious. The term ‘everyday religion’ really means something there. Every religious site – large or small, old or new, is completely alive. Historic sites like Dubar Square were filled with people, just handing out – talking, eating, weaving, whatever. I think any comparable site here would certainly be roped off or put behind plexiglass, but there they were all fully absorbed into everyday life. It is a place full of mystery, hard for a westerner to fully absorb in a short 10 days. We’d love to return, preferably when the weather permits us to see the fully majestic landscape.