It’s a half-hour-plus 300m slog up a stone stairway to the Gorkha Durbar from Pokharithok, the junction just east of Tallo Durbar. With a 4WD vehicle, it is possible to drive most of the way up, circling round via the western side, but the walk is half the pleasure – and provides a properly testing approach. After a landmark swami (weeping fig) tree, the path forks: the most direct route ascends steeply through the old, pleasantly rural village, where there are opportunities to buy cold drinks and cups of tea; the longer, gentler left fork leads towards the ridgetop a short distance to the west of the palace.
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The twin buildings of the palace sit atop the steepest, highest point of the ridge, buttressed by serried ranks of stone walls, and approached by a royal staircase worthy of any prince. It must have cowed visiting vassals into submission – a neat trick for a tin-pot realm that could barely muster 150 soldiers at the time of Prithvi Narayan’s first campaign. Entrance to the Durbar is through a doorway towards the western side, reached by a path to the left of the retaining wall. No leather is allowed in the compound.
The Kalika Mandir
Conceived as a dwelling for kings and gods, the fortress remains a religious place, and first stop in any visit is the revered Kalika Mandir, occupying the left (western) half of the Durbar building. Its interior is closed to all but priests – who say that any others would die upon beholding Kali’s terrible image. Sacrifices are made in the alcove in front of the entrance daily except on ekadasi (which falls every fourteen days, following the lunar calendar). After the observance of astami (again, twice monthly on the lunar month), which is celebrated with special gusto in Gorkha, the paving stones are sticky with blood. Most worshippers arrive cradling a trembling goat or chicken and leave swinging a headless carcass. Chait Dasain, Gorkha’s biggest annual festival, brings processions and more blood-letting in late March or early April, as does the tenth day of Dasain in October.
The right (east) wing of the Durbar is the historic palace, site of Prithvi Narayan’s birthplace and, by extension, the ancestral shrine of the Shah kings. Though pre-dating the Gorkhali conquest of Kathmandu, the exceptional eighteenth-century brick- and woodwork palace bears the unmistakeable stamp of Newari craftsmanship. You can peer through the latticework of the door at the eastern facade and see the flank of what is claimed to be Prithvi Narayan’s throne.
The cave of Gorakhnath
The space within the fortress walls is fairly littered with other Hindu shrines. By the eastern exit is a small temple built around the holy cave of Gorakhnath, the centre for worship of the shadowy Indian guru who gave Gorkha its name and is regarded as a kind of guardian angel by the Shah kings. Sadhus of the Gorakhnath cult are known as kaanphata (“split-ears”), after an initiation ceremony in which they insert sticks in their ear lobes – a walk in the park compared to some of the other things they get up to in the name of their guru. Kaanphata priests sometimes administer ashen tika from the shelter above the cave.