Former Bond girl Gemma Arterton (aka Sister Clodagh) recalled the experience of filming Black Narcissus succinctly. ‘We were in the middle of nowhere in the Himalayan mountains. It took us three flights and a week to get there.’
Her co-star Alessandro Nivola who, as Mr Dean brought a fatal sexual frisson into the community of nuns teetering on the cliff-edge of sanity, described it as ‘just huge enormous sky and mountains and silence’.
There is nothing quite like a good drama involving an exotic location to rekindle wanderlust — and the BBC’s three-part series set in the wilds of Nepal is no exception.
Mountain tension: Beautiful Nagarkot is one of the most sensational vantage points for the Himalayas
In contrast to the original 1947 movie of the same name, which was filmed in the UK, this latest adaptation of Rumer Godden’s book was shot partly at Jomsom, some 200 miles north-west of Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu.
With awesome views of the Annapurna and Dhaulagiri massifs, the landscape was, for many, the star of the show.
But pity Godden’s poor nuns, memorably shown trekking in single file through the mountains in a blizzard, dressed only in their camouflage white habits.
The BBC’s three-part series Black Narcissus starring Gemma Arterton, above, was shot partly in Jomsom, Nepal
If the cast (like most visitors today) flew to Kathmandu, took an onward flight to Pokhara in a Twin Otter, then another to the tiny airport in Mustang Province to reach Jomsom, how much worse would it have been for Sister Clodagh and her companions in reality?
They would have had to make their way from their mission without the aid of turboprop engines: a distance of 328 miles to the north-west from Darjeeling, crossing mountains, rivers, jungles, and dodging the tigers and rhinos of Chitwan. Nepal is home to eight of the 14 mountains that soar above 26,000 ft. For the nuns, the thin air combined with the Shakti — cosmic energy — of the mountains had a heady effect.
An independent kingdom-turned-republic, Nepal is bordered by India on three sides and Tibet to the north. Home to 29 million people and predominantly Hindu, Buddhism is nevertheless an important influence in the country where Prince Siddhartha, who would reach enlightenment as the Buddha, was born.
On my last visit to this enthralling country, the monuments and ceremonies I saw in Kathmandu Valley were magnificent: the vast Boudhanath stupa; the great stupa of Swayambhunath, the oldest structure in Nepal. This is known as the Monkey Temple because of its irreverent macaques said to have sprung from lice when the bodhisattva, Manjushri, cut his hair.
Everywhere, mythology and religion intertwine. More than merely impressive monuments, such places — decorated with the all-seeing eyes of Buddha — teem with pilgrims turning prayer wheels as they go. Expect painters of religious thangkas, sellers of orange marigolds for offerings, and the pervasive waft of incense. If you are lucky, you might witness a religious ceremony in one of the temples: crimson-clad monks blowing long horns and conch shells to the rhythm of drums.
Equally colourful is Pashupatinath, one of the most important temple complexes on the subcontinent for followers of the Hindu god, Shiva. Here, dreadlocked sadhus reside with painted faces and farouche expressions. Ritual cleansing ceremonies are held, as are cremations on the ghats of the Bagmati River.
‘Everywhere, mythology and religion intertwine,’ writes the Daily Mail’s Teresa Levonian Cole. Pictured is a holy sadhu
Cazenove+loyd (cazloyd.com) offers a week in Nepal staying at Dwarika’s Hotel in Kathmandu from £2,100 pp, including flights, a private car, driver and guide.
Nepal’s unique cultural heritage rivals its natural beauty. The Kathmandu Valley, an area of 570 square kilometers, offers seven UNESCO World Heritage sites, easily accessible in day trips from a comfortable base in the capital. The Durbar of Kathmandu and Patan are on the must-see list.
So is Bhaktapur, founded in the 9th century, and arguably the most authentic and atmospheric of all. Although it was badly damaged by the earthquake of 2015, the structures are now 80 per cent restored.
These former Newar kingdoms are home to masterpieces of Newari architecture, characterised by unique styles of brickwork and wood-carving. Narrow cobbled lanes vibrant with street life open onto vast squares containing assorted temples, while skinny cows roam free, convinced of their right of way, and fake sadhus pose for photographs.
In Kathmandu’s Durbar (royal square), the number of cows and holy men has diminished over the years, while pigeons and peddlers of Tibetan ‘antiques’ have increased in proportion with tourism. Still, the magic remains.
In these cities in Kathmandu Valley and elsewhere in the country, you might also hope to see a Kumari, a pre-pubescent girl selected from among high caste families, to be revered — temporarily — as a living goddess by Hindus and Newari Buddhists. There are currently ten child-goddesses at temples in Nepal, dethroned and replaced once they reach puberty. The child must never have shed blood; even a superficial cut could end her reign, as the spirit of Shakti would leave her body. I stood outside the Kumari palace in Kathmandu in the hope of catching sight of her at the window, and was rewarded. Even a glimpse is supposed to bring good fortune. For all these wonders, it is a relief to escape fume-clogged Kathmandu and climb to the valley rim for lungfuls of bracing mountain air. A mere hour’s drive from Bhaktapur brings you to the precipitous village of Nagarkot at 6,512 ft.
This is one of the most sensational vantage points for the Himalayas, with eight ranges stretching east from the Annapurnas to majestic Everest, seemingly within touching distance.
Watching the sun rise here is an indelible memory. Like the nuns of St. Faith’s, you are unlikely ever to be the same again.