Freak Street is an integral part of Nepal’s modern history, and indeed of a global youth culture of the late 1960s, yet the hippie period is yet to be formally documented – especially in pictures.
The ‘flower children’ were essentially refugees from a materialistic and militarist culture and represented a unique youth movement that transcended physical and mental boundaries. It coincided with an eruption of anti-establishment protests across Europe and the United States.
In Nepal it was the precursor of the country’s tourism industry, and is worthy of preservation even for historical reasons. But there are not many western Bohemians left among those who stayed behind in Kathmandu.Their Nepali counterparts are getting on in age too.
I went to meet the gifted artist, Jimmy Thapa, who used to run a dope outlet on Freak Street called Jimmy’s Wagon. “Meet Billy,” Jimmy told me, “he’ll tell you all.”
Billy is William Forbes, better known as ‘Swayambhu Billy’ and his wife Susan Burns. They have lived at the base of Swayambhu Hill on and off since the early 1970s. Their present house in Kimdol is guarded by a larger than life Chow Chow, the walls are festooned with artwork by renowned ‘real’ hippies and beatniks they befriended in Kathmandu: Ira Cohen, Petra Vogt and Hetty McGee
Forbes and Burns were both born in 1943 to Communist parents with no interest in spirituality. But while growing up in New York, Forbes met people who had returned from India with tales of inner discovery. He booked a flight to Europe and travelled overland to India. It was 1970 and he “fell into a groove”.
Burns followed him two years later, and remembers: “We were riding rickety buses, touching some holy stone. I felt definitely at home. It seemed this was it for me.”
Their photographs of the late 1960s and early 1970s show a largely empty city with few cars and few people. Majestic bulls had the right of way. Life seemed to flow according to astrologers’ calendars from one festival to the next. Swayambhunath was untouched, and Boudhanath was just a cluster of houses in the middle paddy fields.
Into this largely pristine valley with the Himalaya beckoning to the north and Goa to the south, travelers from all over world converged, smoked, danced and ruminated about Rumi. It was the first time a generation of youth could simply drop out and be who they wanted to be, without the pressures of parents and society.
“It was a chaotic but also highly creative scene,” remembers Forbes. “Everyone was on their own trip.”
Besides Freak Street there were Swayambhunath and Boudhanath — two outposts representing distinct groups of hippie expats. Boudhanath specialised in Tibetan Buddhism, antiques and carpet businesses. It had Shiva’s Slaves, riding classic bikes such as BSA, Triumph and Royal Enfield. Swayambhunath was more of a trippie area, easier on the budget, suitable for those who preferred tea over beer and chillums over other drugs.
But hippies from both places inevitably ended up on Freak Street. By the mid-70s, this narrow side street was the hot spot to get the latest tapes and books. Restaurants with funky names like Don’t Pass Me By, The Hungry Eye, and Lost Horizon, had good stereo sets and the latest Beatles and Santana songs seeped out of the open windows to the street below.
Trip to Tatopani
“One day we took this bus to Tatopani and stayed there for a few days. We made good use of the hot bath, stepped on Tibetan soil and smoked chillums.”
Freak Street became a thriving artistic hub. Ira Cohen published poetry on hand-crafted paper, Angus MacLise created books from tree bark, Keith Redman taught the Secret Yogas of Naropa to a growing following and everyone visited the Spirit Catcher Bookshop to listen to poetry or some jamming.
There were also cremations, after someone OD-ed and died. “It was a world in which death was always a possibility,” Burns says. But mostly it was tea and a smoke and someone always strumming a guitar in the background.
Quality photos of this era are rare. Cameras got stolen and others got swapped for hand-knotted carpets. But even those who had cameras snapped few personal pictures. “The whole scene was a kind of underground,” Forbes explained, “no one liked to have their pictures taken. There was this privacy thing. You thought of the people you left behind. They might not like seeing you stoned or doing crazy things.”
Nepal Picture Library aims to set up a hippie archive and recently published Magic Days, featuring photographs by William Forbes and Susan Burns, and a portrait series by Ira Cohen. Available at Kathmandu bookshop. Rs 200
Circumambulating with Swayambu Billy, Lucia De Vries
Not so freaky anymore on Freak Street, Alok Tumbahangphey
Legalise it, Alok Tumbahangphey
The legends are still alive, Sraddha Basnyat
Background music: Ain’t it strange by Patti Smith