Category: News @ Nepal.

Kathmandu Valley: A Living Museum

Jaideep Mukerji with Veeresh Malik


Jaideep Mukerji explores a wealth of history & grand architectural traditions and basks in a unique cultural experience—not too far from home.

A jewel of South Asian cultural heritage, the Kathmandu valley, is located a short flight away from India’s metros. Within less than a 20-kilometre radius of Nepal’s bustling capital city of Kathmandu, are located no less than seven World Heritage Sites, a record unmatched anywhere in the world. Nepal’s gentle blend of Hindu and Buddhist beliefs and the traditions of the valley’s Newari community led to a rich flowering of architectural styles and the Kathmandu valley has many famous Hindu and Buddhist palaces and temples.

The city of Kathmandu, once known as Kantipur, has its origins in the eighth century, and had its heyday from the 16th to 18th century. The Durbar Square, Kathmandu’s central meeting area, is the nearest of the Heritage Sites and a living open-air museum, in which people still live. The Square is a cluster of ancient temples, palaces, courtyards and streets that date back to the 12th and 18th centuries. The Square is known to be the social, religious and urban focal point of the capital city. The place is alive with locals, tourists of all nationalities, intermingled with stalls displaying a wide variety of Nepalese and Tibetan handicrafts. While at Durbar Square, do not miss ‘Freak Street’—a famous hippie meeting place from the 1960s.

The area also includes the Royal Palace with its gilded gates and elaborate statues. The Palace complex was the royal Nepalese residence until the 19th century and, until the recent abolition of the Nepalese monarchy, it was the site of important ceremonies such as the coronation of the Nepalese king. The Palace is decorated with elaborately-carved wooden windows and panels. It houses the King Tribhuvan Memorial Museum and the Mahendra Museum.

From the heart of Kathmandu, travel only a few kilometres to Swayambhunath Temple, Nepal’s most significant centre of Buddhist worship and another World Heritage Site. There has been a temple on this site since at least the fifth century.

Swayambhunath is also known as the ‘Monkey Temple’ due to the large population of monkeys that have made the grounds its home. The temple buildings are atop a hill and offer an excellent view of Kathmandu city and its valley. The Swayambhunath complex consists of a stupa, a variety of shrines and temples. A Tibetan monastery, museum and library are the more recent additions. The stupa has Buddha’s eyes and eyebrows painted on it. Between them, is the Nepali symbol of ‘unity’.

Our next stop is Pashupatinath Temple, an interesting place located on the banks of the sacred Bagmati River where you can see people bathing at the ghats. Pashupatinath Temple, with its astonishing architectural beauty, stands as a symbol of faith, religion, culture and tradition for millions of Hindus of the Indian subcontinent. Regarded as the most sacred temple of Lord Shiva in the world, Pashupatinath Temple’s existence dates back to 400AD. The richly-ornamented pagoda houses the sacred lingam or symbol of Lord Shiva. In August, during the Teej festival, thousands of women visit the Temple to bathe in the holy waters of the Bagmati River. Because this ritual is meant to bestow a long and happy marriage, many women dress in red saris which are traditionally worn for wedding ceremonies. Full moon and new moon days are also considered auspicious for a visit to the Temple.

Boudhanath stupa, one of the largest spherical stupas in Nepal and also one of the holiest Buddhist sites in the Kathmandu valley, is our next stop on the list of World Heritage Sites. Boudhanath stupa is one of the oldest stupas in Nepal and, after the 1959 invasion of Tibet by China, many Tibetans arrived and settled in the Boudhanath area. With a diameter of about 100 meters and 40 meters height, Boudhanath holds its place among the largest stupas in the world. The influx of large populations of refugees from Tibet over the decades has seen the construction of over 50 Tibetan gompas (monasteries) around Boudhanath’s main stupa.

Situated in the centre of Patan city (also known as Lalitpur) are the palaces and temples of the former Patan royal family. Patan Square (another World Heritage Site) and its surroundings are excellent examples of ancient Newari architecture.
There are three main courtyards in the palace: Mul Chowk, Sundari Chowk and Keshav Narayan Chowk. Mul Chowk, the oldest one, is at the centre of Patan Square. Several multi-sized and multi-storeyed temples occupy the western part of Patan complex; the main among these are: Krishna Temple, Bhimsen Temple and the Golden Temple of Hiranya Varna.

Once an entirely separate town, Bhaktapur (called Bhadgaon locally), 13km to the east, is now a suburb of Kathmandu city. Stretched along a ridge above the Hanumante River, Bhaktapur grew from a collection of villages strung along the old trade route between India and Tibet. Like an island, the medieval town rises out of lush green fields of rice; huddled red-tiled roofs punctured by the soaring spire of the five-storied Nyatapola Temple, and set against the almost movie-like backdrop of the snow-capped Himalayas. Bhaktapur is almost entirely inhabited by the Newari community and very rural at heart. About 60% of its 80,000 residents are farmers, among the country’s best. From the rich black soil of the valley, they reap rice and other crops which are the best in Nepal.

Bhaktapur’s deep involvement in land is apparent in the people on its streets: women farmers, in their characteristic red-border black saris pleated in the front and raised high in back, revealing blue tattoos above their ankles; and farmers with double baskets of giant radishes suspended from their shoulders.

Bhaktapur’s main square, the Durbar Square, houses the 55-window palace which was constructed by King Jitamitra Malla and was home to royalty until 1769. It is now a national gallery. Bhaktapur is still an untouched and well-preserved medieval city. The Durbar Square is surrounded by spectacular architecture and vividly showcases the skills of the Newari artists and craftsmen over several centuries. The royal palace was originally situated at Dattaraya Square and was only later moved to the present Durbar Square location. The Square was severely damaged by an earthquake in 1934; hence, it appears very spacious compared to others located in Kathmandu and Patan.

Away from Kathmandu’s Thamel area, so popular with tourists and away from the popular flashy casinos, lies a wealth of history and grand architectural traditions waiting to be explored by the inquisitive traveller looking for a unique cultural experience not too far from home.

Why Go There: To see and experience no less than seven World Heritage Sites within a 20-km radius, each with its own rich history. All this and more within a short hour or two flying time from home and at a very affordable cost.

When To Go: Although the country is small, Nepal’s weather varies from location to location depending mainly on the elevation. Spring and autumn are the best seasons to visit Nepal. Pokhara is an exception as it is in a lower valley, pleasant even during winter. In winter, you can enjoy better views of snow-capped mountains and clear blue skies.

Getting There: By air with several low-cost and regular airlines from Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata to Kathmandu.

Visas: Indian nationals travelling from India to Nepal do not need a Nepal visa. A valid Indian passport or an election ID card is required for presentation at immigration to obtain an entry permit.

Where To Stay: Travel arrangements within Nepal can be made through a Nepalese (or Indian) tour operator who will arrange accommodation, transport, guides and complete travel support. A list of operators, travel itineraries and information is available at www.visitnepal.com. My travel arrangements were made entirely by one of Nepal’s oldest tour operators, Himalaya Expeditions, www.himexnepal.com.

Currency: The Nepalese currency is also called rupee (NPR); the rate is about 160 Nepalese rupees to 100 Indian rupees. Credit cards (American Express and Visa) are accepted widely in Kathmandu valley. The Indian rupee is accepted all over Nepal.

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Category: News @ Nepal