Adventures and travel
Introduction to Kathmandu
Kathmandu has often been described as the valley of the gods. Men have definitely taken over if looks are anything to go by, but if you dig a little deeper, and use your imagination, and look at a few old pictures to help you out, you can almost feel Kathmandu as it used to be. Unsullied by the mad rat race, the mountains never obscured by the pollution haze, it was definitely a place where humans lived hand in hand with the divine.
The Legend of Kathmandu
Legend has it that Kathmandu was once a pristine lake, hemmed in on all sides by the rolling hills of the valley border. Manjushree, a deity from Tibet, was flying overhead when he spotted a single lotus growing in the middle of this beautiful lake.
This lotus was the stupa of Swayambhunath, which Manjushree perceived with his divine wisdom. With this auspicious sign, he foresaw what a wonderful place this valley would be for mankind to live in. So he unsheathed his sword of wisdom and cut open the gorge of Chobhar, from which the lake drained from Kathmandu.
And thus came forth the valley of Kathmandu. It was a land of perfect weather and fertile soil, where the crops grew so plentiful that farmers stood guard lest someone add their harvest to his already full warehouse. It was a land where you could not walk for five minutes in any direction without coming to a shrine, however small, dedicated to one of the innumerable deities that make up the unique collection of Hindu gods and goddesses. The kings contributed to the cultural growth of the city by patronizing the arts, and thus the beautiful stone sculptures and wood carvings created by ancient artisans and architects into exquisite courtyards still appreciated to this day. Kathmandu was the most advanced city in the region, and all sorts of itinerant travelers came from far and wide to indulge in the cultural and religious extravaganza that it boasted.
It is said that when Prithvi Narayan Shah, the king who unified the small princely states into what is today known as Nepal, first set his eyes on Kathmandu from a far off hill, he declared that this was going to be his capital city for the new kingdom he was forging.
The Kingdoms of Kathmandu
Kathmandu was divided into different mini states - Kathmandu, Patan, Bhaktapur, and Kirtipur. Each had their own king, and the Newari language spoken in these cities have their own accents and nuances, even though they are not half an hour’s drive apart now. Kathmandu has had the largest influx of outsiders, and has lost most of its old world charm. The inner core of Patan, (now Lalitpur), still retains some of its old flavour. Bhaktapur has turned into a full fledged tourist town, and is the most well preserved of the lot. A trip to Bhaktapur shows what the old kingdom must have been like. No new buildings are permitted within the city limits and it has preserved its allure to this day. Kirtipur has also largely escaped the rapid urbanization, and is a more rustic version of Bhaktapur.
The Newars of Kathmandu
In a nutshell, Kathmandu is the New York of Nepal. It is the land of dreams for everyone else in Nepal, and people from all over the country come to try their luck. But the original inhabitants of Kathmandu are the Newars, an ethnic group with their own unique dress and language and customs which are quite alien to the rest of Nepal. The men are traditionally dressed in dark daura suruwals, a thigh length top worn over loose fitting trousers, with a white patuka, a cummerbund going around the waist. This is topped with a Dhaka topi, a flat hat worn by all Nepali males. The women wear the haku patasi, a black sari with red trim.
The Newari farmers, known as jyapoo, are hard working peasants expert at coaxing the tastiest vegetables from their fields. Newars are also famous for their skill in the arts – sculpting, wood carving, and metal craft. Newars were also traders, going up to Tibet selling salt and spices. A lot of these Newari merchants had two homes, one in Kathmandu and one in Tibet, which might explain the distinctly mongoloid features in some Newars.
However, with the slow elimination of work boundaries, Newars today are arguably most well known in Nepal for their food and drink. Newars have the most number of festivals to celebrate, and this is generally attributed to the fact that harvests were always so plentiful that they had more than enough time to celebrate life. All these festivals include gods, processions, friends and relatives, and of course food and drink. A typical Newar feast, known as a bhoj, starts with heavy snacks and a fiery local brew called aila, continues with the main course and more aila, and ends with fruits and digestives and, you guessed it, more aila.
Good advice – if you’re ever invited to a traditional Newari bhoj, you’ll be seated crossed legged in a straw mat in a long line with all the other guests. Servers, usually family members of the host, will bring a variety of dishes and serve each guest in line. Don’t eat too fast, because an empty plate means, ‘I’m hungry, can I have some more please?’ No amount of waving the food away will dissuade the server from plonking down some second or third or whichever number you’ve reached helpings. Just leave some lying around in your plate, smile politely, and indicate you’ve yet to finish. Servers will also be walking around with aunties, a crane-like vessel with a thin spout which they use to pour the aila from high in the air to your small earthen cup in the ground without spilling a drop. This you can take sips like whiskey or down like tequila. But beware the double barrel shots, when two servers are walking down together. This serving works like this – the first serves you, and second waits for you to finish so you can have seconds right then and there. Even the most avid enthusiasts look forward to this one with a mixture of excitement and dread.
You need some gumption to really appreciate Kathmandu for what it is. It is very easy to get upset by the unmanaged garbage you might be unfortunate enough to see, and the traffic and dust will try to spoil your day. Put that away, take it in your stride, and enjoy the inner cities for what they offer, with their ancient history and equally ancient people.
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