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.