Legend has it that there was once a primordial lake surrounded by lush green forested mountains. In this pristine lake lived giant serpents until one fine day, Manjushree 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 which we know today as Kathmandu valley.
Once known as ‘Kantipur’, Kathmandu, the largest city of Nepal, is the political capital and a cultural one as well. Nestled within a large valley, it enjoys a pleasant climate second to none and is a relatively safe place to live. Like any big city, Kathmandu has seen rapid expansion in the last decade and the hustle and bustle is typical, yet the people remain as refreshingly friendly as ever. The old, fabulous palaces, the superbly crafted pagodas and the monumental stupas are reminders of the Golden age of architecture in Nepal. They stand testimony to 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 Mongol rulers of 18th Century China. And rightfully, the Durbar Square, Swoyambhunath, Boudhanath and Pashupatinath have been enlisted as UNESCO World Heritage Monuments.
The older part of the city with its center in Asan, is a maze of tiny backstreets strewn with a temple or small shrine every 50 meters or so. 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 stupa of Boudhanath.
Retaining ancient traditions, Kathmandu is blessed not only by a Living Goddess but also by tantric priests and reincarnated Lamas who are revered for their spiritual prowess. The city is enriched by such living traditions and the spectacular religious processions that take to the streets every now and then with throngs of devotees seeking blessings. Major tourist attractions, these religious festivals are steeped in legend and are quite a spectacle with chariot processions, masked dancers often possessed by the spirits of deities and the inevitable ceremony of sacrifice.
Geological studies have shown that the Kathmandu valley indeed was once a massive lake. The three cities that were subsequently built in the valley: Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur have seen many battles and intrigues through the centuries and have benefited from the artistic rivalry that led to the building of opulent palaces, fabulous squares, artistic temples and other well-designed monuments. The richness of the cultural heritage has led UNESCO to designate three palace squares, two stupas and two temples in the valley as World Heritage Sites. Covering an area of 564sq.km.the valley is 1,348m. above sea level. The artistic brilliance of the Newar inhabitants is showcased by the exquisite wood carvings, the skillfully crafted statues and statuettes and the architectural marvels: the pagodas and stupas. In this valley, Buddhism and Hinduism have co-existed in religious harmony over the centuries, and many deities are common to both religions.
Asan: Once the center of old Kathmandu, Asan has six roads radiating in all directions. The three storied pagoda style Annapurna temple plays a pivotal role in most festivals held here and is dedicated to the Goddess of Grains. The other temple of importance is the two storied shrine dedicated to Lord Ganesh. Asan is still an important shopping center and one of the busiest markets places with shops selling anything from imported spices to kitchenware, fresh vegetables, Chinese goods, hardware and clothes.
Thamel: As the tourist district of Kathmandu, Thamel bustles with activity late into the night. It is a mere10-minute’s 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.
Dharahara: The soaring landmark of Kathmandu, the Dharahara tower is 50.5 m high and was built by the then Prime Minister Bhimsen Thapa in 1832. Once closed to the public, it was recently opened and anyone can go up after paying the entrance fee. The 360 deg. astounding view of the Kathmandu Valley is well worth the long climb up the spiraling staircase.
Balaju Gardens: 5 km north-west of Kathmandu is the Balaju Gardens, a quiet park ideal for relaxation. The park has a line of twenty-two 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 bathe. The garden has a swimming pool open to the public and the ponds beside the flower gardens are teeming with fishes. A replica of the stone image of Budanilkantha was built here specifically for the royal family as they were barred from visiting the real one.
Garden of Dreams: In close proximity with Thamel, the Garden of Dreams is part of the Kaiser Mahal, a palace built in 1895 by the then Prime Minister Bir SJB Rana. It was later inherited by his son Chandra SJB Rana who went on to create the landscaped garden. He eventually presented the remarkable garden to his son Kaiser SJB Rana as a wedding gift. A learned man with great aesthetic sense, Kaiser Shumsher turned the garden into a work of art. It included a fabulous lawn, wooded area where birds roosted, flower gardens and a pond for ducks. Within the Garden wall, Kaiser Shumsher created an exquisite ensemble of pavilions, fountains, decorative garden furniture, and added European features such as verandas, pergolas, balustrades, urns, and birdhouses. He erected six impressive freestanding pavilions, each dedicated to one of the six seasons of Nepal namely- Basanta (spring), Grishma (summer), Barkha (monsoon), Sharad (early autumn), Hemanta (late autumn) and Shishir (winter). However, after the death of Kaiser Shumsher in 1965, his family bequeathed some portion of the Kaiser Mahal including his garden and Kaiser Library to the government. After years of neglect the garden was in ruins. However, recently it was renovated and restored to its former glory. Today it is open to the public with a restaurant and bar to raise money for its upkeep.
Budhanilkantha: The largest of Vishnu’s stone statues, Budanikantha also known as ‘the Reclining Vishnu’ is located 8 km north of Kathmandu. Known as Budhanilkantha, the large impressive statue of lord Vishnu reclines on a bed of snakes known as ‘Nags’. Located in the center of a small pond, this 5th Century shrine attracts Hindu pilgrims and large crowds gather during the festivals of Haribodhini Ekadasi and Kartik Poornima.
Things to do around Kathmandu
Explore Kathmandu: The three cities of Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur are of historical importance and retain monuments of immense artistic and cultural value. There are temples everywhere you turn and dedicated to a host of gods and goddesses. The major tourist spots are the World Heritage Sites of Pashupatinath, Swoyambhunath, Bouddhanath, Changu Narayan and the three Durbar Squares of Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapaur.
Nepalese Art and Craft: Handicrafts are one of Nepal’s major exports chiefly metal craft and wood carvings. The Newar community is blessed with the ancient traditions of carving on stone, woods and metals, handed down from generation to generation. Some of the finest of Nepalese art and craft come in the form of wood carvings, metal statues, jewelry, the famous Gorkha knife-- the Khukuri, pottery, handmade rice paper, thangkas and pauvas, woolen carpets and garments.
Visit Hanuman Dhoka Palace: Worth a visit are the three museums housed in the sprawling historical Hanuman Dhoka Palace in central Kathmandu: Tribhuvan, Mahendra, and Birendra Museums, dedicated to the Shah rulers, they showcase the lifestyles of three generations of Shah Kings in the form of their offices, gym, hunting room, the clothes they wore and their hobbies. Also on display are a collection of artifacts dating back to their time on the throne. One of the highlights of visiting the old palace is the nine storied Basantapur section of the durbar with its exquisitely carved giant windows that lean out of the building.
National Museum: Located in Chauni, near Swoyambhu, the building that houses the National Museum was once the residence of Nepal’s most famous Prime Minister, Bhimsen Thapa of Dharahara fame. The museum has a fine collection of ancient Nepalese religious art, amazing weapons and costumes worn in battle in ancient times, a sword gifted by Napoleon III; of particular interest are the Tibetan leather cannon and locally built machine gun. The coin section has a fascinating collection of antique while the Buddhist section preserves thangkas from the 18th and 19th centuries and pieces of old ruins found during excavations.
Casinos: For a small town, Kathmandu has an unbelievable seven casinos with one more in the offing, all providing non-stop action of fun and games. Besides gaming, there is regular entertainment in the form of concerts and dance performances. Visit Casino Royale (Durbar Marg), Casino Nepal (Tahachal), Casino Anna (Durbar Marg), Casino Tara (Bouddha), Casino Rad (Lazimpat) or Casino Everest (New Baneshwor) Casino Shangri-la (Lazimpat). Roulette, Black Jack, Flush, Pontoon, Caribbean Stud are some of the games available.
Shop for souvenirs: Thamel is ideal for souvenir shopping as almost everything a tourist looks for can be found here. Nepali handicrafts, garments, painstakingly made thangkas, and endless varieties of gems and jewelry, religious artifacts, singing bowls, stone carvings, wood carvings, metal craft, Tibetan curios, coins, carpets, etc can all be purchased in Thamel.
Shop for Souvenirs: Thamel is ideal for souvenir shopping as almost everything a tourist looks for can be found here. Nepali handicrafts, garments, painstakingly made thangkas, and endless varieties of gems and jewelry, religious artifacts, singing bowls, stone carvings, wood carvings, metal craft, Tibetan curios, coins, carpets, etc. can all be purchased in Thamel.
Shop for Thangkas & Pauvas: Thangkas are Tibetan Buddhist scroll paintings although most are made by trained Nepali artists while pauvas are Nepali religious scroll paintings. These paintings are painstakingly made according to instructions that were laid down in the early days of scroll painting. The paintings have deep spiritual meaning and significance many of which have the Buddha as the main subject. Some thangkas are used for meditation purposes while others are used for prayer. Thangkas are painted on canvas and are either hung up or kept rolled up while not in use. A superbly made thangka can fetch thousands of dollars. Visit Thamel, Bouddha , Patan and Bhaktapur to shop for unique pieces of thangkas and pauvas.
Taste Dal Bhat and Tarkari and Chutney: the Nepali traditional Food: Every hotel, big or small, can offer you Dal Bhat Tarkari and Chutney, a typical Nepali meal.
Kathmandu's Tribhuvan International Airport (TIA) links the city to the outside world with direct international flights arriving from Doha, Dubai, Bangkok, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong, Osaka, Chengdu, Guangzhou, Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Karachi, Islamabad, Abu Dabi, Bahrain, Dhaka and other destinations. Domestic flights also take off from TIA including the popular mountain flights.
For the adventurous with time on their hands, the overland route is an exciting option. The highways link Kathmandu to popular destinations like Pokhara, Chitwan and Lumbini besides the bordering cities leading out to India like Birjung, Bhairawa, Kakarvitta, Nepalgunj and Mahendranagar and China via Kodari.