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Kathmandu, Nepal: Gateway to outdoor adventures & things religious
by Prakash Bang, Editor in Chief
This bowl shaped capital city is at an altitude of 1400 metres. It sits comfortably in a valley surrounded by the mountains of Shivapuri, Phulchowki, Nagarjuna and Chandragiri. Its home to over 1 million people. While some sections of this ancient city look to be cosmopolitan, other areas would take plenty of years to catch up. Most of the roads are narrow and the traffic is to the brim. Thanks to its proximity to picturesque mountains, its base as a major pilgrimage centre for Hindus and Buddhist, its reasonable cost of travel and hospitality, Kathmandu beckons tourists from around the globe.
The city’s history goes back 2000 years. It has witnessed many a turmoil, change of power, political unrest… some as recent as in the year 2009. The Buddha was born in the year 563 BC in the Nepalese town of Kapilavastu District bordering India. Since then reign changed hands from dynasties and clans of Gaur, Abhir, Licchavis, Malla, Gorkhas, British Raj, Shah, Rana and finally the Maoist Party.
On my return journey from Kailas & Mansoravar in Tibet, I had a day to spare in Kathmandu. For the 2 nights that I was to be there, I was hosted at Hotel Royal Singi off Durbar road, an up market locality of Kathmandu. I was pretty happy about the hotel and the amenities it offered. Probably, after grueling days of travel in a 4X4 and having stayed in dorms for 10 days, any bed would have been more than welcome. The hotel should keep business travelers and tourists happy.
Being an Indian, I didn’t require a Visa to enter Nepal. Visitors from other countries can get their Visa on arrival. The fee is dependent on the number of days of stay in Nepal. Gateway airport is Tribhuvan International airport about 30 minutes drive from downtown Kathmandu. Taxis are available in plenty and the fares are negotiable. Since transfers were organized by my host, I am not sure about the transfer charges but I was told Nepal Rs 700 or so should do the trick. At the time of writing US$1 fetched Nepal Rs 75.
Kathmandu, per se, doesn’t have much to offer from a tourist perspective save for some popular places of worship, the ancient town of Patan and Bhaktapur and some delight to the shopper. However, in close proximity to Kathmandu are the beautiful towns of Pokhara, Dhulikhel and Ranikhet that offer excellent outdoor activities and access to National Parks.
I reached Kathmandu late in the afternoon. That evening I took a cab to visit Bhat Bhateni a shopping mall. The cab cost Nepali Rs 200 one way. Honestly, I was not much impressed. Good from a local’s perspective but the mall had very little of touristic interest. I should have rather visited Thamel neighbourhood which, I was told was a paradise for tourists. Shops, boutique stores, guest houses, bars and restaurants thrive in the area. While negotiating with the taxi driver, make doubly sure that the currency they are talking about is Nepali. It’s very common for them to ask for Indian Currency when the time comes to pay up. Just so you know Indian Rs 1 is worth Nepali Rs 1.60. You would be paying 60% more. The Indian currency is widely accepted. However, bear in mind that it’s illegal to carry Indian currency of denominations Rs 500 and Rs 1000; if found on you, the money will be confiscated. The authorities have the option to put you behind bars too. So beware.
Early next morning I had the option to take the Everest Flight. Flights depart from domestic terminal beginning 6:30AM. Pick-up and drop-off is organized from your hotel. The about 40 minute round trip flight offers excellent view of the Himalayan mountain range including Mount Everest. The cost per passenger is Indian Rs 4500. This is negotiable too depending from where you are making the booking. As I had the opportunity to view Mount Everest a few years ago from my flight to Singapore from Kathmandu (sit on the right side of the plane), I refrained from the temptation. Moreover, I had seen enough peaks in the past few days. A leisurely breakfast was more tempting.
Since I was travelling with a small group, a mini coach was arranged for day’s sightseeing. Individual travelers can book a taxi for the day. The first thing every visitor to Kathmandu (especially Hindus) would do is visit the famous Pashupatinath Temple. Pashupatinath is one another name of Lord Shiva. Translated, Shiva, in Kathmandu is depicted as the Lord of the Animals (Pashu means animals; Nath means Lord).
The temple was built in the 5th century. However, original exteriors were badly damaged by Mughal invaders in the 14th century. Standing on the banks of River Bagmati, the temple ranks amongst the world’s largest Shiva Temple. It is one of the 12 jyotorlingas. In fact, it is believed that Kedarnath and Pashupatinath put together make for 1 jyotorlinga. Kedarnath being the body and Pashupatinath being the head. You may want to refer to some of my articles that feature Kedarnath, Bhimashankar and other jyotirlingas. The deity can be viewed from 4 separate doors, one from each direction. I was lucky to be presented beads of Rudraksha that was offered to the Lord. Of course, dakshina (tips) offered to the priest does magic.
Leatherwear, cameras and non-Hindus are not allowed in the main temple premise. However, there’s no restriction to move around the temple and visit the banks of the River Bagmati – a site where the dead are cremated. Whilst I was there, 5 bodies were already on the funeral pyre and one was being prepared. Non-Hindus will find the ritual quite intriguing.
Outside the temple premises are scores of shops selling rudraksha beads and other trinkets. These shops and scores of sadhus around are a major attraction.
After spending 90 minutes at the Pashupatinath temple, we proceeded to our next place of worship – Budha Neelkanth. A 30-minute drive brought us to the gates. Budha Neelkanth is also known as Lord Vishnu. Unique to this temple is the fact that the deity, about 30 feet long, is in a sleeping posture, in a middle of a pond, the bed being the body of a cobra. Legend has it, that the deity appeared while excavation work was being done a few centuries ago. And that, when the excavator’s axe accidently cut a finger of the deity, blood actually oozed out!
Our next stop would be another famous Kathmandu (in fact a Nepal) landmark. The Swayambhunath situated atop a hill on the outskirts of Kathmandu. The hill is also known as monkey hill, thanks to the hundreds of them that freely roam about. Good idea is to be careful with your personal belongings. The monkeys are pretty good at snatching things away – especially food and things like spectacles. If you have the energy to climb up hundreds of steps, you could start your climb from the base of the mountain. Else, you could come up almost to the top using your vehicle and pay a fee of Rs 50 to enter the premises. Some steps needs to be negotiated though.
Swayambhunath - the Self Created One - is the oldest religious site in Nepal. Albeit, it’s a Buddhist place of worship, it’s a favourite of Hindus too. It is believed that the temple was built in the 5th century and that Buddha imparted his learning at Swayambhunath for a few years. The temple has a stupa (spire) that sits on a dome. The Eyes of Buddha, painted on the stupa look in all the 4 directions.
The Patan Durbar Square is where the action is. Tourists from SAARC nations pay a fee of Rs 25 to move around whilst other nationals pay Rs 200. A sticker is placed on your lapel that entitles you to move around in the sprawling Durbar Square premises for a day. Around the dome are few other temples and a monastery. Also situated on the hill is small hamlet that is home to many artisans who work on site and offer their works of art to those interested.
It was 3 PM by the time we reached our hotel. After a quick bite, 3 of us (my cousin sister Trupti, her husband Rajesh and I), hired a car and proceeded to visit Lalitpur, more popularly known as Patan – the site of ancient Kathmandu. Driving through traffic chaos and small streets, we reached the old town in about 30 minutes.
Durbar Square is a massive complex of palaces and temples. The royal family of Nepal lived in the palace here (known as Hanuman Dhoka) until 1886 before moving their residence to Narayanhiti Royal Palace. Surrounding Hanuman Dhoka are structures with intricate Hindu & Buddhist architecture. Prominent structures include Kasthamandap and Kumari Ghar (Home of the Virgin Goddess). Streets, numerous by lanes and vendors hawking trinkets all add up to the charisma of Durbar Square. This is must visit site.
Back in town, we wanted to visit Narayanhiti Royal Palace (now converted to a museum after the infamous Royal massacre). However, I missed the opportunity as it was past closing hours.
Our flight would leave for Mumbai early next morning.
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