Kathmandu Valley comprises the three ancient cities of Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur, which were once independent states ruled by the Malla kings from the 12th to the 18th centuries. The three cities house seven UNESCO World Heritage shrines which are together listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site (Culture). The valley is also home to hundreds of other exquisite monuments, sculptures, artistic temples and magnificent art – reminders of the golden era in Nepal’s architecture.
Legend has it that the valley was was once a primordial lake ringed by verdant mountains. In this pristine lake lived giant serpents until one fine day, saint Manjushree, the Bodhisatva, raised a mighty sword and in one fell swoop, cut open the side of a mountain at a place now known as Chobar. The voluminous waters of the lake gushed out, leaving behind a fertile valley capable of supporting large urban settlements over the millennia. The Gopala and Kirati dynasties were the earliest rulers here followed by the Licchavi (300-879 A.D.), under whom flourished trade and crafts.
But the valley’s remarkable cities with their ornate palaces, the superbly crafted pagodas and the monumental stupas are testimony of the artistic genius of the Newar craftsmen, the original inhabitants of the valley, whose skills were championed by the Malla kings and appreciated even by the Mongol rulers of 18th century China.
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Kathmandu, the largest city of Nepal, is the political as well as cultural capital of the country. Kathmandu is a city where ancient traditions rub shoulders with the latest technological advances. However, it is the grandeur of the past that enchants the visitor whose gaze may linger on an exquisitely carved wooden window frame, an 18th century bronze sculpture or the spiritually uplifting stupas. Like any big city, Kathmandu has seen rapid expansion in the last decade, but despite the hustle and bustle so typical of metropolitan cities, its people remain as refreshingly friendly as ever. Retaining its ancient traditions, Kathmandu is blessed by a Living Goddess and is enriched by endless ceremonial processions and events that take to the streets every now and then with throngs of devotees seeking blessings. These religious festivals are steeped in legend and are quite a spectacle with chariot processions and masked dancers often possessed by the spirits of deities.
KATHMANDU DURBAR SQUARE (UNESCO World Heritage Site):
Situated in the heart of old Kathmandu city at Basantapur, Kathmandu Durbar Square never fails to impress first time visitors with its ensemble of palaces, courtyards and temples built during the Malla period. The Durbar Square includes the Hanuman Dhoka Royal Palace, the historic seat of the royalty; the magnificent Taleju Temple towering more than 40 meters; Kumari Ghar, the residence of the Living Goddess, Kumari; Ashok Vinayak, also called Kathmandu Ganesh, a temple without a filial ; and Kal Bhairav, the God of Wrath. The capital takes its name from the giant pagoda of Kasthamandap, which is said to have been built out of a single tree. Since the time of the Malla kings, the Durbar Square has been the city’s social, religious and political focal point.
Believed to have been built in the 12th century, the temple enshrines Akash Bhairav, a ferocious manifestation of Lord Shiva. The three-storey temple with tiled roofs, a hanging balcony, gilded and latticed windows and an artistic doorway lies in the main market avenue called Indra Chowk.
Once the center of old Kathmandu, the Asan market square is located about midway on the only diagonal thoroughfare in Kathmandu that links Durbar Square with Durbar Marg. At Asan, there are six roads radiating in all directions. The three-storied pagoda style Annapurna Temple of Annapurna, the Goddess of Grains, presides over the ever-lively bazaar. Asan is still an important shopping center and one of the busiest market places with shops selling anything from imported spices to kitchenware, fresh vegetables, Chinese goods, hardware and clothes.
SWAYAMBHUNATH STUPA (UNESCO World Heritage Site):
Resting on a hillock 3 km west of Kathmandu, it is one of the holiest Buddhist Chaityas in Nepal. It is said to have evolved spontaneously when the valley was created out of a primordial lake more than 2,000 years ago. This stupa is the oldest of its kind in Nepal and has numerous shrines and monasteries on its premises.
PASHUPATINATH TEMPLE (UNESCO World Heritage Site):
Situated 5 km east of Kathmandu, the temple of Lord Shiva is considered one of the most sacred Hindu shrines in the world. The two-tiered pagoda with golden roofs and silver doors houses the sacred linga, or phallic symbol, of Lord Shiva. Chronicles indicate the temple existed before 400 A.D. Near the Pashupatinath Temple on the banks of the Bagmati River lies Guheswari, where, according to mythology, a portion of Sati Devi, Lord Shiva’s consort, fell when a grief-stricken Shiva wandered aimlessly across the earth carrying her dead body on his shoulders following her self-immolation.
BOUDDHANATH STUPA (UNESCO World Heritage Site):
Situated 8 km to the east of downtown Kathmandu, Bauddhanath is one of the most imposing landmarks in Kathmandu, visible as soon as you land at the Tribhuvan International Airport. It is the largest stupa in the Kathmandu Valley and is the center of Tibetan Buddhism.
Three kilometers north-west of Kathmandu lies the Balaju Garden, a quiet park ideal for relaxation just below the Nargarjun hill. The park has a line of 22 stone water spouts built in the 18th century, each of which has an ornately carved crocodile head. During an annual festival, people come here to take a ritual bath. A replica of the stone image of Budhanilkantha was built here specifically for the royal family who were barred from visiting the real one. Above Balaju lies the Nagarjun forest (5 km northwest of Kathmandu). The summit (2,096 m) is a two-hour walk, from where great views of the Kathmandu Valley and a number of Himalayan peaks can be had. There is a Buddhist stupa and a view tower on the summit.
As the tourist district of Kathmandu, Thamel bustles with activity late into the night. It is a mere10-minute walk from the center of Kathmandu, yet completely different from the rest of the city. Thamel caters entirely to tourists with its scores of hotels, rows of restaurants and bars, book shops, inviting souvenir shops, cyber cafes and travel agencies. All that a tourist needs can be found here, even friends and traveling companions.
The soaring landmark of Kathmandu, the Dharahara tower is 50.5 m high and was built by then Prime Minister Bhimsen Thapa in 1832. It is open to anyone who can go up after paying the entrance fee. The 360 degree astounding view of the Kathmandu Valley is well worth the long climb up the spiraling staircase.
GARDEN OF DREAMS:
At the entrance of Thamel, the Garden of Dreams within the Kaiser Mahal complex has now been renovated and restored to its former glory. Major attractions in this 24-acre garden include neo-classical pavilions, fountains, decorative garden furniture, Chinese Moon Gate and European inspired features such as pergolas, balustrades, urns and birdhouses. Today it is open to the public with a restaurant and bar.
The largest of Vishnu’s stone statues, Budhanikantha lies at the foothills of the Shivapuri hills, 8 km north of the Kathmandu city center. The large granite figure of Lord Vishnu, reclining on a bed of serpents known as ‘Nagas’, seems to float in a pond. This shrine dates back to the 5th century.
It is situated on a ridge 8 km southwest of Kathmandu. The ancient Newar township - with its brick-paved streets lined with typical red brick houses and tiled roofs, and temple squares - is a natural fortress. The Chilamchu stupa and the temple of Bagh Bhairav are major attractions here. Tribhuvan University, Nepal’s premier seat of education, is located at the foothills of Kirtpur.
Lying 18 km south of Kathmandu on the valley rim, Pharping is perched on a hilltop with a Buddhist monastery. Pharping’s main attraction is an elaborate 17th-century temple which houses a glided image of Goddess Bajra Jogini. Other fascinating sights here include a cave and a hand-imprint of the Buddhist saint Padmasambhav on the rock face over its entrance.
Four kilometers further south of Pharping on the valley rim is the temple of Dakshinkali dedicated to the Hindu goddess Kali. The shrine is especially crowded on Tuesdays and Saturdays when animal sacrifices are offered to the deity. On the way lies Chobhar gorge. The Bodhisatva Manjushree is said to have cut an incision here to drain out the lake which once covered the valley. There is a small but picturesque temple of Adinath on the top of a hill from where one can have a panoramic view of the snow-capped mountains.
Situated between Chobhar and Dakshinkali, the temple of Shesha Narayan represents one of the four Narayans of the Kathmandu Valley. The other three Narayans are Changu Narayan of Bhaktapur, Visankhu Narayan of Patan and Ichangu Narayan of Kathmandu.