It is easy to be overwhelmed by the seemingly uncountable monuments in the Kathmandu Durbar Square. The house of the Living Goddess (Kumari Ghar), the ferocious Kal Bhairab, the red monkey god and hundreds of exotic woodcarvings are a few examples of the sights at the Square. The buildings over here are the greatest achievements of the Malla dynasty, and they resulted from the great rivalry between the three palaces: Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur. The Valley was divided among the children of Yakshya Malla. For visitors and for the Nepalese, it was serendipitous that they, and later their offspring, began an artistic warfare trying to outdo each other in splendid constructions. Kings copied everything their neighbors built in an even grander style. A visitor who wanders around the Square will see a round temple in the pagoda architectural style, which is the temple of Goddess Taleju (legend has it that she played dice with King Jaya Prakash Malla), and an image of Shiva and Parbati sitting together among the many monuments.
The Square teems with colorful life. Vendors sell vegetables, curios, flutes, and other crafts around the Kasthamandap rest house. This rest house is said to have been built with the wood of a single tree and is the source from which Kathmandu Valley got its name. Nearby are great drums which used to be beaten to announce royal decrees. All woodcarvings, statues and architecture in this area are exceptionally fine and Kathmandu Durbar Square is among the most important sights for travelers to see. The complex also houses the Tribhuvan Museum that carries the mementoes of different Shah Kings.
The history of the Valley, according to the legend, begins with Swayambhu, or 'the self-existent'. In times uncharted by history, Bodhisatwa Manjusri came across a beautiful lake during his travel. He saw a lotus that emitted brillant light at the lake's center, so he cut a gorge in the southern hill and drained the water to worship the lotus. Man settled on the bed of the lake and called it the Kathmandu Valley. From then on, the hilltop of the self-existent Lord has been a holy place.
Swayambhu's light was covered in time because few could bear its intensity. By the thirteenth century, after many layers were added to the orginal structure that enveloped the Lord's power, a dome-like shape was acquired. The stupa's central mast was damaged and was subsequently replaced at that time. Peripheral source of power was discovered on the hilltop as well and stupas, temples, and rest houses were built to honour them. Images of important deities, both Buddhist and Hindu, were also installed. Today, age-old statues and shrines dot the stupa complex. Behind the hilltop is a temple dedicated to Manjusri or Saraswati - the goddess of learning.
Swayambhu is, perhaps, the best place to observe religious harmony in Nepal. The stupa is among the most ancient in this part of the world, and its worshippers are diverse ranging from Newars to nuns, Tibetan monks and Brahmin priests to lay Buddhists and Hindus. The largest image of the Sakyamuni Buddha in Nepal is in a monastery next to the stupa. Other monasteries over here have huge prayer wheels, Buddhist paintings, and special butter lamps which may be lit after presenting monetary offerings.
Swayambhu is a major landmark of the Valley and looks like a beacon below the Nagarjun hill. It provides an excellent view of the Kathmandu Valley. Devotees have climbed the steps on the eastern side for centuries. Statues of Lord Buddha, mini stupas, monasteries and monkeys make the climb to Swayambhu - which is fairly steep - worthwhile. But for someone who is pressed for time, the western road allows you to get off your transport almost at the base of the stupa.
Boudhanath is among the largest stupas in South Asia and it has become the focal point of Tibetan Buddhism in Nepal. The white mound looms thirty-six meters overhead. The stupa is located on the ancient trade route to Tibet and Tibetan merchants rested and offered prayers over here for many centuries. When refugees entered Nepal from Tibet in the 1950s, many of them decided to live around the Bouddhanath area. They established many gompas and the 'Little Tibet' of Nepal was born. It is still the best place in the valley to observe Tibetan lifestyle. Monks walk around in maroon robes. Tibetans walk with prayer wheels in their hands, and the ritual of prostration is presented to Buddha as worshippers circumambulate the stupa on their hands and knees, bowing down to their lord.
Many people believe that Bouddhanath was constructed in the fifth century, but definite proof is lacking. The stupa is said to entomb the remains of a Kasyap sage who is venerable both to the Buddhists and the Hindus. One legend has it that a woman requested a valley king for a donation amounting to the ground required to build a stupa. She said that she needed the land covered by one buffalo's skin and her wish was granted by the King. She cut a buffalo skin into thin stips and circled off a fairly large clearing. The king had no choice but to give her the land.
The Bouddha area is a visual feast. Colorful Thangkas, Tibetan jewellery, hand-woven carpets, masks and khukuri knives are sold in the surrounding stalls. Smaller stupas are located at the base. Gompa monasteries, curio shops and restaurants surround Bouddhanath. Conveniently situated restaurants with roof-top patios provide good food and excellent views of Bouddhanath.
Pashupatinath is the holiest Hindu pilgrimage destination in Nepal. There are linga images of Shiva along with statues, shrines and temples dedicated to other deities in the complex. A temple dedicated to Shiva existed at this site in 879 AD. However, the present temple was built by King Bhupatindra Malla in 1697. A gold-plated roof, silver doors and woodcarvings of the finest quality decorate the pagoda construction. Guheswari Temple, restored in 1653 AD, represents the female 'force'. It is dedicated to Satidevi, Shiva's first wife, who gave up her life in flames during her father's fire ritual.
A circuit of the Pashupati area takes visitors past a sixth century statue of Buddha, an eighteenth century statue of Brahma- the creator and numerous other temples. Some other places to visit are Rajrajeswari Temple, built in 1407, Kailash that has lingas that are more than 1,400 years old, Gorakhnath Temple and the courtyard of Biswarup. There are rows of Shiva shrines, and Hindu pilgrims from all over South Asia worship Shiva, the Lord of Destruction.
The Bagmati River flows close by and the Arya Ghat cremation ground is located here. We strongly advise photographers not to take photos of cremations and of bereaved families. Sadhus and sages who follow the lifestyle of Shiva, may be seen covered in ashes and lion-skin. Only those of Hindu faith may enter the main Pashupatinath courtyard.
Thamel area has recently emerged as the most popular tourist area of Kathmandu. Thamel is a 15 to 20 minutes walk from the center of Kathmandu. Thamel has clean narrow streets full of mushrooming lodges and hotels for budget travelers. Restaurants, bars and other tourist oriented shops can be seen bustling with activities.
Also known as Bhimsen Stambha (Tower), Dharahara is a 50.5-meter tower built by Prime Minister Bhimsen Thapa in 1832. Situated near the General Post Office, the tower is one of Kathmandu's best-known monuments. From the top of the tower, one has a panoramic view of the whole Kathmandu Valley.