How to describe Kathmandu? A medieval time capsule? An environmental disaster? A holy city? A tourist trap? The answer is, all of the above. There are a thousand Kathmandus, all layered together in an extravagant morass of chaos and sophistication. With a fast-growing population of around 1.7m, Nepal’s capital is easily the country’s biggest and most cosmopolitan city: a melting pot of a dozen ethnic groups, and home town of the Newars – master craftsmen and traders extraordinaire. Trade, indeed, created Kathmandu – for at least a thousand years it controlled the most important caravan route between Tibet and India – and trade has always funded its Newari artisans. Little wonder, perhaps, that the city has so deftly embraced the tourist business.
The Kathmandu most travellers experience is Thamel, a thumping, developing-world theme park, filled with hotels, restaurants, bars, souvenir shops, bookshop, imitation trekking gear, pirated DVDs, and touts flogging tiger balm and hashish. The old city, though squeezed by traffic, is still studded with temples and splendid architecture. Its narrow lanes seethe with an incredible crush of humanity, echoing with the din of bicycle bells, motorbike engines, religious music, construction and car horns, and reeking of incense, spices, sewage and exhaust fumes. Sacred cows, holy men, beggars and street urchins roam the streets.
To the south, the separate municipality of Patan was once the capital of an independent kingdom; though now subsumed into the greater Kathmandu conurbation, it has its own quieter and better-preserved historic district, marked by numerous Buddhist bahal (monastery compounds, some still active), proud artistry, and a conspicuous community of foreign residents, predominantly the staff of international NGOs and charities.
These quarters represent only part of a complex and eccentric city, which also encompasses shantytowns, decrepit ministry buildings, swanky shopping streets, sequestered suburbs and heaving bazaars. Perhaps the predominant images of contemporary Kathmandu are those that pass for progress: hellish traffic jams and pollution; suburban sprawl and rubbish heaps; crippling daily power cuts (at times up to 18 hours a day) and backup generators; chauffeured SUVs and families on motorbikes. The city hasn’t abandoned its traditional identity, but the rapid pace of change has produced an intense, often overwhelming, urban environment. New buildings are thrown up in a haphazard manner, with little concern for aesthetics or safety (according to a sobering 2008 Nepal Red Cross Society report, an earthquake measuring 7–8 on the Richter scale could destroy sixty percent of Kathmandu’s buildings, including most hospitals, and kill tens of thousands). Anyone visiting Nepal for its natural beauty is likely to be disillusioned by Kathmandu.
Nevertheless, the city is likely to be your first port of call – all overseas flights land in the capital, and most roads lead here. It has all the embassies and airline offices, Nepal’s best-developed communications facilities, and a welter of trekking and travel agencies. At least as important are the capital’s restaurants and bars, and an easy social scene, all of which makes Kathmandu the natural place to get your bearings in Nepal.
People must have occupied what is now Kathmandu for thousands of years, but chroniclers attribute the city’s founding to Gunakamadev, who reigned in the late ninth century – by which time sophisticated urban centres had already been established by the Lichhavi kings at Pashupatinath and other sites in the surrounding valley. Kathmandu, originally known as Kantipur, took its present name from the Kasthamandap (Pavilion of Wood) that was constructed as a rest-house along the main Tibet–India trade route in the late twelfth century, and which still stands in the city centre.
The city rose to prominence under the Malla kings, who took control of the valley in the thirteenth century, ushering in a golden age of art and architecture that lasted more than five hundred years. Kathmandu’s finest buildings and monuments, including in Durbar Square, date from this period. At the start of the Malla era, Kathmandu ranked as a sovereign state alongside the valley’s other two major cities, Bhaktapur and Patan, but soon fell under the rule of the former. The cities were again divided in the fifteenth century, and a long period of intrigue and rivalry followed.
Malla rule ended abruptly in 1769, when Prithvi Narayan Shah of Gorkha, a previously undistinguished hill state to the west, captured the valley as the first conquest in his historic unification of Nepal. Kathmandu fared well in defeat, being made capital of the new nation and seat of the new Shah dynasty.
Although politically outmanoeuvred from 1846 to 1951 by the powerful Rana family, who ruled as hereditary prime ministers and left Kathmandu with a legacy of enormous whitewashed Neoclassical palaces, the Shahs were essentially in power until April 2006, with the final decade consumed by a debilitating civil war with Maoist forces. A peace deal was struck later that year and in early 2007 the Maoists joined an interim government. A general election in April 2008 left the Maoists as the biggest party in parliament, and a month later Nepal’s monarchy was abolished.
Kathmandu remains the focus of all national political power in Nepal – and, frequently, political protest – while its industrial and financial activities continue to fuel a round-the-clock building boom.
The harder you work to see the mountains in Nepal, the greater the reward, but there’s no denying the drama of the hour-long “mountain flight”. These scenic tours depart every morning, weather permitting, from Kathmandu’s Tribhuwan Airport – go as early as you can bear for the best chance of clear weather. Any agent can sell you a next-day ticket, and prices are standard, at $171 (not including taxi fare and Rs200 airport departure tax). There’s little to choose between the airlines, though Buddha and Yeti have good reputations. Routes are standard too: you fly close to the ranges northeast of Kathmandu, and get a slightly more distant view of Everest. Don’t imagine that you’ll actually be flying right in among the peaks, however, or you’ll be disappointed. And bear in mind that the standard flights to the mountain airstrips of, say, Jomosom and Lukla, are arguably even more exciting, given the landing. All that said, the mountain flight planes themselves are small, noisy and hugely atmospheric – and you’re allowed into the cockpit too. And the views, of course, are stunning.
The festivals listed here are just the main events; there are many others centred around local temples and neighbourhoods.
Basanta Panchami The spring festival is marked by a VIP ceremony in Durbar Square on the fifth day after the full moon. Children celebrate Saraswati Puja on the same day at Swayambhu.
Losar Tibetan New Year, observed at Swayambhu on the full moon of February, but more significantly at Boudha.
Shiva Raatri “Shiva’s Night” is celebrated with bonfires in Kathmandu on the new moon of Phaagun, but the most interesting observances are at Pashupatinath.
Phaagun Purnima (Holi) Youths bombard each other and passers-by with coloured powder and water. The festival lasts a week, but peaks on the day of the full moon.
Chait Dasain On the morning of the eighth day after the new moon, the army’s top-ranking officers gather at the Kot compound, at the northwestern end of Durbar Square, for the beheading of dozens of buffalo and goats and to troop their regimental colours.
Seto Machhendranath Jaatra A flamboyant chariot procession in which the white idol of Machhendranath is placed in a towering chariot and pulled from Jamal to an area south of Jhochhe in at least three daily stages. The festival starts on Chait Dasain.
Nawa Barsa On Nepali New Year (April 13 or 14), there are parades in Kathmandu, but Bhaktapur’s festivities are more exciting.
Machhendranath Rath Jaatra An amazing, uniquely Newari extravaganza in which an immense chariot is pulled through old Patan over a period of several weeks.
Buddha Jayanti The anniversary of the Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and death, celebrated on the morning of the full moon at Swayambhu: thousands come to do puja, and priests dressed as the panchabuddha perform ritual dances.
Janai Purnima The annual changing of the sacred thread worn by high-caste Hindu men (and of temporary wrist bands that may be worn by men and women of any caste), on the day of the full moon, at Patan’s Kumbeshwar Mandir and other temples.
Ghanta Karna Demon effigies are burned throughout the city on the fourteenth day after the full moon of Saaun.
Gaai Jaatra Held the day after the full moon, the Cow Festival is marked by processions through the old city, led by garlanded boys dressed as cows. A good place to watch is in front of the former Royal Palace’s entrance in Durbar Square.
Krishna Astami (Krishna Jayanti) Krishna’s birthday, on which thousands of women queue for puja at Patan’s Krishna Mandir.
Tij A three-day Women’s Festival, starting on the third day after the full moon: women may be seen singing and dancing anywhere, but especially at Pashupatinath.
Indra Jaatra A wild week of chariot processions and masked-dance performances held around the full moon of Bhadau.
Dasain A mammoth ten-day festival celebrated in most parts of Nepal, concluding on the full moon of Asoj. In Kathmandu, mass sacrifices are held at the Kot courtyard near Durbar Square on the ninth day, Durga Puja, with tikas bestowed on all and sundry on the last day.
Tihaar The Festival of Lights, celebrated with masses of oil lamps throughout the city and five days of special observances. Lakshmi Puja, falling on the full moon of Kaattik, is the highlight.
Ground down by rural poverty and domestic violence, many Nepalese children run away to the capital in search of a better life. Some are lured by often false promises of high-paying jobs in tourism. The children are frequently referred to as khate, a derogatory term referring to scrap plastic collectors. There are estimated to be around 1500 street children in Kathmandu, predominantly boys, and the problem seems to be getting worse.
The conditions street children endure are arguably more debilitating than rural poverty. Homeless, they sleep in doorways, pati (open shelters) or unfinished buildings. Weakened and malnourished by a poor diet and contaminated water, few are without disease. Many sniff glue or become addicted to harder drugs. They’re regularly beaten by the police, and vulnerable to sexual violence and abuse (including from tourists).
Although it can be hard to say no when street children ask for money or food, in the long term your alms will do far better going to a charity than the beggars themselves. For more information, contact Child Workers in Nepal (t 01 428 2255, w cwin.org.np), Just-One (w just-one.org) or Voice of Children (t 01 421 5426, w voiceofchildren.org.np).
Now largely absorbed by greater Kathmandu, and easy to reach from the centre of town, PATAN was once the capital of a powerful independent kingdom, and still maintains a defiantly distinct identity. Compared to Kathmandu it’s quieter, less frenetic and more Buddhist. Patan is sophisticated and, in a Nepali sort of way, bohemian: while Kathmanduites are busy amassing power and wealth, Patan’s residents appreciate the finer things of life, which perhaps explains the area’s alternate name, Lalitpur (“City of Beauty”). Above all, it remains a proud city of artisans. Patan produces much of Nepal’s fine metalwork, and its craftspeople have created some of the most extraordinarily lavish temples, hiti and bahal in the country. Bahal – their doorways here always guarded by cuddly stone lions with overbites – are a particular feature of Patan, and a few still function as active monasteries. In the past two decades, Patan has also emerged as the de facto foreign aid capital of Nepal: the offices of the UN and innumerable NGOs are scattered around the western suburbs, as are many expat residences.
In legend and in fact, Patan is the oldest city in the Kathmandu Valley. Manjushri, the great lake-drainer, is supposed to have founded Manjupatan, the forerunner of Patan, right after he enshrined Swayambhu, while the so-called Ashokan stupas, earthen mounds standing at four cardinal points around Patan, seem to support the legend that the Indian emperor Ashoka visited the valley in the third century BC (historians are sceptical). More reliable legend ascribes Patan’s founding to Yalambar, second-century king of the Kirats, an ancient tribe that provided the original stock for the valley’s Newari population (which explains the traditional Newari name for Patan, Yala), or to the Lichhavi King Arideva at the end of the third century. Under the long-running Lichhavi dynasty, Patan emerged as the cultural and artistic capital of Nepal, if not the entire Himalayan region. It maintained strong links with the Buddhist centres of learning in Bengal and Bihar – thereby playing a role in the transmission of Buddhism to Tibet – and when these fell to the Muslims in the twelfth century, many scholars and artists fled to Patan, setting the stage for a renaissance under the later Malla kings. Patan existed as part of a unified valley kingdom until the late fifteenth century, then enjoyed equal status with Kathmandu and Bhaktapur as a sovereign state until 1769, when Prithvi Narayan Shah and his Gorkhali band conquered the valley and chose Kathmandu for their capital.
One of Patan’s charms is that its historic core is frozen much as it was at the time of defeat. However, see it while you can: although a number of temples and public monuments have been skilfully restored in recent years, the city has lost many of its older private buildings in the name of modernization.
Smaller and less monumental than its equivalent in Kathmandu, Patan’s Durbar Square comes across as more refined and less touristy. Maybe it’s because the city of artisans has a better eye for architectural harmony; or because Patan, which hasn’t been a capital since the eighteenth century, has escaped the continuous meddling of monument-building kings. The formula is, however, similar to that in Kathmandu, with a solemn royal palace looming along one side and assorted temples grouped in the remaining public areas.
The Kathmandu Valley’s oldest, longest and most exciting festival, the Machhendranath Rath Jaatra begins the day after the full moon of Baisaakh (April/May), when priests ritually bathe Raato Machhendranath’s sandalwood idol in Patan’s Lagankhel square. Moved back to its temple at Ta Bahal, the idol spends the next ten days undergoing the life-cycle rituals of Buddhist Newars. Meanwhile, just south of the Western Stupa at Pulchowk, Machhendranath’s chariot (raath) – more like a mobile temple – is assembled and its 18m-high tower of poles and vegetation constructed. A smaller chariot to carry Minnath is also built.
The idols are eventually installed in their chariots and the great procession begins. Scores of men heave at the ropes; Machhendranath’s unwieldy vehicle rocks, teeters and suddenly lurches forward, its spire swaying and grazing buildings as it passes. The crowd roars, people leap out of the way, and the chariot comes to a stubborn stop until the pullers regroup and try to budge it again. Separately, local children pull Minnath’s chariot. It goes on like this, in stages, for four or more weeks, until the chariots reach Jawalakhel Chowk, a journey of about 4km.
At Jawalakhel, the stage is set for the dramatic Bhoto Jaatra. A huge crowd begins assembling before noon on a day ordained by the astrologers – usually the fourth day after the chariots’ arrival at the chowk. At around 4pm or 5pm, Patan’s Kumari is carried in by palanquin. Local VIPs climb aboard Machhendranath’s chariot and take turns holding aloft the god’s magical jewelled vest. Since the procession culminates during the showery pre-monsoon, Machhendranath usually obliges with rain: bring an umbrella.
Machhendranath’s idol is then carried to Bungmati, 6km to the south, where it is welcomed home with great fanfare; the cult of Raato Machhendranath being believed to have originated in Bungmati, accounting for the god’s Newari name, Bunga Dyo (“God of Bunga”). The idol spends the summer months in Bungmati before being transported back to Ta Bahal, but once every twelve years it’s kept in Bungmati all winter and the chariot procession begins and ends there. That will next happen in 2015.
Patan’s richly decorated Royal Palace was largely constructed during the second half of the seventeenth century, but substantially rebuilt after both the Gorkhali invasion of 1769 and the 1934 earthquake. The palace – whose ongoing renovation, due to be completed in 2013, should open up new parts of the complex – consists of three main wings, each enclosing a central courtyard and reached by a separate entrance.
The Royal Palace’s northernmost wing, Mani Keshab Narayan Chowk, once served as the palace of another noted seventeenth-century king, Yoganarendra Malla. It too suffered in the 1934 earthquake and at the time was only clumsily rebuilt. With assistance from the Austrian government, however, it has been restored to house the splendid Patan Museum.
The museum displays a well-curated permanent collection of important bronzes, stone sculptures and woodcarvings, a gilded Malla throne and archival photographs. The exhibits are arranged thematically to lead you through Hindu, Buddhist and tantric iconography, temple construction, ritual objects and metallurgical processes, all supported by excellent explanatory text. Moreover, the building itself, with its newly stuccoed walls and artful lighting, suggests the royal palace Yoganarendra Malla might have built had he reigned at the beginning of the twenty-first century. From the interior balconies you can look out onto the courtyard below and its central Lakshmi shrine, and watch the kinkinimali, leaf-shaped tin cut-outs hanging from the eaves, fluttering in the breeze. A stunning gold window above the exterior main entrance depicts Vishnu and a heavenly host.
There’s a sedate café, run by the Summit Hotel, in the courtyard behind the museum (you don’t need an entry ticket to eat here), and a gift shop. The courtyard also hosts regular concerts.
A word about the confusing matter of royal deities: Gorakhnath, a mythologized Indian guru, was revered as a kind of guardian angel by all the Shah kings, and Taleju Bhawani, to whom many temples and bells are dedicated in the Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur Durbar squares, played a similar role for the Malla kings. The kings of both dynasties worshipped the Kumari, but mainly as a public gesture to secure her tika, which lent credibility to their divine right to rule.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Most of Kathmandu west of the Bishnumati River was settled relatively recently, with much of the development focused on the ugly Kalimati–Kalanki corridor and the suburbs either side. The only real antiquities are the famous Swayambhu stupa and a few shrines and temples that can be visited en route, plus the exhibits preserved in the National Museum. All of these sights are within fairly easy walking distance of central Kathmandu or Thamel, but to make a circuit of all of them it’s more pleasant to hire a bike or taxi for the day (taxis wait at Swayambhu, but are hard to find near the museum).
Swayambhu (or Swayambhunath), magnificently set atop a conical hill 2km west of Thamel, is a great place to get your bearings, geographically and culturally, in your first few days in Nepal: the hill commands a sweeping view of the Kathmandu Valley, and the temple complex is overrun with pilgrims and monkeys.
The ancient stupa – which has benefited from a recent renovation – is the most profound expression of Buddhist symbolism in Nepal (many bahal in the valley contain a replica of it), and the source of the valley’s creation myth. Inscriptions date the stupa to the fifth century, and there’s reason to believe the hill was used for animist rites even before Buddhism arrived in the valley two thousand years ago. Tantric Buddhists consider it the chief “power point” of the Kathmandu Valley; one chronicle states that an act of worship here carries thirteen billion times more merit than anywhere else. To call it the “Monkey Temple” (its tourist nickname) is to trivialize it.
The apparently simple structure belies an immensely complex physical representation of Buddhist cosmology, and the purpose of walking round it is to meditate on this. The solid, whitewashed dome (garbha) symbolizes the womb or creation. Set in niches at the cardinal points, statues of dhyani (meditating) Buddhas correspond to the four elements (earth, air, fire and water) and a fifth, placed at an angle, to the sky or space. Each represents a different aspect of Buddhahood: the hand positions, colours and “vehicles” (the animal statues below) of each are significant. The dhyani Buddhas are the same characters who appear on virtually every chaitya around the Kathmandu Valley. At each of the sub-cardinal points sit female counterparts, who in tantric Buddhism represent the wisdom aspect that must be united – figuratively speaking – with the compassionate male force to achieve enlightenment.
The gilded cube (harmika) surmounting the stupa surrounds a thick wooden pillar, which may be considered the phallic complement to the female dome. The eyes painted on it are those of the all-seeing Adi-Buddha (primordial Buddha), staring in all four directions. Between the eyes is a curl of hair (urna), one of the identifying features of a Buddha; the thing that looks like a nose is a miraculous light emanating from the urna (it can also be interpreted as the Nepali figure “one”, conveying the unity of all things). A spire of gold disks stacked above the pillar represents the thirteen steps to enlightenment, while the torana, or gold plaques above the painted eyes, also show the five dhyani Buddhas, known collectively as the panchabuddha. Finally, the umbrella at the top symbolizes the attainment of enlightenment: some say it contains a bowl filled with precious gems.
Since the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1959, the surrounding area has become home to many exiled Tibetans. You’ll see them and many other Buddhist pilgrims making a full circumambulation (kora) of the hill, queuing up to spin the gigantic fixed prayer wheels and the six thousand smaller ones that encircle the perimeter, and frequently twirling their own hand-held ones. The place is so steeped in lore and pregnant with detail you’ll never absorb it all in a single visit. Try going early in the morning at puja time, or at night when the red-robed monks pad softly around the dome, murmuring mantras.
A paved road circles the base of the hill. Although there are several other ways up, the steep main path from the eastern entrance, with its three-hundred-odd centuries-smoothed steps, is the most dramatic. The Buddha statues near the bottom are from the seventeenth century, while a second group further up was donated in the early part of the twentieth century. The chiselled slates sold by entrepreneurs along the path are mani stones, inscribed, in Tibetan script, with the ubiquitous Buddhist mantra Om mani padme hum – “Hail to the jewel in the lotus”. Swayambhu stupa is surrounded by an incredible array of shrines and votive items, most of which have been donated over the past four centuries by merit-seeking kings and nobles.
According to Buddhist scriptures, the Kathmandu Valley was once a snake-infested lake – and geologists agree about the lake (see History). Ninety-one aeons ago, a perfect, radiant lotus flower appeared on the surface of the lake, which the gods proclaimed to be Swayambhu (“self-created”), the abstract essence of Buddhahood. Manjushri, the bodhisattva of knowledge, drew his sword and cut a gorge at Chobar, south of Kathmandu, to drain the lake and allow humans to worship Swayambhu. As the water receded, the lotus settled on top of a hill and Manjushri established a shrine to it, before turning his attention to ridding the valley of snakes and establishing its first civilization. Another legend tells how, when Manjushri cut his hair at Swayambhu, the strands that fell on the ground grew into trees, and the lice turned into monkeys.
They’re there – behind the smog. In the 1990s, peaks such as Ganesh I, Langtang Lirung and Dorje Lakpa could be seen most mornings from Kathmandu. Now they’re rarely visible from the metropolitan area except on clear mornings after a soaking rain, or on bandh (general strike) days when all traffic is banned.
Kathmandu is among the world’s most polluted cities, and the traffic and fumes are appalling. The ever-increasing number of cars, motorbikes, buses and lorries, fuel adulteration, lax emissions tests, poorly surfaced roads, rapid urbanization, rubbish dumping and high levels of general pollution, mean that air quality frequently reaches “unhealthy” levels, according to official measurements. This toxic brew irritates lungs and eyes, weakens immune systems and increases the long-term risk of various health problems. If you can help it, don’t stay more than a couple of days in Kathmandu at the start of your trip. If you do, you’re likely to come down with a chest or sinus infection that will dog you for days and may be hard to shake if you go trekking.