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.
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.
In the soft, dusty light of evening the old city of Bhaktapur, with its pagoda roofs and its harmonious blend of wood, mud-brick and copper, looked extraordinarily beautiful. It was as though a faded medieval tapestry were tacked on to the pale tea-rose sky. In the foreground a farmhouse was on fire, and orange flames licked like liquescent dragon’s tongues across the thatched roof. One thought of Chaucer’s England and Rabelais’s France; of a world of intense, violent passions and brilliant colour, where sin was plentiful but so were grace and forgiveness …
Charlie Pye-Smith Travels in Nepal
Kathmandu’s field of gravity weakens somewhere east of the airport; beyond, you fall into the rich atmosphere of BHAKTAPUR (also known as BHADGAUN). Rising in a tight mass of warm brick out of the fertile fields of the valley, the city looks something like Kathmandu must have done before the arrival of the modern world. During the day, tour groups and persistent “student” guides mill about enthusiastically in the main squares, but after hours, or in among the maze of backstreets, it would be hard not to feel the pulse of this quintessential Newari city. In among Bhaktapur’s herringbone-paved streets and narrow alleys, women wash at public taps, men in traditional dress lounge in the many sattal, or covered loggias, peasants squat by the road selling meagre baskets of vegetables, and worshippers assiduously attend neighbourhood shrines. And everywhere the burnt-peach hue of bricks is offset by the deep brown of intensely carved wood – the essential materials of the Newari architects.
Physically, the city drapes across an east–west fold in the valley, with a single pedestrianized road as its spine, and its southern fringe sliding down towards the sluggish Hanumante Khola. Owing to a gradual westward drift, the city has two centres (residents of the two halves stage a boisterous tug-of-war during the city’s annual Bisket festival) and three main squares. In the west, Durbar Square and Taumadhi Tol dominate the post-fifteenth-century city, while Tachapal Tol (Dattatreya Square) presides over the older east end.
The “City of Devotees” was probably founded in the ninth century, and by 1200 it was ruling Nepal. In that year Bhaktapur witnessed the launch of the Malla era when, according to the Nepali chronicles, King Aridev, upon being called out of a wrestling bout to hear of the birth of a son, bestowed on the prince the hereditary title Malla (“wrestler”). To this day, beefy carved wrestlers are the city’s trademark temple guardians. Bhaktapur ruled the valley until 1482, when Yaksha Malla divided the kingdom among his three sons, setting in train three centuries of continuous squabbling.
It was a Bhaktapur king who helped to bring the Malla era to a close in 1766 by inviting Prithvi Narayan Shah, the Gorkha leader, to aid him in a quarrel against Kathmandu. Seizing on this pretext, Prithvi Narayan conquered the valley within three years, Bhaktapur being the last of the three capitals to surrender.
Well over half of Bhaktapur’s population is from the agricultural Jyapu caste of the Newars, and it may well be the city’s tightly knit, inward-looking nature that has saved it from the free-for-all expansion that overwhelms Kathmandu. Thanks to a long-term restoration and sanitation programme, and to the policies of its independent-minded municipal council, much of the city is pedestrianized. Temples and public shelters have been restored with the money raised from the city’s entrance fee, and new buildings are now required to follow traditional architectural styles. This is one Nepali city that has got its act together, and it wears its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site proudly.
Bhaktapur’s culinary speciality, famed throughout Nepal, is juju dhau, or “king of curds”. Made from naturally sweet buffalo milk, it is boiled up in an iron pot along with cloves, cardamom, coconut and cashew – sugar, properly, isn’t added at all – and then cooled slowly, with the addition of an older batch to introduce the lactobacillus that makes it curdle. Most tourist restaurants serve it, at a price, but you can find it anywhere you see the painted, cartoon sign of a full bowl. A number of shops on the main road between the minibus park and Durbar Square serve it in the traditional clay bhingat bowls for around Rs30. There’s no added water, and it shouldn’t pose any health risk. Whether or not you’re getting the real, natural product, or a fake made using powdered milk, sugar and a freezer, can’t be guaranteed, however. One test is said to be to upend the bowl: real king curd won’t fall out.
The great white stupa at BOUDHA (or BOUDHANATH), about 5km northeast of central Kathmandu, is the swollen sacred heart of a thriving Tibetan Buddhist community. One of the world’s largest stupas – Tibetans call it simply Chorten Chempo, “Great Stupa” – it is also the most important Tibetan Buddhist monument outside Tibet. Since 1959, Boudha has been the focus for Tibetan exiles in Nepal, but it has been a sacred site on the Kathmandu–Tibet trade route for centuries. The 10km corridor from Pashupatinath to Sankhu was known as the auspicious zone of siddhi (supernatural beings), and Boudha was – and still is – its biggest, most auspicious landmark.
Early morning and dusk are the best times to be here, when an otherworldly cacophony of ritual music drifts from the houses and monasteries that ring the stupa, and monks, locals and devout pilgrims all perform kora together, strolling, shuffling and prostrating their way around the dome. At other times, the souvenir shops and cafés in the tall houses that ring the stupa can seem intrusive, and the brick-paved piazza is filled with tourists more than Tibetans. And if you follow either of the two lanes heading north of the stupa, the romance evaporates in short order: this is Boudha the boomtown, an unplanned quagmire of garbage-strewn lanes, unlovely new buildings, schools and businesses.
Traditions differ as to the stupa’s origins. A Tibetan text relates how a daughter of Indra stole flowers from heaven and was reassigned to earth as a lowly poultryman’s daughter, yet prospered and decided to use some of her wealth to build a stupa to honour a mythical Buddha of a previous age. She petitioned the king, who cynically granted her only as much land as could be covered by a buffalo hide. Undaunted, the woman cut the hide into thread-thin strips and joined them end to end to enclose a gigantic area.
The Newari legend has a firmer historical grounding, involving a drought that struck Kathmandu during the reign of the early Lichhavi king, Vrisadev. When court astrologers advised that only the sacrifice of a virtuous man would bring rain, Vrisadev commanded his son Mandev to go to the royal well on a moonless night and decapitate the shrouded body he would find there. Mandev obeyed, only to find to his horror that he had sacrificed his own father. When he asked the goddess Bajra Yogini of Sankhu how to expiate his guilt, she let fly a bird and told him to build a stupa at the spot where it landed, which was Boudha.
Whatever its legendary origins, it’s possible that the core of the stupa dates as early as the fifth century AD, and it’s almost certain that it encloses holy relics, perhaps parts of the Buddha’s body (bones, hair, teeth) and objects touched or used by him, along with sacred texts and other ritual objects. The stupa has been sealed for centuries, of course, so no one knows exactly what lies within, but the relics are held responsible for the stupa’s power, and its ability to command veneration.
If you want an extra helping of Tibetan culture, go to Boudha during the festival of Losar in February or March, when the community hosts the biggest Tibetan New Year celebration in Nepal. Other busy times are Buddha Jayanti (the Buddha’s birthday), held on the full moon of April–May, when an image of the Buddha is paraded around the stupa aboard an elephant, and the full moon of March–April, when ethnic Tamangs – the original guardians of the stupa – converge here to arrange marriages, and hundreds of eligible brides are sat around the stupa for inspection. Full moon and new moon days in general attract more pilgrims, since acts of worship earn more merit on these days.
Boudha’s Western community is well established, though to become a part of it you need either an introduction or a lot of time, since serious Western students of dharma tend to regard tourists as spiritual interference. But as those in the know say, if you’re ready you will find a teacher here. Some will go on to warn enthusiastic newcomers that there are good teachers and bad, and Buddhism is big business in Boudha. Still, many Westerners rate it as the best place in the world to study Tibetan Buddhism. All four sects are well represented, and the main alternative, Dharamsala in India, arguably has a politically rather than spiritually charged atmosphere.
A good way to start is to stay at a gompa guesthouse (most monasteries operate them, and they are open to all), to check restaurant or guesthouse notice boards, or to sample some of the alternative treatments on offer everywhere – from massage to Tibetan medicine. You could also go straight to a monastery: puja ceremonies are open to all, and most rinpoches (or “respected teachers”) at Boudha give occasional open talks – with or without English translation. Many also agree to one-on-one meetings to those who show a keen interest.
Some monasteries are particularly oriented towards Westerners; the following are worth checking out. Note that some of the more popular, better-funded monasteries operate grander satellite institutes in the countryside.
Jamchen Lhakhang Gompa The Sakya school is represented at Boudha by this monastery, headed by the English-speaking Shabdrung Ngawang Kyenrab Rinchen Paljor; the monastery sponsors the Boudha-based International Buddhist Academy (w internationalbuddhistacademy.org), which offers an annual ten-day retreat in September, and four- and eight-week Buddhist philosophy and Tibetan-language courses.
Shechen Gompa wshechen.org. The death in 1991 of the revered Dilgo Khyentse of Shechen Tennyi Dargyeling, the “Bhutanese Monastery”, left a large gap, but it is being filled by his grandson, the current abbot, Shechen Rabjam Rinpoche, who teaches courses in English.
Shedrub Ling Gompa (aka the “The White Monastery”) w shedrub.org. Perennially popular among the dharma set, the Ka Nying Shedrub Ling Gompa holds a regular Saturday morning talk in English, and every November, the English-speaking abbot Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche runs ten-day seminars. The monastery is affiliated to Kathmandu University for longer degree programmes.
Shelkar Chode Gompa 400m west of the stupa, facing the Hyatt Regency Hotel; w lamawangdu.org. Lama Tsering Wangdu Rinpoche holds open sessions most mornings from 7.30–11am; visitors can also attend the remarkable Chöd ritual, a tantric, symbolic offering of the body performed on the 10th and 25th of the Tibetan month.
Thrangu Tashi Choeling Gompa w rinpoche.com. Thrangu Rinpoche attracts many Western students, though usually to his grand-scale temple and teaching complex at Namobuddha, rather than this relatively modest monastery in Boudha itself.
Kopan Monastery 3km north of Boudhaw kopan-monastery.com. One of the most welcoming monasteries to Westerners, with a full schedule of courses and teachings, including daily teachings at 10am, seven- and ten-day residential courses aimed at beginners, and a well-regarded month-long intensive course in November.
Pulahari GompaFurther along the ridge from Kopanwjamgonkongtrul.org. A major centre for long-term Western Buddhists, with frequent ten-day programmes.
Boudha’s stupa is famed throughout the Himalayan region for its powers of wish-fulfilment and blessing. You’ll see pilgrims repeatedly circumambulating the stupa, and doing endless sequences of prostrations in a secluded area on one of the upper terraces. Prayer wheels, heavy silver jewellery and rainbow-striped aprons are better indicators of a pilgrim’s Tibetan origins than facial features, as Nepali Bhotiyas, people of Tibetan ethnicity, and Tamangs from the central hills also visit Boudha in force.
Boudha makes a good springboard for several walks and bike rides in this part of the valley. You can also walk to Pashupatinath in half an hour.
Kopan Monastery Occupying a ridge about 3km due north of the stupa, Kopan Monastery is an easy target, and is something of a pilgrimage destination for its astoundingly richly decorated “thousand-Buddha stupa”, so named for the inordinate number of holy relics it contains. You can take a taxi all the way, but it’s a pleasant walk.
Pulahari Monastery Half an hour’s walk further to the east of Kopan (beyond the giant, brand-new temple of the Amitabha Foundation), Pulahari Monastery sits atop the ridge like the superstructure of an enormous container ship; its huge new prayer hall is perhaps the most richly and exquisitely decorated in Nepal. Both monasteries are usually open to visitors in daylight hours, unless there’s a ceremony on.
Nagi Gompa From either Kopan or Pulahari, it’s a strenuous two- or three-hour hike north up a wooded ridge to the nunnery of Nagi Gompa, though you probably shouldn’t go without help finding the way. From here you can continue up into Shivapuri National Park.
Gokarneswar Three kilometres northeast of Boudha (and 2km downhill from Pulahari on a paved road) lies Gokarneswar, where an imposing Shiva temple gazes across the Bagmati River to the peaceful Gokarna Forest – which encloses the luxury Gokarna Forest Resort, golf club and spa. Frequent mini- and microbuses run from here back to Boudha and Kathmandu, along the main road from Sundarijal, the trailhead for Helambu treks.
A paved road leads 8km north from Kathmandu to Narayanthan, a roadside village centred on BUDHANILKANTHA, the site of a monolithic and hugely impressive sleeping Vishnu statue. A visit can be combined with a hike or mountain bike ride up to the thickly forested peak of Shivapuri, from where there are some of the finest Himalayan views anywhere in the valley. The road from Kathmandu to Budhanilkantha is busy at first, but a quieter route heads north to Tokha then cuts across east.
BUNGMATI, 5km south of the Ring Road, could almost be a Tuscan village. This brick huddle atop a hillock, centred on a sunny central square, is one of the better-preserved Newari towns in the valley. It is also one of the least-visited, so if you prefer your temples without a side serving of droning electronic Om tracks, and without offers of help from persistent guides, this is the place to come. Bungmati is also a renowned centre for woodcarving: open workshops house artisans at work, and it’s always possible to buy direct.
Perched at the abrupt end of the ridge north of Bhaktapur, the tranquil temple complex of CHANGU NARAYAN commands a fine view of the valley in three directions. “One remembers all the wealth of carving of the rest of the valley,” wrote Percival Landon in 1928, “but when all is recalled it is probably to the shrine of Changu Narayan that one offers the palm.” Landon wasn’t wrong, and once you’ve run the gauntlet of the souvenir stalls in the little village, you’ll find a site that retains its palpably holy, ancient atmosphere – not to mention the finest collection of statues outside the National Museum.
A single, stone-paved pedestrian street stretches west from the entrance booth, where you pay a fee, along the ridgetop, towards the temple at its apex. It’s lined with souvenir stalls for much of its length, or simple shops selling soft drinks and the like.
You can hike the 10km from Nagarkot to Bhaktapur via Changu Narayan, from where it’s also possible to walk or mountain bike to Sankhu, 5km to the northeast. This trail begins along the dirt road heading northeast from the Changu bus park (take the first fork on the left), though without a guide you may need to ask local help finding the way, and if the temporary bridge is down you’ll have to cross the Manohara River on foot – easy in the dry season, impassable after rain. A short cut leads down directly from the steps descending from the west side of the temple, then heads 1km north across the fields (make for the mobile phone mast) to the Sankhu road, via a footbridge over the river; frequent buses run along this road between Kathmandu and Sankhu.
The greenest, most pristine part of the valley lies at its southeastern edge, around GODAVARI (pronounced Go-dao-ri). Nestling at the foot of forested Phulchoki, the highest peak of the valley rim, are the pleasant National Botanical Garden, the temple at Naudhara and the shrine of Bishanku Narayan, hidden in a gorgeously rural side-valley.
Four kilometres south of Patan, the Godavari road passes through HARISIDDHI, a traditional Newari town with a sinister legend. Its pagoda-style Bal Kumari Mandir – reached by walking straight up a stepped path where the main road jinks left – was once said to have been the centre of a child-sacrifice cult. Beyond Harisiddhi, the road quietens as it climbs, ending at Godavari, beautifully situated up against the heavily wooded valley slopes.
The sheltered, southwest-facing side-valley of Bishanku is one of the Kathmandu Valley’s most idyllic and unspoilt corners. In a notch in the partly forested ridge on the far northwest side, the shrine of Bishanku Narayan overlooks the paddy and mustard fields that line the valley floor. One of the valley’s four main Narayan (Vishnu) sites, Bishanku is not a temple – rather, it’s a small cave reached by a set of precarious steps. A chain-mail curtain protects the god’s image inside the cave. If you’re thin enough, you can descend through another narrow fissure; according to popular belief, those who manage to squeeze through it will be absolved of past sins.
Once-proud KIRTIPUR (“City of Glory”) occupies a long, low battleship of a ridge 5km southwest of Kathmandu. Commanding a panoramic – not to mention strategic – view of the valley, the well-preserved old town is vehicle-free and great for a morning or afternoon’s wandering. It also conceals, deep within its miniature maze of brick and stone streets, one of the best Newari restaurants in the valley.
In modern times, Kirtipur’s hilltop position has proved more of a handicap than an asset. The commerce all takes place at the foot of the hill, in Naya Bazaar, the “New Market “ (with its Thai-style Theravada Buddhist temple). It’s here, too, that you’ll notice the throngs of resident students from the adjacent Tribhuwan University – Nepal’s chief centre of higher education, and a hotbed of political activism in recent years. The old, upper town is splendidly preserved, thanks to a conservation project that furnished the streets with fine stone paving and restored many of its temples. Despite the clean-up, it preserves an authentically old-world atmosphere: many residents of the old town are Jyapus, from the Newari farming subcaste, and they still work the fields surrounding town. In spring and autumn, the streets are full of sheaves being threshed and grain being stored. In a typically Newari arrangement, the northwestern end of town is predominantly Hindu, the southeastern Buddhist, but everyone shares the same festivals.
Established as a western outpost of Patan in the twelfth century, Kirtipur had gained nominal independence by the time Prithvi Narayan Shah began his final conquest of the Kathmandu Valley in 1767. The Gorkha king considered the town to be the military linchpin of the valley and made its capture his first priority. After two separate attacks and a six-month siege, with no help forthcoming from Patan, Kirtipur surrendered on the understanding it would receive a total amnesty. Instead, in an atrocity intended to demoralize the remaining opposition in the valley, Prithvi Shah ordered his troops to cut off the noses and lips of every man and boy in Kirtipur. Supposedly, only men skilled in the playing of wind instruments were spared. The rest of the valley fell within a year.
Local legend relates that a shepherd, to pass the time, fashioned a tiger image out of burrs. The shepherd went off in search of a poinsettia leaf for the tongue, but when he returned he found his sheep gone – and the tiger’s mouth dripping with blood. To honour the miraculously bloodthirsty Bhairab, the people enshrined in Bagh Bhairab Mandir a clay tiger, its face covered with a silver, tongueless Bhairab mask that is remade every twenty or thirty years. The mask is hidden, but a tiny porthole on the eastern side of the temple – positioned so as to catch the dawn sun – may allow you to sneak a glimpse.
The valley’s northwestern fringe is its most congested. Kathmandu sprawls right to the very edge of the basin, while the main road to Trisuli heaves itself smokily out of the valley. The wooded hillside of Nagarjun Ban provides a pleasant swathe of green, however, and just outside its boundaries – it is part of the Shivapuri–Nagarjun National Park – lie the curious Sleeping Vishnu at Balaju and the rustic temple of Ichangu Narayan. It’s true that Nagarjun’s forest is no match for Shivapuri, the Vishnu plays second fiddle to the one at Budhanilkantha, and the temple is distinctly ordinary compared to the similarly named Changu Narayan, but they’re all handily close to the city centre.
According to tradition, a Narayan temple occupies each of the four cardinal points of Kathmandu Valley. The western one, Ichangu Narayan, is rustic rather than distinguished, but it nestles in a surprisingly pleasant rural side valley at the southern base of Jamacho. A roughish road leaves the Ring Road immediately opposite Swayambhunath’s western tip; there’s no bus, but taxis wait at this junction, or you can hike or bike up through the suburb of Halchok towards a small notch in the ridge behind a big Buddhist monastery; from here an increasingly rough road descends into the Ichangu valley to reach the temple after about 3km. Just beyond the saddle, another road breaks off to the south beside a quarry; from here mountain bikers could head westwards to Bhimdhunga and on to Thankot, astride the westbound Prithvi Highway.
PASHUPATINATH (pronounced Pash-patty-nat) is where they burn the bodies in the open. But it is, of course, much more besides. Crammed up against the mouth of a ravine, 4km east of central Kathmandu and just beyond the Ring Road, it also straddles a tirtha, or sacred crossroads and is Nepal’s holiest Hindu pilgrimage site, a smoky and stirring melee of temples, statues, pilgrims and half-naked holy men.
The entire complex overflows with pilgrims from all over the subcontinent during the wild festival of Shiva Raatri (held on the full moon of Feb–March), which commemorates Shiva’s tandava dance of destruction, according to some, or his drinking of blue poison to save the gods (see “Old Blue-Throat”), according to others. Devout locals also come for special services on full moon days and on the eleventh lunar day (ekadashi) after each full and new moon.
Perhaps more than anywhere else in Nepal, Pashupatinath is a place to modestly cover legs and arms – for women especially. It’s also important to respect the privacy of bathers, worshippers and, indeed, the dead. You may see other people poking their long lenses into the cremation pyres, but you have to question whether this is appropriate, particularly when grieving families are present.
Sadhus, the dreadlocked holy men usually seen lurking around Hindu temples, are essentially an Indian phenomenon. However, Nepal, the setting for many of the amorous and ascetic exploits of Shiva, the sadhus’ favourite deity, is also one of their favourite stomping grounds. Sadhus are especially common at Pashupatinath, which is rated as one of the subcontinent’s four most important Shaiva pilgrimage sites. During the festival of Shiva Raatri, Pashupatinath hosts a full-scale sadhu convention, with the government laying on free firewood for the festival.
Shaiva sadhus follow Shiva in one of his best-loved and most enigmatic guises: the wild, dishevelled yogin, the master of yoga, who sits motionless atop a Himalayan peak for aeons at a time and whose hair is the source of the mighty Ganga (Ganges) river. Traditionally, sadhus live solitary lives, always on the move, subsisting on alms and owning nothing but what they carry. They bear Shiva’s emblems: the trisul (trident), damaru (two-sided drum), a necklace of furrowed rudraksha seeds, and perhaps a conch shell for blowing haunting calls across the cosmic ocean. Some smear themselves with ashes, symbolizing Shiva’s role as the destroyer, who reduces all things to ash so that creation can begin anew. The trident-shaped tika of Shiva is often painted on their foreheads, although they may employ scores of other tika patterns, each with its own cult affiliation and symbolism.
Sadhus have a curious role model in Shiva, who is both a mountaintop ascetic and the omnipotent god of the phallus. Some, such as the members of the Gorakhnath cult (which has a strong presence at Pashupatinath), follow the tantric “left-hand” path, employing deliberately transgressive practices to free themselves of sensual passions and transcend the illusory physical world. The most notorious of these spiritual exercises is the tying of a heavy stone to the penis, thus destroying the erectile tissues and helping to tame the distractions of sexual desire. Aghoris, the most extreme of the left-hand practitioners, are famed for their cult of death, embracing the forbidden in order to destroy it. Cremation grounds like Pashupatinath are effectively their temples, and they are even rumoured to ingest human flesh – all in pursuit of the liberation of the soul.
Like Shiva, sadhus also make liberal use of intoxicants as a path to spiritual insight. It was Shiva, in fact, who supposedly discovered the transcendental powers of ganja (cannabis), which grows wild throughout hill Nepal. Sadhus usually consume the weed in the form of bhang (a liquid preparation) or charas (hashish, smoked in a vertical clay pipe known as a chilam). With each toke, the holy man intones “Bam Shankar”: “I am Shiva”.
The paved road beyond Boudha – one of the old trade routes to Tibet – rolls eastwards as far as SANKHU. It’s still one of the valley’s larger traditional Newari towns, but its location, in a rural corner hard up against the forested hills, gives it a pleasant backwater feel. There’s an old bazaar area to the east of the main north–south road, but the area is worth visiting mainly for its temple to Bajra Yogini, whose gilded roof glints from a grove of trees on the wooded hillside north of town.
Bajra Yogini is the eldest of a ferocious foursome of tantric goddesses specially venerated in the Kathmandu Valley. To Buddhist Newars – her main devotees – she is identified with Ugratara, the wrathful, corpse-trampling emanation of Tara, one of the female aspects of Buddhahood. Hindus identify her as Durga (Kali), the most terrifying of the eight mother goddesses. She’s also known as Khadga Yogini, for the sword (khadga) held in her right hand.
The current Bajra Yogini temple dates from the seventeenth century, though the smaller building next to it is more ancient: indeed, its natural stone dome may well be the original seventh-century object of worship at this site. The stone just to the right of the temple door is a nag (snake) shrine.
Steps lead up, past scurrying troupes of monkeys, to a picturesque, Rana-era pilgrim’s rest-house, set around a courtyard. The wing nearest the temple houses a subsidiary shrine to Bajra Yogini, tucked away on the first floor. Touching the goddess herself is forbidden, so this gilt copper copy was created for the annual jatra procession down to Sankhu (held for nine days from the full to the new moon of March–April); as a mother goddess, she is flanked by her two children.
On the ground floor, a seventh-century Buddha head and an enormous overturned frying pan are displayed. These belong respectively to Vrisadev, whose decapitation led to the founding of Boudha and to an ancient king who offered his own body as a daily sacrificial fry-up to Bajra Yogini. According to legend, the goddess would restore him to life and endow him with supernatural powers; when a rival tried to copy the trick, the goddess accepted his flesh, with no resurrection, and then turned over the frying pan to indicate that she would require no more sacrifices. Blood sacrifices are now performed only in front of the triangular stone of Bhairab, Bajra Yogini’s consort, which guards the path some hundred-odd steps below the temple; on the average day it gleams darkly with fresh blood.
In the back wall of the compound, a small square opening indicates a meditation cave. Another cave just behind the pati west of the compound (recognizable by the faint Tibetan inscription of the Avalokitesvara mantra over the door) is known as Dharma Pap Gupha: those who can squeeze through the opening into the inner chamber demonstrate their virtue (dharma); those who can’t, their vice (pap).
At 2732m, Shivapuri (or Sheopuri) is the second highest point on the valley rim. It lies within the forested Shivapuri Nagarjun National Park, designed to protect the valley’s water supply.
By far the most rewarding route to the peak from Budhanilkantha isn’t the direct ascent up the steps, but starts with a walk east along a dirt road (usually navigable on a 4WD or motorbike in decent conditions) to Nagi Gompa, a former Tamang monastery gifted to the renowned lama Urgyen Rinpoche, and now occupied by nuns – along with the occasional Western dharma student sent up from Boudha. (If you’re interested in Buddhism, ask to stay in the simple guesthouse here.) It’s a pleasant walk of an hour or so, climbing and contouring eastward through the forest.
There are numerous walking and biking routes in Shivapuri National Park, and Nagi Gompa makes a good place to start. The rough road contours from the nunnery all the way along the southern side of the park to its easternmost point, offering various ways to drop down to the valley. One good, bikeable route descends from a fork some 500m east of the nunnery, following a lovely ridge line south to Gokarna or Kopan; this is also an attractive (if long) route up to Shivapuri peak.
From the Tamang village of Mulkharka, 10km east of Nagi Gompa, along the road, walkers can descend to the small town of Sundarijal in less than half an hour; from here plentiful buses run back to Boudha and Kathmandu. Alternatively, you can trek northwards and upwards through the middle of the park from Mulkharka (where there’s basic accommodation) to the pass at Borlang Bhangjang (roughly 3hr), from where you descend to Chisapani, at the park’s northeastern side (1hr); this is traditionally the first day of the Helambu Circuit.
From Mulkharka, you can also take a classic mountain-bike route, heading east on the rough road all the way to the park gate at Jhule, and continuing south from there to Nagarkot or Sankhu; you could even turn north and carry on all the way round the fringe of the park to Chisapani. Budhanilkantha to Chisapani would be an all-day ride of 30km (count on 8hr). Between Mulkharka and Jhule, walkers can descend directly south to Sankhu, via the Bajra Yogini temple.
One of Nepal’s moodiest tantric sacrificial shrines, dakshin or “southern” Kali, lies at the end of the Kathmandu Valley’s longest and most varied road. As it snakes its way along a fold in the valley rim towards the shrine, the Dakshinkali road passes a fine succession of Buddhist and Hindu holy places, offering an intense, half-day snapshot of Nepal’s religious culture. The road begins at the busy Balkhu junction of the Ring Road, at the southwest corner of Kathmandu, just short of Kirtipur (which would make a fine side-trip). From Balkhu, it’s possible to take a 4WD taxi south through the hills, descending to the Terai at Hetauda.
The southwestern rim of the Kathmandu Valley rears up in a prominent fishtail of twin peaks, the highest visible parts of the Chandragiri range. The eastern summit is known as Champadevi, after the resident goddess.
Perhaps the simplest ascent route follows the rough dirt road that skirts the Dollu valley (the one immediately north of Pharping) up to the Haatiban Height Resort. From the resort, a well-trodden track leads northwest up (and sometimes down) through pine forest, and then along the grassy ridgetop to the stupa-marked summit (2249m). A return trip from the resort should take around 3hr. If you walk up from the Dakshinkali road it might take anything from 4–6hr, so bring food and water.
A good alternative ascent route begins just after the Dakshinkali road makes an abrupt bend beyond Taudaha, climbing westwards along dirt roads through fields towards the edge of forest; at the trees, the trail turns southwards, and the last part of the route climbs steeply up through the forest to gain the ridge above Haatiban Resort, at about 2000m.
Another route approaches from the south, following a dirt road up the northern side of the Pharping valley before turning off up the small Sundol valley; you can follow any of a number of trails up from here – all lead directly north to the summit of Champadevi. To avoid the road section of this Pharping route, however, you could also ascend the forested ridge that divides Dollu from Pharping; the trail begins at the monastery immediately west of the Bajra Yogini temple – it’s a bit tricky at the start as you have to find your way through a profusion of prayer flags and paths.
From the summit of Champadevi, you can continue down and up to the unnamed western peak of the fishtail – which is actually slightly higher, at 2286m. You can then continue west along the ridge for an hour (or somewhat less), following a well-made path down to a saddle and then up to a higher peak (2509m). From here, another ridge tracks south for another hour or so up to the highest peak of the range, Bhasmesur (2622m) – said to be the ashy remains of a demon tricked by Vishnu into incinerating himself. West of the Bhasmesur spur, a path turns north off the ridge (though the actual ridge-line is confused around here – and the illegal charcoal-burning pits don’t help), descending a steep and seemingly endless stone staircase down to the village of Machegaon (90min descent) from where various trails and roads lead back to Kirtipur.
If you had the requisite time, weather, guide (or good map and route-asking skills) and fitness, you could also trek west along the ridgetop from the Bhasmesur spur to a col at Deurali, and then on west to another pass at Chitlang Bhanjyang, from where a dirt road descends to Thankot, on the busy Prithvi Highway (the Pokhara road); it would be a very long day.
If orthodox Indian Hindus are very much of the “pure veg”, non-violent persuasion, their tantrically inclined Nepali cousins have a more bloodthirsty bent. At least, the thirst is on the part of Kali, Nepal’s fearsome – yet strangely popular – mother goddess who demands blood sacrifice in return for her favours.
Nepalis are curiously gentle in their worship: they lead their offerings to the slaughter tenderly, often whispering prayers in the animal’s ear and sprinkling its head with water to encourage it to shrug in assent; they believe that the death of this “unfortunate brother” will give it the chance to be reborn as a higher life form. Chickens, goats or, most expensively, buffaloes can be sacrificed, but only uncastrated males, preferably dark in colour, are offered.
At Dakshinkali, men of a special caste slit the animals’ throats and let the blood spray over the idols. Brahman priests oversee the butchering and instruct worshippers in all the complex rituals that follow. However, you don’t need to speak Nepali to get the gist of the explanations.
A number of roads now pick their way through the hills south of Kathmandu. The so-called Kanti Highway (though it’s no such thing) heads south from Patan down the Bagmati Valley via Tika Bhairab to Thingana, where it turns west for Hetauda (though it will one day carry on due south to Nijgadh, making a new “fast track” route to the Terai).
The more useful routes are the two that break off the Dakshinkali Road – though both are still only paved in parts, and can become temporarily impassable during the monsoon. For now, they’re traversed by large, roof-racked “Tata Sumo” jeeps, which wait at the Balkhu junction, on the Ring Road where it crosses the Bagmati River, ready to depart as soon as they’re full of passengers. The 65km Dakshinkali route, known as the Madan Bhandari Highway, is more reliable and paved for longer sections (buses usually make it to Sisneri, 1hr from Dakshinkali). The higher, slightly shorter Pharping route can be quicker, and has the advantage of crossing the picturesque Kulekhani Reservoir dam. Both roads meet just below the Kulekhani Reservoir then descend via the picturesque bazaar town of Bhimphedi to join the Tribhuwan Rajpath at Bhainse, 11km north of Hetauda, in the Terai. By either route, the journey costs around Rs350 per head and takes three to four hours, and the traffic is light enough to make mountain biking an attractive option.
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.
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.
THIMI, the valley’s fourth-largest town, spreads across a minor eminence 4km west of Bhaktapur. The name is said to be a corruption of chhemi, meaning “capable people”, a bit of flattery offered by Bhaktapur to make up for the fact that the town used to get mauled every time Bhaktapur picked a fight with Kathmandu or Patan. Little has changed: caught between Kathmandu’s rampant development and Bhaktapur’s careful spirit of conservation, Thimi has rather lost out. Recently the town has revived its ancient name of MADHYAPUR (“Middle Place”) – which says it all.
The town itself is grotty and oddly sullen. The main north–south lane is dotted with chortens and modest temples for its full 1km length. The only sight of note, the sixteenth-century pagoda temple of Balkumari, comes just short of its southern end. Childless couples come here to pray to the “Child Kumari” – represented by an unmistakeable, vulva-like gilt slit – presenting her with coconuts as a symbol of fertility. The temple is bespattered with pigeon droppings and has been protected by a steel cage since its precious peacock statue was stolen in 2001; the current figure, atop its tall pillar, is a reproduction. The temple is the focus of the Sindoor Jatra festival for Nepali New Year (in April), when dozens of deities are ferried around on palanquins and red powder (red being the colour of rejoicing) is thrown like confetti.
Thimi’s main attraction is its tradition of open-air pottery production. Some potters may have moved on to electric wheels and kerosene-fired kilns, but in the maze of the town’s back-alleys and courtyards you can still see barrow-loads of raw clay and potters spinning their wheels by hand with long sticks. Most extraordinary are the open-air kilns: huge heaps of sand and charcoal belching smoke from carefully tended vents. The main pottery quarter lies in the smoky heart of town: turn west at Chapacho, the cluster of small temples halfway down the high street, opposite the Community Health Clinic.
Thimi is also known for papier-mâché masks, which originated with the local Chitrakar family, famed for generations as purveyors of fine festival masks. They still produce them in a range of sizes and styles, notably snarling Bhairab, kindly Kumari and elephant-headed Ganesh.