Within the relentlessly steep terrain of midland Nepal, the Kathmandu Valley is something of a geographical freak: a bowl of gently undulating, richly fertile land, lifted up towards the sky like some kind of sacrifice. It may only be some 25km across, but it is densely packed with sacred sites. So much so, in fact, that well into modern times it was referred to as “Nepal mandala”, implying that the entire valley acted as a gigantic spiritual diagram, or circle. “The valley consists of as many temples as there are houses”, enthused William Kirkpatrick, the first Englishman to reach Kathmandu, and as many idols as there are men.”
Although the valley’s sacred geography remains largely unchanged, the number of houses – and people – has soared since Kirkpatrick’s day. In the 1980s, two-thirds of the valley was farmland: today it covers just a third. The region is the country’s economic engine, and pulls young Nepalis in from the hills with an irresistible force. Thanks also to refugees fleeing the Maoist insurrection of the early 2000s, the valley’s population has doubled in the last ten or fifteen years to more than two million. What was once a rural paradise is fast becoming a giant conurbation, with the concrete spreading almost to the valley rim on the north and western sides, and smog obscuring the view of distant mountains on all but the clearest of days.
Despite rampant development, the valley’s underlying traditions have proved remarkably resilient. It was long the stage for the quarrels of three rival city-states, Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur, and these divisions remain ingrained in valley society. Kathmandu and Patan have now grown together within the confines of the Ring Road, but Bhaktapur, on the east side of the Bagmati River, still remains proudly separate. Like the other, smaller Newari towns of the valley – Kirtipur, Thimi, Sankhu, Bungmati – it preserves a distinctly medieval air, its wood- and brick-built houses tightly clustered together around alleyways and temple plazas, and the lives of its residents still bound up with the paddy fields outside the city walls. On the southern and eastern sides of the valley, meanwhile, and in the lush side-valleys and on the steep slopes of the rim, the countryside continues to shimmer in an undulating patchwork of paddy fields – brown, golden or brilliant green, depending on the crop and the season.
In the heart of the valley, the sheer density of sights is phenomenal. Just beyond the Ring Road beat the twin hearts of Nepali religion: the Shiva temple and sombre cremation ghats at Pashupatinath, the sacred centre of Nepali Hinduism; and the vast, white stupa at Boudha, the hub of Tibetan Buddhism’s small renaissance. Other Hindu holy places provide moving reminders of the sacred geography that lies behind the brick and concrete: the sleeping Vishnu statues at Budhanilkantha and Balaju, the sacrificial pit of Dakshinkali and the hilltop temple of Changu Narayan are the most outstanding.
Hiking and cycling are best in the valley fringe. Trails lead beyond the botanical gardens at Godavari to the shrine of Bishanku Narayan, and up through rich forests to Phulchoki, the highest point on the valley rim. For more woodland solitude and views, hike up Shivapuri, Nagarjun Ban’s Jamacho, or any high point on the valley rim.Read More
The Kathmandu Valley’s major festivals
The Kathmandu Valley’s major festivals
Some of the festivals listed in Kathmandu are also celebrated in the valley. Most are reckoned by the lunar calendar, so check locally for exact dates.
Magh Sankranti The first day of Magh (Jan 14 or 15), marked by ritual bathing at Patan’s Sankhamul Ghat and at Sankhu.
Losar Tibetan New Year, the new moon of February, celebrated at Boudha with processions, horn-blowing and tsampa-throwing on the big third day.
Shiva Raatri On the full moon of Phaagun, the Pashupatinath mela (fair) attracts tens of thousands of ganja-smoking pilgrims and holy men, while children everywhere collect money for bonfires on “Shiva’s Night”.
Balaju Jaatra Ritual bathing at the Balaju Water Garden on the day of the full moon.
Bisket Bhaktapur’s celebration of Nepali New Year (April 13 or 14). Thimi and Bode have their own idiosyncratic festivities.
Buddha Jayanti The anniversary of the Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and death, celebrated at Boudha.
Dalai Lama’s Birthday Observed informally at Boudha (July 6).
Janai Purnima The annual changing of the sacred thread worn by high-caste Hindu men, involving bathing and splashing at Patan’s Kumbeshwar Mahadev on the day of the full moon.
Krishna Jayanti Krishna’s birthday, marked by an all-night vigil at Patan’s Krishna Mandir on the seventh day after the full moon.
Gokarna Aunsi Nepali “Father’s Day”, observed at Gokarneswar with bathing and offerings on the day of the new moon.
Tij A day of ritual bathing for women on the third day after the new moon, mainly at Pashupatinath.
Haribondhini Ekadashi Bathing and puja on the eleventh day after the new moon. The main action takes place at the Vishnu sites of Budhanilkantha, Sesh Narayan, Bishanku Narayan and Changu Narayan.
Indrayani Jaatra Deities are paraded through Kirtipur on palanquins on the day of the new moon.
Bala Chaturdashi All-night vigil at Pashupatinath on the night of the new moon, involving candles and ritual seed-offerings to dead relatives.
Agriculture in the Kathmandu Valley
Agriculture in the Kathmandu Valley
Even as the capital’s swelling population threatens to fill the Kathmandu Valley in lot after lot of detached, blockhouse, commuter concrete, the Jyapus, indigenous Newari farmers, continue to live in huddled-up, brick-built towns, digging their fields by hand in the time-honoured fashion: with a distinctive two-handed spade called kodaalo (ku in Newari). The valley’s soil repays such labour-intensive care: it is endowed with a fertile, black clay called kalimati, a by-product of sediment from the prehistoric lake, and is low enough in elevation to support two or even three main crops a year. Rice is seeded in special irrigated beds shortly before the first monsoon rains in June, and seedlings are transplanted into flooded terraces no later than the end of July. Normally women do this job, using their toes to bed each shoot in the mud. The stalks grow green and bushy during the summer, turning a golden brown and producing mature grain by October.
At harvest time sheaves are spread out on paved roads for cars to loosen the kernels, and then run through portable hand-cranked threshers or bashed against rocks. The grain is gathered in bamboo trays (nanglo) and tossed in the wind to winnow away the chaff, or, if there’s no wind, nanglo can be used to fan away the chaff. Some sheaves are left in stacks to ferment for up to two weeks, producing a soft food known as hakuja, or “black” rice. The rice dealt with, terraces are then planted with winter wheat. Unfortunately, for tourists, the period of planting, when the soil looks bare and brown, coincides with the peak tourist season. The wheat is harvested in April or May, after which a third crop of pulses or maize can often be squeezed in. Vegetables are raised year-round at the edges of plots or, in the case of squashes, festooned along fences and on top of shrubs and low trees.
Most Kathmandu Valley farmers are tenants, and have to pay huge proportions of their harvests in rent. But their lot has improved in the past generation: land reform in the 1950s and 1960s was relatively diligently implemented near the capital, helping to get landlords and moneylenders off the backs of small farmers, and the Maoist government has also forced landowners to break up and sell off larger holdings. However, the traditional Newari system of inheritance, in which family property is divided up among the sons, means that landholdings actually get smaller with each generation. That presents a contrasting problem: farms that are too small to make mechanical equipment worthwhile, necessitating labour-intensive methods and keeping productivity low.
The Newars are a special case. Their stronghold is a valley – the Kathmandu Valley – which, while geographically located within Nepal’s hill region, has its own distinct climate and history. Newars are careful to distinguish themselves from other hill peoples, and although they’re an ethnic minority nationally, their majority presence in the pivotal Kathmandu Valley has enabled them to exert a cultural influence far beyond their numbers. An outsider could easily make the mistake of thinking that Newari culture is Nepali culture.
Many anthropologists believe that the root stock of the Newars is the Kirats, a clan who legendarily ruled the Kathmandu Valley between the seventh century BC and the second century AD. However, Newari culture has been in the making for millennia, as waves of immigrants, overlords, traders and usurpers have mingled in the melting pot of the valley. These arrivals contributed new customs, beliefs and skills to the overall stew, but they weren’t completely assimilated – rather, they found their own niches in society, maintaining internal social structures and traditions and fulfilling unique spiritual and professional roles. In time, these thars (clans) were formally organized into a Newari caste system that mirrored that of the Baahun–Chhetris and, still later, became nested within it. Thus Newari society is a microcosm of Nepali society, with many shared cultural traits and a common language (Newari), but also with an enormous amount of diversity among its members.
Newari religion is extremely complex; suffice to say that individual Newars may identify themselves as either Hindu or Buddhist, depending on their thar’s historical origin, but this makes little difference to their fundamental doctrines or practices. Kinship roles are extremely important to Newars, and are reinforced by elaborate life-cycle rituals and annual feasts; likewise, each thar has its role to play in festivals and other public events. A uniquely Newar social invention is the guthi, a kind of kinship-based Rotary club which maintains temples and rest-houses, organizes festivals and, indirectly, ensures the transmission of Newar culture from one generation to the next. Guthi have been in serious decline since the 1960s, however, when land reform deprived them of much of their income from holdings around the valley.
With so great an emphasis placed on social relationships, it’s little wonder that Newars like to live so close together. Unlike other hill peoples, they’re urbanites at heart. Their cities are masterpieces of density, with tall tenements pressing against narrow alleys and shopfronts opening directly onto streets. In the past couple of centuries, Newar traders have colonized lucrative crossroads and recreated their bustling bazaars throughout Nepal. Even Newari farmers build their villages in compact, urban nuclei (partly to conserve the fertile farmland of the valley).
Centuries of domination by foreign rulers have, if anything, only accentuated the uniqueness of Newari art and architecture. For 1500 years the Newars have sustained an almost continuous artistic flowering in stone, wood, metal and brick. They’re believed to have invented the pagoda, and it was a Newari architect, Arniko, who led a Nepali delegation in the thirteenth century to introduce the technique to the Chinese. The pagoda style of stacked, strut-supported roofs finds unique expression in Nepali (read Newari) temples, and is echoed in the overhanging eaves of Newari houses.
Newars are easily recognized. Traditionally they carry heavy loads in baskets suspended at either end of a shoulder pole (nol), in contrast with Nepali hill people who carry things on their backs supported by a tumpline from the forehead. As for clothing, you can usually tell a Newari woman by the fanned pleats at the front of her sari; men have mostly abandoned traditional dress, but some still wear the customary daura suruwal and waistcoat.