How to describe Kathmandu? A medieval time capsule? An environmental disaster? A holy city? A tourist trap? The answer is, all of the above. There are a thousand Kathmandus, all layered together in an extravagant morass of chaos and sophistication. With a fast-growing population of around 1.7m, Nepal’s capital is easily the country’s biggest and most cosmopolitan city: a melting pot of a dozen ethnic groups, and home town of the Newars – master craftsmen and traders extraordinaire. Trade, indeed, created Kathmandu – for at least a thousand years it controlled the most important caravan route between Tibet and India – and trade has always funded its Newari artisans. Little wonder, perhaps, that the city has so deftly embraced the tourist business.
The Kathmandu most travellers experience is Thamel, a thumping, developing-world theme park, filled with hotels, restaurants, bars, souvenir shops, bookshop, imitation trekking gear, pirated DVDs, and touts flogging tiger balm and hashish. The old city, though squeezed by traffic, is still studded with temples and splendid architecture. Its narrow lanes seethe with an incredible crush of humanity, echoing with the din of bicycle bells, motorbike engines, religious music, construction and car horns, and reeking of incense, spices, sewage and exhaust fumes. Sacred cows, holy men, beggars and street urchins roam the streets.
To the south, the separate municipality of Patan was once the capital of an independent kingdom; though now subsumed into the greater Kathmandu conurbation, it has its own quieter and better-preserved historic district, marked by numerous Buddhist bahal (monastery compounds, some still active), proud artistry, and a conspicuous community of foreign residents, predominantly the staff of international NGOs and charities.
These quarters represent only part of a complex and eccentric city, which also encompasses shantytowns, decrepit ministry buildings, swanky shopping streets, sequestered suburbs and heaving bazaars. Perhaps the predominant images of contemporary Kathmandu are those that pass for progress: hellish traffic jams and pollution; suburban sprawl and rubbish heaps; crippling daily power cuts (at times up to 18 hours a day) and backup generators; chauffeured SUVs and families on motorbikes. The city hasn’t abandoned its traditional identity, but the rapid pace of change has produced an intense, often overwhelming, urban environment. New buildings are thrown up in a haphazard manner, with little concern for aesthetics or safety (according to a sobering 2008 Nepal Red Cross Society report, an earthquake measuring 7–8 on the Richter scale could destroy sixty percent of Kathmandu’s buildings, including most hospitals, and kill tens of thousands). Anyone visiting Nepal for its natural beauty is likely to be disillusioned by Kathmandu.
Nevertheless, the city is likely to be your first port of call – all overseas flights land in the capital, and most roads lead here. It has all the embassies and airline offices, Nepal’s best-developed communications facilities, and a welter of trekking and travel agencies. At least as important are the capital’s restaurants and bars, and an easy social scene, all of which makes Kathmandu the natural place to get your bearings in Nepal.
People must have occupied what is now Kathmandu for thousands of years, but chroniclers attribute the city’s founding to Gunakamadev, who reigned in the late ninth century – by which time sophisticated urban centres had already been established by the Lichhavi kings at Pashupatinath and other sites in the surrounding valley. Kathmandu, originally known as Kantipur, took its present name from the Kasthamandap (Pavilion of Wood) that was constructed as a rest-house along the main Tibet–India trade route in the late twelfth century, and which still stands in the city centre.
The city rose to prominence under the Malla kings, who took control of the valley in the thirteenth century, ushering in a golden age of art and architecture that lasted more than five hundred years. Kathmandu’s finest buildings and monuments, including in Durbar Square, date from this period. At the start of the Malla era, Kathmandu ranked as a sovereign state alongside the valley’s other two major cities, Bhaktapur and Patan, but soon fell under the rule of the former. The cities were again divided in the fifteenth century, and a long period of intrigue and rivalry followed.
Malla rule ended abruptly in 1769, when Prithvi Narayan Shah of Gorkha, a previously undistinguished hill state to the west, captured the valley as the first conquest in his historic unification of Nepal. Kathmandu fared well in defeat, being made capital of the new nation and seat of the new Shah dynasty.
Although politically outmanoeuvred from 1846 to 1951 by the powerful Rana family, who ruled as hereditary prime ministers and left Kathmandu with a legacy of enormous whitewashed Neoclassical palaces, the Shahs were essentially in power until April 2006, with the final decade consumed by a debilitating civil war with Maoist forces. A peace deal was struck later that year and in early 2007 the Maoists joined an interim government. A general election in April 2008 left the Maoists as the biggest party in parliament, and a month later Nepal’s monarchy was abolished.
Kathmandu remains the focus of all national political power in Nepal – and, frequently, political protest – while its industrial and financial activities continue to fuel a round-the-clock building boom.