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There is something remarkable about transitioning from the noisy Tridevi Sadak outside to the serene indoors of the Garden of Dreams in Kathmandu, Nepal. You pause for a moment, wondering at the complete absence of noise, before forgetting the outside world completely. You are already in a tranquil dream.
The garden features three pavilions, multiple ponds and an amphitheatre among other things, and pays homage to the six seasons of Nepal. It was built in 1920 by Field Marshal Sir Kaiser Shamsher Jang Bahadur Rana, and restored after a period of neglect following his death in the 1960s. Entry to the garden is about QR7 per person, and a meal at the excellent Kaiser Café will set you back by about QR60-80. Make sure you go before night sets in, as lighting in the garden is minimal.
The garden also lies at the entrance of Thamel, a tourist hub. This, incidentally, is also the only place where you will find nightlife in Nepal’s capital. Establishments here are open till midnight and the government has plans to allow them to remain open 24 hours in future. The shops here sell a multitude of things, ranging from adventure gear, to trinkets, fabrics, carpets and even Kukri, a local Nepali knife with an inward-curved blade (makes for a great souvenir).
Haggling is the way to go in Nepal, especially if you are a tourist. Generally, it is a good idea to drive hard bargains and look around in multiple shops before settling to buy anything. Otherwise you may find that you paid double for something you thought you paid half for in a shop in Pokhara (another city in Nepal). Haggling itself is part of the charm of shopping in Nepal though, with eager sellers trying to sell you a ‘good deal’ because you are either their ‘first’ customer of the day, or the ‘last’. And even if you do end up paying a little more for something, the experience would have more than made up for it.
Since there is just one international airport in Nepal, the Tribhuvan International Airport, Kathmandu will be the starting and ending point of your journey. Therefore, it is better if you spend your first foray into Thamel getting to know it better, and save shopping for the end.
Nepal is home to four Unesco World Heritage Sites (WHS) that you would want to spend entire days in, just exploring. The seven monuments in Kathmandu together make up one of the WHS in the cultural category (the other being Lumbini, birthplace of Buddha). The other two, in natural category, are the Chitwan National Park and the Sagarmatha National Park.
The historical palaces of Kathmandu Durbar Square, Patan Durbar Square and Bhaktapur Durbar Square are three of the seven monuments that form part of the Kathmandu Valley World Heritage Site. The other four are Buddhist stupas Swayambhu and Boudanath, and Hindu temples Pashupathi and Changu Narayan.
Kathmandu Valley was once home to three ancient Newa kingdoms, who built the three palaces. And while all three are similar, you could easily end up spending a day at each of them. If you are pressed for time though, you will have to pick and choose.
Our hosts, the Nepal Tourism Board, had arranged for us to go to Bhaktapur on our arrival in Kathmandu, and the Kathmandu Darbar Square on our last day there.
Bhaktapur literally means the city of devotees and traces its roots back to the eighth century. At one point, between 12th and 15th century, Bhaktapur was the capital of Nepal. Until the 18th century, when Nepal was united, the 6.88 square-kilometre city was protected as an independent country.
Now described as a Living Museum, the city plays host to about 100,000 people, peasants who are mostly Hindus and Buddhists.
The main attraction of Bhaktapur is the Durbar Square, which houses a number of statues and temples showcasing a collection of stone and metal arts, wood carving, terracotta art and unique architecture. The Golden Gate in the Durbar Square is an intricately carved door that serves as an entrance to the main courtyard of the palace of fifty-five windows. The door is dominated by figures of Hindu goddess Kali and Garuda, a mythical humanoid bird and the mount of god Vishnu. The metal gate is also embellished with monsters and other mythical Hindu creatures.
While there is an information leaflet available at the entrance to the Durbar Square, the monuments themselves are not marked nor do they come with explanation signage. It is, therefore, wise to hire the services of a local guide, to understand the history and significance of the many monuments in the square.
Bhaktapur is also home to the tallest temple in Kathmandu Valley, Nyatapola (literally meaning five-story temple in Newari language). The temple was erected over five months by Nepali King Bhupatindra Malla in 1701 and 1702. Dedicated to Hindu goddess Siddhi Laxmi, the temple is a five-tiered symmetrical pagoda. On the first level, it is guarded by two strongmen, each about 10 times as strong as a normal person. The second level is guarded by two elephants, the third by two lions, the fourth by two griffins and the fifth and final level is guarded by tiger and lion goddesses Baghini and Singhini. The guards at each level are about ten times stronger than the previous level, and according to our guide, you must be stronger than them all to be able to enter the temple.
Do not forget to visit Pottery Square, which is about seven minutes on foot from the Durbar Square. You will find a variety of earthen pots and souvenirs, all made by hand. You also get a chance to see the potters at work, forming pots out of wet clay right in front of your eyes. It is a fascinating process, to be sure, and you may even get a chance to make a pot of your own, if you are willing to pay.
We were given about three hours in Bhaktapur, and found ourselves rushed and pressed for time. You would be wise to syphon off an entire day of your itinerary for Bhaktapur, especially if you are a fan of fine carvings and architecture.
On our return to Kathmandu, just before our flight, we got chance to spend a couple of hours at the Kathmandu Durbar Square, also known as the Hanuman-dhoka Durbar Square. The square gets its name from the stone image of Hindu monkey god Hanuman, who sits near the main entryway. Dhoka means door in Nepali.
We barely had enough time to walk around the square and squeeze in a visit to Kumari Bahal, a temple built in 1757 by Jaya Prakash Malla, the last Malla king to rule Kathmandu. The three-story temple is home to the Living Goddess Kumari, considered to be an incarnation of the goddess Taleju. She is also known as the Royal Kumari of Kathmandu, one of many living deities across Nepal.
Though she is a Hindu deity, the Kumari is chosen from a Buddhist family and has to meet strict criteria of beauty and brains to be chosen. She is chosen at a young age and remains a Kumari until she hits puberty, when she is allowed to go back to a regular life. Rules governing a Kumari’s life vary. For instance, while the living deity in Bhaktapur is allowed to attend school, the Royal Kumari of Kathmandu gets her education through private tutors.
Our week-long trip to Nepal started and ended in Kathmandu, and in between we visited Pokhara and the Chitwan National Park, which will form part of the next two articles in this series.
Before leaving for the airport, we had enough time to cram in one last-minute purchase — three Kukris that the shopkeeper assured would cost twice as much in Thamel. We did not get a chance to test his word though, as we were already late for our flight, which, ironically, itself got delayed — the vagaries of a lone international airport.
SACRED: The Royal Kumari of Kathmandu, during a recent festival. Tourists are not allowed to snap pictures of her while in the courtyard. The restriction is lifted when she comes out of Kumari Bahal to attend festivals. Right: THE FLYING BEAST: Half-human half-bird, the statue of Garuda at the Kathmandu Durbar Square.