Tales from the Temple Town of Kathmandu
If modern science came up with a way to make time-travel possible, I would trade anything to go back in the past and experience living in the mystic city of Kathmandu valley.
That kind of love for Kathmandu is natural when you are born a Nepalese and have spent six glorious years of your life in the country capital. But there are evidences all along the city’s history which testify that I am not the first person to be captivated by the beauty of the valley.
Kathmandu valley was a popular business hub for Indian and Tibetan merchants during ancient times. Its popularity as a hippie’s mecca surged during 1960s. Kathmandu was so captured the imagination of Westerners during the 60’s and 70’s that American rock star Bob Seger eternalized this quaint town in his famous song “Kathmandu.”
Trivia: The catchy American folk song "Cotton-eyed Joe" is pretty popular among Kathmanduites because the song lyrics is mistaken for "Where did you come from where did you go, where did you come from Kathamandu"
Kathmandu keeps featuring among the world’s most trending destinations in Asia.
You might have heard of twin cities and sister cities, but the valley is an exception. It’s a confluence of three cities with overlapping historical ties, a melting pot of distinct identities, a trinity of power where ferocious monarchies once ruled and left their lasting impressions.
I set my foot on the temple town’s holy soil many times as a kid — mostly to escape the brutal summer heat in my hometown of Biratnagar, about 1,000 kilometers southeast from Kathmandu.
Like most of my other countrymen, I venerated Kathmandu as the ultimate destination while growing up. During my school days, we associated a trip to Kathmandu as a status symbol among our peers—sort of like the experience of upstate New Yorkers visiting the Big Apple.
Kathmandu—the nerve center of all the political and financial power play in Nepal—still enjoys the monopoly of being the only metropolitan city in Nepal, and every year thousands of people from the country’s hinterland come here to pursue their dreams; be it higher education, better employment or to pass the departure gates of the country’s only international airport in their search for a better life.
Kathmandu is the financial hub for the businessmen, a rich cultural destination for artistes and a land of opportunities for aspiring Nepali professionals.
For visitors coming to Nepal, Kathmandu serves as the gateway to rest of the country. Some of them come here to volunteer with charity organizations, some are here to visit temples and monasteries, others partake in adventure sports such as trekking and bungee-jumping in the rustic terrains, and the rest just come to enjoy a private vacation in a city like Pokhara.
Kathmandu wasn’t always at the helm of power in the country.
According to Nepali legend, a Tibetan saint called Manjushree came here when Kathmandu was a humongous lake with beautiful lotus flowers floating on it.
Manjushree is believed to have seen a glowing lotus at the center of the lake, which historians deem was the mission he came looking for.
The Tibetan sage drew his omnipotent sword and truncated a hill to drain the water outside the gorge. It is believed that as soon as the water drained out of the lake, the magical lotus gave way to emerge as a form of Lord Buddha.
Kathmandu, before Manjushree drained the water out of the valley.
The self-manifested godly figure become what is today the Swambhunath Temple, locally known as Swayambhu, a famous pilgrim destination and tourist attraction located in the valley’s west.
The place that bore the wrath of Manjushree’s brutal sword attack is now known as Chobhar, located in the southwest outskirts of the valley. The fertile soil of the valley is credited to the legendary fact that it used to be a lake’s riverbed before it was a human habitat.
As per the valley’s documented history, the Kirats first ruled valley way before it became Kathmandu. The archeological relics in Patan (Lalitpur) are strong evidences to this theory. Over the centuries, the small kingdom of Kantipur was ruled by various dynasties such as the Thakuri, Lichchivi, Malla and eventually the Shah monarchs.
The 8th century Lichchivi King Gunakama Dev is credited with formally establishing the city of Kathmandu in 723 A.D.
Kathmandu, and the entire boundary of modern Nepal owe their existence to the ambitious 18th century King Prithivi Narayan Shah (1723–1775 A.D.) of Gorkha, who started annexing the small kingdoms in order to expand his territory. Shah’s army took control of Kathmandu by 1768 A.D. and, impressed by the valley’s spacious land and strategic location, the King moved his capital from Gorkha to Kathmandu.
Apart from the kingdoms of Kathmandu, Bhaktapur and Lalitpur; a hillock kingdom of Kirtipur adorned the valley in the southwest.
Kirtipur was the worst nightmare of the Shah King. Kirtipur’s army defeated Shah’s invasion attempts 17 times and finally gave in during the 18th attack. The King was so mad about his recurring defeats that he ordered his soldiers to cut the noses of all Kirtipur men as a brutal vengeance as soon as he took to Kirtipur’s throne. As the result, Kirtipur is still known as “the city of nose-cut people.”
Swayambhu is not the only shrine in Kathmandu with a fascinating legend. In fact, many Brits who visited Nepal in the 18th and 19th century observed that Kathmandu had more temples than humans in the valley!
There is another temple at the heart of Kathmandu that gave the city its present name. Kasthamandap Temple (Newari name: Maru Sattal) is located right next to the premises of Basantapur Durbar Square, just a stone’s throw away from Kathmandu’s posh shopping destination called Naya Sadak, or New Road.
In Sanskrit, Kastha means “of wood” and mandap is a “stage” or “venue”. The 16th century ruler of the valley, King Laxmi Narsingha Malla built the temple, constructed using the wood of a single tree that houses the shrine of Lord Gorakhnath. It is the oldest building in Kathmandu.
Take a virtual tour of Kathmandu through this video, livelier because it has Bob Seger singing praises to the city.
A Buddhist stupa, aptly called Charumati Vihara, near the Chabahil square of the city is believed to have built by Charumati, daughter of the great Indian emperor Ashoka. The presence of four pillars erected around Patan and known as Ashoka Stupas, attest to the legend that Charumati had accompanied her father on a pilgrimage to the valley in 250 BC. In addition, Charumati was married to the Nepalese prince Devapala Kshatriya of Kathmandu.
And while we are on the topic of Kathmandu’s temples, one cannot go on without paying homage to Lord Pashupatinath. Centrally located near the Tribhuvan International Airport, Pashupatinath temple attracts more devotees in Nepal than any other shrine in the country.
Not even Lumbini—Lord Budhha’s birthplace—matches that record. Every year during the Maha Shivaratri festival, thousands of visitors coming from as far as India come to Pashupatinath to get Lord Shiva’s blessings in one of his most sacred abodes on earth.
Also reveling in the grand festival are Aghori and Naga Babas coming from different parts of Nepal and India, scantily clad in dhotis with their grotesque face and body paints on, selling marijuana to a great many Shiva followers and displaying their yogic skills like lifting heavyweights on a rope tied to their erect phallus, and showcasing other bizarre talents.
Pashupatinath Temple also has an interesting legend associated with it. Folklore has it that Lord Shiva and his wife Goddess Parvati had come to the nearby Sleshmantak Forest for their earthly retreat. The gods were so awe-struck by the beauty of the place that they took forms of deer and wandered in the jungle. Content in their newfound natural abode, Lord Shiva is believed to have refused to leave the place. Hence, the place where he left his holy imprints as a wandering animal inspired the name Pashupatinath—lord of the animals.
Another theory says that a Kamdhenu cow, a mythical wish-fulfilling mammal, routinely milked a particular spot at the place where the temple now stands. Shiva Linga, or Lord Shiva’s phallus, later emerged from the site as a self-manifested shrine. The then ruling king of Kathmandu, better known as Kantipur back then, immediately ordered building a temple and declared it a place of worship. The temple fell prey to a strong earthquake during the 17th century and was renovated to get its present day infrastructure by King King Bhupalendra Malla in 1697.
Today, the temple stands as a proud earthquake survivor on the banks of sacred Bagmati River, where Hindus cremate their deceased family members and perform funeral rites to open the passage for heaven for the departed souls.
Pashupatinath Temple is built under Pagoda architecture, which is a triangular roof design often times with multiple stories. Such roofs are specifically designed for a holy establishment such as temples, and usually made up of black slates and tiles or precious metals like copper, bronze and even gold. Pashupatinath has a three-storied gilded roof, rumored to be a secret trove of precious jewelries protected by the Naags — the snake gods.
While non-Hindus are barred from entering the temple, lots of Westerners are seen taking pictures of the temple from across the Bagmati River and observing the funeral rites at Arya Ghaat.
Pashupatinath is one among the thousands of shrines in the country built in pagoda structure, and it is one of the major structures that give Kathmandu its beautiful skyline. Other famous shrines in the valley with pagoda roofs are Nayatopolo Durbar, Nautaley Durbar, Krishna Temple and many countless temples spread across the valley’s three districts of Kathmandu, Bhaktapur, and Lalitpur (Patan).
Although the west associates pagoda temples mostly to Chinese and Japanese architecture, it was originally conceptualized in Nepal by an artist called Arniko, known as Bal Bahu in Nepali language.
Arniko was a Newar from the Shakya caste, the same clan prince Siddhartha Gautam belonged to, who eventually went to become Lord Buddha.
A painting by Nepalese artist Hari Prasad Sharma depicting the locals of Kathmandu bidding farewell to their beloved artisan Arniko.
Arniko was a whiz kid who developed an interest in art since his early age. Besides his inquisitiveness to arts and crafts, legend has it that Arniko imbibed whole books in Sanskrit at a young age to earn everyone’s respect. Although there are no official records of him in Nepal, many contemporary Chinese scriptures mention him as an artisan who represented Nepal in important art delegations to Tibet and China during the reign of King Kublai Khan. The ferocious Mongol emperor repeatedly tested the young artist by assigning him challenging artworks, and later recognized him for his impressive artworks.
So much so that the King appointed him in his palace to lead and train thousands of Chinese artists, which is most probably how pagoda architecture predominantly became a default design for temples and shrines around countries like China, Japan, Korea and Mongolia.
Kublai Khan gave the highest decoration to Arniko — the “Duke of Liang,” an exclusive title given only to an emperor’s son — in recognition of his outstanding talent.
After Kublai Khan’s demise, Arniko contributed in the construction of many monasteries, the Sarira Pagoda, and the Great White Pagoda of the modern-day Mount Wutai Shan in Shanxi province of China. In 2009, this site was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its historical and religious importance.
Besides the pagoda-themed temples and palaces, Kathmandu has a range of other historical buildings inspired by contemporary empires such as Rajput, Mughal, British and even Greek!
And architecture is not the only thing diverse in this valley; over 1 million people living in Kathmandu come from different backgrounds, each with their interesting origins and evolution.
The Newars are the true-blue residents of Kathmandu; the Bahuns (Brahmins) and Kshetriyas joined later in 1776 AD when King Prithivi Bir Bikram Shah of Gorakha invaded the valley. Newars are believed to be descendants of various ethnic groups, with their primarily ancestral roots in Indo and Tibetan communities.
The Newars are a diverse community with hundreds of castes and sub-castes within themselves that closely resembles the Hindu caste system. They are primarily known for their business acumen since medieval ages which is one of the reasons why Kathmandu and its surrounding cities were a well-known trade hub and a business route between Tibet and India. The rich array of Newari art and culture is a proud testimony of the valley’s self-dependency during its heydays.
Kathmandu is also known for its Jatras, or religious parades that take place among much local fanfare. Kumari Jatra is perhaps the most well-known of them all, and it represents another unique fact about Nepal that fascinates the outside world.
Believed to be a form of Hindu Goddess Durga, Kumari is a living goddess, one of its kind tradition from Nepal, where a pre-pubescent girl is selected from a Newari Shakya family who meets the 32 criteria of being perfect. The girl must not be more than 5 years old, must not have any wounds or body scars and should have all other qualities expected of a Kumari Goddess. She stays in her sacred Kumari Ghar (Kumari House) till she reaches her pubescent age or when she shows signs of blemishes that disqualify her from the godly status.
It is believed that the man who marries an ex-Kumari is destined to die.
Other popular jatras are Indra Jatra, a homage to the King of Gods Indra and a commemoration day to celebrate the founding of Kathmandu city; Bhotey Jatra or the chariot procession of Seto Machindranath is held to honor the rain god; Gai Jatra is Nepal’s equivalent of Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos) when Newari families remember their deceased family members. Despite its morbid origin, it has evolved as a comedy festival in Nepal’s media and pop culture.
Gautam Buddha was born in Kapilvastu, a part of present-day Nepal. He continues to be a source of inspiration for followers all over the world, but the Nepalese populace grow very uneasy when their southern neighbors claim Buddha to be born in their country.
Trivia: Gautam Buddha was born in Kapilvastu, a part of present-day Nepal. He continues to be a source of inspiration for followers all over the world, but the Nepalese populace grow very uneasy when their southern neighbors claim Buddha to be born in their country.
Ghodey Jatra, or horse parade, is celebrated to rejoice the death of a demon named Tundi, who is believed to have tormented the city’s resident. After he died, locals saddled on their horses and paraded over the demon’s body to celebrate their freedom. To keep his evil spirit away, expert horsemen of Nepal Army partake in a horse race on the day of the jatra in a parade ground called Tundikhel, a title inspired by the demon’s name.
Present-day Kathmandu is poles apart from its glorious yesteryears, yet it stills holds the center stage in the national economy and politics. Nepal’s film industry, christened as “Kollywood” operates from here; the country’s economy runs on the NEPSE index’s performance here; the nation’s parliamentarians meet at the architecturally-splendid Singha Durbar to drive the country’s political force and the Prime Minister resides in Baluwatar.
Tourists coming to scale the heights of the majestic mountains are routed via Kathmandu. During their stay, most of them revel in Thamel’s pub crawling culture while others go out with their cameras to capture the valley’s mesmerizing monuments. Many of them are taken aback by the erotic art inscriptions carved candidly on the temple struts that represent the Kamasutra lives of Gods and Goddesses.
Kathmandu valley is divided into three districts. Historians claim that after the death of Yaksha Malla, the 13th century King to rule the valley, his three sons divided the valley into three city states of Kantipur, Patan and Bhadgaun; the present-day Kathmandu, Lalitpur and Bhaktapur.
The three states continued to rival each other in terms of economy, arts and other influence and gradually the identity of Kathmandu valley that was once known as “Nepal Mandala” started fading away.
Although Kathmandu is the most populated and most developed city in Nepal, there are several majestic hills and snow-capped mountains close to its proximity — some within a few hours’ drive. The four mountains that surround Kathmandu valley are Shivapuri, Chandragiri, Phulchoki and Nagarjun. They rank as the favorite hiking spots within the radar of adventure-seeking tourists.
Other trek-worthy terrains and visit-worthy villages to see around Kathmandu include; Godavari garden, Nagarkot hills, Dhulikhel, Changu Narayan, Sundarijal, Kakani, Kulekhani, Melamchi, Gosaikunda, Panauti and many others. One can hop on a motorbike or get onboard the bus to cruise along the Arniko Highway and get to the China border about 115 kilometers from Kathmandu.
When I was interning at The Kathmandu Post in the winter of 2007, I tagged along with two of my other colleagues from Kantipur TV and out of the blue, we decided to cover the Arniko Highway stretch from Tinkune.
Viewed as one of the many dangerous highways in Nepal due to its steep edges and slippery terrain, Arniko Highway offers great vistas along the road. You will drive past small hamlets like Dhulikhel, Yamuna-danda, Khadi-chaur, Listi-kot, Tatopani and eventually the bordering village of Kodari.
Somewhere between these places, there is a small village called Panch-khaal on the same stretch of the highway.
From what I have heard, several men of this village are deprived of at least one kidney, after falling victims to the rampant organ-selling racket that finds its roots in India.
Cajoled by blood-thirsty network of organ mafia, these unlettered men were lured to travel to Indian cities and sold their kidneys for money that felt copious to them, but were meager by market standards—and murderous by human standard.
Coming back to the Arniko Highway, one can make a pit-stop in Dolalghat for a nutritional plate of Nepali “masu bhat”—chicken or goat meat curry with rice — at any roadside hotels. Dolalghat bazaar is perched on the banks of the thunderous river confluence where Sunkoshi overpowers the mighty Indrawati.
We were told that if we stayed off the highway from here we could reach Jiri, dubbed as the “Switzerland of Nepal,” albeit only for its scenic beauty and not in comparison of infrastructure development.
Swayambhunath’s eyes looking upon the Kathmandu valley.
Before reaching Kodari, you come to the village of Tatopani, or the village with natural hot water springs. Battered with hours of riding bike to reach this far, one of my friends and I jumped at the opportunity of taking showers under the stone water faucets which is known to have therapeutic effects on your skin. Hundreds of pilgrims and tourists come here to purge their skin ailments by bathing under the water taps or plopping into small reservoirs here.
During childhood visits and six years of stay in Kathmandu, I toured places like Changu Narayan, Nagarkot, Dakshin Kali, Daman and Budhanilkantha, while never getting an opportunity to explore other wilderness surrounding the valley.
No other city in Nepal has seen as many bloodshed and political turnarounds as Kathmandu has. Apart from the sporadic invasions small nation states waged against each other, it was probably the infamous Kot massacre drama of 1846 that tainted the pages of modern Nepal’s modern history with blood.
The first Rana Prime Minister of the Shah Dynasty, Jung Bahadur Rana was at the center of this conspiracy plot. His unstoppable ambition to gain more influence led him to execute a mass assassination against the palace’s powerful courtiers, which became known as court massacre, bastardized as Kot Parva in Nepali.
Rana took over as the country’s Prime Minister following the incident, and it is believed that he purposely prolonged the cleaning up of the corpses of 40 slain courtiers from the courtyard where the bloodbath took place—still open to public sight from Thapathali square in Kathmandu.
King Rajendra Bikram’s favorite wife, Queen Lakshmi Devi Shah was repulsive to the incident as she had her own ambitions to see her son Ranendra Bikram Shah inherit the throne. She made a ploy with her faithful courtiers to assassinate Jung Bahadur — now the country’s Prime Minister—and his aides in the Bhandarkhal garden.
When Jung Bahadur learns about the conspiracy, he comes up with his own pre-emptive plan against the Queen’s men. This notorious massacre only consolidated Jung Bahadur’s rise to power and marked the beginning of autocratic Rana regime in the country.
It must be incidents like these or the curse of a Sati (a widow who sacrifices her own life to accompany her dead husband) on the country that has always marred Nepal’s politics with violence, cronyism, nepotism and dirty power play till date.
The Rana era was Nepal’s equivalent of the British Raj in India in terms of dictatorship and bureaucracy, albeit the Rana regime wasn’t a case of colonization at the hands of foreign rulers. Jung Bahadur’s descendants ruled the country under their direct control for 104 long years, limiting the respective ruling Shah kings to mere token of monarchy.
Rebellion against the Rana’s brutalities had brewed to the brim in 1950, and all hell broke loose when the Nepal Congress Party took to the streets and led a protest to overthrow the Ranas from power and restore monarchy back to its full power. King Tribhuvan took exile in India to work secretly with the Congress leaders in helping them revolt the Rana regime.
The country eventually got rid of the Ranas and a few years later things had started looking rosy. But King Mahendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev, who inherited the throne after his father King Tribhuvan, decided to change the guards and established a constitutional monarchy in the country.
King Birendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev was coroneted in 1945, and with his arrival came a long-suppressed rebellion waiting to stake its claim against the monarchy. The able King bowed in front of the popular desires and agreed to establish Nepal as a multiparty democracy.
King Birendra and almost all of his family were wiped out in the notorious 2001 royal massacre, and since then, the country’s political state has been on a downward spiral.
By default, King Birendra’s younger brother, King Gyanendra filled the boots—although there’s a huge majority of people who believe that it has him who plotted the assassination to gain the power. But owing to people’s frustration over the deteriorating state of affairs and the rise of Maoists’ influence in the country, his regime was also forced to bow out of the palace.
The anti-monarchy demonstration got widespread support within and outside the country, and the same year, Nepal’s glorious history of being a kingdom came to an end when civilians decided to abolish monarchy system from the country.
Nepal’s long-standing status of being a ceremonial kingdom changed into that of a republic; the only Hindu country in the world became a secular state overnight.
Despite the new waves of changes, the political and economic conditions of the country remain to stay at the rock bottom, with almost all major parties taking turns to taste of prime ministerial power in their hands.
Nepal has not been able to cash in the advantage of being located in the middle of two booming economies of the world—India and China—and the perpetual game of name calling the Indian counterparts is still prevalent among Kathmandu’s political circles.
While it is largely true that New Delhi works as a control room to shuffle the political parameters in Kathmandu, the city as an ambassador to Nepal fails to make any effort in moving away from its dependence on India in terms of foreign policy, economic freedom and even the clout of entertainment.
Above all, one can only hope that Kathmandu maintains to strike the fine balance between being the historical and architectural heaven while marching abreast of global cities to catch up on their touted urban development.