Raj had arranged for a driver and a local guide to take us around Kathmandu, so after breakfast we jumped into the car and went on our way to tour some famous sites within the valley. I say valley, and not city, because I learnt today that what everyone refers to as “Kathmandu” is actually a huge valley (almost equivalent to the size of Singapore, apparently!) that consists of three districts; namely Kathmandu District, Bhaktapur District, and Lalitpur District. Given the area’s rich history from ancient civilizations of Asia, and its large influence of the Hindu and Buddhist religions, it comes as no surprise that the valley proudly houses seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Baba has turned it into his passion and hobby to try and visit as many UNESCO World Heritage Sites as possible, so to have this many sites located within our reach whilst being here in Kathmandu will definitely help him tick off more items on his checklist!
The seven sites are the Kathmandu Durbar Square, Patan (Lalitpur) Durbar Square, Bhaktapur Durbar Square, Swayambhunath Stupa, Boudhanath Stupa, Pashupatinath Temple, and Changu Narayan Temple. Out of those, we managed to visit four during our short 1-day tour today. It was nice to have our guide around to explain and inform us of the background, myth and history of all the sites we visited, but I have to admit there were points where I found him just the slightest bit annoying – nothing personal against him, I guess it was more me and my own preference of how and what I experience when I travel. I have not been on a guided, time-limited tour in ages, and the idea of being limited to following a guide on a particular trail felt a bit stifling when all I wanted was to wander around aimlessly to absorb the sights and atmosphere. True, there are pros and cons – guides tend to know a particular area well and will take you along the ‘highlights’, skipping the unimportant ‘lowlights’. But then sometimes it is amongst the untrodden paths that you sight or find something interesting, something real and un-touristy. All the sites that we went to were huge complexes, with many smaller buildings, paths, nooks and crannies that called my curiosity, but every time I wander off slightly the guide would herd me back towards him, persistent on telling us the factoids of the location at hand. Don’t get me wrong, I loved hearing about the history and myths that came with each place we visited, but it felt a bit rigid that we had to stand in one spot in a large, beautiful open space that just begged to be explored, whilst we listened to the guide talk. In the end it made me feel rude, eyes and mind wandering around all the beautiful structures in the areas, when I should be paying attention to the guide instead. I figured maybe it would have been better if he told us the stories and information before we got to the sites – there was plenty time in the car, driving from one location to another, to fit these in. He would have had my full attention then, I can ask questions without worrying if his answer would be a long one and waste more of my exploration time. That way once we got to the destination, he could just fill us in on the dos and don’ts, and then let us roam free to soak everything in. This is, of course, just my personal preference 🙂 I do have to say though that he was a very good guide, with a lot of local knowledge and experience, so there was hardly anything to complain about really. And so I just tolerated it all, taking his persistence as just being passionate about his job, and made the most of the visits as best as I can!
1) Swayambhunath Stupa
Our first stop was in Swayambhunath, believed to be one of the oldest religious sites in Nepal. The entire complex is made up of various shrines, temples, and a large stupa. There is also a Tibetan monastery on the site. Stupas are generally a Buddhist religious site, but Swayambhunath is also frequented by Hindus who regard it as holy too. The complex also goes by the name “Monkey Temple” due to the large numbers of monkeys living amongst it, and these monkeys are considered holy.
I gathered a nice handful of interesting information about Buddhism that I didn’t know about before, upon visiting this site. For example, the meanings behind each different pose of Buddha statues, and the use of prayer wheels. It was a good start to the day.
2) Patan Durbar Square
From within the Kathmandu District, we then drove on to Lalitpur to for the next World Heritage site. Patan Durbar Square is another large complex, which forms the nucleus of Lalitpur and houses many shrines, temples and historical buildings that emerged in the days of the Malla Kingdom. The Ancient Royal Palace of the Malla Kings is housed within the courtyards of this square.
Walking around the area, your eyes cannot help but be somewhat hypnotically drawn towards all the highly intricate, beautiful carvings that adorn the buildings – precious heritage of the iconic Newari architecture you see throughout historical sites in Kathmandu Valley.
3) Boudhanath Stupa
Our third visit was also our pit-stop for lunch. Bhoudhanath – considered to be amongst the holiest sites in the world for Buddhists and Hindus – is the site of one of the largest stupas in the world. According to our guide, Buddha’s right leg bone (which bone in particular, I was not told) is buried deep within this stupa; a fact that I have not been able to confirm as true just yet.
Colourful buildings linked side-to-side fill the entire perimeter of the massive stupa. The ground-level floors are chock-full with shops selling tapestries, paintings, jeweleries, trinkets and souvenirs to cater to the thousands of visitors and tourists who come to the site daily. The upper floors mainly consist of restaurants and cafes offering balcony- and rooftop-seating. It was in one of these restaurants that my dad and I enjoyed a nice and relaxing lunch on a rooftop, giving us a wonderful view of the stupa in the center of the complex, and the surrounding mountains standing at the edges of Kathmandu Valley.
After lunch we circled the complex for a closer look of the stupa and some temples within the area, taking note to respect the custom of walking around the stupa in a clockwise direction. A few Tibetan Buddhist nuns and monks can be seen offering prayers around the site, due to the many Tibetan monasteries and nunneries that are located around the area.
4) Pashupatinath Temple
After visiting a couple of Buddhist religious sites, our last and final stop of the day brought us to a Hindu temple – and not just any temple at that. Pashupatinath is regarded as the most sacred of all the temples of Lord Shiva, and is also the oldest Hindu temple in Kathmandu.
The temple is nestled amongst numerous other shrines and monuments within a large area that runs alongside the Bagmati River, a river that is considered sacred by the Hindus. The holiness of the river makes its riverbank the chosen cremation site for the religion. I had already noticed smoke billowing up into the air as we entered the compounds, but it did not initially occur to me that this was from the cremations taking place there. Not until my guide asked us if we wanted to go take a look inside the cremation area itself, which my dad and I politely declined as we weren’t sure what to expect. Nevertheless, curiosity got the better of me and I could not resist a quick peek above the walls surrounding the cremation site, and was (at the risk of sounding culturally insensitive, in which case I shall apologize for in advance) slightly aghast to find that the cremations were actually being carried out in the open. I have never been to a cremation ceremony before, but was always under the impression that these were normally done in a closed space. I was quietly thankful we didn’t say yes to the offer of going into the cremation area.
Instead we walked across a bridge and crossed to the other side of the river. I then saw a big group of people gathered by the riverside, and realized that they were watching the cremations being carried out from across the water. I was still a bit torn between curiosity and apprehension, but in the end I walked towards the group anyway and proceeded to observe the goings-on. Perhaps the idea of having some distance and a large body of water separating myself and the cremation site made it a little bit more tolerable for me to be there. Still, a whole mix of emotions came over me as I observed the row of fires burning human remains along the riverbank; awe, fear, sadness, curiosity, melancholy… There was even one ceremony that had just begun to take place, with a large group of mourners surrounding the deceased. I watched as a Hindu priest led the grieving family members in prayer and rites of the cremation. My guide told me that typically the eldest son in the family has to be the one who initiates the fire by placing a flame on the mouth of the deceased. I found this somewhat alarming, but could not tear my eyes away. Contemplative thoughts of life, death, the after-life, religion, culture and humanity in general ran around in my head. It seemed a lot to take in within a small space of time. I found it all to be morbidly mesmerizing.
The eye-opening experience of witnessing an open cremation made this site the most memorable one for me that day.
On the bright side, we also encountered upon a few accommodating Sadhus (Hindu monks) around the temple who agreed to let us take photos of them with funny poses! One of the shots is now amongst my favourite travel photos I have 🙂
More pictures on my Razzi page!
Soundtrack: Harlem Shakes – Carpetbaggers
Location: Room, Hotel Moonlight, Kathmandu, Nepal
Random thought: Why is it always the good series that gets cancelled?