Kathmandu Durbar Square | Patan Durbar Square | Bhaktapur Durbar Square | Swayambhu | Boudhanath | Pashupatinath | Changu Narayan | Lumbini | Chitwan National Park | Sagarmatha National Park.
KATHMANDU DURBAR SQUARE
It is easy to be overwhelmed by the seemingly uncountable monuments in the Kathmandu Durbar Square. The house of the Living Goddess, the ferocious Kal Bhairab, the red monkey god, and hundreds of erotic carvings are a few examples of the sights at the Square!
The buildings here are the greatest achievements of the Malla dynasty, and they resulted from the great rivalry between the three palaces of Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur. The Valley was divided among the children of Yaksya Malla. For visitors today and for the Nepalese, it was serendipitous that they and later their offspring’s began an artistic warfare trying to outdo each other in splendid constructions. Kings copied everything their neighbors’ built in an even grander style.
A visitor, who wanders around the square, will see a round temple in the pagoda architectural style, the temple of Goddess Taleju (who played dice with King Jaya Prakash Malla) and an image of Shiva and Parbati sitting together among the many monuments.
The square is teeming with colorful life. Vendors sell vegetables, curios, flutes and other crafts around the Kasthamandap rest house. This rest house is said to have been built with the wood of a single tree and is the source from which the Kathmandu Valley got its name. Nearby are great drums which were beaten to announce royal decrees. All woodcarvings, statues and architecture in this area are exceptionally fine and Kathmandu Durbar Square is among the most important sights for travelers to see.
PATAN DURBAR SQUARE
The square boasts of many famous sites and unique architectures.
- KRISHNA MANDIR in the Patan Durbar Square was built to honor an incarnation of Vishnu. Krishna fought by the side of the Pandavas in the Mahabharata war to assure that truth would prevail. He was a favorite among the “Gopinis” cow girls. His temple is the best example of stone architecture in Nepal. Scenes from the Mahabharata, Asia’s greatest mythological war, are carved on the temple’s walls.
- THE BHIMSEN TEMPLE which honors Bhim – great wrestler, brother of the Pandavas and a deity to Nepalese businessmen – contains fine samples of metal craft. The best place, however, to see metal sculpture is the Hiranya Varna Mahabihar, the “Golden Temple.” It is a Newar monastery which contains wall paintings, fourteenth century statues, and scriptures. Its front facade is mostly covered in bronze. Note the stone gates and the figures upon them. These were built by the Silakars whose descendants are active in the woodcarving industry today. Also interesting are the four metal monkeys at the corners of the temple. Monkeys have been featured in the temple decor of Nepal for several hundred years!
- The SUNDARI CHOWK contains exquisite samples of woodcarvings, stone and metal sculptures. A huge stone platform in this chowk is the seat of a pious king who endured great penance in search of eternal bliss. It is said that he slept outside on this chilly stone platform in the bitter cold of Kathmandu winters and spent hours in the monsoon rains. Other sites including the MAHABOUDHA TEMPLE and UKU BAHAL are only a few minutes’ walk away from the square. The streets in this area are home to sculptors of the present day. Many more temples dedicated to Ganesh, the elephant-headed god, Shiva, Narasingha, Taleju and others are situated in the Patan Durbar Square.
BHAKTAPUR DURBAR SQUARE
Bhaktapur Durbar Square is a conglomeration of pagoda and shikhara-style temples grouped around a fifty-five window palace of brick and wood. The square is one of the most charming architectural showpieces of the Valley as it highlights the ancient arts of Nepal. The golden effigies of kings perched on the top of stone monoliths, the guardian deities looking out from their sanctuaries, the wood carvings in every place-struts, lintels, uprights, tympanums, gateways and windows-all seem to form a well-orchestrated symphony. The main items of interest in the Durbar Square are:
- THE LION GATE: Dating as far back as A.D. 1696, this gate is guarded on either side by two huge statues of lions. Alongside, there are two stone images of Bhairab (the dreadful aspect of Shiva) and Ugrachandi (the consort of Shiva in her fearful manifestation).
- THE GOLDEN GATE: The Golden Gate is said to be the most beautiful and richly molded specimen of its kind in the entire world. The door is surmounted by a figure of the goddess Kali and Garuda (the mythical man-bird) and attended by two heavenly nymphs. It is also embellished with mythical creatures of marvelous intricacy, In the words of Percy Brown, an eminent English art critic and historian, the Golden Gate is the most lovely piece of art in the whole Kingdom: it is placed like a jewel, flashing innumerable facets in the handsome setting of its surroundings. The gate was erected by King Ranjit Malla and is the entrance of the main courtyard of THE PALACE OF FIVETY FIVE WINDOWS.
- THE PALACE OF FIVETY FIVE WINDOWS: This magnificent palace was built during the reign of King Yaksya Malla in A.D. 1427 and was subsequently remodeled by King Bhupatindra Malla in the seventeenth century. Among the brick walls with their gracious setting and sculptural design, is a balcony with “fifty-five windows”, considered to be a unique masterpiece of woodcarving.
- THE ART GALLERY: The Art Gallery contains ancient paintings belonging to the Hindu and Buddhist traditions of various periods and descriptions. This gallery is open every day except on Tuesdays.
- THE STATUE OF KING BHUPATINDRA MALLA: This statue showing King Bhupatindra Malla in the act of worship is set on a column facing the palace. Of the square’s many statues, this is considered to be the most magnificent.
SWAYAMBHUNATH STUPA “ THE MONKEY TEMPLE”
The history of the Valley, according to the legends, begins with Swayambhu, or the “the self-existent”. In times uncharted by history, Bodhisattva Manjushri came across a beautiful lake during his travel. He saw a lotus that emitted brilliant light at the lake’s center, so he cut a gorge in a southern hill and drained the waters to worship the lotus. Men settled on the bed of the lake and called it the Kathmandu Valley. From then on, the hilltop of the “self-existent Lord” has been a holy place.
Swayambhu’s light was covered in time because few could bear its intensity. By the thirteenth century, after many layers were added to the original structure that enveloped the Lord’s power, a dome-like shape had been acquired. The stupas central mast was damaged and replaced at that time. Peripheral sources of power were discovered on the hilltop as well and stupas, temples and rest houses were built to honor them. Images of important deities, both Buddhist and Hindu, were also installed. Today, age-old statues and shrines dot the stupa complex.
Behind the hilltop is a temple dedicated to Manjushri of Saraswati – the goddess of learning. Swayambhu is, perhaps, the best place to observe the religious harmony in Nepal. The stupa is among the most ancient in this part of the world and its worshippers are diverse from Newar nuns, Tibetan monks and Brahmin priests to lay Buddhists and Hindus. The largest image of the Shakyamuni Buddha in Nepal is in a monastery next to the stupa. Other monasteries here have huge prayer wheels, fine Buddhist paintings and special butter lamps which may be lit after presenting monetary offerings.
Swayambhu is a major landmark of the Valley and looks like a beacon below the Nagarjun hill. It provides an excellent view of the Kathmandu Valley. Devotees have climbed the steps on the eastern side for centuries. Statues of the Buddha, mini stupas, monasteries and monkeys make the climb to Swayambhu – which is fairly steep but worthwhile. But for someone who is physically disabled or is pressed for time, the western road allows you to get off your transport almost at the base of the stupa.
Boudhanath is among the largest stupas in South Asia and it has become the focal point of Tibetan Buddhism in Nepal. The white mound looms thirty-six meters overhead. The stupa is located on the ancient trade route to Tibet and Tibetan merchants rested and offered prayers here for many centuries. When refugees entered Nepal from Tibet in the 1950s, many of them decided to live around Boudhanath.
They established many gompas and the “Little Tibet” of Nepal was born. This “Little Tibet” is still the best place in the Valley to observe Tibetan lifestyle. Monks walk about in maroon robes. Tibetans walk with prayer wheels in their hands and the rituals of prostration are presented to the Buddha as worshippers circumambulate the stupa on their hands and knees, bowing down to their lord. Many people believe that Boudhanath was constructed in the fifth century, but definite proof is lacking.
The stupa is said to entomb the remains of a Kasyap sage who is venerable both to Buddhists and Hindus. One legend has it that a woman requested a valley king for the donation of ground required to build a stupa. She said she needed land covered by one buffalo’s skin and her wish was granted by the King. She cut a buffalo skin into thin strips and circled off a fairly large clearing. The king had no choice but to give her the land.
The Bouddha area is a visual feast. Colorful thangkas, Tibetan jewelleries, hand-woven carpets, masks and khukuri knives are sold in the surrounding stalls. Smaller stupas are located at the base. Gompa monasteries, curio shops and restaurants surround Boudhanath. Conveniently situated restaurants with roof-top patios provide good food and excellent views of Bouddhanath.
PASHUPATINATH – THE HOLY TEMPLE OF LORD SHIVA
Pashupatinath is the holiest Hindu pilgrimage destination in Nepal. There are linga images of Shiva along with statues, shrines and temples dedicated to other deities in the complex. A temple dedicated to Shiva existed at this site in AD 879. However, the present temple was built by King Bhupatindra Malla in 1697. A gold-plated roof, silver doors and woodcarvings of the finest quality decorate the pagoda construction.
- GUHESWARI TEMPLE restored in AD 1653, represents the female “force”. It is dedicated to Satidevi who was Shiva’s first wife and who gave up her life in the flames of her father’s fire ritual. A circuit of the Pashupatinath area takes visitors past a sixth-century statue of the Buddha, an eighth-century statue of Brahma the creator and numerous other temples. Some other places to visit are
- RAJRAJESWARI TEMPLE was built in 1407 and contains Kailas with lingams more than 1,400 years old.
- GORAKHNATH TEMPLE.
- COURTYARD OF BISWARUP. There are rows of Shiva’s shrines and Hindu pilgrims from all over South Asia offer puja to worship Shiva, the Lord of Destruction.
- BAGMATI RIVER flows close by.
- ARYA GHAT CREMATION GROUNDS.
- We strongly advise photographers not to take photos of cremations and of bereaved families.
- Sadhus and sages, who follow the lifestyle of Shiva, may be seen covered in ashes and loin-cloths. They ask for money in case you want to take their photos.
- The main Pashupatinath courtyard may be entered by those of Hindu faith only.
Narayan, or Vishnu, is the preserver of creation to Hindus. His temple near Changu village is often described as the most ancient temple in the Kathmandu Valley. A fifth century stone inscription, the oldest to be discovered in Nepal, is located in the temple compound and it tells of the victorious King Mandev.
The temple now covers sixteen hundred years of Nepalese art history. The temple, built around the third century, is decorated by some of the best samples of stone, wood and metal craft in the valley. On the struts of the two-tiered Changu Narayan Temple, are the ten incarnations in which Narayan destroyed evil-doers.
A sixth-century stone statue shows the cosmic form of Vishnu, while another statue recalls his dwarf incarnation when he crushed the evil king Bali. Vishnu as Narasingha disemboweling a demon is particularly stunning. The western bronze doors sparkle in the evening sunlight, dragons decorate the bells and handsome devas stare from the walls.
• GARUDA, half man and half bird, is the steed of Vishnu and his life-sized statue kneels before the temple.
The favorite of many tourists is the statue of Vishnu sitting astride his steed.
LUMBINI – THE BIRTH PLACE OF LORD BUDDHA
Shakyamuni Buddha was born in Lumbini, in southern Nepal, twenty-five hundred years ago. Lumbini has since been a holy ground for Buddhists all over the world. The restored garden and surroundings of Lumbini have the remains of many of the ancient stupas and monasteries. A large stone pillar erected by the Indian Emperor Ashoka in 250 BC bears an inscription about the birth of the Buddha.
An important part of Lumbini is the temple of Maya Devi. It has a stone image of Maya Devi giving birth to Lord Buddha as she holds onto a branch. It has been well worn by the strokes of barren women hoping for fertility. To the south of the temple is a pool where Queen Maya Devi is said to have bathed and given her son his first purification bath.
A quiet garden, shaded by the leafy Bo tree (the type of tree under which Buddha received enlightenment) and a newly planted forest nearby lend an air of tranquility which bespeaks Buddha’s teachings.
Lumbini is now being developed under the Master Plan of the Lumbini Development Trust, a non- governmental organization dedicated to the restoration of Lumbini and its development as a pilgrimage site. The plan was completed in 1978 by the renowned Japanese architect Kenzo Tange who transformed three square miles of the land into a sacred place of gardens, pools, buildings and groves. The development included a Monastic Zone, the circular sacred Garden surrounding the Ashoka pillar and Maya Devi temple and Lumbini Village, where visitors find lodges, restaurants, a cultural center and tourist facilities.
An important archeological site near Lumbini, Kapilvastu evokes the ancient palace where Lord Buddha spent his formative years. Scattered foundations of the palace are abundant and archeologists have by now discovered 13 successive layers of human habitation dating back to the eighth century BC.
Besides its religious and historical significance, Lumbini offers cultural insights into the village life of southern Nepal. If possible, try to coincide your visit with the weekly Monday bazaar when villagers come from miles around to buy grains, spices, pottery, jewelleries, saris and various other items. It may appear as a scene out of the Arabian Nights, with colorful merchandise spread out under the mango trees and the air perfumed with incense. It’s a chance to bargain for souvenirs while witnessing the local life in Lumbini. Wooden ox-carts loaded with hay trundle by. Villagers dry cow-dung for fuel and tea stalls serve sweet milk tea.
Today, Lumbini is beginning to receive travelers’ and archaeologists’ attention after centuries of neglect. Serious preservation work has only just been started in the latter half of this century and Lumbini as a slice of history is worth seeing and worth preserving.
• Royal Nepal Airlines and other airlines fly regularly to Bhairahawa, near Lumbini and bus services are available from Pokhara and Kathmandu.
CHITWAN NATIONAL PARK
Nepal’s first and most famous national park is situated in the Chitwan Doon or the lowlands of the Inner Terai. Covering an area of 932 sq km. the park includes hilly areas of the Siwalik Range covered by deciduous sal forest.
A fifth of the park is made up of the floodplains of the Narayani, Rapti and the Reu Rivers and is covered by dense tall elephant grass interspersed with riverine forests of silk cotton (kapok), acacia and sisam trees.
This ecologically diverse area is the last remaining home in Nepal for more than 300 of the endangered Asian one-horned rhinoceros and harbors one of the largest populations of the elusive and rare Royal Bengal tigers. Besides rhinos and tigers, Chitwan also supports a great variety of flora and fauna.
There are four species of deer, including the spotted chital and other animals like leopards, sloth bears, wild boars, rhesus monkeys, grey langur monkeys, wild dogs, small wild cats, the white stockinged gaur (the world’s largest wild cattle) and many other smaller animals.
The swampy areas and numerous oxbow lakes of Chitwan provide a home for marsh crocodiles. In a stretch of the Narayani River, is found one of the few remaining populations of the rare and endangered fish-only eating gharial or Genetic crocodile. Here also is found one of the world’s four species of freshwater dolphins.
For the ornithologist and the amateur bird-watcher the park offers excellent possibilities with more than 450 species recorded. Some of the resident specialties’ are several species of woodpeckers, hornbills, Bengal florican and red-headed trogons.
Winter birds such as waterfowl, Brahminy duck, pintails and bareheaded geese, amongst many other cold weather visitors are drawn by the sanctuary of the park’s rivers. In the summer the forest is alive with nesting migrants such as the fabulous paradise flycatcher, the Indian pitta and parakeets.
SAGARMATHA NATIONAL PARK
Unique among natural heritage sites world-wide is the Sagarmatha National Park, which includes Mt. Everest (8,848 m) and other high peaks such as Lhotse Shar, Cho Oyu, Ama Dablam, Pumori, Kangtega, Gyachung Kang, Tharnserku and Kwangde.
Located North-east of Kathmandu, Sagarmatha National Park is 1,148 sq km. in area and consists of the upper catchment areas of the Dudh Koshi, Bhote Koshi and the Imja Khola rivers. Much of the park lies above 3,000m. Sagarmatha is rugged, with deep gorges, glaciers and nonnegotiable ice and rock faces.
Locally known as ‘Khumbu’, it is the home of the famous Sherpa people. The Sherpa’s make a living by farming barley and potatoes and graze their yaks in high altitude pastures. Young Sherpas have also made their name in mountaineering and the trekking industry, has of late become the community’s economic mainstay.
In 1979 the park was declared a World Heritage Site. Trees such as rhododendron, birch, blue pine, juniper and silver fir are found up to an altitude of 4,000 meters above which they give way to scrub and alpine plants. In late spring and summer, the hillsides around the villages of Namche Bazaar, Khumjung, Thyangboche and Thame are a riot of colours with several species of rhododendron in bloom.
Wildlife’s most likely to be seen in Sagarmatha are the Himalaya thar, ghoral, musk deer, pikka (mouse hare) weasel and occasionally jackals. Other rarely seen animals are Himalayan black bear, wolf, lynx and snow leopard.
Birds commonly seen are Impeyan pheasant, blood pheasant, snow cock, snow pigeon, red billed, yellow billed chough, Himalayan griffin vulture and lammergeier.