Each time I arrive in Kathmandu, I am awed by the kaleidoscope of silk saris that enliven its dusty streets, the canted brick buildings with old wooden doors painted in rainbow colors, and the stoic women vendors who patiently squat next to paltry piles of produce amidst the squalor. But I can only take so much of the seething crowds, the pollution, and the ear-splitting horns of motorcycles that streak through the narrow lanes, passing just inches from pedestrians who share the asphalt. After a week, my senses are overloaded and I flee to serene Pokhara. Because I’ve had to experience Kathmandu in bits and pieces it has taken me three years to see all seven of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in and around the capital city, but this year I finally visited the last remaining site on my list.
Kathmandu sits in the center of a valley that is roughly shaped like an oval bowl that legend says was once a lake surrounded by hills. One day, the Bodhisattva Manjushree visited on a pilgrimage and saw a bright flame coming from a huge lotus in the center of the lake. Wishing to worship the flower, he cut a deep gorge in the hills with his sword, allowing the water to drain from the valley. Over the ensuing centuries, three separate kingdoms arose within the fertile valley. The rulers of each constructed magnificent medieval palaces surrounded by plazas known as Durbar (Palace) Square. Today we know these royal cities as Kathmandu, Bhaktapur, and Patan (Lalitpur District). In 1769, Prithvi Narayan Shah conquered and unified the three kingdoms, creating the country of Nepal.
My first visit to the capital city was in October of 2010 during Dashain (Duh SAW ee), the most important Hindu religious festival of the year. From my hostel I planned to walk to Kathmandu Durbar Square, the first of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites, but the streets were a maze of neon lights, billboards, and ramshackle buildings, teeming with shoulder-to shoulder holiday shoppers. With no available map, no street signs, and not a word of Nepali at my command, I knew I would never find the site on my own. Instead, I climbed aboard a tippy rickshaw and settled back as my driver wound a torturous path through the throngs. A dizzying 20-minutes later, I clambered down and joined the masses streaming through Kathmandu Durbar Square.
I hardly knew where to look first. In front of me was the 12-foot high stone carving of Kala Bhairava, the god of destruction, thought to be the manifestation of Shiva in his frightening aspect. Hindus believe that anyone who speaks falsely before this sculpture will die, thus it served as Nepal’s Supreme Court for many years. Around the next corner I came under the watchful gaze of Lord Shiva and his consort Parvati, looking out from a second story window of the house built for them by King Rana Bahadur Shah.
Taking a cue from the divine couple, I climbed the steep concrete steps of one of the temples for a breathtaking view over the square. In front of me spread the dazzling white colonnaded Royal Palace, flanked by the house of the Living Goddess, Kumari. There are several Kumaris throughout Nepal but the best known is the Royal Kumari of Kathmandu, thought to be the incarnation of the goddess Taleju. Kumari serves until she menstruates, after which the goddess leaves her body and the search for a new Living Goddess begins. Chosen from the Newari caste of Sakya goldsmiths, a Kumari must have thirty-two virtues, including fearlessness, an unblemished body, the voice of a bird, and the neck of a duck. Potential candidates are taken to a room filled with severed animal heads to test their courage; the one that shows no fear is the chosen one. On the day I visited, as on all days, faithful had gathered on the pavement beneath the elaborately carved wooden windows of the Kumari House, hoping that she would pass by, as even a glimpse of her is believed to bring good fortune.
Back down at ground level, I was perusing the wood carvings on the eaves of some of the minor temples when an enterprising tout began chatting me up. “They are erotic tantric carvings,” he said. I looked closer and indeed, many of the carvings were of “threesomes” in sexually explicit poses. The would-be guide offered his services with a bit of a leer, but I wasn’t entirely sure exactly what services he meant, so I declined and hurried around the corner where I came face to face with the stone sculpture for which this square is best known, the Hindu god Hanuman. The carving, which stands at the entrance to the walled palace, is draped with a red cloth to protect his eyes from erotic carvings on the adjacent temples.
With Dashain traffic reaching critical mass in the city center, the following day I opted for a trek to Changu Narayan, located in the countryside on the eastern fringes of the Kathmandu Valley. Based on a fifth-century inscription discovered inside the grounds (dated 464 A.D.), Changu Narayan is said to be the most ancient Vishnu temple in the valley. The temple and surrounding buildings exhibit some of the finest stone, metal and wood craft in the valley and cover 1,600 years of Newari art, in effect, charting the cultural development of the Newars, who were the indigenous peoples living in the valley when the first conquering kings arrived. The doors display pairs of carvings of lions, horses, griffins, and elephants, with the main door richly carved in brass, and the roof is supported by 24 intricately carved wooden struts.
My guide and I had the site virtually to ourselves; though Changu Narayan is only 13 miles east Kathmandu and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it seems not to have made it to the top of most visitors “must see” list. Bringing my two-day trek to a close, I spent a peaceful couple of hours examining the exquisite artworks and rambling around the hill on which the temple perches, delaying as long as possible my return to the choking pollution and crowds of the city. When the bronze works glowed golden in the sinking sun, my guide grew restless and I knew I could put off leaving no longer. We caught one of the last buses back to the city and hopped off onto the streets of Kathmandu during the height of rush hour. I struggled to keep up as he threaded expertly through the masses, my anxiety rising each time I lost sight of him, since I had absolutely no idea where we were. Finally, we turned a corner and he hailed a taxi for the last few miles. At my guest house, I booked a bus ticket out of town for the very next day. The other five historic sites would have to wait.
Next: Boudhanath Stupa, Pashupatinath Temple, Patan Durbar Square, and Swayambhu (Monkey) Temple