Back in the 1960s, Kathmandu was a haven for many people wanting to “tune in, turn on and drop out”. Today while travelers of all ages and interests visit the valley-sheltered capital of Nepal one thing hasn’t changed: this cultural time capsule remains as one of the world’s most fascinating cities.
Proof of this can be found throughout the ancient city but perhaps nowhere better than in Durbar Square, a star-studded, World Heritage listed stage filled with history from the time when Nepal was a totally isolated Himalayan kingdom. The country only opened its borders to tourists in 1951.
Durbar Square, the main meeting place for local people and hordes of tourists in old Kathmandu, is also called “Palace Square” as it contains Hanuman Dhoka the historic palace that housed an authoritarian dynasty of Nepalese kings.
Guarded by a large statue of the Hindu Monkey God, Hanuman, this immense palace complex from the 17th century is itself a treasure trove of temples and cenotaphs.
A small admission fee opens embellished doors that conceal a priceless collection of Nepalese art and architecture. An advance notice: most of what’s been carved on palace roof beams and walls is highly erotic! It’s easy to spend an entire day here but unfortunately, cameras are banned so you’ll only be able to take away memories.
If you have the time and energy, climb the nine stories to the top of the Basantapur Tower in the palace grounds. If it’s during the optimum season from October to April your effort will be rewarded with a marvelous blue-sky view over Kathmandu and its glorious valley. As well, the panorama sweeps across countless pagodas, shrines, temples, and one very special residence.
Apart from stone beasts on each side of a big bronze door, there’s nothing of great interest on the outside of the Kumari Bahal. And once inside the Durbar Square courtyard of this wooden building completed in the mid 17th century there’s nothing that instantly reveals it to be the royal residence of a “Living Goddess”.
It’s only when you see a young girl dressed in crimson and adorned in a distinctive eye to temple makeup that you realize this is no ordinary residence. And its prime resident is no ordinary girl as she was selected through an elaborate centuries-old ritual to be a goddess. It’s a position she retains until puberty.
From her ceremonious installation as the living representation of a deity at the age of 3 or 4 until she is succeeded by the next goddess, her world is virtually confined to the boundaries of this curious, wooden castle.
The photography of the young girl is not allowed. The only photos that can be taken are during the Indra Jatra Festival in September when she is transported from the square through the city in a special carriage.
Elsewhere in Durbar Square, the architectural showpiece of a landlocked country just over twice the size of Tasmania, is a wealth of statues and structures. They, too, could easily take a day to casually explore. Most are so old that they wouldn’t be out of place in the Middle Ages but that’s when many of them were built anyway!
There’s hardly a hint of modernization in this old part of Kathmandu and despite the crowded and untidy conditions, meandering cows, odd aromas, and impish children it has a magnetic appeal to virtually all travelers.
If you can force yourself to leave this kaleidoscope of endless activity and unparalleled art wander along Makhan Tole, a street lined with unusual sights, sounds, scents, and souvenirs. Shopping in Kathmandu is a suitcase-filling experience that need not cost a ransom in Rupees. Half the fun is just window shopping and trying to guess the use of some of the unusual things on sale.
While local people purchase their daily necessities along Makhan Tole there’s no shortage of truly unusual mementos for the nearly 500,000 tourists who annually call on Kathmandu.
Imagine buying a metal jewelry box studded with semi-precious stones for a few dollars or a Buddhist prayer wheel in silver or copper for a similar amount. Not everyone sends out correspondence on handmade rice paper, gives lavishly crafted and decorated puppets for Christmas gifts, or has a yak butter dish in their kitchen but it’s all here at giveaway prices.
Few can resist the bargains and consequently many end up with more than they can carry back home. To get away from temptation, at least temporarily, and at the same time have a beautiful vista over the Kathmandu Valley it’s necessary to venture beyond the densely packed central city to Boudhanath.
The Buddhist temple of Boudhanath is one of the most recognizable landmarks in the Kingdom. There are other buildings in the complex but none are like the one that is the focal point for the religious faithful, particularly those belonging to sects of Tibetan Buddhism.
Set on a whitewashed hemisphere of brick covered earth is a square block decorated on all sides by the watchful eyes of the Buddha. Above this are 13 concentric rings representing the 13 degrees of knowledge. At the top of everything is an ornate umbrella that symbolizes Nirvana, the final escape from existence.
Twirling prayer wheels, devotees walk clockwise around the base of this dazzling structure considered to be one of the largest Buddhist temples in the world. Hidden deep within its bowels is a bone that reputedly belonged to the Buddha. Everything here is real but in turn, everything seems to be a fantasy.
During short walks or even bicycle rides to and from this awesome place, much of the splendid valley including quaint rural scenes can be savored. As well, a few other spires can be seen.
Only a few km away is the gleaming, golden roofed Pashupatinath Temple, one of Hinduism’s holiest places in the kingdom. Sited on the Bagmati River, a tributary of the sacred Ganges, the temple is part of a grand religious compound. Though the temple had its origins in the 1690s the area has received the attention of worshipers for at least 1500 years.
It’s easy to visually “overdose” in this cultural time capsule. There is so much to see from spectacular processions that are sometimes accompanied with strange-sounding music to ash-covered sadhus or holy men who, along with devout Hindus, wander through the complex. It’s a three-ringed circus without the rings!
While there are modern pockets of Kathmandu that boast of airline offices; diplomatic missions; commercial buildings; posh restaurants, hotels and residences, and even well-stocked department stores it’s the older parts of the capital that continue to have the most fascination for visitors. Jyatha, bordering on the popular budget tourist district of Thamel, is another such area.