A Little Culture… Exploring Kathmandu’s Stupas, Temples, and Culture

A travel guide on what to see and do in Kathmandu, NepalThe early morning light glinted off buildings of Kathmandu as our plane circled the Kathmandu Valley waiting to land. After two months exploring India, I’ve moved into Nepal (full travel guide here). I plan to take a much slower pace to life and travels for the next nine weeks. In India, I met my cousin in Mumbai and then rode the trains north for two months. It was a lot of energy to move that fast and far. But, oh the sites we saw. India is a gorgeous country and I can only expect that Nepal — in the foothills of the Himalayas — will continue that theme. The big part of my travels through Nepal is volunteering at a monastery in the Kathmandu Valley. Beyond that, I will use weekends to continue exploring Kathmandu.

Before volunteering, the organization helped me tour the major sites and learn the landscape of the city. Holy smokes there is a lot of history in Kathmandu. And so many things to see and sights to visit. I am becoming nonchalant about the sheer craziness of traffic in South Asia. When I landed in Bangkok all of those months ago it overwhelmed me to see the chaos and noise and to understand so little of how it flowed. Now, however, there are rules to the chaos and underlying codes of conduct that were so foreign. My volunteer organization had arranged a taxi to whisk me into Thamel, the backpacker area of Kathmandu and the place from which I would begin learning this new country. Because my cousin and I paid for an all-inclusive volunteer program, the hotel and accommodations for four weeks are mostly covered.

Even better, as I spent the days exploring the squares and stupas of Nepal, I also spent four days in a Nepali language bootcamp. These lessons gave me a crash course in the most basic verbs and commands that I will need when working at the monastery and navigating the country.

Boudhanath Stupa in Kathmandu

What to Expect in Kathmandu

Our first three days were jam packed and organized around our two-hour Nepali lessons. After morning lessons, we visited the major tourist spots in Kathmandu. One of the first things I loved about Nepal is the pace. Nepal shares some cultural nuances with its southern neighbor, India, but without the intensity. The Nepali people are fun and friendly, and each shop was delighted to help me practice my new Nepali. The only comparison I can think of is the difference between Laos and Vietnam.

One of the best bonuses, is the casual acceptance of tourism. India is huge, and there are some cities off the beaten path that rarely see tourism. This isn’t the case for Nepal. Because of the number of travelers hiking the Annapurna Circuit and Everest, foreigners are often given no more than a passing glance. In India, that wasn’t the case. From Gandhi’s ashram to the Taj Mahal, the men and women stared, touched, and followed me. Nepal is a welcome change of pace.

Each section of town has a different vibe. While many backpackers stay in Thamel (and this is where I passed much of my time since the volunteer offices are located in Thamel), other travelers choose to stay deeper in the heart of Kathmandu, where the major historic sites are within walking distance.

What to See and Do in Kathmandu

what is worth seeing in KathmanduMy Nepali language teachers acted as my tour guide, they were sister pair, Pramila and Urmila. Together, the sisters structured my days to see the best of Kathmandu each afternoon. The goal was to have us understand the culture, history, and language before heading deeper into the rural areas of the Kathmandu Valley. On this round the world trip, I’ve made a point to collect UNESCO World Heritage sites — these are spots that are natural or manmade sites provide an important contribution to the world’s history and development. The Kathmandu Valley is home to seven UNESCO sites: Hanuman Dhoka, Patan and Bhaktapur, Swayambhunath and Boudhanath, and Pashupati and Changu Narayan.

Hanuman Dhoka (Durbar Square)
This a large square that sits opposite the series of temples and buildings that were once used by royalty. This area was built throughout a large swath of Nepal’s history, developing between the 12th and 18th centuries. Durbar Square functioned as the seat of royalty for thousands of years — the nation’s kings were crowned here and ruled from these former palaces. Three separate squares are known collectively as Durbar Square, but each used to serve a different function. Now, some palaces and buildings serve as museums, others were rebuilt in the 20th century. Through it all, you can explore the square and make a scavenger hunt of finding the many images of Hanuman, the monkey god.

Although much of the square is still filled with history and beauty, many major structures were reduced to rubble during the devastating, tragic 2015 earthquake that struck the Kathmandu Valley. But there is still so much history and beauty to see. If you have the time, I recommend packing a lunch from your favorite cafe, then sit on the steps like the locals watch the pigeons, people, and sadhus wander the square.

temples in durbar square kathmandu

What to do in Hanuman Dhoka

The Kumari Ghar
Kumari Living Goddess *taken by Flickr user bipin_ss1The part of the square I found most fascinating is the set of elaborately carved doors on the Kumari Ghar. The Royal Kumari of Kathmandu is a living goddess and it’s worth researching to see if you’ll be in Kathmandu during one of her handful of appearances. The story of the Kumari leaves me equal parts fascinated and baffled. The Kumari is believed to literally be a living incarnation of the Goddess Devi. This living goddess lives in the temple from the time she is selected as the next incarnation of Devi. Each new Kumari is chosen as a three- to five-year-old from group of girls who share similar characteristics.  To become the next embodiment of the Goddess, the girls have to meet a slew of restrictions that range from the date, hour, and minute of their birth to physical features like eye shape, skin color, and voice.

When a new Kumari is needed (when the current Kumari first menstruates), the handful of young girls that meet the tight restrictions are then put through one further test to decide which one is the actual incarnation of the Hindu Goddess Devi (the universal goddess). Each child is locked in a dark room where they hear scary noises and see flickering lights and watch gruesome animal heads and scary scenes. The theory is that the little girl who shows no fear — or the least amount of fear — must be the Goddess.

That chosen one is then taken to live in the Kumari Ghar with her family. She is only allowed to leave the temple 13 times a year for religious festivals. As a westerner, this entire story struck me as stranger than fiction when Pramila shared the history and details. It’s a unique and small part of the city’s quirkiness, culture, and history, and it’s worth reading up on the Kumari if you’re interested. One former Kumari wrote a memoir about what it was like to grow up under all of that attention and power. That book is hard to find, however, so your best bet for more history on the Kumari is The Living Goddess, a fascinating, painstakingly researched account of the history of the Kumari. It’s recent, and it serves as an anthropological study of the interplay between this goddess and the Nepali religion.

history of the kumari ghar, kathmandu

Swayambhunath (Monkey Temple)
On our section afternoon sightseeing in Kathmandu, Pramila and her sister brought me to Swayambhunath, which is also known as Monkey Temple because of the hundreds of monkeys that live in the surrounding trees. Like Durbar Square, the Monkey Temple is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. As one of the holiest sites in Nepal, the Swayambhunath complex is just beautiful. The Stupa is set high up on a hill (pilgrims and visitors ascend 365 steps to get to the top. From there, the Stupa stands tall and proud overlooking the Kathmandu Valley. Once you stumble up the last of the 365 steps, a massive gleaming white dome looms ahead. From the center of the dome blooms a spire. On all four sides of the spire is the painted image of the wise and all-seeing eyes of Lord Buddha (the middle symbol is the third eye). When you visit, be aware that the monkeys will aggressively steal food from your hands!

This is views of the Kathmandu Valley from Swayambhunath:

Swayambhunath (Monkey Temple)

Flags at Swayambhunath

Boudhanath Stupa
Boudhanath is also a UNESCO site and is thought to be the largest Stupa in existence, and it’s the largest spherical stupa in Nepal. Although Boudhanath was damaged during the 2015 earthquake, restoration efforts quickly restored this structure to it’s previous glory and stature. Boudhanath is the center of Buddhism and the stupa is simply enormous. The Buddha eyes also peer from this stupa and look outward, watching over the Kathmandu Valley. This stupa is located in a popular area of the city. Boudhanath was one on the ancient trade route between Tibet and India, and as the Tibetans fled their country in the 1950s, many followed that same route and decided to make a home near this holy spot. And this stupa is so important that it is said to entomb Kassapa Buddha, the 27th of the 29 named Buddhas.

Boudhanath Stupa in Kathmandu

Boudhanath Stupa in Kathmandu

Pashupatinath Temple
This is a sacred site for the Hindu and it’s not to be taken on a lark. As a Westerner, consider observing the temple from the other side of the Bagmati River. Also a UNESCO site, the position across the river allows you to respectfully watch from above as they regularly perform ritual cremations in the ghats on the river’s edge. Pashupatinath is a sprawling complex as well, so the bird’s eye view on the temples and ashrams is unique to other temples you will visit in Kathmandu. But it’s all worth seeing up close to, so eventually head across the river to see the images and structures.

The burning ghats at Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu Holy ghats burn at Kathmandu's Pashupatinath Temple

All of these sites are right in the Kathmandu Valley and are believed to relate not only to the formation and development of the Valley, but each one is directly tied to the country’s Buddhist and Hindu spirituality. The mix of religions in this part of the world is unique and quite harmonious. One of the temple complexes that I visited featured a stupa, a Hindu structure, and even some influences from nearby India. Three types of architecture and multiple religious beliefs all shared the same place and all of the worshippers commingle without conflict. It’s a fascinating mix of cultures and religions that inhabits every heartbeat of Nepali culture and society.

Prayer wheels spinning in Kathmandu

Prayer flags from the view at Swayambhunath temple

And one gorgeous nuance to the entire experience of sightseeing in Kathmandu is the presence of Tibetan prayer flags. The lines of flags cascade like colorful waterfalls from temple peaks and treetops. There is a good reason these flags start in high places, too. Each flag on the string contains a full mantra. When the wind blows through the prayer flags it carries the mantra throughout the world bringing peace and harmony. I just love this idea. The concept is simple and the faith behind these prayer flags makes it all the more beautiful. Likewise, the Tibetan prayer wheels inside the various temples run on a similar concept. Inscribed on each prayer wheel is a series of mantras and prayers. When you spin all of the prayer wheels in succession, you are sending one complete prayer into world. I love the universality of many of these beliefs. The religion aims at gently spreading peace throughout the world as well as using their prayer and spirituality to better their own lives, too.

Quick Tips: Exploring Kathmandu

Visas and Getting There: If you’re in India, airlines fly many times a day between Delhi and Kathmandu — this is definitely the easiest way to enter. There are overland options too, but Nepal is mountainous and not every border crossing will effectively carry you to Kathmandu. For visas, entering Kathmandu is mostly easy —  it’s visa-on-arrival for US citizens.  The ATMS are one catch, however, because the airport ATM is never working. I had learned my lesson about carrying backup travel cash in Laos, so I always  and always carried cash stashed away in different spots in my packs. On arrival, I had US $60 in cash, but the three-month visa cost $100 US. Since the ATM was broken, that presented an interesting issue. I ended up bumming money off of a couple of people nearby who I then met up with in Thamel to return their funds!

nepal travel tipsPlan Your Trip Online: I have a full Nepal Travel Guide on the site. This page details sights, history and culture, recommended reading, and everything essential that you should know before you go.

Best Guidebook: I like using Lonely Planets mostly because I am super familiar with the layouts, they have a good transportation section, and what they lack in history and insight I can easily find online!

Stay in a Nice Spot: Consider Hotel Mums Home on a budget, Hotel Tibet for midrange, and Hotel Yak & Yeti for a nice place from which to organize your search.

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2 Responses to A Little Culture… Exploring Kathmandu’s Stupas, Temples, and Culture

  1. marina k. villatoro June 17, 2009 at 3:56 pm #

    I read a whole thing about these goddess, They end up having the most horrible lives, because they’re ripped away from their families, when they return they have no social skills, no one wants to marry them and they end up all alone. it’s human torture if you ask me.

  2. Niki June 11, 2009 at 10:21 am #

    Wow, those prayer flags are beautiful. I love the idea as well behind them.

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