Located on the banks of the Bagmati River on the immediate eastern outskirts of Kathmandu, Pashupatinath Temple is one of the most revered of Hindu temples in the world and Hindu pilgrims ( especially from neighbouring India ) throng the temple complex literally throughout the year. The temple is dedicated to Lord Shiva who is one of the three major Hindu deities and is considered the 'Creator', 'Transformer', 'Preserver' and 'Destroyer'. It is situated on the western banks of the Bagmati and the main temple complex is a golden, pagoda style spire and one striking feature of the temple when one enters it is the golden Nandi or Shiva's bull.
Though only Hindus are permitted entrance into the main temple complex, the temple is amply visible from the eastern banks of the river. The eastern side also has single story stone constructions that are dedicated to Lord Shiva and hold the iconic symbol of Lord Shiva – the Shiva 'Lingam' or the erect phallus.
Also situated in the premises is the 'Panch Deval' ( Five Temple ) Complex which provides shelter for the destitute. It may be noted here that many Hindus choose to spend their final days in the temple complex.
The architecture, holy ambience, the multitude of monkeys and 'sadhus' or ascetic priests with ashes smeared on their bodies are not the only features that captivate visitors to the temple premises, but the funeral pyres that reduce mortal human remains to ashes will surely take your undivided attention. The sharp stench of burning wood combined with human flesh may be overpowering to your senses – the fragrant incense does very little to mask this smell. As you walk along the eastern bank of the Bagmati River, you can witness rows of funeral pyres on the other side laden with bodies that make their final passage here. Hindus firmly believe that if one is cremated here, he or she will be reborn as human again. As further consolation to the grieving families, the Bagmati River eventually merges with the holy Ganga to the south and finally to the Bay of Bengal – so, the ashes make an epic journey.
Another shocking, yet interesting, sight for your eyes to feast on is the multitude of women washing their clothes and utensils ( or even taking a dip ) immediately downstream from the cremation site. The fat and ashes in the river is supposed to act as some form of detergent according to popular belief.
Just as Pashupatinath Temple draws thousands of Hindu pilgrims, Boudhanath has been the ultimate pilgrimage and prayer site for Buddhists ( of course Hindus also revere this site ). Located only 11 km from central Kathmandu, the stupa dates back to the 14th Century and is supposed to have taken seven years to complete. It is the largest single chorten ( stupa ) in the world and the largest spherical stupa in Nepal. Apart from the soil, bricks and stone used for the construction of this massive dome-like structure with the gilded spire on the top, many kilograms of gold were used for its decoration. Known as 'Khasti' in Nepali and 'Jyarung' in Tibetan, it has been incorporated in the World Heritage Site by UNESCO since 1979. The remains of Kassapa Buddha are said to be entombed in the stupa.
Tibetans have been doing trade for centuries with Nepal and Boudha has always been a place of rest and prayer for Tibetans once they entered Kathmandu via the trade route from Sankhu. In addition, there was a substantial influx of Tibetan refugees in the 1950's when they fled persecution in Tibet and since then have chosen to settle in Boudha. As a consequence there are fifty or so odd Tibetan Buddhist monasteries in the surrounding area – with more being established.
Despite urbanization and the mushrooming of businesses and tourist interests, Boudha still retains that spiritual and mystical aspect of the days gone by; saffron clad monks, sweet burning incense, butter oil lamps, Buddhist devotees who turn the prayers wheels as part of their karma and curio and traditional handicraft shops that line the fringes of the stupa is a test of your senses which gives you an insight into the bygone days.
Boudha has over the years become a thriving tourist hub with all its selection of cafes and restaurants and numerous lodges and hotels.
Unfortunately, the catastrophic earthquake of April 25 2015 did some damage to the golden spire and the stupa has been restoration since November 2015 and is nearing completion.
Swayambunath is an iconic Buddhist stupa that is easily recognizable; a golden spire that crowns a wooded hill and situated to the west of Kathmandu. Popularly referred to as the "Monkey Temple" because of the hordes of monkeys that rove in and around the temple premises, it is one of the most ancient and enigmatic sites that is also considered one of the holiest of Buddhist shrines in the Kathmandu Valley. Buddhist as well as Hindu pilgrims revere Swayambhu for its religious and spiritual significance. Inscriptions on the walls and temple premises provide significant evidence that the site has been a place of pilgrimage even long before Buddhism actually found its way into the Kathmandu valley; infact, dating back as far as 5th century AD.The temple complex itself has an assortment of chaityas, temples, colourful painted images of deities and various religious objects.
This temple is dedicated to the Goddess of epidemics and devotees pray so that unwanted calamities do not befall them. The Harati Devi Temple is a fine example of the intermingling of Buddhism and Hinduism.
Palace of Peace
This is a rarely visited site situated atop a hill and is also locally known as 'Shantipur' which means a 'Place of Peace'. It is believed that the 8th century Tantric Master, Shantikar Acharya, resides in the secret underground chamber. The master is said to have lived through centuries and has absolute control over the weather; even the King is supposed to visit him in times of drought or other unforeseen calamities.
The base of the stupa is cubical and is crowned with a dome with the eyes of Buddha looking compassionately in all four directions. The pentagon shaped Toran that is present above each of the four sides with statues engraved in them. Behind and above the Torana are the thirteen tiers. Right above the tiers is a small space above which one will find Gajur.
The Myth Behind Swayambhu
As per the Swayambhu Puran, the Kathmandu Valley at one time was filled with an enormous lake and in this valley grew the Mystical Lotus. This valley came to be known as 'Swayambhu' , meaning 'Self-Created' or 'Self-Existence'. The Bodhisatva Manjushree is believed to have had a vision of this mystical and magical lotus which prompted Manjushree to make a pilgrimage to worship it. However, the site was practically inaccessible to mortal pilgrims, and Majushree decided to cut a gorge through the mountains that surrounded the valley. Once the water was drained, it created the Kathmandu Valley and the Lotus transformed into a hill and the flower eventually became Swayambhunath Stupa.
Durbar Square, also known as Basantapur Durbar Kshetra, is in front of the old Royal Palace of the former Kathmandu Kingdom and is one of the three major palace squares in Kathmandu. It is one of the numerous UNESCO World Heritage sites in Nepal. Sadly, the April 25 2015 earthquake did substantial damage to the square and its various monuments and temples; various local and international artists, architects, historians have been given the intricate task of restoring the treasures of the buildings and artifacts.
The historically and culturally rich square with its ancient structures and monuments clearly reflect Newari craftsmanship at its best. The complex is dotted with quadrangles, courtyards and temples.
The Royal Palace which was originally in Dattaraya Square, was moved to Durbar Square. Established in the Lichavi period in the 3rd century, the Palaces in Durbar Square have served as the seat of the monarchy for the Malla Kings when Kathmandu became independent under the rule of King Ratna Malla ( 1484-1520 ). Even King Prithivi Narayan Shah who invaded Kathmandu Valley in 1769 preferred the Palace in Kathmandu Durbar Square and for a certain period Shah Kings ruled from here.
More recently, the coronation of Late King Birendra Bir Bikram Shah ( 1975 ) and King Gyanendra Bir Bikram Shah ( 2001 ) took place in this square.
Durbar Square is also popularly referred to as 'Hanuman Dhoka' ; Hanuman is the monkey devotee of Lord Ram.
A walking distance from the major tourist hubs like Thamel, one can easily walk out from ones hotel or lodge and explore the wonders of the seat of ancient kingdoms of Nepal. The cobbled streets and squares intermingled with interesting tourist attractions offer pleasant and relaxing surroundings.
The ancient name for Patan was Lalitpur which translates to 'City of Beauty' and is located 3 km southeast of Kathmandu and on the southern banks of the Bagmati River. Built during the reign of Veira Deva in 299 AD, it is the oldest of the three cities of ancient Kathmandu Valley. Like the two other Durbar Squares ( Palace Complexes ) of Kathmandu and Bhaktapur, the Durbar Square of Patan is the major attraction for not just tourists but even the local inhabitants. Laid out on a circular format, Buddhist stupas guard the sanctity of the city at four points.
The city is home to numerous Buddhist monuments and Hindu Temples. The fine bronze gateways, guardian deities and wonderful carvings are the work of master craftsman like metal workers and artisans. Patan is popularly referred to as the 'City of Artists'. The skill and workmanship of these skilled craftsman have been handed down from generation to generation and not just simply taught in some commercial art school; it is a father to son inheritance.
The small houses that line the narrow cobbled streets are home to generations of craftsmen who have lived in close proximity of a city that they created. Within the Durbar Square lies the Krishna Mandir, a temple dedicated to Lord Krishna, which is the major draw of Patan. The temple was built by King Siddhi Narsingha Malla in the 16th century and is deemed the supreme example of Nepali artisanship in creating multiple forms of temple craft. The temple's frieze ( the upper borders ) have been carved to emulate scenes from the four Ashoka Stupas and is situated in the four corners of the city. This is believed to have been built by Emperor Ashoka, the Buddhist monarch of ancient India.
The Hiranya Varna Mahavihar is a Buddhist monastery built by King Bhaskar Varma in the 12th century when he reigned the city of Patan. This monastery has brilliant gold-plated roof, a courtyard with numerous prayer wheels and an intricately decorated three-storied temple.
Another prominent Buddhist shrine is the Mahbaudha Temple which is often called the 'Temple of a Million Buddhas' because of the 9000 Buddhas carved on the bricks of the edifice. This temple is a fine example of terracotta craftsmanship. This temple was built by the ancient priest of Patan, Abhaya Raj.
Situated near the Patan marketplace is the renowned Machhendranath Temple built in the pagoda style architecture. For six months of the year, the temple houses the fine clay image of the Red Machhendranath.
Despite surrounding urbanization and present day influences, Patan still retains the old world splendour and mysticism. The people, the architecture, food and culture can still engage your senses to transport you back to the rich bygone era. A walk through the narrow cobbled alleyways to enter the heart of Patan Durbar Square is an experience never to be missed.
A 20 km drive east of Kathmandu takes you to Bhaktapur one of the three royal cities of the valley ( the two others being Kathmandu and Patan ). Bhaktapur has rightfully earned titles like 'City of Devotees' , 'City of Culture' , 'The Living Heritage' and 'Nepal's Cultural Gem' and one will surely understand why when one sets foot in the ancient courtyards of the bejeweled ancient city.
The city dates back to the 12th century during the reign of King Ananda Malla and was the capital of the Greater Malla Kingdom until the 15th century. The majority of the inhabitants here are from the Newar community and occupy themselves in professions directly and indirectly related to agriculture and tourism. 92 % of the populace are Hindus and 7 % comprise of the Buddhists. Thus, besides the various primarily Hindu temples, there are 19 Buddhist monasteries ( vihars ) in this city. Most of the monuments here are terra-cotta with carved wood columns; the palaces and temples have intricate and ornate carvings, gilded roofs, open courtyards. Bhaktapur is dotted with pagodas and religious shrines.
The Indra Varna Madavihar built in 1671 is located between Durbar Square and Dattaraya Square has two lion statues, Patingi Hiti ( water spout ), Tantric wood carvings and prayer wheels.
Another prominent and interesting feature of Bhaktapur is the 55 Window Palace ( having 55 windows !! ) which was the seat of royalty prior to 1769. It also houses the National Art Gallery that displays scroll paintings, palm leaf manuscripts and numerous stone carvings.
Outside the Palace entrance to the Taleju Complex is the Golden Gate ( built 1756 ) and is a fine example of metal craftsmanship at its best. The Royal Bath with its golden faucet also reflects the glorious spoils of the then monarchy.
Another very visible and prominent feature is the Big Bell built by the last Malla King of Bhaktapur – Ranajit Malla in the 18th century. It is rung twice a day and is also affectionately referred to as the 'Barking Bell' as dogs start barking when the bell is rung.
The prominent feature here is the Nyatpol ( Nyatapola ) Temple which was built in 1702 and dedicated to Goddess Lakshmi. It is Nepal's tallest pagoda style temple and stands five stories high.
The Bhairavnath Temple which was destroyed in the 1934 earthquake was eventually restored and rebuilt . It contains the gilded bust of Bhairav who is considered either the manifestation of Lord Shiva or the deity that guards his home.
The Dattaraya Square houses Bhaktapur's Hindu monasteries which includes the pagoda style Dattaraya Temple built by King Yaksha Malla in 1428. It is claimed that this building was constructed from a single piece of wood from a tree.
Changu Narayan is the oldest temple in the valley and dates back to 464 AD. It is situated 6 km north of Bhaktapur. There are excellent hiking trails from here to Bhaktapur that passes through quaint villages.
This is a typically Newar city and is renowned for its fresh agricultural produce and handicrafts that reflect the culture of the valley. Thimi is just 5 km east of Bhaktapur.
A mere 20 minute walk from Thimi takes you to Bode and to the riverside shrine of Nil Barahi. This place is famous for the tongue boring festival which is held on the second day of the Nepali New Year. A spike is bored through a tongue of a devotee ; if the devotee does not bleed when the spike is removed and packed with mud, it is considered to bring good fortune.
Surya Vinayak Shrine
A 10-20 minute walk from Bhaktapur is a shrine dedicated to Lord Ganesh and devotees pray for good luck from Lord Ganesh. The shrine is located on a top of a forested hill.
Dedicated to Kali, Lord Shiva's consort, this temple is one of the most revered temples of Nepal. The word 'Dakshin' literally translates to south and the name 'Kali' refers to the Hindu Goddess Kali; thus it simply means the 'Goddess of the South'. Situated to the southwest of Kathmandu, it is a mere 45 minute drive to the holy site. The area surrounding the temple is dedicated Goddess Kali who in Tuesdays and Saturdays is offered fresh animal blood.Saturday is considered the main day, and on Tuesday faithful devotees make animal sacrifices as offerings to appease the Goddess. The animals range from roosters to goats. The festival Dashain ( the major festival in the Hindu calendar ) is a time of festive fervour.
En route one can come across the narrow passage in between the mountains and the walk over the suspension bridge will give you a peer into this deep narrow gap. Another pleasant spot in the centre of Pharping Village is a spot known as Shekh Narayan; one can see a pond infested with gold fish. A few minutes drive will eventually take you to your destination of Dakshinkali, from where you make a gradual descent as the Goddess is located at the bottom of the hill. The surrounding scenery comprising of lush green farmland and mountains. Animal sacrifices made to the deity ensures that your enemies will suffer misfortune or even death !!
Located 5 km to the southwest of Kathmandu, is a small town on a hill named Kirtipur. Initially there were twelve gates to the town. Most parts of the old city are still intact. The people in the surrounding locality are subsist on cottage industries and farming; the Kirtipur Cottage Industry Centre produces and preserves such local handicrafts with the help of local resident weavers. One can get spectacular views of Kathmandu and the mountains from here. Kirtipur is situated on two hills and also the saddle between these two hills. In 1768 when King Prithvi Narayan Shah attacked the valley, Kirtipur with its strategic location, put with fierce resistance to the siege before it could be taken. In his anger due to the resistance, the king ordered that the lips and nose of the male residents be cut off; only those who could play woodwind instruments were spared. This news spread like wildfire throughout the valley and helped to weaken the remaining resistance.
One of the most reputed universities of Nepal, Tribhuvan University, is loavted in Kirtipur. It also houses Nepal's best library with a large selection of books for those who choose to do research and studies.
Temples in Kirtipur
Situated at the base of the two hills is the Bhairab temple dedicated to Lord Bhairab who is deity found in the form of a tiger. This temple is revered by both Hindus and Buddhists alike. Other deities like Vishnu can be found riding a Garud; idols of Ganesh and Kumar can also be seen here. The temple is also decorated with other paraphernalia like swords and shields that belonged to the troops of Kirtipur who were defeated by King Prithvi Narayan Shah. One can witness animal sacrifices on Tuesday and Saturday mornings; such sacrifices are made to appease the deities.
One can make their way up the stone steps by the saddle to reach the Uma Maheshwar Temple which is a triple-roofed structure. The staircase welcomes you a stone elephant on either side. The temples main deities are Shiva and Parbati. Originally built in 1673 and having four roofs, the temple had to be rebuilt after the devastating earthquake of 1934. Also found here on the top of the southern hill is the Chilanchu Vihara with a central stupa and four other stupas surrounding it.
One can get splendid views from the temple area.
Kirtipur - Accessibility
One can either choose to take a bus or a taxi to Kirtipur ( or even a private rental ) and reach Kirtipur in approximately 45 minutes. However, to really explore the place biking would be an advisable option for those who seek more adventure and accessibility. One can return via Chobar village and then to the Chobar Gorge finally making your way to Patan. Sites like the Thai Temple, Chobar Gorge, Adinath Lokeshwar Temple and Jal Binayak Temple would be an added bonus.