Phewa Taal panorama

A Tribute to Baidam's World Citizen Hem Raj Pahari

by Patrick Harrigan

Hem Raj Pahari
Hem Raj Pahari

When I first visited Pokhara Lakeside in 1978, it was still a quiet village with only a few lodges and hotels catering to foreign visitors. Traditional oval shaped mud-plastered homes with thatched roofs were the norm, with most of the land in Baidam still under cultivation.

Baidam's rustic charm along with its magnificent setting, but especially its proud yet friendly inhabitants, most of whom still kept to their traditional dress, diet, lifestyle and livelihoods. I settled down upon Seti Danda with the Thapa Chhetri family and a grammar book with the aim of learning Nepali language.

One day I happened to meet a cultured Bahun gentleman who spoke remarkably good English. He introduced himself as Hem Raj Pahari and explained that he was the English teacher at Pokhara Higher Secondary School.

"I always like to meet English speakers," he explained, "because it improves my English vocabulary and pronunciation, and broadens my view of the world.

This gentleman impressed me with his impeccable manners, his mastery of English, and his keen curiosity to understand. He invited me to visit his family home nearby, and I readily agreed. It was, like nearly every home in Baidam at that time, a neatly plastered stone and mud thatched dwelling with verandah surrounded by neatly kept flower and vegetable garden. A partly open shed with writing table served as his office and reception room for visitors.

In the months and years that followed, Hem Raj and I passed many pleasant hours together over tea and strolling Baidam's quiet lanes. Through him I met his family and other families of the area, and sharpened my understanding of Nepali society and culture.

Hem Raj had learned English as a student in Kathmandu, where his eyes first opened to the wider world outside of Pokhara. So impressed was he by the wealth of English literature, and by English as a window to learn about the outside world, that he resolved to go back to share his passion for English in his native Pokhara. Today most educated people of Pokhara who learned English in the 60's and 70's consider Hem Raj as their English guru.

By 1980, however, Hem Raj was feeling discouraged by the long daily commute and poor salary he received as a high school teacher. Other people of his age having less education were living in comfort and relative affluence. In Baidam especially, simple villagers were selling their fields and putting up guest houses that earned them a comfortable livelihood with much hard work.

Hem Raj and I discussed his dilemma. He was travelling and teaching long hours for bare subsistence salary. In order to build upon his land in Baidam, however, he would have to sell off all the family's rice fields and demolish the family home in order to build upon that site. But finally he resolved to resign from teaching and devote himself entirely to building up a solid two story stone guest house that he named as Tranquility Lodge, as his aim was to offer a peaceful and beautiful home environment for his foreign guests.

It took some years to lay the foundation, construct and furnish first the ground floor, and then later the upper floor complete with hot and cold running water in attached baths. Fortunately, his land was in a choice location near where buses let down the foreign tourists who daily arrived and fanned out in search of good food and basic comforts.

Hem Raj devoted much time to, and was proud of, the fruit trees and flower beds that he planted and nursed, so each guest could sit outside and eat the fruit of his garden while enjoying the magnificent views in all directions. His mother and sister lived in a separate apartment and cooked for family and guests alike.

Tranquility Lodge attracted the better educated tourists due to its attractive and tidy garden, its cleanliness and hygienic food, and especially because of Hem Raj himself, who was always thoughtful, soft spoken, and articulate. He was also tactful, for the cultural and language gap between foreigners and Nepalis could easily lead to misundertandings, unless approached with patience and humility.

Hem Raj Pahari and family ca. 1980
Hem Raj Pahari and family ca. 1980

In the mid-1980s I returned to the United States to do graduate studies in South Asian languages and religions, first at the University of Michigan and later at the University of California, Berkeley. Hem Raj and I continued to communicate by letter, as there was no easy direct dial telephone system as there is today.

Even before I left South Asia, Hem Raj had been expressing to me his ambition or dream to visit the foreign countries that he had only read about, and to visit some of his foreign friends in their native lands. The more foreign friends he met, the more Hem Raj yearned to see the outside world and meet its people.

As fortune would have it, my maternal grandparents' farm had burned down some years earlier, but later an oil company explored and found oil under the old farm, for which my grandparents were receiving ample royalty payments. I told my grandparents about Hem Raj, and they very graciously agreed to give two thousand dollars for his travel and other expenses so he could visit me in America.

So in early 1985 Hem Raj obtained a passport and, with little experience of his own but lots of advice from others, set out to New Delhi from where he flew to Germany. After a few weeks among friends in Europe, he flew to New York where I met him at Kennedy Airport. The shortest route back to Michigan led us by way of Niagara Falls, where we stopped to marvel before crossing the border to drive through Ontario province to re-enter the United States in Detroit where I was born.

That summer of 1985 Hem Raj and I travelled many thousands of kilometers together, first directly to northern Michigan where he met my parents and grandparents and many others along the way, presenting my mother with a Nepali doll that has had a place of honor in our family home ever since.

I was preparing to move from the University of Michigan to take up doctoral studies in California at Berkeley. Because I needed to move all my belongings, I bought a small pickup truck, which we piled high with boxes of books and clothing before setting out, at last, on the nearly four thousand kilometer journey west to California, which took us through fertile farm lands, rolling prairie, Rocky Mountains, and through California to the San Francisco Bay area.

Having crossed the entire North American continent, Hem Raj then faced a decision. He could fly across the Pacific Ocean stopping to visit friends in lands like Japan before returning to Nepal before his limited funds ran out. But for Hem Raj as for many others, America was the Land of Opportunity and California was its ultimate expression of stylish leisure and the spirit of individual enterprise.

Hem Raj decided that he would take a chance and live with me in Berkeley for as long as possible before returning to Nepal. We rented a small flat together and, while I was attending graduate school in South Asian Studies, Hem Raj had to find a way to pay for his own expenses. Without a green card, he could not take a regular position.

Hem Raj found and accepted a day time position as a parking lot attendant on the campus, which did not require a work permit, nor did he need to commute. The pay was just sufficient to meet his living expenses, but the position allowed him to be outdoors at the sunny and beautiful Berkeley campus, where he made many friends including fellow Nepalis. It was a period of personal freedom and intellectual growth for Hem Raj, when he could mix freely with American and international academics, read, and taste the good life in California.

Ultimately, however, it was Hem Raj's concern for the well-being of his aged mother and family in Pokhara that made him decide to cut short his new life in America, and travel via Japan back to Nepal after his years long globe circling marathon. He returned to Baidam older and wiser, where he put his fresh store of experience to good use running Tranquility Lodge as a home away from home for weary Westerners exploring a strange land, and sharing his acquired experience and wisdom with his fellow Nepalis, who now looked up to him more than ever.

Everywhere we went together, Hem Raj met ordinary Americans—like most of my family—who had never travelled abroad and who were genuinely astonished that such a cultured and educated gentleman could hail from little Nepal, that legendary land of the Himalayas. Hem Raj left a deep impression upon people wherever he went, for he spoke to people from his heart with a sense courtesy and respect, regardless of the age or rank or status of those whom he met.

Hem Raj died in the line of duty, as it were, serving his local community in an effort to preserve Pokhara's natural beauty while sharing it with visitors who are Pokhara's economic life blood. He lost his life too early in service of his beloved Nepal, for which final act he will always be remembered with love and admiration by Nepalis and foreign friends alike.

Patrick Harrigan first visited Nepal in 1970. He is the publisher of featuring Tranquility Lodge built by Hem Raj Pahari.

My Friend, the Emerald King

by Bill Hefferman

Bill Hefferman

In the summer of 1985, while living in Berkeley California, I was introduced to Hem Raj Pahari by a couple of Peace Corps Nepal friends of mine, Liz Burch and Mickey Edwards. Liz and Mickey thought Hem Raj and I would enjoy each others' company. Hem Raj had been a Science and English teacher in his hometown of Pokhara Nepal, a lovely lakeside town at the base of the Annapurnas. I too had been a Math/Science and English teacher in Nepal, with the Peace Corps, 1983-1984.

I had just returned home to the San Francisco Bay Area from two and a half years in the Peace Corps in eastern Nepal. I trained for a few months (Nepali language and teacher training) in Nepal from September to December of 1982. After that I taught for two years in a remote hill village, Yangnam (Panchthar district). And after a few months travelling around Nepal and India I returned to the United States. I found a job teaching in a local public school, in the Richmond School district.

Hem Raj and I soon became close friends and saw each other fairly often. He was working as a parking lot attendant near the UC Berkeley campus. I lived with a couple of friends in a home not far away, at the base of the Berkeley hills near the Cal Stadium.

I loved spending time with Hem Raj for a number of reasons. He was good natured, insightful, kind, and funny. He would often comment on the things he saw, things that I took for granted, the funny ways and customs of Americans that seemed normal to me until Hem Raj pointed out how peculiar it seemed to him. Little things like how we all spent so much time in our cars, how we ate meals in our cars, how we seemed to be so busy and have so little time to hang out with friends.

I adopted Hem Raj into my circle of friends, some of whom had also traveled in Nepal and India. Hem Raj joined us for a couple of rock and roll concerts, always the Grateful Dead (we were "deadheads" as fans of the Grateful Dead are known). I remember going to one show with Hem Raj at the Kaiser auditorium in Oakland. Hem Raj was dancing right alongside us, rocking out in that free and easy and loose-limbed way that deadheads dance.

I cooked a lot of dal bhāt (Nepalese food consisting of rice with curried lentil soup, some curried meat, usually chicken, and some curried potatoes and cauliflower) in those days and Hem Raj joined me and my friends for a number of feasts. I remember one time after a Grateful Dead concert at the Greek Theater when I served a big bunch of food to about 20 people. Hem Raj was there. A friend of mine from Arcata California, Paul Demark, a writer for a local newspaper there, talked with Hem Raj for a long time. He was fascinated with the fact that "Hem Raj" meant "Emerald King." He started calling Hem Raj, "Emerald King." He was really impressed that someone could have a name so grand as that.

Hem Raj joined me for a number of holiday meals and celebrations (Thanksgiving and Christmas) with my own family. I come from a big family (two brothers and three sisters). So Hem Raj became like a cousin to us, our Nepalese cousin, and he got quite close to my mother and my siblings and their spouses. After Hem Raj left America, he continued to try to stay in touch with my mother, writing her at least once a year.

I remember another time that Hem Raj joined me and my girlfriend, Linda (who would later become my wife) for an evening with Eric Nedervold, another returned Peace Corps Nepal volunteer who had served with me in the same group. The funny thing about that evening is that when seven of us were sitting in a Chinese restaurant, we noticed that of the seven people there, six were left-handed. The only right-handed person? Hem Raj of course. He couldn't believe it.

Hem Raj also spent a full day with me and another returned Peace Corps volunteer, Marie Center. (Marie later died of breast cancer.) We drove all around the Bay Area, up and over the coast range and down to the ocean before returning to Berkeley for a late afternoon walk at the top of the Berkeley Hills. Hem Raj was the perfect companion, riding in the back of my 1967 Volkswagen bug.

Another time in Berkeley, Hem Raj invited me and Linda over to dinner. After dinner he wanted to demonstrate a new gadget he had purchased and wanted to give us, a prized possession: a crumb sweeper, for cleaning table clothes after meals. It didn't work very well but that didn't dampen his enthusiasm. He tore up some paper into just the right size, the size just perfect for the crumb sweeper to sweep up (it worked much better on the custom-paper bits than it did on real food crumbs).

I don't recall exactly when Hem Raj left the United States to return to Nepal but I believe it was around 1989-1990. I think this because in February 1992, I went to Nepal where I would visit Hem Raj at his home and hotel in Pokhara. Linda (then my wife, we were married in 1990) and I had just found out, the day before I was to leave on a 12-week journey to Nepal, that she was pregnant with our first child. She wasn't yet feeling bad from the pregnancy so cheerily encouraged me to go to Nepal and not worry about her. She called me just a couple of weeks later, while I was in Kathmandu, in tears, begging me to come home. I tried to calm her down and eventually we settled on my coming home just a couple of weeks early, giving me a total of ten weeks to travel there. I spent the first few weeks in Kathmandu, staying near Bodhnath, where I was also attending a week-long retreat with Sogyal Rinpoche. I had been a student of Sogyal Rinpoche since 1989 in the United States. I felt very fortunate that he just happened to be in Kathmandu, teaching, at the same time as my visit. At the end of my three-weeks in Kathmandu, I took a flight to Pokhara to visit with Hem Raj and his family (this was early March 1992, right around Shiva Ratri and Tibetan New Year).

My Indian Adventures with the Emerald King

My stay in Kathmandu was delightful. After seven years away from Nepal (having served there in the Peace Corps in 1984-1985), I was like a hungry hiker in front of a steaming plate of dal bhāt. I sought out old friends, met some new ones, had warm long philosophical conversations with all sorts of people including beggars on the street, and traveled widely around the Kathmandu valley on bicycle visiting quirky out of the way places and hidden temples. At the end of my three-weeks in Kathmandu, in early March (right around Shiva Ratri and Tibetan New Year), the day before my flight to Pokhara to visit with Hem Raj and his family, he showed up in Kathmandu unannounced to come fetch me and bring me back to his home.

We flew to Pokhara on my birthday, the third of March. We flew with the former mayor of Pokhara and he paid for our cab to the Tranquility Lodge. I stayed with Hem Raj for five days there, with his mom, his sister, and his nephew. I spent most of my time there out and about on a rented bicycle. It was right around Losar (Tibetan New Year) and I visited the Tibetan Refugee Camp several days in a row. The Tibetans were delightful and gracious, bringing me into their homes, and offering tea and sweets.

On March 8th, after a morning bike ride up toward Naudanda, Hem Raj and I boarded the night bus for eastern Nepal. We were headed together to Darjeeling and Sikkim! We were both excited to be traveling together and off on an adventure.

The night bus ride started out OK. It always does. The roar of the diesel engine. The insanely loud Hindi film music distorted and crackling through blown out speakers. I loved it. After some good bhāt in Narayanghat, the real hell started. We screamed along the terai road, hitting huge pot holes at high speeds, which several times caused me to whack my head on the window and seat in front of me. Wind whistling through window cracks. The stench of biddhis and barf. My lovely Tata rolling meatgrinder. How I hate and love thee so. I was up all night trying to maintain some sanity with an endless string of Tibetan mantras, and indeed they offered some solace and respite from the cacophonous, bone-jarring torture.

At the border town of Kakarbitta, we hustled to find a jeep ride to Silliguri. It was a crazy border scene with some cops dragging off a screaming woman trying to smuggle goods into Nepal from India. Ourjeep-mates were some lovely British women and a Scot. We arrived in Silliguri to find that our "express bus" to Darjeeling was actually a six-hour slog in a local bus. Our bus mates were grumbling but I was still jolly good being off of the Tata torture ride. We finally arrived in Darjeeling after a long journey, and went off to find our hotel, a Peace Corps favorite, run by a Tibetan woman named Dawa. She remembered me from a visit in December of 1984 when I explained that I was Dhilo Sahib (The Tardy One) a name she gave me as she watched me dawdle and frustrate my some prior travel companions with endless fussing and packing to get out for a simple day trip around Darjeeling.

We spent three days in Darjeeling, March 9th to 11th, visiting the botanical garden, taking the "toy train" (small-gauge railway) to Ghum to see the gompa there, and proudly climbing Tenzing Norgay's climbing rock. I took a funny picture of Hem Raj climbing (but I don't know where it is now; I'll have to look for it someday). We visited some friends of Hem Raj's in Darjeeling (but I didn't write down their names in my journal).

On March 12th, we awoke early to catch the 6:30 am bus to Gangtok, Sikkim. Early in the morning, as we were entering Sikkim, our whole trip was almost stopped dead in its tracks because Hem Raj didn't have a passport and I mistakenly asked the bus driver if Hem Raj could get into Sikkim without a proper passport and visa. He looked alarmed. Realizing my mistake I quickly went back to my seat and didn't say another word, trying to hide my face out of the driver's view. Along the way, we stayed too long in a breakfast stop and our bus left without us! Realizing our mistake, we jumped on the next bus going toward Gangtok, telling the driver of our plight and he drove like hell to catch up to the other bus. He caught up with it at the immigration check station.

We arrived in Gangtok around 3:30 pm and grabbed a taxi to go find Tigyal Lakar, Sogyal's brother. When we found him he invited us to spend the evening at his house. Hem Raj and I had a good time with Tigyal and his wife, Gracie, talking into late evening about a wide range of topics including Indian politics, dharma, the Chinese invasion of Tibet, and his Lakar family history. The next day, March 13th, we moved to a modest nearby hotel where Hem Raj demonstrated his bargaining skills in getting us a very cheap price on the room.

We spent the next four days, March 13th to 16th, in Gangtok, walking, visiting monasteries and gardens, shopping, and making travel arrangements for the last part of our journey. Hem Raj and I had some long conversations about what to do and where to go on our journey. I had a great appetite for visiting monasteries and chatting with monks. Hem Raj had less of an appetite for all my dharma interests.

There was one very special day, March 15th, when Hem Raj and I went with Sogyal Rinpoche to his old family home, the home that they established after fleeing Tibet and the Chinese invasion of 1959. After breakfast, Hem Raj and I walked up to Tigyal's house where we joined Tigyal, Sogyal Rinpoche, a dutch woman named Britta, and our driver. The Lakar family home was north of Gangtok, beyond where we were supposed to travel; as we went past police check posts, we had to duck down and hide our faces. They were in the middle of renovating the home including the magnificent shrine room. We took a short hike on the property to a lovely waterfall.

We drove back into Gangtok where we attended a dharma talk to a group of around 50 people. I needed to nudge Hem Raj and wake him up when he started to snore during the talk. After the dharma talk, we all had dinner in the home of another local lama. We heard then that the border at Karkarvitta had been closed due to some local bus strike after police shot and killed a bus driver. This concerned us and made us reconsider some of our itinerary options for the rest of our travels together. After consulting with our hotel manager, we decided that we would spend the rest of our time traveling out into Western Sikkim, close to the Nepal border.

So on March 16th, we arranged for a mini-van and a couple of drivers (for a total of 450 rupees per day or about $18 plus petrol). It took a good part of the day just to arrange for our travel permits out into Western Sikkim but we were finally able to arrange it after several failed trips to the Tourism office. Our young drivers, Uttam (Perfect) and Pritam (Adorable) drove us 45 minutes that day over to Rimtek Monastery for a short visit then back to Gangtok to pack before our big road trip.

On March 17th, we drove with Uttam and Pritam in the mini-van out west toward our destination, Pemayangtse. We stopped that first afternoon on the way at Tatopani, a hot-spring on a river with a cave where Guru Rinpoche (the Tibetan saint who brought Buddhism to Tibet in the 8th Century) was alleged to have stayed. There was a small tunnel-like passage in the cave and the local legend was that if you could fit through it you were guaranteed to become enlightened at the moment of your death. I and my big fat American ass were in no way going to make it through. And alas, even my skinny Nepali dhai Hem Raj couldn't make it through. We stayed that night in a small hamlet called Pelling, just below Pemayangtse in a cold drafty dorm room. In the fading light of day, we played with some young monks and I terrified on of them by grabbing him by the feet and whirling him in circles.

March 18. Our drivers started to complain that they weren't getting paid enough, but fortunately I had my Minister of Bargaining, Hem Raj, to close the deal. We traveled that day to a famous dharma spot, Tashi Ding, where the remains were kept of many famous Buddhist masters and royalty, including Jamyang Khyenste Choki Lodro, the first master of Sogyal Rinpoche. There was some kind of festival going on with a lot of people there. Mid-afternoon we took off and headed back toward Gangtok. At Jorthang, we arranged for a jeep back to Kakkarvitta (Nepal border) and paid off Uttam and Pritam for the mini-van. We would go around Darjeeling and go more directly down to Siliguri and over the border to Kakkarvitta.

That night in Jorthang, we went to a local small carnival. Hem Raj and I rode a rickety ferris wheel and played in house-of-mirrors.

March 19. The festival day of Holi. Our driver, Dawa Tamang, picked us up at 6 am. Down the winding beautiful mountain road we saw some wild game birds running across the road and long lines of marching Sikh Indian soldiers. Above Siliguri, we were stopped by some monkeys in the road. We each had a chance to feed them, the monkeys gently grabbing food directly out of our hands.

Near Siliguri, we stopped at a memorial to Kalu Rinpoche. We were able to cross back into Nepal with just one small problem: I didn't have enough Nepali rupees to pay the border crossing fee and because it was Holi, all banks were closed and there vas no way to get cash. Hem Raj again saved the day, haggling with he border guards and convincing them to let me into the country for all our remaining cash, about 1100 rupees (less than the normal fee).

And this is where we parted. I grabbed a local bus to Birtamod, the own at the juncture with the road going up towards Ilam. I was on my way to my old Peace Corps village, Yangnam. And Hem Raj would return in the bus that night to his home in Pokhara. I remember looking out the window and waving good-bye to my dear friend and Nepali brother, Hem Raj the Emerald King. This had been such an important journey for both of us. For us together as friends, this was our last journey and time together. I fully expected to see him again sometime, in the USA or again in Nepal. Sadly and yet magnificently, this was our last time together.