Kathmandu, Bhaktapur, Nagarkot, Kurintar, Pokhara and Chitwan
We started our walking tour of the city, through the old part, the bazaar and the Durbar Square area, passing some large fruit bats in a tree. Kathmandu is chaotic, but seems less so than Delhi, to which it bears some resemblance. However the tangle of electricity wires in the streets is just as interesting, haphazard and alarming. So it isn’t perhaps surprising that the power is cut off every day for three hours in the morning and then again in the evening. It’s OK in the hotels, as the generators then kick in after a few seconds delay.
Kathmandu was founded in the 9th century alongside other sophisticated urban centres in the surrounding valley, which had been founded by the Lichhavi kings. It was then known as Kantipur and got its present name from the Kasthamandap (wood pavilion) which was set up as a rest-house on the main Tibet-India trade route in the 12th century and is still standing. The city became prominent in the 13th century under the Malla kings and a golden age of art and architecture followed, lasting for over 500 years. In 1769 Prithvi Narayan Shah defeated the Malla kings and created a unified Nepal with Kathmandu as its capital and a new dynasty (the Shah), which stayed in power until 2006 and was finally abolished in 2008.
The old city is a mass of narrow alleys and temples with lots of motorbikes and rickshaws, but without the mass of tuk-tuks of the Indian cities. We made our way to Basantapur Square (formerly the site of royal elephants stables), which has a school at one end and provides a play area for the children.
Adjacent to Basantapur Square is the traffic-free Durbar Square, which contains the Old Royal Palace, various temples such as Kasthamandap and Jagannath. Statues include Kala Bhairab, which represents Shiva in his destructive form. There is also the Kumari Chowk, which is home to Kathmandu’s ‘living goddess’. The cult of the living goddess or Kumari perfectly illustrates the unique Nepalese blend of Hinduism, Buddhism and original indigenous religious elements. A prepubescent girl between the ages of three and five is chosen and worshipped as an incarnation of the goddess Taleju until menstruation. The goddess’s spirit is then deemed to leave her and she returns to normal life with a modest pension and hopefully a husband. Her successor is then selected. The Kumari is considered a Hindu goddess, but is chosen by elders from the Buddhist Shakya clan of goldsmiths. Ideally she should be chosen from among those who exhibit 32 auspicious signs such as a neck like a conch shell. She then lives a cloistered life within the Chowk for about ten years, looked after by attendants and educated on her own, but allowed to play with other children. She is only allowed outside during a small number of festivals, when she is carried along on her throne; her feet are not allowed to touch the ground. She shows herself at times from a first-floor window, dressed in red and silver jewellery with a third eye painted in red on her forehead.
The Old Royal Palace dates from the 16th and 17th centuries and covers five acres, although only a small part is open to the public. The former royal family moved out in 1886. The entrance to the palace is through the Hanuman Dhoka (Hanuman Gate), which is named after the monkey god Hanuman who is considered to be an avatar of Vishnu and whose statue stands guard outside. The statue was erected in the 17th century to drive away evil spirits and is veiled to make its gaze safe to mortals, as well as being garlanded and covered in red paste.
Kasthamandap temple is the oldest structure in Kathmandu and is said to have been built from a single tree in the12th century, although it has had several renovations since 1630. Jagannath Mandir is a 16th century pagoda-style temple and is dedicated to the god, whose chariot festival gave rise to our word ‘juggernaut’. It is noted for the erotic carvings on its roof struts and a popular belief is that they protect the temple from lightning, because that goddess is a chaste virgin who wouldn’t come near a temple with such decorations. The 18th century Shiva Parbati Temple is rectangular and has just one roof. Painted wooden figures of Shiva and Parbati lean out of the central first-floor window.
The square also has a column with a gold statue of King Pratap Malla on top and such columns with 17th century Malla kings feature in various locations. The Kala Bhairab statue is carved from a single massive block of black stone and is probably pre 9th century. Here the destructive Shiva is dancing on the corpse of a demon. It used to be said that anyone who told a lie in front of it would vomit blood and immediately die.
We then went on to Boudhanath about 5km eastwards, which has one of the world’s largest stupas and most important Tibetan Buddhist monuments outside Tibet. Since 1959 it has been the focus for Tibetan exiles in Nepal, but it has been a sacred site for centuries. The stupa is dazzling white and very impressive, with the Buddha’s four eyes painted on the four sides of the central spire and the thirteen golden steps to nirvana above them. Around the dome are 108 (an auspicious number) small images of Buddhas, lamas and deities set in niches. It is draped in prayer flags and dwarfs the tall houses in the piazza around it. The stupa now is surrounded by souvenir shops and cafes, but there are also gompas or monasteries to house the monks. Its origins probably go back to the 5th century and, although it has been sealed for a long time, it encloses holy relics (possibly part of the Buddha’s body) along with sacred texts and ritual objects. We had lunch in a roof-top restaurant overlooking the stupa.
After lunch we drove to Pashupatinath on the Bagmati River, which is between Boudhanath and the centre of Kathmandu and is Nepal’s holiest Hindu pilgrimage site, probably dating back to the 3rd century BC. Pashupati (the Lord of the Animals) is an avatar of Shiva and it is he who is worshipped in all the temples here. The riverbank ghats are cremation and bathing places for the worshippers. Despite the pollution bathing is held to be second only to cremation in terms of ritual and it is widely believed that married couples who bathe here together will be remarried in the next life. There are frequent cremations along the stone embankment and we saw three whilst we were there, plus a large party of Indian pilgrims. The scene had a smoky and rather eerie atmosphere, with cows resting on the bank opposite. Many of the buildings around the main temple are dharmsala (rest-houses for pilgrims) and reserved here for devout Hindus who are near death. They are placed by the river and given a last drink of holy water from the river, which no doubt hastens their demise. On the east bank opposite are fifteen shivalaya, great stone linga shelters, which were built in the 19th century to honour women who had committed sati on their husband’s pyres.
That evening we ate in a restaurant where we were entertained by dancers.
The following morning we left Kathmandu to drive to Nagarkot and visited Bhaktapur on the way. Bhaktapur has much the same architecture as the old part of Kathmandu and is reckoned to look something like Kathmandu must have done before modern times. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is also a quintessential Newari city with its herringbone-paved streets, narrow alleys, carved dark wood and close-packed buildings. Newars were essentially a hill people and are now found all across Nepal, but their main homeland is the Kathmandu Valley. They form an amalgam of all Nepalese culture and are Hindus and Buddhists at the same time. They created the special culture of religious and ethnic tolerance that still exists in Nepal. They are also credited with the discovery of the pagoda. Bhaktapur was probably founded in the 8th century and ruled Nepal from 1200 until 1482, when King Yaksha Malla divided the kingdom between his three sons, which caused three centuries of continuous squabbling.
Durbar Square has one of Nepal’s best artistic achievements, the Golden Gate (to the palace) dating from 1754. It is in fact made from gilt copper repoussé full of fine and exuberant detail. The torana, or wooden carving, above the door features a winged Garuda, a ten-armed, four-headed Taleju (the Malla’s guardian deity) and beside the gate are figures of Bhairab and Kali. Taleju is now equated with Durga and receives a sacrifice of 108 buffalo on the ninth day of the Dasain festival. The Royal Palace has five courtyards and the finest section is the east wing, which is known as the Palace of 55 Windows. It was built around 1700 by Bupalendra Malla, whose kneeling figure features on a stone pillar opposite with a serpent coiled around the lotus-flower base and a bird on the serpent’s head. Through the Golden Gate a passage leads to Naga Pokhari (snake pond), which is a 16th century royal bath. The waterspout features writhing gilt-copper animals, overlooked by two naga figures, one on a column in the middle of the bath. The 15th century Yaksheswar Temple is the oldest building in Bhaktapur and its roof struts show deviant erotic carvings. Next to it is the18th century Batsala Durga Temple of Indian shikra design. The stone creatures on its stairs indicate Chinese influence. In front of this temple is the large Taleju Bell. On the eastern side of the square is the Siddhi Lakshmi Temple, again of shikra design with pairs of warriors and fierce animals on its stairs.
Just below Durbar Square is another square Taumadhi Tol. Dominating the square is Nyatapola Temple, a tall graceful five tiered pagoda. There are five pairs of guardians on the steps, Malla wrestlers, elephants, lions, griffins and minor goddesses, each pair being considered ten times as strong as the pair below it. Near Taumadhi Tol is Potters’ Square, where the pots are laid out to dry. We saw pots being turned on a hand-driven wooden wheel and being stacked up between layers of straw ready for firing. A little way east of Durbar Square is Dattatreya Square (or Tachapol Tol). Dattatreya Square features the temple of the same name. Built in1427 it is one of Bhaktapur’s oldest structures and is guarded by two large Malla wrestlers. In front of it is a statue of Garuda on a stone pillar. Like the Kasthamandap in Kathmandu it used to be a three-storey loggia and public meeting place. Dattatreya is a Hindu god, but also recognised as a bodhisattva by Buddhists. Nearby is the sumptuous 18th century Pujari Math, which used to be priests’ quarters and which houses the much-admired Peacock Window. It overlooks a narrow street and is regarded as the finest example of Nepalese window-lattice carving.
Nagarkot stands at an altitude of 2174m on a ridge between two valleys 35km east of Kathmandu. We stayed in a lodge which had good views all round. The first morning we got up at 4.00am to drive to a viewing-point to see sunrise over the Himalayas. Fortunately the weather was crystal clear and we had fabulous views of the mountains becoming more and more distinct as the sun rose. From that location Everest (or Sagarmatha as it’s called locally) is somewhat dwarfed by other mountains and doesn’t even appear to be the tallest. After breakfast back at the lodge we went on a longish walk to another viewing-point, but there was cloud cover when we arrived, so we couldn’t see the mountains from there. However the walk was interesting and enjoyable. Later in the day we went on another shorter walk through a nearby village.
The next day we left for the Trisuli River and had an 18km white-water raft trip. This ride is graded at level three, so not the most hair-raising, but we did go through a lot of rapids. Our boatman was very experienced and we had four young lads in canoes, as well as a safety-boat, to look after us. Of course everyone got thoroughly soaked, but it was exciting and most enjoyable amongst lovely scenery.
We then went on to our lodge at Kurintar on the banks of the river. The first morning there we went out before breakfast to look for birds and did manage to see a few. Breakfasts there were the only really poor food we had in Nepal and there was virtually no choice. Later we went on a visit to the Shree Manakamana Deaf School, where the children board. It was interesting, but slightly odd to see the whole school being drilled in physical exercises outside. We then continued to the hill village of Gorkha, which gave its name to the Gurkha soldiers and from where King Prithvi Narayan Shah unified Nepal in the 18th century. The road stops some way before the village, so we had an uphill walk for the last mile or so. We went on a further 300m up a stone stairway to the Gorkha Durbar, the king’s old palace fort. It was conceived as a dwelling for both kings and gods and still retains its religious connections. As Dasain was due to begin shortly animal sacrifice was getting under way and we did see headless goat carcasses being de-haired. There was also a sadhu there. The palace is a brick and wood Newari construction, but is somewhat austere and entry is barred to all except priests.
The next day we left Kurintar to drive to Pokhara. On the way we stopped to travel up Nepal’s only cable car and visit the village of Manakamana, which is situated on a ridge high above the Trisuli River and home to the famous wish-granting temple. From the top of the cable car a path takes you past souvenir and produce sellers to the Manakamana Devi Temple set in a square under an enormous sacred champ tree. It is said that the goddess Bhagwati grants the wishes of all those who make the pilgrimage there. Poorer pilgrims who cannot afford the cable car toil up a path on foot from the other side of the hill. We saw lots of people queuing for the temple, as well as a line of seated sadhus waiting to be consulted. It is a very attractive and lively location and there are good views of the Himalayas, especially from just beyond the square. We also enjoyed a local delicacy, a kind of doughnut made from rice flour.
Pokhara is set beside the peaceful Lake Phewa Tal and below the Annapurna and Manaslu mountains. It has a stunning position, with a pleasant street of shops and restaurants between our hotel and the lake. We were fortunate to have completely clear early morning views of the mountains both days we were there. Our first trip was a walk round the lake and up to the 1113m high ridge opposite to see the World Peace Stupa. Unfortunately the clouds had closed in when we arrived and we didn’t get views of the mountains from up there. However the walk was very enjoyable and the stupa was definitely worth seeing. We walked down to the lake and took small boats back, stopping at the Tal Barahi island shrine en route.
The next day we drove out to see Tashiling village, a settlement for Tibetan refugees, and watched wool being sorted and woven into carpets and rugs. Also in the village is the Shree Gaden Dhargay Ling Buddhist monastery, where we paid a short visit. After that we went to the International Mountaineering Museum, which has historical climbing equipment, large-scale model peaks and information on the culture, geology, flora and fauna of the Himalayas, plus a life-size model of a yeti. It was a very static collection with a lot of items and would have benefitted from a modicum of interactivity or more invention to the layout.
Chitwan National Park
The following day we left Pokhara, returned to the Trisuli River at Mugling and followed the Narayani River to Naryanghadh into the Western Terai region. We continued along a very bumpy unmade road to our lodge near the village of Jagatpur on the edge of the national park. Formerly a private hunting ground Chitwan (meaning ‘heart of the jungle’) is now a national park with thick tree cover and tall elephant grass. There are around 100 tigers in Chitwan, but the chances of seeing one are virtually nil, so of course we didn’t. When we arrived we had an early evening walk to the local village. A girl had caught a turtle, which she let out of the bucket for us to see. Also two oxen were ploughing a field in the traditional way with the ploughman standing on the wooden plough. Domestic life tends to be communal and we saw women washing bowls under a pump, as well as pieces of fish left out to dry on a wire frame.
During our next two days there we had two elephant rides, one in the morning and one later in the day. The first one was better and we saw several rhino, including a mother with her calf, as well as a honey buzzard and a white-throated kingfisher. On this ride we passed a group of working elephants carrying bundles of the long grass for thatching and a baby elephant was with them. We also experienced an elephant bath. This actually meant that the elephants showered us, whilst we sat on their backs. As background information we had a talk about the elephants in Chitwan.
We also visited a crocodile breeding reserve. There are two types of crocodile in Nepal, the gharial with the long thin snout and the quaintly named mugger; we saw both varieties in the river, where we then had a sunset boat trip in dugout canoes. This was very peaceful and we got a good view of a rhino on the bank, as well as seeing some hog deer and a peacock. Another activity was a bird-watching/nature walk, where we saw a number of birds, including a red-wattled lapwing, a stonechat, a woolly-necked stork and some jungle myna. We also came across a fisherman, who had just caught a large catfish.
After Chitwan we drove back to Kathmandu and on the way passed through a village, where an enormous swing, about 15m high, was being built for Dasain out of long bamboo poles. After the initial stages two men shin up to the top and tie it all together. Later on we saw one of these swings in action. In another village we also witnessed children gambling, whilst the adults played ludo. Apparently during Dasain children are allowed to gamble, whilst adults are not.
The next day we started with a visit to Swayambunath on the western edge of the city. Its stupa is known as the ‘monkey temple’, for reasons which quickly became apparent. It has a magnificent situation on a conical hill with panoramic views of Kathmandu below. A boy was flying a kite there, which added to the atmosphere. The stupa dates back to the 5th century; it is smaller than the one at Boudhanath, but just as eye-catching. The hill was probably used for animist rites before the advent of Buddhism in the valley 2000 years ago. According to Tantric Buddhists it is the main power point of the valley. Since the Chinese takeover of Tibet in 1959 it has also become home to many exiled Tibetans. Prayer wheels are a big feature in Swayambunath and the stupa is also surrounded by a plethora of shrines, bells, carvings and statues, not to mention the dishes with burning sacrifices. With all the tourists as well the whole place is jam-packed!
We then went to Patan, which was the capital of an independent kingdom until 1769, but is now part of greater Kathmandu. We visited Durbar Square and the Golden Temple just to the north of it. One advantage of this area is that it is pedestrianized and free from the ubiquitous motor cycles. The Royal Palace features along one side of the square and consists of three main wings, each with a central courtyard. Then there is the Patan Museum, also once part of the palace. Otherwise there are a number of Hindu temples, including the 18th century octagonal Chyasin Dewal. Beside that is the cast-iron Taleju Bell, the first to be erected in the valley in 1736. Opposite the bell is a statue of King Yoganendra Malla on a pillar with a cobra rearing up behind him and a small bird on its head. Legend has it that as long as the bird remains there, the king is still alive, and a bed is kept ready for him in the palace. The Jagan Narayan temple is the oldest in the square and the most unusual is the 17th century Krishna temple. It is a Mughal-style stone shikra encircled by three levels of verandas, which have detailed scenes from the Mahabharata and the Ramayana Hindu epics carved along the lintels. The Hiranyavarna Mahavihara or Golden Temple, a three-tiered pagoda, is lavishly decorated. The gilt façade, embossed with images of Buddhas and Taras, is considered the finest example of large-scale repoussé metalwork in Nepal. The courtyard has a small ornamented shrine in the middle. The temple and the shrine both have long metal bands, called pataka, coming down the roof. These are supposed to provide slides for the gods to descend quickly and answer worshippers’ prayers. It is an important centre of worship and the shrine is tended by the principal priest, who is a boy of twelve or younger.
And so ended our fascinating tour of Nepal.