The Kathmandu Valley, located in Nepal, lies at the crossroads of ancient civilizations of Asia, and has at least 130 important monuments, including several places of pilgrimage for Hindus and Buddhists. There are seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites within this valley. The city of Kathmandu is named after a structure in Durbar Square called Kaasthamandap. This unique temple, also known as Maru Satal, was built in 1596 by King Laxmi Narsingh Malla. The entire structure contains no iron nails or supports and is made entirely from wood. Legend has it that the timber used for this two story pagoda was obtained from a single tree. Kathmandu is also known as the City of Temples. The Kathmandu Valley may have been inhabited as early as 300 BC, since the oldest known objects in the valley date to a few hundred years BC.
Kathmandu Durbar Square
Pashupatinath is a Hindu temple on the banks of the Bagmati River in Deopatan, a village 3 km northwest of Kathmandu. It is dedicated to a manifestation of Shiva called Pashupati (Lord of Animals). It attracts thousands of pilgrims each year and has become well known far beyond the Kathmandu Valley. The temple is barred to non-Hindus, but a good view of the temple can be had from the opposite bank of the river.
Pashupati Temple stands in the center of the town of Deopatan, in the middle of an open courtyard. It is a square, two-tiered pagoda temple built on a single-tier plinth, and it stands 23.6 meters above the ground. Richly ornamented gilt and silver-plated doors are on all sides. On both sides of each door are niches of various sizes containing gold-painted images of guardian deities. Inside the temple is a narrow ambulatory around the sanctum. The sanctum contains a one-meter high linga with four faces representing Pashupati, as well as images of Vishnu, Surya, Devi and Ganesh. The priests of Pashupatinath are called Bhattas and the chief priest is called Mool Bhatt or Raval. The chief priest is answerable only to the King of Nepal and reports to him on temple matters on a periodic basis.
The Kathmandu Durbar Square is the religious and social heart of Kathmandu’s old city and is a complex of palaces, temples, shrines, statues and courtyards built between the 12th and 18th centuries by the ancient kings of Nepal. Durbar Square used to be the residence of the Nepali royal family and administrators. The ancient palace lies in the heart of the city and consists of the huge Royal Palace, Hanuman Dhoka, with temples inside as well as outside dating from the 15th to the 18th centuries. The palace is named after Hanuman, the monkey god, as a stone statue of Hanuman is placed right next to the main entrance protecting the whole palace.
Swayambhunath is an ancient religious complex atop a hill in the Kathmandu Valley, west of Kathmandu city. It is also known as the Monkey Temple as there are holy monkeys living in parts of the temple in the north-west. For the Buddhist Newars, Swayambhunath occupies a central position, as it is the most sacred among Buddhist pilgrimage sites. For Tibetans and followers of Tibetan Buddhism, it second only to Boudhanath. The sleepy, all-seeing Buddha eyes that stare out from the top of the temple have become the quintessential symbol of Nepal.
When this temple was founded about 2,000 years ago, Kathmandu Valley was filled with a great lake. According to Buddhist legend, a single perfect lotus grew in the center of the lake. When the bodhisattva Manjusri drained the lake with a slash of his sword, the lotus flower settled on top of the hill and magically transformed into the stupa. Thus it is known as the Self-Created Stupa. The earliest written record of the Swayambhunath Stupa's existence is a 5th-century stone inscription, but scholars believe there was probably a shrine here as early as the 1st century. Even before that, it is likely that animist rites took place on this hill. Swayambhunath is one of Nepal's oldest Buddhist temples and it has an ancient atmosphere, especially when one approaches on foot with the pilgrims. The primary approach to the temple is from the eastern side, where 365 ancient steps lead up the steep forested hillside. The base is about a 20-minute walk from the center of Kathmandu. It is the most memorable way for any visitor to experience the stupa, however, an alternative is to drive to the west side where there are only a few steps to climb to the top.
At the bottom of the eastern stairway is a brightly painted gate containing a huge Tibetan prayer wheel nearly 12 feet tall. It takes two people to turn it and a bell sounds during each revolution. Around the gate are dozens more smaller wheels. Devotees spin prayer wheels to release prayers and mantras to heaven - visitors are welcomed to do so as well. The staircase is presided over by three painted Buddha statues from the 17th century near the base (women perform prostrations before them in the early morning); another group further up are from the early 20th century. Strewn along the staircase are numerous mani stones, inscribed with the Tibetan mantra Om mani padme hum (hail to the jewel in the lotus).
The Swayambhunath complex consists of a stupa and a variety of shrines and temples, some dating back to the Licchavi period. A Tibetan monastery, museum and library are more recent additions. Much of Swayambhunath's iconography comes from the Vajrayana tradition of Newar Buddhism. However, the complex is also an important site for Buddhists of many schools, and is also revered by Hindus. Numerous Hindu followers are known to have paid their homage to the temple, including Pratap Malla, the powerful king of Kathmandu, who is responsible for the construction of the eastern stairway in the 17th century.
Boudhanath Stupa is the largest stupa in Nepal and the holiest Tibetan Buddhist temple outside Tibet. It is the center of Tibetan culture in Kathmandu and rich in Buddhist symbolism. The stupa is located in the town of Boudha, on the eastern outskirts of Kathmandu. Boudhanath was built in the 14th century after the Mughal invasions; various interesting legends are told regarding the reasons for its construction. After the arrival of thousands of Tibetans following the 1959 Chinese invasion, the temple has become one of the most important centers of Tibetan Buddhism. Today it remains an important place of pilgrimage and meditation for Tibetan Buddhists and local Nepalis, as well as a popular tourist site.
From above, Boudhanath Stupa looks like a giant mandala, or diagram of the Buddhist cosmos. And as in all Tibetan mandalas, four of the Dhyani Buddhas mark the cardinal points, with the fifth, Vairocana, enshrined in the center (in the white hemisphere of the stupa). The five Buddhas also personify the five elements (earth, water, fire, air and wind), which are represented in the stupa's architecture.
There are other symbolic numbers here as well: the nine levels of Boudhanath Stupa represent the mythical Mt. Meru, center of the cosmos; and the 13 rings from the base to the pinnacle symbolize the path to enlightenment, or "Bodhi" - hence the stupa's name. At the bottom, the stupa is surrounded by an irregular 16-sided wall, with frescoes in the niches. In addition to the Five Dhyani Buddhas, Boudhanath Stupa is closely associated with the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, whose 108 forms are depicted in sculptures around the base. The mantra of Avalokiteshvara - Om Mani Padme Hum - is carved on the prayer wheels beside the images of Avalokiteshvara around the base of the stupa.
The base of the stupa consists of three large platforms, decreasing in size. These platforms symbolize Earth, and here you can look out at the mountains while listening to the chants of the devout doing kora, walking around the stupa praying. Next come two circular plinths supporting the hemisphere of the stupa, symbolizing water. As at Swayabunath, Boudhanath is topped with a square tower bearing the omnipresent Buddha eyes on all four sides. Instead of a nose is a question-mark-type symbol that is actually the Nepali character for the number 1, symbolizing unity and the one way to reach enlightenment-through the Buddha's teachings. Above this is the third eye, symbolizing the wisdom of the Buddha.
The square tower is topped by a pyramid with 13 steps, representing the ladder to enlightenment. The triangular shape is the abstract form for the element of fire. At the top of the tower is a gilded canopy, the embodiment of air, with above it a gilded spire, symbolic of ether and the Buddha Vairocana. Prayer flags tied to the stupa flutter in the wind, carrying mantras and prayers heavenward.
Patan Durbar Square
Patan Durbar Square complex is perhaps the most photographed of the three durbar squares. Located in the heart of Patan city, this was once the palace of the kings of Patan. The square is a display of Newari architecture which reached its pinnacle during the reign of the Malla kings who were great builders and patrons of the arts. The palace has three main courtyards: the central, and the oldest, is Mul Chowk. To the west of the complex are a dozen free-standing temples of various sizes and architectural styles. Masterpieces such as the Krishna Temple, Bhimsen Temple, The Golden Temple of Hiranya Varna Mahavira, and Sundari Chowk mark the artistic brilliance of the Newar craftsmanship of that era. The Sundari Chowk, with the sunken bath of Tusha Hiti, showcases exquisite woodcarvings, as well as stone and metal sculpture. Like the other palaces, Patan Durbar Square also houses a temple dedicated to Taleju Bhawani.
Bhaktapur Durbar Square
The most subdued of the durbar squares is Bhaktapur Durbar Square in the center of Bhaktapur city. Showcasing architecture that dates back to the Malla period, the square is the most charming in the city, with wide open spaces that are off limits to vehicular traffic. In Bhaktapur you will see some of the finest medieval arts of Nepal. Of particular interest are: the Golden Gate, Fifty-Five Windows and the beautiful statue of King Bhupatindra Malla mounted on a giant stone pillar. The Golden Gate was erected by King Ranjit Malla as the entrance to the main courtyard of the Fifty-Five Window Palace. The Palace of Fifty-Five Windows was built during the reign of King Yakshya Malla in 1427 A.D. and was remodeled by King Bhupatindra Malla in the 17th Century. The palace’s art gallery has a fascinating collection of ancient manuscripts, thangkas, centuries-old stone sculpture, antique paintings that belong to the Hindu and Buddhist traditions of various periods.
Phewa Lake, the second largest lake in the kingdom, is the center of all attractions in Pokhara. This enchanting lake is an idyllic playground. Brightly painted wooden boats and sailboats are available for boat rides. The eastern shoreline of Phewa Lake, popularly known as Baidam, consists of a seemingly endless strip of lodges, restaurants, bookstores and souvenir shops. The the splendid view of the mountains, especially when the still water reflects the peaks, creating a double image, is simply breathtaking. Pokhara has not only become the starting point for the most popular trekking and rafting destinations in Nepal, but it is also a place to relax and enjoy the beauties of nature, including Phewa Lake. Pokhara is part of a once vibrant trade route extending between India and Tibet. Even today, mule trains can be seen camped on the outskirts of the town, bringing goods to trade from remote regions of the Himalayas.