Built on a single stratum of rock, PANAUTI is said to be the safest place in these parts to be when the next big earthquake hits. The best-preserved Newari town after Bhaktapur, it’s an enticing enough place at any time, leading a self-sufficient existence in its own small valley 7km south of Banepa. Its centre is a perfect nugget of extended family dwellings, temples and public meeting houses, all built in the Newars’ signature pink brick and carved wood, and at the bottom end is a cluster of riverside temples and ghats.
Wedged between the Punyamati and Roshi streams, Panauti forms the shape of a triangle, with a serpent (nag) idol standing at each of its three corners to protect against floods. Buses pull up at the newer northwest corner, but the oldest and most interesting sights are concentrated at the streams’ confluence at the east end of town, approached through a distinctive entry gate.
The shrine area at the sacred confluence, known as the Khware or Tribeni Ghat, is a tranquil spot. The large sattal (pilgrims’ house) here sports an eclectic range of frescoes depicting scenes from Hindu (and sometimes Buddhist) mythology: Vishnu in cosmic sleep, Ram killing the demon king Ravana, and Krishna being chased up a tree by a pack of naked gopi (milkmaids). Krishna is the featured deity of the pagoda temple next door, too, where he’s shown serenading his gopi groupies with a flute. Other small shrines dotted around the complex are dedicated to just about every deity known to Hinduism.
The Khware has been regarded as a tirtha (place of sacred power) since ancient times, and on the first day of the month of Magh (usually Jan 14), it draws hundreds for ritual bathing. Beside the river, the tombstone-shaped ramps set into the ghats are where dying people are laid out, allowing their feet to be immersed in the water at the moment of death. Orthodox cremations are held at the actual confluence, but local Newars are cremated on the opposite bank, apparently to prevent their ghosts troubling the town.