The Kathmandu most travellers come to see is the old city, a tangle of narrow alleys and temples immediately north and south of the central Durbar Square. It’s a bustling quarter, where tall extended-family dwellings block out the sun, open-fronted shops crowd the lanes and vegetable sellers clog the intersections. The fundamental building block of the old city is the bahal (or baha) – a set of buildings joined at right angles around a central courtyard. Kathmandu is honeycombed with bahal, many of which were originally Buddhist monasteries, but have since reverted to residential use.
Though the city goes to bed early, there’s always something happening from before dawn to around 10pm, including early morning religious rites (puja) and after-dinner devotional hymn-singing (bhajan) in the neighbourhoods of Indrachowk, Asan or Chhetrapati.Read More
Teeming, touristy Durbar Square is the natural place to begin sightseeing. The fascinating old royal palace (durbar), running along the eastern edge of the square, takes up more space than all the other monuments combined. Kumari Chowk, home of Kathmandu’s “living goddess”, overlooks from the south. The square itself is squeezed by the palace into two parts: at the southwestern end is the Kasthamandap, the ancient building that probably gave Kathmandu its name, while the northern part is taken up by a varied procession of statues and temples.
The Bagmati ghats
The Bagmati ghats
The old city south of Durbar Square is home mainly to working-class castes and, increasingly, immigrant squatters from other parts of Nepal. With fewer traders, it’s less touristy than the quarters north of the square, although New Road, which bristles and throbs with consumerism, is as lively a street as any in Kathmandu.
A path from the open-air shrine of Pachali Bhairab leads to the Bagmati River ghats, stretching as far as the eye can see in either direction. Statues, temples and all manner of artefacts are jumbled along these stone-paved embankments – especially to the west, where the Bishnumati joins the Bagmati – and you could easily spend several hours here. The area has been the subject of a proposed restoration project for many years – several link roads that aim to reduce the city’s chronic congestions are also being built – so perhaps it will some day enjoy a much-deserved renaissance. For the time being, though, it’s in a pretty sorry state of neglect.
The path forks before reaching the river, but both ways lead to Pachali Ghat and its remarkable collection of Hindu and Buddhist statuary. If you take the right fork, you’ll enter an area that serves as a neat introduction to the Newari pantheon of gods. Statues in niches along the right-hand wall depict (from right to left) Hanuman, Saraswati, the green and white Taras, Bhairab, Ganesh, a linga/yoni, a standing Vishnu, the Buddha, Ram, Shiva as sadhu, and a flute-playing Krishna. On the left are many more, concluding with depictions of the ten incarnations (das avatar) of Vishnu: fish, tortoise, the boar Baraha, the man-lion Narasingh, the dwarf Vaman, the Brahman Parasuram, the mythical heroes Ram and Krishna, the Buddha, and finally Kalki, the saviour yet to come.
Off to the right is the three-tiered Lakshmishwar Mahadev Mandir which occupies a crumbling bahal that’s been taken over by a school. The temple’s construction was sponsored by the late eighteenth-century queen Rajendra Laskhmi Devi Shah.
Pancha Nadi Ghat
Continuing downstream (westwards), you pass under an old footbridge and a modern motorable one, both leading to Patan’s northern suburb of Sanepa. Beyond is Pancha Nadi Ghat which used to be one of Kathmandu’s most important sites for ritual bathing, but no longer is, as the Bagmati has receded from the embankment: the river is literally shrinking as its water is siphoned off for ever-growing industrial and domestic needs. The several pilgrims’ shelters (sattal) and rest-houses (dharmsala) along here have been taken over by squatters.
A small sleeping Vishnu in this area recalls, in miniature, the great statue at Budhanilkantha. Cremations are infrequently held at the nearby burning ghats and butchers slaughter animals down by the river in the early morning.
The embankment ends just short of Teku Dobhan, the confluence (dobhan) of Kathmandu’s two main rivers, the Bagmati and the Bishnumati. The spot is also known as Chintamani Tirtha – a tirtha is a sacred place associated with nag (snake spirits).
The confluence area is ancient, though none of the temples or buildings is more than a century old. The most prominent is the Radha Krishna Mandir, a brick shikra built in the 1930s; flute-playing Krishna is the middle of three figures inside. The rest-house behind the temple, Manandhar Sattal, is named after a wealthy nineteenth-century trader who was forced to retire here after his property was confiscated by the prime minister. The next-door building is an unused electric crematorium built in the 1970s. The riverbank from here downstream to the Ring Road has been used as a landfill: this dumping site, like an earlier one further upstream near the Pashupatinath temple complex, will leak toxins into the river for decades to come.
Heading upstream (eastwards) from Pachali Ghat, you reach the atmospheric Tin Dewal (“Three Temples”) by an entrance from the riverside. The temple’s popular name refers to its three brick shikra sharing a common base and ground floor – an unusual combination of Indian and Nepali styles, with some fine brick detailing.
A sign identifies the site by its official name, which is transliterated into English as Bomveer Vikalashora Shibalaya. The complex was erected in 1850 by Bom Bahadur Kunwar, brother of Jang Bahadur Rana, who’d seized power in a bloody coup four years earlier. A shivalaya (a shrine containing a linga) can be seen behind each of the temple’s three lattice doors.
Further east there’s a 300m break in the embankment, as a path makes its way through a semi-permanent shantytown. Its residents – landless rubbish-pickers, day labourers and street vendors – have moved in as the river has receded, and take their chances each monsoon.
In the Thamel tourist zone north of Thahiti, old buildings are scarce, though Kwa Bahal, a traditional courtyard tucked away just off the touristy main drag, is one of several bahal in Kathmandu and Patan that have their own Kumaris. Bhagwan Bahal, which lends its name to an area north of Thamel Chowk, is home to a little-used pagoda whose most notable feature is a collection of kitchen pans and utensils nailed to the front wall as offerings to the deity. (“Bikrama Sila Mahabihar”, the name on the sign in front, refers to a moribund monastery contained within the complex.) During the spring festival of Holi, a portrait of the bahal’s eleventh-century founder is displayed to celebrate his slaying of demons on his return from a trade delegation to Lhasa.
Indra Jaatra: eight days of pomp and partying
Indra Jaatra: eight days of pomp and partying
According to Kathmandu Valley legend, Indra, the Vedic King of Heaven, wanted to buy flowers for his mother. Unable to find any in heaven, he descended to the valley and stole some, but was caught and imprisoned. When Indra’s mother came looking for him, the people realized their mistake and to appease him, started an annual festival in his honour.
Usually held in late August or early September, Indra Jaatra is an occasion to give thanks to the god for bringing the monsoon rains that make the vital summer rice crop possible. Yet Indra’s humiliation is a parallel theme, as straw effigies of the god are placed in jails. Another local legend claims an invading king, calling himself Indra, was defeated by the valley’s indigenous people, and some anthropologists believe such an event may have provided the historical impetus for the festival.
Indra Jaatra features eight days of almost nonstop spectacle. It begins with the ceremonial raising of a 15m-tall pole in front of the Kala Bhairab statue by members of the Manandhar (oil-presser) caste. In Indrachowk, the famous blue mask of Akash Bhairab, a god sometimes identified with Indra, is displayed, as are lesser Bhairab images in other neighbourhoods. Locals do puja (an act of worship) to them by day, and light lamps by night in memory of deceased relatives. Masked dancers perform around the old city, and one group stages a tableau of the das avatar (the ten incarnations of Vishnu) at the base of the Trailokya Mohan.
Indra Jaatra is the fusion of two festivals, and the second, Kumari Jaatra, begins on the afternoon of the third day. From noon, Durbar Square steadily fills up with spectators and, in the balcony of the Gaddi Baithak, with politicians and foreign dignitaries dressed in formal attire. (Tourists are herded into an area around the Shiva Parbati Mandir, where it’s hard to get a decent view unless you’re right behind the police cordon; however, women can sit on the elevated steps of the Maju Dewal.) Masked dancers entertain the crowd: the one in the red mask and shaggy hair is the popular Lakhe, a demon said to keep other spirits at bay if properly appeased. The procession formerly began when the king and queen arrived, but now senior politicians have taken over their roles. The Kumari and two attendants, representing Ganesh and Bhairab, are pulled in wooden chariots around the square past the Gaddi Baithak. They then make a circuit of the southern old city, as far as Jaisi Dewal and Lagan, before returning to the square after dark.
When they depart, the formal ceremony gives way to all-out partying. Dance troupes from around the valley perform near the entrance to the old royal palace, and a pantomime elephant – Indra’s mount – careers through the streets. Young men gravitate toward Sweta Bhairab where, after lengthy ritual preliminaries, rice beer flows from a pipe sticking out of the idol’s mouth.
Without the VIPs and ceremonial pomp, the chariots are again pulled the next afternoon, past Nardevi and Asan. On the final day, after a few days of relative calm, the chariots are pulled for a third time to Kilagal. According to legend, this last procession was added by King Jaya Prakash Malla to allow his concubine, who lived in Kilagal, to see the Kumari. In the days of the monarchy, when the chariots returned to Durbar Square later that evening, the king would come before the Kumari to receive the royal tika that assured his right to rule for another year. Finally, the ceremonial pole is pulled down, and people take pieces of it as amulets against ghosts and spirits.