What to visit in/around Katmandu?
Sightseeing around Kathmandu
Kathmandu, along with its sister cities of Patan (Lalitpur) and Bhaktapur, is a curious blend of the ancient and the modern. Ugly cement buildings compete for space alongside beautifully carved temples, and all these are part of the daily life that is Kathmandu. There are quite a few places you can go to for a taste of life as it is or as it was, and all these places will give you something different to take back home.
Kathmandu valley was actually separate cities of Kathmandu, Patan, Bhaktapur. An ancient king divided his kingdom and gave these three cities to his three sons to rule over. These sons competed with each other on who could build the best city, and were constantly engaging artists to build temples and sculptures. The result is for us to enjoy today, where the Durbar Squares of all three cities have magnificent architecture and craftsmanship in public display.
Kathmandu Durbar Square
The Durbar Square is literally the royal courtyard. Here, you get to see the original palace of the old Malla kings of Kathmandu, later taken over by the conquering Shah dynasty. It has since been converted to a museum, which draws international and domestic tourists by the dozens everyday. However, the entire Kathmandu Durbar Square ( as with the Patan and Bhaktapur Durbar Squares) can be said to be living museums, and have aptly been declared UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
In front of the palace, you might see a big statue of a ferocious deity painted black, standing on a human body and brandishing a sword and a severed human head in one of its many arms. This is Kaal Bhairabh, the god of justice. It is said that crime suspects were made to swear on the god to prove their innocence. The guilty ones coughed blood and died on the spot if they swore to a lie.
The Durbar Square is definitely an interesting place to be. The large open areas were earlier used by locals as meeting grounds (still is) and as public theaters. In the days without electricity and televisions, local artists as well as iterant troupe used these platforms to entertain the population. Try climbing one of the taller temples in the cool evening and watch life go by below.
Durbar Square can be said to be the heart of old Kathmandu, and is home to a collection of temples. The Kumari Chhen, home of the living goddess, is in Basantapur. You might get a glimpse of her from her own courtyard if you’re lucky.
Walking about, you might notice a small Ganesh temple. Ganesh, the elephant headed god, is the remover of obstacles, and a lot of people will offer him his favorite laddoos (round sweets) for favors – anything from finding a lost key, getting the job or obtaining a visa for a foreign country.
Right next to the Ganesh temple is a tall wooden pagoda-like structure. It was originally a rest house, but is now used for public functions in the locality. It is said to be made from the wood of a single tree, which got it its name Kastha Mandap, which in turn was the basis for the name Kathmandu.
Walking past these, you explore the marketplace, which is crowded with all kinds of merchants. Basantapur is a shopping destination of locals for traditional sweets, spices, and other items necessary for religious rituals. A look at the surrounding houses gives a glimpse of what life might have been a few hundred years ago, without the chaotic traffic snarls and hordes of people. All these old houses are built around a communal courtyard, most of which have idols their own deity installed in the middle. It might be interesting to walk through the low entrances of these courtyards, peeking into daily life of those old days.
While Durbar Square has its religious undertones, Ason is the business heartland of old Kathmandu. This was the starting point to the trade route to Tibet for Nepali traders. As you will see, it is a very busy juncture even today. Ason is recommended only for those who want to immerse themselves in the culture of Kathmandu then and now. If you want to see how locals still shop, it is recommended as a detour from your walk in Durbar Square.
Swayambhu can loosly be translated as ‘from within’ or ‘self existent’. Legend has it that Swayambhu was a powerful light beaming from a lotus when Kathmandu was a great lake. It was when Manjushree, a Tibetan deity, saw this light and cut open the gorge in Chobhar with his sword of wisdom that the water drained out from Kathmandu and became inhabited by humans. The light emanating from the lotus was worshipped, but it was so bright that the stupa was built to house the light and shiled it from the population.
Swayambhu is famous for its all seeing eyes, the calm eyes of Buddha which are painted on all four sides of the stupa from whence he looks upon all of us. It is also famous as the ‘Monkey Temple’, since there are a large number of monkey living in the stupa grounds and surrounding forests, living off the offerings made to the gods.
Built on top of a small hillock, Swayambhu has a collection of smaller temples and stupas in its periphery, which forms a large complex. It is interesting at right next to this bastion of Buddhism lies another popular Hindu temple for Harati Mata, or Ajima as she is known to the locals. This proximity of both religions is an accepted norm in Nepal, where Buddhists and Hindus not only live in harmony but also share beliefs and customs.
Pashupatinath (Lord of all animals) is a manifestation of Shiva and the state god (if he can be called that) of Nepal, especially true during the reign of the monarchy when the king ended all state addresses with the phrase ‘may Pashupatinath protect us all’. This is one of the holiest temples in Hinduism, and attracts hundreds of thousands of pilgrims from all over Nepal and India during festivals. The many pictures of dreadlocked sadhus in loincloths are mostly taken in Pashupati during Shivaratri, the festival of Lord Shiva.
Apart from the large Pashupati temple with its gold plated roof and silver doors, the area is a huge complex of smaller shrines dedicated to Shiva and many other gods and goddesses. There is the half buried image of Kali, the tenth incarnation of Vishnu who is yet to appear in the world. When this image comes out of the ground completely, then we know it is the end of the world.
Pashupati is also one of the major cremation sites in Kathmandu, where the dead are cremated and their ashes scattered in the holy Bagmati river that flows right next to the temple.
Unfortunately for visitors, non-Hindus are not allowed into the temple complex. However, tourists can look into the temple complex and witness the funeral pyres from across the river, which also has a collection of smaller temples.
A subtle difference that can be noticed between Kathmandu and Patan is that as you explore Patan, you notice that there is a predominance of Buddhism in Patan, more pronounced than in Kathmandu. There are certain castes of newars, such as the Shakyas and Bajracharyas, who are Buddhists. But even these Buddhists pray to Hindu gods like Ganesh, Laxmi and Bhimsen, same as Hindus in Nepal Pray in Buddhist religious sites.
Patan Durbar Square
Patan Durbar Square is famous for, among other things, the Krishna Mandir, or Krishna’s temple. This is a stone structure, unlike the wooden beams and carvings used in the surrounding construction. The teachings of Krishna from the Mahabharat is carved in pictorial representation around the temple.
Besides Krishna Mandir, Patan’s Durbar Square boasts of many beautiful courtyard and temples, making it a living breathing museum. A short stopover in Patan is definitely recommended.
Patan Museum is considered one of the best maintained museums in the region, and is an interesting walk through the old palace of the king of Patan. Enjoy the secluded garden in the museum to rest your tired feet, or try the café inside which serves quite a snack.
The Bagalamukhi temple is dedicated to Bagalamukhi mai, and there is a throng of worshippers on Thursday coming to ask for her blessings. Within the same temple complex is the temple of Khumbeshwor Mahadev. During the festival of Janai Purnima, shamans from all across Nepal journey to this temple and sing and dance in their traditional long flowing white tunics, elaborate headgear and their drums. There is also an underground source of cool and fresh water which is said to come directly from Gosaikunda lake.
Bhaktapur, being further off from the main city, has largely escaped the rapid modernization of Kathmandu and Lalitpur. To save Bhaktapur from the same fate, it is now a preserved city. Thus, any new houses built within the city limits has to use traditional materials and follow traditional architecture, but can of course have all the modern amenities inside the houses. The municipality of Bhaktapur also subsides the cost of these houses, making it easier for the residents.
Due to this policy adopted by Bhaktapur, it is the best maintained living breathing old city. The good part is it is not just a tourist attraction. People still and work here, and this adds to the atmosphere of a real city instead of a mock town. Motorized vehicles are not allowed in certain sections, and the sight of carefree children playing in the square, groups of old men soaking in the sun, all give the impression of life as it used to be.
The Nyatapole temple is one of the main attractions in Bhaktapur, and you cannot miss this gigantic structure with pairs of stone statues guarding it. On the bottom are two wrestlers, ten times stronger than normal men. If you get past them, there are elephants, again ten times stronger than the wrestlers. Beyond the elephants is a pair of tigers, and beyond the tigers a pair of griffins, all ten times stronger than the ones below.
Palace of Fifty five Windows
This palace was originally built sometime in the 15th century, but remodeled later on in the 17th century. Some say there really are fifty five windows, others say it is just a name, but all agree that the beauty of this palace is the excellent wood carving on the windows, where it probably got it name from
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