Old Kathmandu city is located at the confluence of the Bagmati and Vishnumati rivers, and within a core of some 5 km lie the most interesting areas. It can be confusing to find one’s way about, but the best way to experience the city is on foot.
City Tour (gentle walking, 3-4 hours)
Durbar Square-Kumari Bahal-Kasthamandap-Jaishi Dewal-Hanuman Dokha-Indrachowk-Asantol-Rani Pokhari
Through the ages and successive dynasties Kathmandu synthesised religions, cultures and peoples to its present distinct character. Because of the closed-door policy of Nepal’s rulers from the mid-19th century to 1952, it and its sister cities of the valley, Patan and Bhaktapur, retain their unique culture. Added to this, natural beauty and artefacts created over centuries make the valley a living museum.
Kathmandu takes its name from Kasthamandap, a wooden pagoda near Hanuman Dokha and this is the best place to start a leisurely walk through the old city. Take a taxi or rickshaw from your hotel, down New Road to the junction with Indrachowk. New Road connects the ancient_ Durbar Square with the parade ground of Tundikhel and was laid after the 1934 erthquake levelled part of the old city. The old trade route to Tibet began from Kasthamandap and the city grew along it. Walk westward through Basantapur square. The old Royal Palace appears on your right dominated by the nine-storey Basantapur Tower decorated by some of the finest wood carving in the valley. The square is now used by street-sellers but was earlier used as elephant stables.
At the far end of the square you reach the richly decorated Kumari Bahal on your left. The tradition of the Kumari, or living goddess, is unique to Nepal; a symbol of the peaceful coexistence of Hinduism and Buddhism, and the merging of one into the other. The Kumari is said to be the living incarnation of the Hindu Goddess Durga, as invested in a young virgin Buddhist Newari girl chosen after a search conducted by five high priests. After a series of tests, the new Kumari is installed in a secret ritual held at the Taleju Temple (see p.499). She is revered and worshipped by the royalty as well as ordinary citizens, living in her 18th-century palace on the edge of Durbar Square. She makes rare public appearances during festivals. Her own 3-day festival of Kumari Jatra is held within the longer Indra Jatra, when her chariot is dragged by worshippers through the streets of Kathmandu.
Non-Hindu devotees are not allowed beyond the courtyard of her palace, but you can occasionally see her when she appears on her elaborately carved balcony. Photography is strictly prohibited. A new girl is chosen when the Kumari attains puberty. The ex-Kumari receives a small pension from the state and is free to marry and live a normal life, though in reality she finds it difficult to find a husband because of the belief that a man who marries an Kumari has an early death. Apart from the Royal Kumari of Kathmandu, there are at least 11 different Kumaris throughout Nepal who are worshipped in the same manner.
Just beyond the Kumari Bahal is the Kasthamandap, said to have been constructed from the wood of a sacred tree, during the reign of King Laxmi Narsingha Malla in the beginning of the 16th century. The Kasthamandap is also known as Maru Sattal and houses images of the four Vinayakas, or guardian deities of Kathmandu valley: Surya Vinayaka, Jala Vinayaka, Karya Vinayaka and Ashok Vinayaka (also known as Kathmandu Ganesh or Maru Ganesh). Five minutes away, down a side road, is the Shiva Temple of Jaishi Dewal, famous for its erotic carvings. This area was the nucleus of the valley during the Lichhavi period.
Back in Durbar Square, you are surrounded by small shrines, bells, temples and statues. Often known as Hanuman Dokha, after the entrance to the Royal palace guarded by a statue of Hanuman the monkey-god caked in red vermilion paste, Durbar Square with its temples and palaces used to be the centre of all political, social and other activities. To a large extent, this remains so. It is worth climbing the steps of Maju Deval Temple, a three-tiered pagoda-roofed shrine. From the top steps you can sit and take in the excitement and life of the square. Nearby is the Statue of King Pratap Malla on a lotus-topped column.
Opposite the temple are models of Shiva and Parvati leaning out of the top window of another temple. To one side of the square is the Kal Bhairav, a huge bas-relief of the God Bhairav with six arms and a garland of human heads. To your right is the entrance to the Hanuman Dokha Palace with the guardian statue on the left. The palace can be visited between 10.30 am and 4.15 pm (3 pm in winter and closed on Tuesday). There is a Rsl 0 entrance fee. The first courtyard is Nassal Chowk which was originally used by the Calla kings for dance dramas but subsequently the Shah kings of Nepal were crowned here. The palace was once much more extensive than it is today with almost 50 courtyards. Much of the building was destroyed in the 1934 earthquake but what is left was well restored under a UNESCO project in the early 1970s. Around the courtyard is a gallery with portraits of the Shah kings wearing their fantastic plumed crowns. Other parts of the palace are open to visitors and you can climb up one of the towers for a fine view both into the palace courtyards and out over the city. Also in Durbar Square is the King Tribhuvan Museum dealing exclusively with the life of the king. Admission to this is included in the entry ticket for the Palace complex.
The Taleju Temple, which houses the royal goddess Taleju Bhawani, is one of the largest and best preserved in the city. Located behind the palace, it has a distinctive three-tiered pagoda roof on a 12-stepped platform, rising behind locked gates. The secret investiture ceremony of the Kumari takes place here. Otherwise, entry is restricted to members of the royal family and their priests.
Before leaving the square, look left into the small Kot Courtyard where the 1846 massacre took place (see p.492). From the north-east corner of the square the old trade route runs through what is now a crowded bazaar. The old city is a maze of narrow streets and side alleys crowded in by three-storey houses. At the base of many of these buildings are stalls selling vegetables, fine woollen shawls, caps, household items, building material and almost anything that can be traded. The first major crossing you reach is Indrachowk beside which is Akash Bhairav Temple. During the Indra Jatra, there is week-long festivity around the temple and the image of Akash Bhairav is displayed outside. Follow the road in a north-easterly direction keeping a three-storey temple on your left, the steps of which are covered in a display of fine shawls. On your right are women selling coloured glass beads strung into fine necklaces.
A little further on a small alley leads to the Maclihendra Nath temple. Although Nepal is a Hindu Kingdom, Buddhism is widespread and centuries of mutual tolerance has resulted in the worship of common deities. The temple of Seto (white) Machhendra Nath is situated between Indrachowk and Asan, and dedicated to Padmapani Avalokiteshwar (also known as Janmadyo or Machhendra) who is worshipped by both Hindus and Buddhists. The temple has a two-tiered bronze roof and is surrounded by various stupas and statues.
Beyond Machhendra Nath is the other major intersection in the bazaar area. Known as Asantol, or more simply as Asan, this is one of the most active and congested markets, with spices, vegetables, cloth, lentils. It is possible to climb onto the first floor of a couple of the shops and look down into the market-place. From Asan two roads lead out of the bazaar onto Kanti Path, the main north–south road through the city. From here you can hail a taxi back to your hotel, hire a bicycle to explore more of the city, or walk north along the road before cutting in to Thamel. Opposite the exit from the by-lanes of the bazaar is Rani Pokhari, a tank created by King Pratap Calla in 1670 to console one of his wives. If you cycle or walk south along Kanti Path, the road passes the large parade ground, locally know as Tundikhel on your left. A short way down is the Mahankalsthan, or temple of Mahankal, one of the most popular shrines of the city. To the Hindus, Mahankal is a form of Shiva /Bhairav; to Buddhists he is a protective deity, said to have been created by the great Indian sage Nagarjuna for the protection of the Swayambhunath Stupa. The image of Mahankal is made of black stone with silver eyes, and is one of the masterpieces of ancient Nepali sculpture. At the base of the temple is a small bookshop.
Kanti Path passes the end of New Road, the ugly headquarters of Royal Nepal Airlines and the main post office (including poste restante). Just after the post office is a road leading into the southern part of the old town. A short way in is the tower of Dharahara. At first glance this can be mistaken for a Muslim minaret. The tower was built in AD 1832 by Prime Minister Bhimsen Thapa and originally had 11 sections but the top two have been destroyed in an earthquake. Close by, Sundhara (Golden Water Tap) also built by Bhimsen Thapa, is used by the local people as a public bath. A few hundred metres in front of the post office is the Shahid Gate, a memorial to the group of revolutionaries who plotted to restore King Tribhuvan to power in 1940. There are bronze busts of five ringleaders of the plot, centred around a statue of the king. Cycle or walk past the marble gate and continue towards Bhadrakali Temple.
Also known as Lumarhi, this is one of the main Bhagavati temples of the valley. Located on the eastern edge of Tundikhel, the road leading to Singha Durbar skirts it and then decends a gentle slope; fun to cycle down. The huge Singha Durbar was built in 1901 by Prime Minister Chandra Shamsher Rana as his private residence. At one time containing over 1700 rooms and 17 courtyards, this was the largest private residence in Nepal until 1951 when it became the headquarters of the new Government. In July 1974, a 2-day fire destroyed large portions of this immense structure, but the façade remained and parts of the building have been rebuilt. Only the State Rooms are open to the public, and on a limited number of days. These rooms give an idea of the labour and expense which went into the construction and decor of the whole building, particularly at a time when the Carrera marble, Belgian chandeliers, mirrors in gilt frames and a thousand other opulent fittings had to be carried over the mountains by teams of porters.
If you have walked to Singha Durbar you will be able to get a taxi nearby to return to your hotel. If you cycled, you can continue to Patan or back towards one of the small restaurants in Thamel at the northern end of the old city.
Thamel and New Kathmandu
At the top end of Durbar Marg, the road that runs parallel with Kanti Path, is Narayanhiti Palace, the official residence of the King of Nepal, King Birendra Bir Bikram Shah. Unfortunately it is not open to the public except on the tenth day of Dasain. The Palace takes its name from the Narayan Temple, which was built in 1793 and is close by, and Narayanhiti, a famous tank which has been restored recently. From the top of Durbar Marg, walk or cycle left. After a couple of hundred metres you cross Kanti Path; on the right is a large gateway leading onto a drive flanked by tall fir trees full of fruit bats. The drive leads to one of the many splendid Rana Palaces. Kaiser Mahal, as this one is known, is no longer a private residence but houses the Ministry of Education and the magnificent Kaiser Library. The library contains the private collection of Gen. Kaiser S.J.B. Rana who brought together over 35 000 rare books and manuscripts. The collection is open to the public (on a non-borrowing basis) and visitors have a chance to see the interior decorations of a typical ‘Nepali neo-classical’ palace, with its sweeping formal staircases, chandeliers and overstuffed furniture. In the library are some paintings of tiger and rhino shoots that took place in what is now the Chitwan National Park during the 1930s.
From Kaiser Mahal the road leads into the top, northern, end of the old city and bazaar area. Known as Thamel, it was popular with hippies in the late 60s and is still the place for cheap lodgings and an extraordinary range of restaurants. Thamel has also become a popular shopping area with shops selling yak wool sweaters, Tibetan carpets, mountaineering and trekking equipment. This is an unashamedly tourist patch but at the same time distinctly ‘Kathmandu’.
From Thamel the lanes and streets lead through an area known as Thahiti, south towards Asan and Indrachowk. Thahiti has a Tibetan-style stump dating back to the 15th century, which it is said was built over a fountain bringing forth gold. Along this road is the small Ikhu Narayan Mandir, a small temple with a 10th-century Vishnu image. Close by, set on a wall is a Buddha statue thought to be about 1500 years old. Further along the road, there is an exquisite statue of Uma-Maheshwar (Shiva and Parvati) in a small shrine. A short distance still further on, the Srigha Chaitya or Kathesimbhu, which means Kathmandu’s Swayambhu, was said to have been constructed out of the building material left over from the Swayambhunath Stupa. Situated in a courtyard off the road leading from Thahiti, a visit to Kathesimbhu, particularly for the elderly or those unable to negotiate the 365 steps leading up to Swayambhunath, is said to acquire as much merit as visiting the original. The stupa was constructed around the 17th century; the Lichhavi inscriptions and a statue of Padmapani Lokeshwara nearby indicate that the site has been sacred from ancient times. A little further on is a large chunk of wood embedded with thousands of nails; known as Washya Deo after the Newari ‘Toothache God’, the nails pin down evil spirits and thus relieve the pain. The area is called Bangernudha (crooked stick) after a legendary large piece of wood of which Washya Deo is a small fragment. Continuing along the road to hum Bahal and finally back into Indrachowk, is the pottery pagoda or Kel Tol Mandir.
Valley Sites Tour (Full-day by cycle, half-day by car)
A long day’s cycling, or a few hours by car, can link four of the valley’s most interesting and diverse sites. All are individually extremely important and revered by those who live in the valley. If leaving the city through the old town, visit the National Museum at Chhauni, 2 km (1 1/2 miles) west of the city. It contains a splendid array of weapons, artefacts and sculpture, some dating back to ancient times. The Natural History Museum close by has a collection of 14 000 specimens of flora and fauna unique to Nepal, as well as some recently found fossils. Swayambhunath, situated 3 km (1 2/3 miles) west of Kathmandu across the Vishnumati river on a hillock 77 m above the valley floor, is one of the most important Buddhist sites in the world. There are 365 steps leading up the hillside to the stupa and painted on the four sides of the spire-base are the all-seeing eyes of Lord Buddha.
Although you can use a back staircase leading up to the stupa from the parking area, it is better to use the main stairs and circle the monument in a clockwise direction. Past the main gate at the base of the staircase are three giant Buddhas, the oldest of which is Buddha Akshobya dating back to 1750. All around the main Swayambhu Stupa are various smaller shrines and temples: Vasupur (dedicated to Buddhist earth-goddess Vasundhara), Vayupur (Place of the God of Wind), Amitabha (Buddha of Boundless Light). Also Tara, Harati and Sitala Mandir (Buddhist and Hindu names respectively). For the Buddhists, Harati or Ajima as she is popularly known is the protector of the valley children as appointed by Buddha. For the Hindus, Sitala is the Goddess of Smallpox and needs to be placated. Other shrines and temples include Agnipur (Place of the God of Fire), Shantipur (Abode of Peace, which is said to contain the still-living 8th-century tantric master Shantikar Acharya—who had hidden the Swayambhu light at the approach of Kali Yuga, behind a locked door guarded by two fierce tantric deities and a pair of painted eyes); also the shrine of Buddha Amoghasiddhi, and finally Nagapur (The dwelling place of Naga). Close by is a Tibetan Temple containing a huge image of Shakyamuni and a small Stupa of Manjushri, the legendary Bodhisattva.
From Swayambhunath, drive or cycle around the ring road, past the industrial area of Balaju to join the road north of Kathmandu at Maharajgunj. At the crossroads, turn left and follow the road up a gentle slope toward Budhanilkantha 8 km (5 miles) north of Kathmandu. Here there is a colossal Vishnu statue reclining on a bed of snakes, dating back to the 5th century AD in the Lichhavi period. If you go in the morning try to reach the site by 9 am when a puma is performed.
From Budhanilkantha there are many walks to Shivpuri on the northern slopes of the valley, through a small sanctuary which is good for birds and the only place in the Valley that the spiny babbler, Nepal’s only endemic bird, is found. If you have brought food with you this is a great area for a picnic.
Return from Budhanilkantha to join the ring road and turn left for a 4-km (21/2-mile) drive to the Buddhist siupa at Boudhanath. In contrast to Swayambhunath Stupa, Boudhanath has a much simpler architectural style, though it is much larger. Unlike Swayambhunath also, whose worshippers are Vajrayana Buddhists and local Newari Buddhists, Boudhanath’s worshippers are almost exclusively Tibetan Buddhists from Tibet, Bhutan and Ladakh, Boudhanath Stupa, 8 km (5 miles) to the east of Kathmandu, is built on flat ground which emphasises its massive size: a diameter of over 100 m and height of 36 m. It was built in the Lichhavi period (5th century AD) by King Mana Deva I, and is said to contain the remains of Kashyapa, the Buddha of a previous age. The stupa is built to represent a mandala with eyes painted on the four sides of the harmika to symbolise the guardians of the four directions. Boudhanath was the first stop on the old trade route from Kathmandu to Tibet and always had a Tibetan settlement. After the Chinese invasion of Tibet a large number of refugees settled here. The nearby Guhyeshwari temple can be reached on foot in about 20 minutes from here.
There are several other shrines in the Boudhanath complex as well as six major Tibetan Monasteries (gompas), which although constructed in the last 30 years have priceless woodcarvings, thangkas, statues and murals. These gompas are Tarok Rinpoche, Ka-Nying Shedrup Ling, Jamchen Yigghe Choling, Nyingma and Shechen Tennyl Targye. The Jamchen Yigghe Choling Gompa contains a 35-m tall statue of Maitreya, the Buddha to be; and the Nyingma Gompa contains the sacred remains of the head of the Nyingmapa sect of Buddhism, Dudjom Rinpoche.
From Boudhanath, return and rejoin the ring road. Three kilometres away, near the junction with roads leading back to Kathmandu and the road swinging left toward the Royal Kathmandu Golf Course and the airport, is the most sacred of all Nepal’s Shiva shrines. Pashupatinath (Shiva as Lord of the Animals) attracts thousands of devotees from all over Nepal and India throughout the year, but particularly for the festival of Mahashivratri on the ‘night of no moon’ in the month of Phalgun (February–March).
The temple is situated 5 km (3 miles) east of Kathmandu, on the bank of the sacred Bagmati river. Around the site are several other shrines including one to Bhandareshwara, Treasury Keeper of Lord Pashupatinath, Jaya Bageshwari, and the abandoned town of Deoparan (Abode of Gods).
Pashupatinath itself is a two-tiered gilded pagoda dating back to the reign of King Pratap Calla. The site, though, is quite ancient; inscriptions dating back to 477 AD have been found here. Non-Hindus are not allowed to enter the temple proper, but the courtyard has enough sculptures, carvings and sculptural detail to keep visitors busy for hours.
Other sites and shrines around the main temple of Pashupatinath include Aryaghat, the cremation platform reserved for the Royal family, on the bank of the Bagmati river, and also the area marked for cremation of common citizens. The shrines include images of Lord Vishnu, Bachaleshwari and Lakshmi, a 6th-century Buddha in the Raja-Rajeshwari Ghat and across the river the shrine of Gorakhnath. Most important of all is the temple of Guhyeshwari, one of the most sacred sites where Shiva’s wife Sati is worshipped. According to Hindu religious texts, Sati immolated herself in protest over her mother’s insulting attitude towards Shiva. When he came to know of this, Shiva became angry and with Sati’s dead body flung over his shoulder, started his famous Tandava (Dance of Destruction). As there was no way to stop him, Lord Vishnu had no option but to use his famous weapon Sudarshan Chakra to chop the body of Sati into pieces. These pieces fell at 51 sacred pithas of which Guhyeshwari is one of the most important.