Bangladesh Slideshow

13 October, 2009

Around the Kathmandu Valley

We packed our bags for a holiday in the foothills of the Himalayas - in gorgeous Nepal. Flights were booked on Bangladesh Biman with much trepidation, but to our utter relief the flight was only 15 minutes delayed, and we arrived in Kathmandu on an overcast Friday afternoon. We were met at the airport by the hotel driver, and a short ride brought us to Thamel, the tourist hub of the Nepalese capital. We were given an air-conditioned suite at the Tibet Guest House in Chhetrapati, complete with a kitchenette, for only $38.

We ventured out quickly, eager for a taste of Nepal, ate the first of many Momos, and wandered the labyrinthine yet colorful Thamel streets until evening. The wide variety of clothes and shawls, carpets and home furnishing, jewelry and handicrafts made me stop every two minutes and gape.

The next day I went out for an early morning walk by myself, armed with camera and Lonely Planet. It was the Dashain festival time, and all the temples and shrines were humming with devotees, and the odd sacrificial goat.

I took time to admire the intricate woodwork on doors and windows, fed some pigeons, and wandered around a local bazaar, where I bought some heavenly smelling spices.

Back at the hotel, we opted for breakfast at Helena's rooftop terrace. The food was great and the view unequalled.

Our hired car came to pick us up at 10am for a city tour. Our first stop was Swyambhunath Stupa, also known as the monkey temple, the biggest Budhdhist temple in the Kathmandu valley. Legend says that Kathmandu valley was once a lake from which arose the island on which Swyambhunath stands. The lake then gradually dried up and settlements were built. There is a trinity of red and yellow stone Buddha figures at the base of the hill.

The stupa is reached by climbing 360 steep stairs, a feat which once again demonstrated how unfit I was. But the glimpse of the golden stupa kept me going.

There are benches for the weary on either side of the stairs, and a collection of stonework depicting the birth of Buddha. On the final (and steepest) stretch, there are pairs of animals flanking the stairs - garudas, peacocks, lions, elephants and horses - the 'bahan' (vehicle) of the five Dhyani Budhdhas: Vairocana, Ratnasambhaba, Amitabha, Amoghasiddhi and Akshbhya). Prayer flags flutter in the breeze.

The first sight that greeted us as we reached the top was a huge golden Dorje (or Vajra in Sankskrit - thunderbolt) and a bell. Tantric thought symbolizes the dorje as the male force and the bell as female wisdom. Two white temples in the Indian shikhara style flank the dorje. The view from the top is fantastic! The stupa has the eyes of Buddha painted on all four sides of the harmika (the gold-colored square block that sits atop the massive white dome), and it seems that for time eternal, the all-knowing eyes have kept watch over Kathmandu valley. Above the two regular eyes is the third eye, symbolizing Buddha's insight. The base of the stupa is surrounded by a series of prayer wheels, each of which carries the the sacred Tibetan mantra "om mani padme hum".

There are Tibetan monasteries, shrines and settlements around the Swyambhunath hill, and the mandatory souvenir shops and coffee shops for the tourists. The National Museum is nearby, but we gave it a miss.

We rode along the famous Ring Road to reach Bodhnath Stupa, where some believe a bone of Buddha is interred. The massive dome is surrounded by 108 small images of the Dhyani Buddha Amitabha, as well as the mandatory prayer wheels, set into 147 niches around the base of the stupa. The all-seeing eyes are painted on all four sides of the harmika, which is topped by a tapering section of 13 stages - representing the stages of perfection on the way to nirvana. At the entrance to the inner stupa stands a shrine dedicated to Ajima, the goddess of smallpox. A number of Gompas (monasteries) have been built around the stupa. We fed the pigeons and bought a small kalachakra mandala thangka painted by a monk.

Next we headed for Pasupatinath, the most important Shiva temple of the subcontinent, situated on the western banks of the Bagmati river. It is also Nepal's most important temple. Shiva is the destroyer and creator of the Hindu pantheon and is usually worshipped in Nepal in his most violent form: Bhairav. But Pashupati is Shiva's most pleasant form, as the shepherd of animals and humans. The ground of the temple are open to all but the fifth century temple is for Hindus only. Nepal's Dalit (untouchables) community was only allowed access to the temple in 2001. The priests of the temple are traditionally from the South Indian state of Karnataka, which has recently sparked controversy and even violence, with demands that Nepali priests should replace the Indian priests.

On the banks of the river are the cremation ghats (called Arya ghats) and there were two funerals in progress as we entered the temple complex.

We passed the Panch Deval and headed to the eastern bank. Climbing up to the terrace was a good idea, for it offers a good view of the area. Facing the temple from across the river are 11 stone chaityas, each containing a stone lingam (the phallic symbol of Shiva's creative powers). At the northern end of the terrace is a shiva lingam (5th or 6th century) on a circular pedestal. A finely sculpted face of the god has been carved onto this.

The steps on the eastern bank of the river continue to the Gorakhnath and Vishwarup temples, the latter off-limits to non-Hindus. But with 17th century temples, lingams and tridents scattered everywhere, the Mrigasthali Deer Park on the hills, and monkeys everywhere, this is a peaceful surrounding.

Next stop was Patan, the ancient capital of the Malla kings. This second largest town of the Kathamandu valley is also known by its Sangskrit name 'Lalitpur (city of beauty)' and its Newari name 'Yala'. We had lunch at Café du Patan, across the street from Durbar Square. Patan's Durbar Square - a pedestrian zone - is full of palaces and temples, and its streets are full of stupas and bahals. Emperor Ashoka built four stupas at the four corners of the city when he reportedly visited in 250 BC.

The Golden Temple in Patan is a Buddhist monastery where the four Tibetan faiths converge. The entrance is guarded by two menacing stone lions. Leather shoes/handbags/belts have to be taken off before entering the inner courtyard which is richly decorated with lions, elephants and prayer wheels. There is a small ornate shrine with griffins and a golden roof in the middle of the courtyard.

We left Kathmandu's Durbar Square for last, sort of as the crème de la crème of the day's outing. The area is comprised of three adjacent squares. But after the splendour and cleanliness of Patan's Durbar Square, the Kathmandu one seemed rather drab and crowded and very dirty, and evoked a rather strong feeling of anticlimax.

Kathmandu takes it's name from Kashthyamandap (wooden platform) - famed to be the oldest building in the valley. The three-storied 12th century building was reportedly built from the wood of a single massive sal tree, and was originally a pilgrim shelter. It was later turned into a temple for the God Gorakhnath, with Ganesha statues at four corners of the building.

Maju Deval is the highest structure in the square. This Shiva temple stands on a nine-stage ochre platform. It is a triple-roofed temple with intricate carvings on the wooden struts.

The Trailokya Mohan Narayan temple is dedicated to Vishnu, and has a huge stone figure of a kneeling Garuda in front of it. Dances are performed on the platform of the temple during the Indra Jatra festival.

The Shiva Parvati temple stands on a three-stage platform, and the images of Shiva and his consort Parvati watch from an upstairs window.

The structure that impressed me the most was Kumari Ghar, the house of the Living Goddess (I'll write a separate piece on this someday). It is a square 3-storied building with intricate wood carvings on doors and windows. The outer façade has a golden window at which the Kumari appears half a dozen times a year. The inner temple is not open to non-Hindus.

The Gadhdhi Baithak (said to have been modeled on London's National Gallery) is an European style building on the eastern side of Durbar Square. Once part of the Rana palace, it seems strangely out of place amongst the traditional style buildings.

Other buildings in the area include King Pratap Malla's column, the Royal Palace - Hanuman Dhoka, the Taleju Temple, the Swet Bhairav Temple and the Jagannath temple, with its erotic carvings from the Kamasutra. There is a statue of Hanuman outside the Hanuman Dhoka with it's head covered in red cloth (because Hanuman was a bachelor, he should not see the erotic carvings on the Jagannath temple!)

We explored the bustling Thamel nightlife in the evening.

... and retired early for our trip to Pokhara the next day.