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Sunday, April 18, 2010

Kathmandu "Must Visit UNESCO World Heritage Site"

Kathmandu, the capital and largest city in Nepal, is located in the eastern half of the country in the valley of the same name at an altitude of 1300 m (4266 ft). In recent years Khatmandu has experienced a massive migration to the city, and today has a population of over 600,000. For several hundred years it was one of three rival royal cities, the others being Bhaktapur and Patan. But the unification of Nepal under Prithvi Narayan Shah and his decision to make Kathmandu his capital, set the city firmly on a course of expansion. Today Kathmandu has more of a big-city atmosphere than either Bhaktapur or Patan and possesses a more developed urban infrastructure. Among its wealth of historic buildings it can boast the largest of the ancient royal palaces (and the newest) as well as innumerable Rana palaces and important shrines. Despite the growth which has made a modern city of Kathmandu, the old center still retains something of a medieval air. The day still begins with prayers and pujas in the temples and farmers still bring their fresh vegetables to market in enormous baskets.

At the same time Kathmandu faces increasingly severe Third World problems of over-population, air and water pollution and a sometimes deadly lack of hygiene. The effects of mass tourism are also plain to see. In the district of Thamel and in Durbar Marg any traces of Nepal's fascinating indigenous culture are hidden well beneath the surface. The people too behave differently from those in less tourist-affected areas. Some see this as a natural process of development, others complain of a loss of identity. One thing however is clear: Shangri La no longer exists, at least not here and not now. Yet this city of contradictions, with wonderful works of art, remains a thoroughly intriguing place.

North and south of the palace precinct the streets are winding and irregular, suggesting that this was the original nucleus of the town.

The streets are interrupted by large open spaces resembling squares, on which are located Kathmandu's oldest temples. Near by also are numerous bahals.

Probably under Mahendra Malla, a more extensive network of streets was built, orientated north-south and east-west parallel to the Vishnumati ridge. The city is thus divided into rectangular quarters, the toles or districts of Kathmandu. Up until 1482 there were just twelve toles, each ruled by its own raja. Later there were 32 toles. Today on the south-east side the grid pattern is broken, whole quarters having been demolished following the 1934 earthquake.

Cutting diagonally across this rectangular network of streets is the ancient Bazaar Street, on the line of the old route from India to Tibet. Its effect is to create intriguing triangular spaces at intersections, where many of Kathmandu's major temples are found.

Chusya Bahal

The Chusya Bahal is considered the finest example of bahal architecture in the Kathmandu Valley. Two lions flank the entrance while above on the beautiful torana the Buddhist deity Prajnaparamita is portrayed. At ground level the buildings are open to the court, the one on the right containing a Mahakala shrine, the one on the left a shrine to Ganesh. Traditional brick paving has been preserved in the sunken court.

Like the other shrines the temple facing the entrance is two-storied, its roof topped by a simple finial. Note in particular the magnificent 14th c. roof struts. All the various deities depicted are also named. In the court are two votive stupas, one an image of Tara, the other a statue of Vajrasattva. The two donors stand either side.

The order of priests responsible for the bahal is now virtually moribund and only one or two members of the community remain. As a result the bahal has no income and no one to maintain it. The open halls on the ground floor are used as a school. Hopefully something will be done to save this jewel of Malla architecture; otherwise some concrete eyesore will soon replace these lovely though dilapidated old buildings.

Hanuman Dhoka
Between the Degutale Temple and the Taleju Mandir the main façade of the palace turns at right angles, creating a forecourt called Hanuman Dhoka after the palace deity (the Mallas chose Hanuman the monkey god on account of his prodigious strength). In 1672, during Pratapa Malla's reign, an image of Hanuman was placed in front of the portal to keep away evil spirits and disease. The figure still looks threatening though centuries of anointing with mustard oil and cinnebar (vermilion) have eroded its features.

The square is dominated by the Kasthamandapa, a spacious hall-temple without rival in Kathmandu. Relatively unadorned with carving the building impresses by its compactness and simplicity. Balconies encircle each story, protected by the heavy widely jutting roofs. The interior of the building is open, with rows of timber supports.

According to legend Kalpa Vriksha, the heavenly wishing tree, came down to Earth in human form to participate in the Matsyendranath Jatra Festival. He was recognized by a Tantric priest who pleaded with him to build a monastery from the wood of the tree. The result was the Kasthamandapa ("House of Wood"), from which Kathmandu takes its name.

The Kasthamandapa is often identified with an important monastery of which there is mention as early as the 8th c. From the 11th c. it was used as an assembly house, perhaps for legislative or consultative meetings between the rajas of the 12 Kathmandu districts (toles). In the 14th c. the building became a shrine to Goraknath administered by the Natha sect.

Goraknath was a great teacher belonging to the Natha sect in medieval Nepal. He is said to have been a cowherd whose destiny it was to care for a crippled prince whom he came across abandoned in the forest. His 12 years of selfless devotion were the equal of the highest form of yogic discipline and thus earned him immortality.

Swayambhunath, visible from afar on a hilltop site to the west of Kathmandu, takes pride in being the second most important Buddhist shrine in the Valley after Bodnath. Legend connects Swayambhu, the self-born, primordial Buddha, with the earliest origins of Kathmandu. The Swayambhu Stupa, painted with the eyes of the omnipresent god, forms the centerpiece of the temple complex. Swayambhu plays a major part in the lives of the Vajrayana Buddhists of Northern Nepal and Tibet, but more especially of the Newari Buddhists of the Kathmandu Valley.

Swayambhunath occupies a prehistoric cult site. Ancient legends suggest the site initially served a nature cult, only later becoming associated with Buddhism. The legends portray a close link between Swayambhu and the emergence of the valley. At a time when the Kathmandu Valley was still submerged there bloomed on the surface of the lake a lotus flower which gave forth a brilliant light, the light of Swayambhu. So that all might more easily worship the divine flame, Manjushri smote the earth with his sword, creating the Chobar gorge through which the waters of the lake drained away. Gods and men alike praised the miracle. Later, as the dark clouds of Hinduism massed over the land, the monk Shantikar Acharya, recognizing the danger threatening the incomparable treasure, covered the flame with a stone and erected a stupa over it.

The oldest inscription in the temple precinct refers to the monastery as founded in about ad 460 during the reign of King Mana Deva. By the 13th c. it had become widely known, a fact to which the writings of a Tibetan pilgrim called Dharmasvami who spent eight years in Swayambhunath testify. In 1346 however, the Sultan of Bengal's Muslim troops reduced the shrine to rubble. It was rebuilt in 1372, the expense being borne by the nobility of Kathmandu. The bronze sections and bejeweled mast, made in Kathmandu, were carried up Swayambhunath Hill in procession. The stupa is assumed to have taken on its present shape at this particular time.

Much of the current lay-out of the temple site is owed to Pratapa Malla (1641-74). He created a pilgrim way from Kathmandu to Swayambhunath, building a bridge across the Vishnumati and adding the impressive flight of steps giving access to the shrine from the east. The two tall shikharas framing the stupa's tower also date from his time. A later inscription records a further rebuilding of the tower-like upper section following its destruction in 1751. The Hindu gods are said to have taken a great interest in these proceedings; Vishnu appeared in the guise of a Brahmin to explain exactly how the new tower should look - which also explains how a Hindu monarch came to be involved.

Both Jayaprakasha Malla, then King of Kathmandu, and the Gorkha King Prithvi Narayan Shah, soon to conquer the valley, contributed significantly to the rebuilding. Ever since 1639 the temple had been looked after by Tibetan lamas and a High Lama from Tibet was invited for the consecration.

The temple complex
The hill on which the Swayambhu Stupa stands is lightly wooded. Mani-stones inscribed with prayer formulae are seen everywhere (stones similarly engraved can be bought in the car park west of the stupa). Six large statues of Buddha mark the foot of the long staircase which ascends between more statues - of elephants, horses, peacocks, Garudas and lions, bearers of the five Dhyani Buddhas - arranged in pairs, at intervals, one on each side of the steps.

The entrance to the precinct is dominated by a huge gilded vajra rising above a mandala worked in a drum-shaped base. Animals, symbols of the years of the Tibetan twelve-year cycle, decorate the walls, while a snake, head and tail pointing east, forms a border round the drum above. The vajra is itself a symbol of Buddha Aksobhya, whose shrine is on the east side of the stupa. Either side of the entrance stands a tall shikhara, its porch aligned inwards towards the vajra. The position of the shikharas is not, however, determined by the entrance but by the perspective when viewed from the south-east, i.e. from the direction of Kathmandu. The shikharas are dedicated to Ugratara and Vajra Yogini, each depicted coupled with their respective Buddhas. Pratapa Malla is said to have erected the two shrines to commemorate his two deceased wives whose features the images bear.

Swayambhunath - Swayambhu Stupa
The external appearance of the stupa has remained substantially unchanged since the 14th c. apart from minor alterations due to later endowments and repairs. An appreciation of the stupa is best gained by proceeding round it in a clockwise direction. As people walk round the prayer wheels fixed to the balustrade are set in motion, so multiplying the prayers a thousand times.

Ichangu Narayan
The shrine to Ichangu Narayan ("Vishnu of the west") is situated in delightful surroundings at the tip of a mountain ridge overlooking the Ichangu Valley about 5 km (3 mi.) north-west of Kathmandu; it is reached by a dirt road. Ichangu Narayan is one of the four principal Narayan temples in the Kathmandu Valley. The cult site was probably already in use by the Newaris long before conversion to Hinduism. The present two-tiered pagoda dates from the 18th c., replacing an earlier temple built in 1512 after a famine.

A small shrine to Bhagwati located above Ichangu Narayan offers a delightful view across the Ichangu Valley.

Akasha Bhairava Mandir
The important shrine in Indra Chowk Square is unfortunately not open to tourists. It is dedicated to a form of Bhairava identified with the Kirati King Yalamba, a hero of the Mahabharata. The legend tells how the King went to India to take part in the battle of the Mahabharata. When Krishna saw him he asked on which side he intended to fight. The King answered he would fight for the losing side, whereupon Krishna struck off his head with such force that it flew all the way back to Kathmandu. The King is worshipped as Akasha Bhairava, who mysteriously fell from heaven (akash). Every year this story is re-enacted during the Indra Jatra Festival.

The gigantic blue Bhairava mask is located on the first floor of the rectangular building, positioned, as guardian deities often are, so as to look out on life in the busy square below. Bhairava however turns his eyes heavenward; were he to look down disaster would ensue. The ground floor of the temple is filled with little shops in front of which coolies and rickshaw drivers wait for hire. A remarkable number of flute sellers frequent Indra Chowk.

Ashok Binayak Shrine
Despite its modest appearance the small Ashok Binayak Temple behind the Kasthamandapa is the principal shrine to Ganesh in the Kathmandu Valley. Rites performed here are an important part of the coronation ceremony. The temple is thought to have been founded by Gundakama Deva in the 10th c., at the same time as the nearby Madu Hiti Fountain. The present structure however dates only from the mid 19th c. The stone image of Ganesh stands beneath a golden replica of the ashok tree which once shaded the shrine and eventually gave it its name.

Durbar Marg
Durbar Marg, constructed during the city's period of expansion under the Ranas, is the expensive face of Kathmandu. Here all the trappings of tourism are found: luxury hotels, restaurants serving international cuisine, pricey boutiques, travel agencies and airline offices.

A statue of King Mahendra, father of the previous King, stands in the center of the roundabout at the junction of Durbar Marg with Jamal. The ancient settlement of Jamal was a victim of the Ranas' enthusiasm for building. The none too scrupulous rulers seized land from farmers and monasteries, demolishing an old bahal to make way for the new road. The bahal, one time abode of the White (Sveta) Matsyendranath, stood where the god's image had been found in a field, an event commemorated every year at the Matsyendranath Jatra. Shveta Matsyendranath's chariot is assembled and driven three times round the spot over which the statue of King Mahendra now presides.

Also on Durbar Marg, the greater part of which was built during the Rana era, are the campus of Tri Chandra College and a mosque used by the Valley's Muslim minority

Itum Bahal
Itum Bahal or Keshavacandra Mahavihara is one of the oldest of Kathmandu's Buddhist monasteries, founded in the 11th c. or even earlier. The torana above the entrance dates from the 16th c. The superb wood-carvings illustrate the temptation of Buddha. Demons and Mara's seductive daughter strive to distract him from his meditation but he resists, invoking the Earth as his witness by touching it with his right hand. Although in poor condition the original structure of the monastery has been preserved. The two-storied buildings have the usual open ground floor, above which are windows with elaborately carved frames. Facing the entrance stands a shrine with two metal lions. Oil lamps hang in an arc above the steps. Note especially the four-headed, six-armed Tantric deity on the torana over the entrance to the shrine.

In the middle of the courtyard are another shrine and a stupa encircled by four standing Buddhas. This unusual composition is thought to be from the 11th or 12th c. The ancient roof struts above the entrance, carved in the early Malla period (14th c.), are particularly admired.

According to popular belief the man-eating Guru Mapa once dwelt in the monastery courtyard, his gargantuan appetite for little children causing their disappearance in large numbers. The inhabitants begged him to remove himself to Tundikhel, promising the annual sacrifice of a buffalo. The pact is kept to this day, every year a buffalo being offered to Guru Mapa in Tundikhel. The man-eater is pictured in embossed copper-work on the north wall; one plaque shows him devouring a child with relish, another consuming buffalo meat.

Jagannath Mandir
The Jagannath Temple, recognized as the finest of the group near Hanuman Dhoka, is entered via three gates with elaborate triple frames. Exquisite wood-carvings embellish the doors, windows and roof struts, depicting a panoply of gods from the Hindu pantheon. There are also some little erotic scenes. Originally dedicated to Vishnu the shrine was later re-dedicated to Jagannath.

Kumari Bahal
The Kumari Bahal on the east side of Basantpur Square is the abode of the Royal Kumari, the living goddess of Nepal.

The worship of young girls - known as Kumaris - believed to be the incarnation of a deity, is an old Buddhist tradition in Nepal. Chroniclers refer to the existence of such cults as early as the end of the 13th c. Some time later, probably in the reign of Jaya Prakash Malla, one particular "living goddess" became identified with the Hindu deity Durga.

Lohan Chowk
Towers at the four corners of Lohan Chowk symbolize the valley's former city-kingdoms, by which they are said to have been endowed. They were built after Prithvi Narayan Shah had unified Nepal and chose Kathmandu as his capital. Each tower has a distinctive shape, the Kirtipur Tower in the north-west corner being domed, the Bhaktapur Tower in the north-east corner octagonal, and the Lalitpur (Patan) Tower in the south-east corner square. Symbolizing Kathmandu the Basantpur Tower in the south-west corner is tallest as well as being most splendid of all.

Matsyendranath Mandir
Between Indra Chowk and Asan Tol a column on which two statues of Buddha sit back to back marks the entrance to the Jana Bahal, abode of the White (Shveta) Matsyendranath. Near the column a mandala (magic diagram) has been worked into the pavement. The shrine was set up by Gunakama Deva, thereby bringing the cult of Matsyendranath to Kathmandu from Patan, though in a slightly altered form. The White Matsyendranath is an aspect of Padmapani Lokeshvara. His shrine was originally in Jamal but was moved to the Jana Bahal in the 15th c. at the time of Yaksha Malla. The bahal was restored in the 17th c.

Mul Chowk
Beyond the modest single-story buildings seen ahead on entering Nasal Chowk lies the smaller Mul Chowk, its true splendor only revealed when once inside. Fine carvings embellish the entrance and small windows. The carved roof struts portray the eighteen-armed Mahashamardini. On the south side of the court is a shrine dedicated to Taleju, its doorway flanked by statues of the goddesses Ganga and Jamuna.

As the occasional abode of the goddess Taleju the court is barred to visitors, though it is often possible to peep in through the gate. The Chowk is opened to Hindus once a year when, on the ninth day of the Dasain Festival, hundreds of buffaloes and goats are sacrificed to the goddess.

Part of what is probably the oldest surviving wing of the palace, Mul Chowk was built in 1564 and altered early in the 18th c. at the time of Bhaskara Malla.

Shiva Parvati Mandir

The long low building on the northern side of Durbar Square contains a shrine to Shiva and Parvati, figures of whom can be seen gazing down from an upper window posed like a normal couple. The lower part of the façade is embellished for almost its whole length with a five-bayed carved wooden screen. This somewhat unusual building is believed to date from the time of Bahadur Shah, son of Prithvi Narayan Shah. It is probably a reconstruction, the stepped platform on which it stands being considerably older than the temple itself. The platform bears an inscription in Nepalese from the reign of Lakshmi Narashima Malla (1620-41), the earliest such inscription known.

Singha Durbar

The Singha Durbar was built in record time (one year) in 1903 by the then Prime Minister Chandra Shamsher Rana at a cost of 2.5 million rupees. When completed it was the largest private residence in Asia, a vast palace comprising seventeen courts and 1700 rooms.

The Durbar's monumental façade echoed the style of European Historicism, its outward magnificence matched by the sumptuous furnishings within. The reception rooms, so a visitor recalled, were "as full of stuffed animals as a natural history museum" and the large audience chamber glittered with light from a distorting mirror brought from England by Jung Bahadur. The last of the Ranas is said to have employed a staff of 1500 to maintain the palace.

In 1951 Singha Durbar became the seat of Nepal's new government but in 1973 the rear of the palace was set on fire by political opponents. With the blaze fanned by a monsoon storm and flames spreading rapidly, a decision was made to blow up the middle section to safeguard the façade. The imposing front seen today is thus no more than a decorative veneer, a mere glimmer of the former splendor of the Rana dynasty.

Visas are available on arrival for citizens of most countries, and one passport-sized photograph is required. To complete the process, you must pay a fee: Transit ($5), 15 day ($25), 30 day ($40) or 90 day ($100.) Make sure that you fill in all of the forms and keep your departure card for when you want to leave. Facilities for taking passport-sized photographs are available near the immigration desk, though it saves a lot of time if they are prepared before arrival. SAARC nationals are exempt from visa fees.
There are no trains to Kathmandu, renting a car without a driver is not a reasonable option. You can hire bikes in Kathmandu and ride up, but you need to be brave. Alternatively, catch a bus. Check with other travelers to find a safe bus line (Green Line & Golden Travels have been recommended), some are quite dangerous and travel at stupid speeds through mountain passes. Many hotels will pick you up from the airport if you give them advanced notice. Otherwise, you can use a pre-paid taxi (the stand is on your right as you come out of baggage reclaim/arrivals.)

To and from airport
Many hotel and guest houses offer complimentary pick up and delivery from the airport. Taxis are also available. As always, negotiate the price beforehand with the driver. A taxi ride to Thamel or Boudha should not exceed 300 NPR. Otherwise, order a taxi at the pre-paid booth inside the airport, which costs 450 NPR (April 2010). This is more than the meter rate, but saves the hassle of long negotiations. Try not to exchange money at the airport. Money changers at the airport not only charge service charge but also offer a lower rate than is offered in Thamel or elsewhere in town.

By bus
Kathmandu has frequent and cheap bus service to nearly all parts of Nepal, unfortunately due to poor roads and frequent delays the buses are some of the slowest and least comfortable in South Asia.
Connections include India (usually Patna,Gorakhpur, Varanasi or Lucknow) and other parts of Nepal such as Chitwan National Park and the trekking hubs of Pokhara to the west, Langtang to the north and Jiri to the east of Kathmandu. For points of departure in India or Tibet see the Nepal 'Get in' section. Buses arriving from the Indian border, Pokhara and Chitwan terminate either at the bus station at Balaju at north of the city or Kalanki at the south of the city since large vehicles and long distance vehicles are not allowed to enter the city due to traffic congestion.

Get Around
The first thing many visitors may notice about Kathmandu is the general lack of street names (except for major roads such as Tri Devi and Ring Road) and address numbers. In most cases directions are given relative to the nearest chowk or tole (an intersection or square, often with a market) or a noteworthy building such as a temple or restaurant. In the tourist district of Thamel, the Kathmandu Guest House and Hot Breads bakery are two main landmarks.
It is possible to get across the city by foot, but it is not always a pleasant walk and you may want to consider a rickshaw for anything more than wandering around a specific area. Rickshaws are bicycle driven; the motorized ones have been banned from the valley in a bid to check rising pollution. Rickshaws can hardly be found outside the tourist area of Thamel, however, since they are mostly only used by the tourists. Negotiate on a price before you get in, if you can't agree, just look for another driver. Prices go up after dark and in less busy areas. Taxis are easy to find; they park near all major streets and have fare-meters. The day rate should start at 10 NPR and tick over at 4.80 NPR; after 9PM, at 15 NPR ticking over at 7.20 NPR. The meter is your best bet if you are not confident enough to negotiate. After 11PM, taxis can be harder to find outside Thamel.
There are also buses and taxis for longer trips within the valley, ie Patan and Bakhtapur, and can be used for trips in town. It should be possible to hire a taxi for considerably less than 300rs one-way to Patan and 1,000-3,000rs to Bakhtapur from Thamel or the airport. For longer trips and to hire them by the day negotiate with the driver.
You can also consider hiring a car and driver. Just make sure you negotiate the price up front. Hotels can provide information.

1 comment:

  1. Many-many thanks that you have released the very important descreptions about the Nepalese cultural traditions.
    Actually, you know- Nepal is the pious Hindu country in the lapse of the Himalayas, which is beautiful, quiet, the birth place of Buddha and origin of Hinduism. Besides being the country of Everest it is equally popular with its diverse cultural values. This is the land where civilization began and is also known as the country of 'SANGRILA.' Nepal is as holy place to Hindus & Buddhists, as Mecca for Muslims and Jerusalem to Jews and Christians.
    The religious structure of Nepalese society is formally Hindu; but here and only here the interplay of peoples and their religious traditions has produced a rich fusion of Hindu and Buddhist faiths. It is common for both Hindus and Buddhists to worship at the same shrine, for many gods and saints are cross-over, often known by a different name but holding the same attributes. The original inhabitants of the valley were animists, a tradition which survives in the multitude of spirits, demons, local deities, and stones which receive dutiful worship to this day. Hindu and Buddhist traditions adapted from the pre-existing animist practices and from each other. Nepal's History and Religions Nepal is a rich and complex mix of different cultures and traditions, melded over thousands of years into a unique whole. For the western traveler there is much that is familiar, and many surprises. Family and religion are of paramount importance, and are constantly reflected throughout the culture.
    The Hindus have the freedom to pursue their own way of observing the religion. If Nepal is to be declared a secular country, all countries, which call themselves as Christian or Muslim countries should also be declared secular countries. If they want Nepal to become a secular country, then they should also be willing to shun their 'Cross' of the Christians, 'sign of David of the Jews and 'Kava' of Muslims. However, it needs to be pondered that even if Nepal was a Hindu Kingdom, its nature was like a secular country as Hindus have never done anything that would harass or trouble other religions. Nepalese monarchy has been offering balance role among the miscellaneous communities, castes and religions. So, to keep intact our sovereignty, indigenous cultural assets there should have to reinstate our monarchy.
    Physically, Nepal is built of high Himalayas including the highest peak in the world, hills and the low-land Terai. The Himalayan region of the north is the store of fresh water and it is ecologically very rich. Nepal is one of the best tourism destinations in the world. Many of the tourists and the foreigners claim, "Nepal is the most beautiful place in the world."
    Nepal is fortunate enough to have one-cultural nationalism. This culture is made with the components of Hindu, Vedic and Buddhism. Tolerance and civilization make our sublime culture.
    Thank you.
    Dirgha Raj Prasai
    Former member of Parliament,Nepal
    Political & Cultural Analyst Please contact:


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