The Kathmandu Valley
The old city of Kathmandu is located on a bluff at the confluence of the Bagmati and Vishnumati Rivers - an easily defended site with rich soil and a plentiful water supply.
Kathmandu's number one tourist attraction swarms with life. Though a few of the square's 50-plus monuments date from the 12th century, most are from the time of the Malla Kings. Probably the most famous building here is the Kumari Bahal, a building richly decorated with beautiful woodcarvings, which is home to the Royal Kumari, the Living Goddess, a manifestation of the great goddess Durga. Nearby the former Royal Palace is a Mall Dynasty dwelling, once considerably more extensive than today. Within, the courtyard Nassal Chowk, originally hosted dramatic dance performances, now it is the coronation site of the Shah kings and contains some of the finest wood carvings you will see anywhere in the kingdom.
The 14th century Jagannath Mandir is the oldest temple in the area, its steps carved with inscriptions in many languages, nearby Telaju Mandir is one of the largest and finest temples in the Valley. It is dedicated to the patron deity of the royal family, Taleju Bhawani, a wrathful form of Durga who once demanded human sacrifices.
The most ancient and enigmatic of the Valley's holy shrines the golden-spired stupa of Swayambhunath tops a wooded hillock. Records of its history date as far as the 5th century, but its origins are believed to be older. It is the Kathmandu Valley's most sacred Buddhist shrine and whilst its worshippers include the Vajrayana Buddhists of northern Nepal and Tibet, Newari Buddhists are the most fervent devotees.
This is Nepal's most sacred Hindu shrine and one of the subcontinent's great Shiva sites. The supreme holiness of the site stems from the Shiva linga enshrined in its main temple and its location. It expresses the very essence of Hinduism as pilgrims, priests, devotes, temples, ashrams, images, inscriptions and cremation ghats intermingle with the rituals of daily life, all sprawled along the banks of the sacred Bagmati River. The temple's origins are obscure, an inscription dates from 477, but a shrine may have stood here for 1000 years before that.
This great stupa is one of Nepal's most distinctive monuments and one of the most important Buddhist sites in Nepal and, with a diameter of over 100 meters, amongst the largest in the world. There are a number of legends accounting for the stupa's construction, but it is generally believed to date from the 5th century. All stupas contain holy relics and Boudha is said to contain the remains of the past Buddha Kasyapa.
Boudha is a particular focus for Kathmandu's Tibetan community and throughout the day there is a constant stream of people circling the stupa spinning prayer wheels and reciting mantras. Surrounding the stupa are six major monasteries and a host of smaller ones as well as cafes, restaurants and shops selling Tibetan carpets and Newari silversmiths.
This ancient city, once a kingdom in itself, is situated across the Bagmati River to the south of Kathmandu. Approximately 80% of the inhabitants are Newars and they fiercely retain their identity as separate to Kathmandu.
Patan's origins are clouded in mystery. It claims its place as capital of the mythic Kiranti Dynasty and association with the great Indian emperor, Ashoka, who is credited with the building of the 4 grass-covered stupas surrounding the city. For many centuries Patan's importance eclipsed that of Kathmandu and by the 7th century was one of the major Buddhist centers of Asia attracting pilgrims, scholars and monks from India, Tibet and China. Medieval Patan was the largest and most prosperous of the three Valley kingdoms. It was annexed to Kathmandu in the late 6th century and most of its magnificent architecture dates to the late Malla era (16th-18th centuries).
Patan's Durbar Square offers the finest display of Newari urban architecture in Nepal. There are temples devoted to Shiva, Krishna, Ganesh and Vishnu all actively visited by residents and visitors. At the northern end of the square the ancient sunken water tap has been restored and is still in use with young girls filling huge jugs from the carved stone waterspouts. The courtyards of the Royal Palace with their ornamented windows, columned arcades, shrines and sunken royal bath are amongst the most lovely in all Kathmandu.
Old Patan comprises a small area with individual neighborhoods dedicated to metalworking, stone carving, and woodwork as well as some lovely old temples. One of the most lovely is the Kwa Bahal or 'Golden Temple', a lavish, gilt-roofed shrine - the main façade covered in gilt and silver, the whole surrounded by images of real and mythical beasts, scenes from the Buddha's life.
Once the capital of the Valley, Bhaktapur is the most unchanged of the three cities. Retaining something of its medieval atmosphere, Bhaktapur embodies the essence of the Newari city. Despite frequent rebuilding as the result of earthquakes the city's architecture and organization remain an excellent example of town planning. Neighborhoods, roughly organized by caste, are centered on a main square with a public water source, temples and a Ganesh shrine. The 12th century the King of Banepa moved his capital here and it ruled a unified Valley for the next 3 centuries. It was the last of the cities to fall to Prithvi Narayan Shah in 1768 and since then its importance has diminished considerably.
Much of Bhaktapur's Durbar Square was destroyed in the 1934 earthquake and appears much emptier than those of Kathmandu or Patan. Amongst its many attractions are substitute shrines for the four great Indian pilgrimage sites and the Golden Gate. This is the most famous piece of art in all Nepal, an exquisite monument of gilded metalwork constructed in 1753.
The neighborhood of the potter caste, where hundreds of clay vessels are set to dry in the sun before being fired in makeshift kilns. Families work in the open producing tiny oil lamps, teacups, bowls, vases and water jugs.
This square is more important to the locals and more intimately tied to daily life and festivals than Durbar Square. It is dominated by the 5-roofed, 30-meter high Nyatapola Temple, the tallest in Nepal.
This brick paved street and its offshoot alleys reveals the heart of Bhaktapur as life spills into the street - women pond laundry, children play, old men squat in doorways for a chat and shopkeepers sell all the necessities of daily life.
The original town center, dating from the 8th century. Many of the pilgrim rest houses and those that sheltered ascetics have become private dwellings others remain as fully-fledged temples. The famous 'Peacock Window' is down an alley off the square.
Outside the Valley
Bandipur is a charming hill town midway between Kathmandu and Pokhara. It is an ancient trading post inhabited by Magars (the original inhabitants of the area) and Newars. Nestled in the hills Bandipur offers excellent opportunities for day hikes or relaxing enjoying the panoramic mountain vistas. Untouched by modernization, and laced with an abundance of ancient houses, temples of great significance, and historical architecture, this medieval-era town boast festivals all year around, besides plethora of cultural offerings. Neighboring Magar, Gurung, Bahun, Chhetri, Damai and Sarki villages all contribute to the cultural diversity of the region. The hilltop town not only overlooks the incredible expanse of the Marsyanngdi river valley, but also offers a breathtaking sweep of the Himalayan range, from Langtang in the east to Dhaulagiri in the west. From nearby hilltops, one can see as far as Manakamana and Gorkha to east the great Chitwan plains to the south, among others.
The tiny ridge-top village of Daman offers some of the best Himalayan views in Nepal - a panorama from Dhaulagiri to Kanchenjunga, including all five Annapurna peaks. 75 kilometers southwest of Kathmandu it is reached by a rugged mountain road, which is lauded by many mountain bikers as one of the best rides in Nepal.
Once an important stop on the trade route between Kathmandu and Tibet, the wealth amassed through trade is depicted in the handsome buildings with intricate woodcarvings. Sadly many of these fine structures have been neglected, but this is an xcellent place if you are interested in collecting fine pieces. The population of Dhilikhel is a mixture of Newar, Tamang and Brahman-Chhetri. The main square includes a Narayan shrine and a rare temple to the deity Harasiddhi. The best mountain views are from a small Kali shrine on a ridge above the town - sunrise is the most spectacular.
This typical hill town is the ancestral home of Nepal's ruling family. It was from Gorkha's hilltop fortress that King Prithvi Narayan Shah (1723-1775) launched his attempt to unify the independent states of Nepal. Gorkha's centerpiece is the magnificent Gorkha Durbar with a fort, a palace and a temple with excellent views of the surrounding valleys, and the Mansalu range.
Gorkha Bazaar is primarily a cobbled street market place where by people from neighboring hill dwellings come to trade. There are a few temples near about and it is worth a visit as it provides a very good vista of the quiet charm that soaks a typical hill village of Nepal.
Gorkha Durbar is the main attraction of Gorkha, an hour steep walk up a hill from the bazaar area. It used to be the dwelling of King Prithvi Narayan and his ancestors. The Durbar itself is a humble, yet quite impressive, complex of a temple, fort, and a palace built in the Newar style of Kathmandu. The view of the Himalayan range and the deep valleys from up there is quite breathtaking.
Gorakhnath Cave, ten meters below the palace's southern side, is the sacred cave temple of Gorkhanath. The cave is is carved out of the solid rock and is among the most important religious sites for mainstream Brahmins and Chhetris of Nepal.
Situated in the Terai of southern Nepal, Lumbini is the place where Siddhartha Gautam, Buddha of this era, was born in 623 BC. This sacred place is marked by a stone pillar erected by Emperor Ashoka of India in 249 BC, is listed as a World Heritage Site and is being developed as a place of pilgrimage and symbol of world peace. Many countries have built shrines and monasteries here reflecting the architectural traditions of their respective cultures.
Near the Ashoka pillar is the Mayadevi Temple which houses a bas relief depicting the birth. Recent excavations have turned up a stone bearing a "foot imprint", indicating the exact place of birth. The Puskarni pond, where Queen Mayadevi, the Buddha's mother, had taken a bath before giving birth to him lies to the south of the pillar. Kushinagar is the place where Lord Buddha passed into Mahaparinirvana. The Muktabandhana stupa is believed to have been built in the Malla dynasty to preserve the temporal relics of Lord Buddha. A smaller shrine nearby contains a reclining Buddha, which was brought from Mathura by the monk Haribala. Bodhgaya is the place where Buddha attained enlightenment. The tree under which Buddha attained wisdom is called the Bodhi tree, while the temple marking the sacred spot is known as Mahabodhi temple.
The Lumbini Museum, located in the Cultural Zone, contains Mauryan and Kushana coins, religious manuscripts, terra-cotta fragments, and stone and metal sculptures. It also possesses an extensive collection of stamps from various countries depicting Lumbini and the Buddha.
Lumbini International Research Institute (LIRI), located opposite the Lumbini Museum, provides research facilities for the study of Buddhism and religion in general. Run jointly by the Lumbini Development Trust (LDT) and the Reiyukai of Japan, LIRI contains some 12,000 books on religion, philosophy, art and architecture.
Kapilvastu Museum is situated 27 km west of Lumbini in the village of Tilaurakot. The museum holds coins, pottery and toys dating between the seventh century BC and fourth century AD. The museum also has good collection of jewelry and other ornaments of that period.
Situated at 2300 meters, on the valley's eastern rim, Nagarkot offers an excellent view of the Nepal Himalaya including Everest, Lhotse, Cho Oyu, Makalu and Manaslu. It also has sweeping panoramas of the terraced hillsides so typical of Nepal. It is a popular place for sunrise views.
This ancient Newar town is built at the confluence of two streams, with a third visible only to sages. The confluence is a famous bathing and pilgrimage site where a festival is held on the first day of the month of Magh and a month-long Mela once every 12 years. The centerpiece of this charming, unspoiled village is the Indresvar Mahadev temple. Dating back to 1294 this is the oldest extant example of a Newari Temple. Along the river there is a collection of more recent shrines and ghats, including an old Krishna temple, a suspension bridge leading to a recently renovated 17th century Brahmayani Mandir dedicated to the patron goddess of Panauti and a rest house popular with old men. Add ducks, laundry and drying grain and you have a truly lovely corner of old Nepal.
Pokhara is a place of remarkable natural beauty. The enchanting city has several beautiful lakes and offers stunning panaromic views of Himalayan peaks. The serenity of the lakes and the magnificence of the Himalaya rising behind them create the ambience that has made Pokhara such a popular place to relax and enjoy the beauty of nature. Tourism focuses on the districts of Damside and Lakeside (or Pardi and Baidam, in Nepali, respectively). These two areas, packed with hotels and restaurants, are a few kilometers southwest of the main Pokhara bazaar.
Pokhara lies on a once vibrant trade route extending between India and Tibet. To this day, mule trains can be seen camped on the outskirts of the town, bringing goods to trade from remote regions of the Himalaya. This is the land of Magars and Gurungs, hardworking farmers and valorous warriors who have earned worldwide fame as Gurkha soldiers. The Thakalis, another important ethnic group here, are known for their entrepreneurial skill.
The climate of Pokhara is slightly warmer than Kathmandu with daytime temperature hovering around 15 degrees Celsius in winter and 35 degrees in summer. The monsoon season which lasts from mid-June to mid-September is very wet; in fact Pokhara records the highest rainfall in the country. Best time to visit is between October and April. The activities of foreign visitors to Pokhara focus around two districts
Tansen, an ancient hill town, with architecture strongly influenced by Newari migrants from the Kathmandu valley is waiting to be discovered. Situated at the southern slope of the Mahabharat range the town offers an opportunity to experience genuine Nepalese culture, away from westernized places like Thamel in Kathmandu or Lakeside in Pokhara. Though the Newar community forms one of the major communities in this place now, the place originally belonged to the Magar community, one of the most delightful ethnic groups of Nepal. Old artistic Newari houses and cobbled streets shape the townscape. The town's hill, Shreenagar, allows breathtaking views of the Himalayan range from Dhaulagiri in the west to Ganesh Himal in the east.
Tansen is the district administrations headquarter of Palpa district, and is itself often referred to as Palpa, and its people as Palpalis.
Amar Ganj Ganesh Temple is a beautiful three-storey pagoda style temple. The large rest house has been converted into a school and within the grounds is a small old temple of Bhairab. The mask of Bhairab, which is worshipped here, was snatched from Kathmandu by Mukunda Sen, King of Palpa.
Amar Narayan Temple is one of the largest temples in Tansen. The whole temple complex, including the temples, the ponds and the park was built under the reign of Amar Singh Thapa, the first governor of Palpa. According to a legend, a holy spring (or lake) is hidden under the three-storey pagoda style Narayan Temple. The two other temples of the ensemble are dedicated to Vishnu (to the west, next to one of the ponds) and to Shiva (to the south, next to the staircase). The remarkable huge dry stone masonry wall surrounding the whole premises is called "The great wall of Palpa".
Sital Pati (shady rest place) , near Ason Tole, is the most popular square in Tansen and is named for the white octagonal shaped building at its center. The Sital Pati was built under the order of the governor of Palpa (1891-1902) an ambitious politician who was exiled from Kathmandu after plotting against the Prime Minister
The gate opposite to the palace leads to Makhan Tole, the main bazaar of Tansen that focuses the town's commercial activity, notably the sale of Dhaka cloth. Of woven cotton or muslin, this cloth is characterized by jagged, linear designs originally made famous in Bangladesh. With principal colors of red, black and white, the cloth is used to make saris as well as "topis" (Palpali topi), the hat that is an integral part of the national dress for men.
Taksar is an interesting area where, for centuries, the famous bronze and brass works of Tansen were produced. One can have a look at how the famous ancient articles such as Karuwa (water jug), Hukka (water pipe), Antee (jug for Nepali brandy) etc are produced.
Shreenagar Hill (1525m) is about an hour from the town center. The top reveals a breath-taking panoramic view of the Himalaya from Dhaulagiri in the west to Ganesh Himal in the east. The hill is covered by forest, pine plantations and beautiful rhododendron flowers. At the eastern end of Shreenagar ridge there is a statue of the Buddha with a monkey and an elephant, donated by Thai monks, which commemorates one of the eight great events in the Buddha's life.