There is only one rule you have to follow if you wish to see the glories of Kathmandu in a single day. It’s an easy rule.
Get out of Thamel as soon as possible.
Hanuman Dhoka Durbar Square
Waking up at 4:30am is easy when time hasn’t existed for so long after an eternity in Travel Town. The goal was to start the day with a pre-dawn visit to Kathmandu Darbur Square to snap some pictures before the swarth of locals arrived.
Kathmandu is home to three Darbur squares. In the 16th century, the King one day woke up to find himself the father of 22 children, each of which desired inheritance for the land. This naturally resulted in sibling rivalry, quarrels and stresses to the land and the future of the kingdom. The King’s brilliant solution was to split Nepal into 22 provinces, giving each one to a son. The ‘Darbur Squares’ in each were the home to the royal palaces and plazas for the people of the land. The three located in present-day Kathmandu are finely preserved, now as markets and holy sites for the Hindu locals.
I walked out of the gate at 5am, still in the predawn, assuming I could walk the 20 minutes to the square. Realizing quickly that I had no clue where I was going (why I thought I would, I don’t know) I hopped in a rickshaw. This was one of the best decisions I’d made on the trip so far: the rickety sunrise rickshaw ride through the streets of Kathmandu is an experience I won’t forget.
I won’t forget it because he took me to the wrong square. No matter, it was still a sight to behold, with the merchants just unfolding their goods; the Hindu statues blessing and being blessed during morning rituals; the wandering holy cows and dogs starting their day. I wandered the streets to find a bite to eat, and found early morning Nepali donuts fresh out of the fryer. I’ve been really concerned here about eating and drinking anything, as the water is notoriously nausea-inducing for Western stomachs. John Clancy-Tone reminded me that even the fruit is suspect, being of course comprised mostly of water, which raised my paranoia levels even higher. Donuts however, devoid of any deviant nutrition, seemed safe. And they were, crispy and warm, a sort of miniature American funnel cake. If this our influence, they’re doing us proud.
Swayambunath – The Monkey Temple
I hopped in a taxi (every car in Nepal is a taxi or bus it seems) and headed to Swayambunath, also known as The Monkey Temple. With it’s impossibly steep climb up, this is an exercise with a tremendous payoff. Wild monkeys.
One great thing about Nepal is that while there are tourists of course, there really aren’t many–outside Thamel, I’m more often than not the only white person around–and all of the ‘destinations’ are holy sites and places where the Nepali’s truly do go during their day. 8am atop Swayambunath, long lines to worship their Mahatmaya idols winded around the high holy temple yard amongst holy men, monks, and monkeys. Really, monkeys everywhere.
This is also one of the highest points in the city, and incredible views of Kathmandu surrounded the temple. Drums and singers played never-ending liturgical songs, filling the square with positive energy. I saw a holy man sitting on the ground mixing red dye with rice with mortar and pestle, and he called me down to give me the sign of Lord Shiva upon my forehead, as those in the worship-line, and monkeys, watched.
On my way down the steep steps–those with easy Vertigo need not apply–I started planning the next step, a trip to Patan Durbar Square, one of the most holy of the Durbar Squares. But first, a trip to the Himalayan coffeeshop (my kind of holy site).
oops, i uploaded this sideways, and I’m not fixing it
Patan Durbar Square
Located in one of the other three pre-unification regions of Kathmandu, this was closer to what I thought a Durbar Square would look like: temple after temple, beautifully preserved stone and wood-thatched roofs worthy of the gods. In addition to being the palace of the Patan province, Patan Durbar Square is also a holy site, featuring temples in reverence to Krishna–reincarnation of Brahma–and the Temple of Kama Sutra, essentially a guidebook to teach younger and younger kids the proper way to have sex (the King’s sneaky plan to amass the largest kingdom possible).
I paid 700 rupees for a personal guide this time, paying for itself in the knowledge and details of the elements of each temple and site. He explained the stunning uniqueness of the temple to Krishna, the largest temple in the world build one of one block of stone. He explained the roles of the three highest gods, Brahma the Generator, Vishnu the Operator, and Shiva the Destroyer (G.O.D., I groaned too.), and how their actions created Hindu moral codes. The roles of the transportation modes of the gods, and how that determines their identification. The fact that there are 33 million gods in Hinduism, but only one wears a shroud (the monkey god, covered because the poor old deity never found himself a wife).
One of the highlights was the Buddhist Golden Temple outside the square, where my guide introduced me to Sudeep Lumsao, the father of the singing bowl. He was a gentle and kind old man, and after explaining how his vibrational bowl therapy gently excites and massages the 70% of water of the human body (“it’s physics, not magic”) offered to perform his ritual on me. He placed one of his own hand-hammered bowls (the machine-made bowls you find at stores are trash, he says) over the crown of my head and gently banged it with a soft mallet. He moved and played it up and down my back, in my chest, on my lap. It may not have cured what ailed me, but it genuinely brought a stillness to the air and reset reset day–and I say this as an at-heart skeptic.
The tour ended with my guide explaining how early next month is one of the holiest holiday weeks of the Hindu religion, where masses of animals will be slaughtered as a sacrifice, 108 in Patan Durbar Square alone (“Goats, water buffalo, ducks, chickens, especially black ones, are those are demons. We’re doing this to save them, as they will then reincarnate at a higher level”). He was disappointed when I told them I’d be gone. I, less so.
Pashupatinath – The Holiest Hindu Temple
Another taxi ride over to what I’d been told is one of the holiest sites in all of Nepal: Pashupathinath Temple, the shrine to Lord Shiva where Hindus go to die. It is home to Briddhashram, a Mother Theresa-style ashram for the elderly who have no family or loved ones and are simply waiting to expire. Here they are cared for and delivered love and attention, to ensure they go gracefully. OH OH OH I SAW MY FIRST LEPER!
Early on, a guide walked up along side me and started to explain the significance of the area. As we walked over the river that flowed through Pashupatinath, I was told of the yearly paternal death rituals. We passed the stone platforms along the river where over 25 bodies daily are burned, ashes swept away by the rushing river water.
Healthy cows roam free alongside deer and monkeys in a preserved park/graveyard for Hindus of lower castes, not worthy of cremation. My guide (also named Arjun) was deeply knowledgeable in the customs of his antiquated religion. As he seemed to like me (maybe because I didn’t call his religion antiquated), I was brought to Bisho Roup Temple, ‘All Gods Coming To One Power,’ high above the cremation sites. He allowed me to take a picture, something most are not allowed to do. Feast your eyes upon this forbidden image!
An incredible walk through some of the most pleasant parts of the Kathmandu backroads led me to Boudhanath, the largest Buddhist Stupa in the world. This is one of the holiest sites (starting to notice a trend here?) for Buddhists, a site of pilgrimage and adoration for millions around the globe.
In the early afternoon, the Buddhist monks circumnavigate the Stupa in a clockwise direction (so
your ‘clean’ right hand always faces the site), chanting liturgy, thumbing rosaries, and spinning prayer wheels in reverence. A signpost on the terrace of the Stupa read:
NOTICE FOR THE VISITORS
- This Great Stupa is the religious focal point of all the Buddhists of the World
- This Great Stupa is the only Bodhi or Thathagata Stupa on the planet. Thus, it is listed as a world heritage site.
- This Great Stupa is installed full of relics of Kahsyapa Buddha as well as bodhisatvas and Mantra written papers for holy retention.
- This Stupa itself is a form of Mandala constructed with a Vajrayani concept in three dimensions.
- Whoever sees or hears about this wish fulfilling Gem Stupa will be ensured an ultimate liberation is guaranteed [sic] and finally one’s dream or wish comes true.
- Whoever worships or prays in front of this Stupa will definitely closes the doors [sic] of three lower realms according to (Terma) the hidden treasure.
By including a picture and informing you of this Stupa in my blog (and to reward you for actually reading this far) you will be ensured an ultimate liberation is guaranteed and finally your wish comes true! Just thank me in the next life.
Back to Thamel
There you have it, Kathmandu in a day and on three hours sleep. It was 5pm, and I’d seen some of the holiest of holy sites in the region. Time for a nap before Saturday night.