Kathmandu Valley: Part 1 – sacred spaces



Kathmandu panorama from Swayambhunath temple

Kathmandu is the gateway to the Himalayas. Tucked away in the eponymous valley, the capital of Nepal stands at 1,400 meters (4,600 ft) above the sea level and for most visitors is just an entry point in transit to even greater elevations of the majestic mountains. Me – I like to linger and enjoy things close by before going for the mountain peaks. Kathmandu Valley, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a perfect place to acquaint yourself with the rich cultural tapestry that is Nepal.

The valley once was an important trade route from India to Tibet, which explains a ubiquitous and fascinating mix of Hindu and Buddhist influences in local beliefs, architecture, and food. Historically the valley was settled by the Newars, a tribe of Indian and Tibeto-Burman origin. “Nepal” and “Newar” are phonetically different forms of the same word.

Due to modern migration, however, today Newars constitute a minority in their ancestral homeland. Their golden age came in the 17th century and that is when most of Nepal’s iconic structures date from. At the time the Kathmandu Valley was dominated by three rival city-states ruled from the 12th-18th century by the Malla dynasty: Kantipur (today Kathmandu), Lalitpur (Patan), and Bhadgaon (Bhaktapur). Their competition for greatness is evidenced in each city’s magnificent Durbar Squares (“durbar” means palace) with the respective royal palaces and countless temples clearly trying to outdo each other in size and opulence. The rivalry ended when Gorkha king Prithvi Narayan Shah managed to unite Nepal in 1768-9 and Kathmandu gained its lasting supremacy that made it the country’s prime metropolis.

I will talk about Patan and Bhaktapur in parts 2 & 3 of this blog, devoting this one just to Kathmandu and places in the immediate vicinity. Let’s start with the heart of Kathmandu, its tourist mecca Thamel and the amazing Durbar Square.

Thamel is Kathmandu’s prime tourist district rivaling Bangkok’s famous Khao San Road. Here you’ll find everything from cheap accommodations, countless souvenirs, to great food (like delicious local dumplings, momos, at the Thamel House restaurant for example).


Bustling Thamel

On the way south from Thamel a short walk to Durbar Square reveals Nepal’s fascinating quality of effortlessly mixing the divine with the profane. Ancient temples sit at busy intersections and occupy small, packed squares. At Asan Tole, for instance, six streets converge and collide into a bustling bazaar. And right in the middle of it all – unexpectedly – stands a temple of Annapurna Ajimā, the goddess of abundant food grain. In one of the teahouses around the square, Cat Stevens (in his hippie days) penned his famous song Kathmandu – I’m guessing during the monsoon season when the skies are heavy with clouds:

I sit beside the dark
Beneath the mire
Cold gray dusty day
The mornin’ lake
Drinks up the sky

Katmandu, I’ll soon be seein’ you
And your strange bewilderin’ time
Will hold me down

Hundreds of similar atmospheric squares with adjacent teahouses, and temples are scattered across the city, perfectly intertwined and absorbed, as though through some strange process of osmosis, into the urban din. In fact, many serve the dual purpose of religious devotion and trade conducted right there on the temple steps.

Annapurna Ajimā temple

Annapurna Ajimā temple at Asan Tole

Mahadev Temple

Mahadev Temple at Indra Chowk square – completely taken over by textile merchants

Then there is my personal favorite spot where the divine seamlessly unites with the common: Itum Bahal. This large courtyard, hidden behind narrow gates at each end and easily missed, hides amazing Buddhist stupas in the midst of apartment buildings – and kids playing something that looked like a version of baseball =)

Itum Bahal

Fabulous stupas of Itum Bahal

Itum Bahal

…but not everybody is here to pray

Finally we reach Durbar. Stunning!

Kathmandu Durbar Square

Kathmandu’s magnificent Durbar Square

Durbar Square is hard to grasp with a camera lens and hard to describe – I simply have not seen anything quite like that before. The square surrounds Hanuman Dhoka, the royal palace where Nepali kings lived until about a century ago when they moved to the modern Narayanhiti palace. The view is unmatched: temple after temple after temple, one more gorgeous than the other… The temples rise up on platforms supported by four steep staircases, most have tiered red-brown roofs reminiscent of mountain peaks, and all simply overflow elaborate wooden carvings (some R-rated) and statuary devoted to the deity they are dedicated to. Nepal’s history and unique cultural flavor come alive here and the gods seem so much closer somehow… In fact, one of the goddesses, Kumari, lives right next door. Kumari, similar to Tibet’s Dalai Lama, is a child – a young girl in this case – chosen according to strict criteria under a Newari religious tradition to reside and be worshiped in an opulent house on Durbar Square until she reaches puberty. She is believed to be the incarnation of the goddess Taleju until she menstruates (or suffers other dramatic loss of blood). The courtyard of her house is a small oasis of peace in the bustling square.


A stone lion guards the entrance to Kathmandu’s Durbar Square

Hanuman Dhoka

The courtyard of Hanuman Dhoka palace

Durbar Square

Temple after temple after temple…


Tranquil courtyard of Kumari Bahal, house of the living goddess

Even if you’re not an expert on Hindu deities, temples can be usually easily identified by images of the creatures that respective gods use as modes of transportation. Nandi the bull guards Lord Shiva’s temples, winged Garuda always accompanies Vishnu, and a mouse is the mount of elephant-headed Ganesh.


Garuda, bird-like mount of the Lord Vishnu, in front of Trailokya Mohan temple

Time slows down here, and in the off-season there are many more locals than tourists simply going about their business and socializing at the temples. Life moves here at is own, slower pace, and that’s just fine by me… Durbar is such a unique place for people watching! Maju Deval, a tall Shiva temple towering over the section of the square filled with rickshaw drivers and marigold sellers, is one such beloved spot:Maju Deval
Durbar Square

…and the world goes by…

For a different vintage point duck into one of the many cafes at Durbar that has a rooftop terrace to enjoy views like this one of Kasthamandap temple after which Kathmandu takes its name. Legend has it that the temple was built in the 12th century from the wood of a single tree.

Kasthamandap temple

Kasthamandap temple

Look beyond the rainbow-colored roofs and walls of Kathmandu houses and you will see our next destination, Swayambhunath (aka Monkey) Temple.

Swayambhunath temple

Swayambhunath temple in the distance

A Buddhist temple of Swayambhunath, where monkeys famously seem to be in charge, provides iconic views of Kathmandu. According to the legend, now supported by geologic evidence, the valley was once a lake and Swayambhunath (meaning “self-arisen”) rose spontaneously above the waters. The temple compound on top of the hill can be reached by a stone pilgrim stairway – a cathartic experience in and of itself. At the top awaits a giant Buddhist stupa, which is a mound-like or hemispherical structure containing relics, usually the ashes of Buddhist monks, common in places around the world touched by the Buddhist civilization. White as snows of Mt. Everest, the stupa gleams against the blue sky surrounded by colorful Tibetan prayer flags radiating from its spire. Prayer wheels repeat the sacred mantras as pilgrims circumnavigate clockwise the stupa’s large platforms. And wherever you turn, you can’t escape the watchful eye of the Buddha’s four faces casting their protective gaze in four directions of the Kathmandu Valley. …Om mani padme hum… Only irreverent monkeys don’t pay attention, seeking instead a refreshing dip in the nearby pool.

Swayambhunath stupa

Swayambhunath stupa – a sight to behold

Swayambhunath stupa

Hundreds of prayer flags flutter in the wind…

Swayambhunath stupa

Pilgrims turn the prayer wheels


Monkeys enjoy a swim at the Swayambhunath pool

Another masterpiece of Buddhist culture in Kathmandu is Bodhnath (Boudha) – an enormous stupa on the outskirts of the city where historically Tibetan trades would pray before their treacherous trek across the Himalayas. That way of life stopped after the Chinese takeover of Tibet in 1959 and today most of the Tibetans living there are descendants of the refugees from that time period. The life here pulsates around the ritual clockwise circumnavigation complete with churning of the prayer wheels, fluttering of countless prayer flags, subtle hum of singing bowls, and quietly chanted mantras. There are claims that Bodhnath contains a piece of bone of Siddhartha Gautama, the Bhudda himself, who nota bene was born in what is now Nepal in the 6th century BC. The stupa is surrounded by merchants selling everything you need for a spiritual awakening, from colorful prayer bids to stunning thangkas – painstaking paintings made on cloth that depict various elaborate Buddhist mandalas. …Om mani padme hum


There is only one word to describe Bodhnath: wow!


Is there a more beautiful fight than hundreds of prayer flags in the wind?


Bodhnath stupa’s colorful surroundings – including several mini-stupas

Most people I met in Kathmandu described themselves as followers of both Buddhism and Hinduism and the city’s sacred spaces reflect that blending. But while Swayambhunath and Bodhnath are outwardly Buddhist in their architectural design, Pashupatinath temple has a strong Hindu character (one downside being that non-Hindus cannot enter the temple itself). Pashupatinath is the Nepali equivalent of the sacred burial site Varanasi in India on the Ganges river. While the Bagmati river’s banks may not be as impressive, the cremation sites, or ghats, have the same spiritual beauty. The temple brings together devotees of Shiva and sadhus, or holy men, from Nepal and beyond. The best way to observe the ancient rituals with due respect and to soak in the atmosphere of this place is from the opposite, tall bank of the Bagmati. Just like Durbar Square, this spot encourages quiet reflection and tranquil hours spent on people watching…


The ghats at Pashupatinath


Main temple, inaccessible to non-Hindus


Panorama from the opposing bank of the Bagmati river


Friendly – and colorful – sadhus at Pashupatinath


Peace, quiet, and serenity

Pashupatinath is also a reminder of Nepal’s recent painful history. Funerals of ten members of the royal family took place here after the massacre of 2001 when Crown Prince Dipendra opened fire at his relatives, and he himself died of wounds a few days later. His motivation for the killing will never be fully known. One common belief is that it had something to do with his family disapproving of Dipendra’s choice of a bride (conspiracy theories also abide). Whatever the reason, the massacre undisputedly contributed to the end of Nepal’s centuries of monarchy in 2006 when a popular uprising overthrew King Gyanendra, Dipendra’s disliked uncle who became king after everybody else ahead of him in line to the throne perished on that faithful day. The massacre also echoed another fateful day in Nepal’s history, the Kot massacre of 1846. After the death of Nepal’s unifier, Prithvi Narayan Shah, violent succession struggles followed for decades, culminating in a bloody power grab by one Jung Bahadur who later adopted the name Rana. He orchestrated a killing of 55 most important noblemen in the country while they gathered in the Kot courtyard next to Kathmandu’s Durbar Square, and his family sidelined the Shah kings and de facto ruled the country for the next hundred years. Today Nepal’s kings are just the royal ghosts…

How has (or hasn’t) Nepal changed since the end of the monarchy eight years ago? I don’t really know it well enough to comment myself. But I really enjoyed reading vignettes of the daily lives of inhabitants of Kathmandu captured by a contemporary Nepali author living in the U.S., Samrat Upadhyay, in his excellent book of short stories, The Royal Ghosts. As one reviewer put it, “There are no real ghosts in this collection, but the stories will haunt you. Reading them made me feel like an apparition, invisible eyes watching the characters lives unfold, for good or bad, and not being able to intervene. Every pivotal character in the collection seems to be cursed with a relentless compassion for others, a guilty conscience and a need to help others find their way even if it means losing their own in the process.”

I also really liked this video I found on YouTube contrasting images of the old and the new in the Kathmandu Valley. Enjoy and wait for parts 2 & 3 of this post devoted to Kathmandu’s sister cities of Patan and Bhaktapur!

Read on:


3 responses »

  1. Pingback: Kathmandu Valley: Part 2 – Patan | Sandstone and amber

  2. Pingback: Kathmandu Valley: Part 3 – Bhaktapur | Sandstone and amber

  3. Pingback: Thinking about Nepal | Sandstone and amber

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