Kathmandu has plenty to offer an intrepid traveller. With a couple of days in hand, Pradeep Chamaria goes exploring the Nepalese Capital and finds its art, history, culture and tradition opening up in front of him and his camera.
Kathmandu is the easiest and most comfortable place to get in as flights from all over India land here. For an Indian tourist, visiting Nepal is like travelling through another part of India. As soon as one comes out of the airport or bus stands, the scenes outside are all too familiar, witnessed by most of us back home.
I also chose Kathmandu to arrive in Nepal before embarking upon the Everest Base camp trek. After arriving I decided to acclimatize myself for two days before heading out on the trek. Exploratory by nature, I wanted to cover Kathmandu at my own pace.
I had two entire days with me, so I chose to go around using public transport as much as possible. After meeting my tour operator, Hiking Adventure Treks, to confirm my flight to Lukla for the trek, I set out to explore Kathmandu.
I quickly chalked up a rough list of places to visit, including Pashupati Nath Temple, Thamel, Hanuman- Dhoka Durbar Square (or the Basantpur Durbar), Boudh Stupa and Shanti Stupa. Along with Kathmandu Durbar (Hanuman Dhoka), I also wanted to check out the other two Durbars around Kathmandu ~ Bhaktapur Durbar and Patan Durbar.
As the day progressed, I started hopping from one mini-bus to the other or from one tempo to the other. And an enthralling repository of Nepalese art, history, culture and tradition opened up in front of my eyes and also for my cameras.
My hotel was located in Thamel area and so my day started at this popular tourist spot in Kathmandu. I found Thamel, a commercial hub and the centre of the tourist industry in Kathmandu, to be a twin copy of our own Paharganj in New Delhi.
It’s a kaleidoscope of crowded space, narrow lanes, hotels, travel agents and shops selling artefacts. Thamel, in fact, is one of the most picturesque places in Kathmandu, and I was only too happy to be here. My cameras went clicking non-stop and we made a great collection of images. I found the narrow alleys in Thamel crowded with souvenir shops, hotels, motels, travel agents, shops selling artefacts and an overhead jungle of electrical cables.
Cars, cycle rickshaws, two-wheelers and taxis navigating through the narrow streets made it difficult for me to walk. It was almost lunch time and I wanted to try out local cuisine. There were many restaurants here that serve traditional as well as Continental cuisine. But I settled for a traditional Daal-Bhaat-Thakali thali and thoroughly enjoyed my lunch.
Thamel also has a lot of pubs and bars and I was told that the nightlife is also tantalizing here because of many nightclubs. So I decided to move on to other tourist spots so that I could come back at night and enjoy a bit of nightlife.
Basantpur is quite close to Thamel and one can, in fact, walk through the narrow lanes and arrive at what is also called the Kathmandu Durbar Square. This complex of temples and shrines, both Hindu and Buddhist, epitomises the religious and cultural life of the people of Nepal.
Kathmandu Durbar Square is one of three Durbars in the Kathmandu Valley and is also known as the Hanuman Dhoka Palace Complex because of the kneeling statue of the Hindu god, Hanuman. I was quite amazed to see two different styles of temples of India and Nepal existing together here ~ the Shikhara style and the Pagoda style architecture.
As I moved on, I saw a massive statue of Kal Bhairav, representing Lord Shiva in his destructive manifestation, in an open temple. A smile spread across my tired face when I learnt that the police station just behind the temple uses the temple as a place for people to swear the truth.
It’s like taking the “Gita ki kasam kha kar kehta hun…(I swear on the Gita…)” oath. I guess the police will use all the divine help they can to solve crimes. It was time now to visit the Buddhist centres in town, and the Swayambhu Temple was my first stop. It was an early afternoon workout time for me as I had to climb 365 steps to visit the Swayambhu Temple, an ancient Buddhist stupa situated on a hilltop.
This is one of the oldest and the most sacred religious places in the country. The path along the 365 steps up to the complex is dotted with shrines and smaller temples. The architecture is quite breathtaking, and I found the massive Vajra (thunder bolt sceptre) stunning as I reached the top. The eyes of the Buddha are painted on all four sides of the stupa as if Lord Buddha is keeping a watchful eye on every devotee.
The view of Kathmandu city is stunning from the top. The Great Boudha Stupa was my next stop. It is the most sacred Stupa for the Tibetan Buddhists and also a UNESCO World Heritage site. Boudnath was constructed shortly after the demise of the Buddha and is the largest Stupa in the country and one of the largest in the entire world.
The Stupa reportedly entombs the remains of Kassapa Buddha. As I entered the courtyard, I saw a few devotees and monks sitting around the Stupa engrossed in their rituals and rotating the hand prayer wheels. The soothing chants of “Om Mane Padme Hum” were mesmerising and the gong sounding solemnly from the buildings surrounding the Stupa made me spellbound in the musical ambiance. As I approached the centre of the Stupa, I came across an area where devotees offer incense sticks and pray. It really was interesting to see a Tibetan devotee earnestly performing a pujahere.
By now it was late afternoon and I had already covered four important tourist spots in Kathmandu; I was again feeling hungry as the rice I had relished for lunch was quite light. I made my way up four floors to a rooftop restaurant with a panoramic view of the 100-foot dome of the Boudha Stupa and the courtyard below.
I tried out the Nepali snacks set, Khaja, and found it to be a perfect snack item. In fact, I had earlier eaten most of the items of the Khaja set at my grandfather’s place, bordering Nepal, in Bihar. But nevertheless it was a delicious experience. It was early evening hours and heavens opened up and a downpour started, so I decided to hurry on and took a cab to visit the almighty god, Lord Shiva’s temple, the Pashupatinath Temple.
I had always wanted to visit the Pashupati Nath temple, a famous and sacred Hindu temple complex on the banks of the Bagmati River. This temple is considered one of the most important Shiva temple, as the lingaat Pashupatinath in Kathmandu is said to be Shiva’s head.
The temple, which was built in 400 BC, has a richly ornamented pagoda that houses the sacred Shiva lingam. The temple complex is a huge collection of temples, ashrams and images spread over 264 hectares of land, and contains within it 518 temples and monuments. The temple courtyard has four entrances, one in each direction and the doors are covered with silver sheets.
The Nepalese pagoda style is used for the architecture of the main building, with the roofs being made of copper with a gold covering. There’s also a crematorium on the banks of the river that I avoided. Two aartisare performed daily in the evening at the temple, one at the main sanctum and the other on the banks of the river Bagmati (known as the Napalese Ganga). I had the opportunity of attending both the evening aartis in the temple and considered myself very fortunate to do that. Both the aartiswere amazing and I felt as if I had attained Nirvana.
By the time I came out of the temple, it was dark and I was dead tired. I had already gone through a lot during the day, having done Kathmandu practically on a shoe string budget, done souvenir shopping, enjoyed eating the local cuisine and chatted with the locals.
I now just wanted to get back and hit the bed in the hotel. But the bars and the night clubs were waiting for me, so I headed back to Thamel for some fun. After an exciting first day, and an equally exciting nightlife in Thamel, I was ready early next morning to explore the other two Durbars, which are near Kathmandu.
Using public transport again, I first headed for Patan Durbar Square, which is situated at the centre of the city of Lalitpur, just 7 kms from Kathmandu. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage site. Patan is one of the oldest Buddhist cities and is also known as Lalitpur (city of fine arts). It is a centre of both Hinduism and Buddhism with 136 bahals or courtyards and 55 major temples.
The three main courtyards in the palace are Mul Chowk, Sundari Chowk and Keshav Narayan Chowk. Besides these courtyards, the complex has impressive temples, religious shrines and historical places, all noted for their exquisite carvings and beautiful display of ancient Newari architecture.
Patan Durbar Square, founded in the 3rd century AD is the oldest among the three cities in the valley. The Durbar Square in itself is a marvel of Newar architecture with its square floor tiled with red bricks. The Square also holds old Newari residential houses. The royal palace square, the surrounding shrines and courtyards, number of pagodas, Shikhara style Krishna temple made of stone, five storeyed Kumbheshwar temple and the Golden Temple are some of the main highlights of Patan. One of the other important attractions is the ancient royal palace of the Malla Kings of Lalitpur.
Most of these structures are built in Shikhara architecture style with stone and wood. Wood structures, very common here, have been created with a special kind of wood. The figures and carving made out of wood amazes the visitor and leaves one awestruck. I was amazed too, and after spending some time at the Golden Temple, I headed for my next destination ~ Bhaktapur Durbar Square, which is about 20 kms from Kathmandu.
Bhaktapur has the best-preserved palace courtyards and is the oldest city centre in Nepal, listed as a World Heritage site by UNESCO. This is the most beautiful, open museum type Durbar, holding exciting and the finest examples of medieval excellence. I was captivated to see different palaces, courtyards, royal bath, sculptures, pagodas, Shikhara style temples and Buddhist monastery displaying rich culture and wood, metal and stone artworks.
Bhaktapur literally means place of devotees. It was also known as Bhadgaon or by the Newari name Khwopa. And locals still use these names. Bhaktapur is one of Nepal’s cultural gems and is one of the three royal medieval city-states in the Kathmandu Valley. Cultural life is proudly displayed all over ~ along narrow alleys artisans weave cloth and chisel timber; squares are filled with drying pots; and locals gather in the courtyards to bathe, collect water, play cards and socialise.
I was roaming around with my mouth getting dry every five minutes. Lots of liquids helped and once as I was buying a bottle of water, an earthen pot containing a dairy product drew my attention. It was a special type of dahi (yogurt) called “Ju-Ju (king) dhau (curd). I tasted it, and “divine” was what I uttered loud. I was told that the taste of curd prepared here cannot be found elsewhere in Nepal.
(The writer is a freelance journalist)