Crowds filled the streets below the gold tower of the Swayambhunath temple on Monday, lighting candles at roadside stands and buying bouquets of yellow daisies and incense to offer at the altars on Buddha’s birthday, a major holiday in Nepal.
Karma Lama, a Buddhist scroll painter, stood watching a line of robed monks chant, beat drums and ring bells beneath one of two gold statues at the foot of the temple, a popular Buddhist pilgrimage site.
“When people have a holy day, they come together and talk about what happened. It’s human nature. Then they see they are not suffering alone,” said Lama, 52.
Buddha’s birthday took on added significance this year after a magnitude 7.8 earthquake centered northwest of Katmandu struck April 25, killing 7,365, damaging the temple and scores of other landmarks and leaving hundreds of thousands of people homeless and displaced.
Many of those who took to the streets of the capital Monday to reclaim their everyday lives said it felt good, but they also acknowledged that it would likely take years to rebuild homes and livelihoods.
Rajyamuni Shakya, a grocery store owner placing candles at the foot of one of the outdoor altars, had reopened his store a few days earlier, and noticed many storefronts had reopened Monday.
“You have seen the number of people visiting the temple. That’s another sign things are returning to normal,” said Shakya, 32.
Shakya’s house was damaged by the quake, but he felt reassured about its safety after an engineer inspected it. The school attended by his daughters, ages 8 and 14, remained closed because of quake damage, he said.
“I have no idea when it will open,” Shakya said as the girls stood with him by the altar.
Nearby, Khada Bahadur Gamal stirred a vat of khir, or rice pudding, traditionally served on Buddha’s birthday, while working for a group that organized a food giveaway.
Gamal, 46, said he often works part-time catering jobs. His family was living in a tent on an abandoned lot because their home was destroyed in the quake. He said his wife suffered a head injury during the earthquake and that although she was released from the hospital, she was unable to work.
“Things may have gone back to normal, but not for me,” Gamal said.
There was an earthquake relief table set up nearby by local volunteers, but Gamal said he had yet to receive any aid.
Phurbu Dolma, 60, said she lost 90 neighbors in a building destroyed by the earthquake. She ventured out of her house Monday for the first time since the quake to go to the temple and light candles in their memory.
Many of those who survived have moved out of the Katmandu Valley to villages where they are closer to relatives and feel safe, she said.
“Gradually, they will come back to the valley,” she said. “But it won’t be as many as before.”
Boima Bamang had earned about $40 selling prayer beads and incense near the temple Monday, compared with roughly $400 last year. Bamang, 50, blamed the exodus from the valley. Many of those who remained couldn’t afford to leave, she said.
“People do not have money because their homes have been destroyed. Even if they want to buy things, they cannot,” she said. “And what they need is food, not decorative things.”
Masali Lama, 52, would have left the valley after her home and snack shop were damaged in the quake, but her parents’ house in a rural village was also destroyed. Now they’re all sleeping in makeshift tents.
Still, she put on her red beads and matching red and gold salwar kurta, or traditional women’s pantsuit, and traveled across town to the temple Monday to place apples and bananas on the altar.
Swayambhunath is also known as the Monkey Temple because of the resident monkeys, which on Monday scooted behind the altar to snatch fruit and cookies.
As they did, Lama mixed with the crowd. The more earthquake survivors she met, the less desperate she felt.
“I’ve met other people whose homes were destroyed, other people who suffered. I realize it’s happening everywhere,” she said, “I’m happy to be alive.”