Winter Vacation, Part 3: the Kathmandu Valley

We parted ways with the Swanns in the Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi– they were heading back to the States, and Anthony and I were on our way to Nepal, where we planned to spend a week in Kathmandu.

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Night puja at a temple in the streets of Kathmandu

We arrived in Kathmandu in the evening, too early to sleep but just late enough to take a moonlit stroll through the deserted streets.

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Full moon over Durbar Square

The next day we decided to take a walk from the lovely Hotel Silver Home where we were staying in Thamel up to the Swayambhunath temple complex, also known as the Monkey Temple. As you may know, monkeys kind of freak me out, because they make me think about morlocks. But I was interested enough in the temple to brave my fears and make the hike with Anthony.

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Climbing the 365 steps to the top!

Side note: During our stay in Nepal, I was reading a great book called The Living Goddess, by Isabella Tree which I highly recommend! Besides delving into the very intriguing history of the kingdom of Nepal and the worship of the Kumari, she provides a beautiful retelling of several myths, including one that tells the story of the creation of the Swayambhunath complex (you can read an abridged version on Wikipedia here, but I suggest reading the book!).

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The stupa at Swayambhunath, with Buddha’s eyes watching over the Kathmandu valley.

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To the far left in this picture, you can see some of the spinning prayer wheels that surround the stupa. Also pictured are some of the other smaller stupas and shrines that make up the Swayambunath complex.

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Beautiful traditional architecture and a couple of friends just hanging out and watching the goings on at Swayambhunath. (this post wouldn’t be complete without a cute dog picture!)
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A cat naps while guarding some prayer flags for sale at Swayambhunath.

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I had to summon a lot of courage to take this monkey picture. I tried to be super sneaky and not make any eye-contact. Fortunately, the monkeys were mostly too busy picking over the leftovers of someone’s recent puja offering to pay me any mind.

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143 feet high, the Kailashnath Mahadev Statue in Sanga

At some point, we rented a motorbike for a day to get out of the city for a little while. We had decided to check out Panauthi, but some ominous looking rain clouds forced us to change course, so we just meandered around the valley chasing the sunshine. We did end up seeing the tallest Shiva statue in the world though, which was an unexpected bonus!

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Anthony and I returned to Kathmandu’s Durbar Square just about every day to stroll around, admire the architecture, and people-watch.

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Some local men wearing dhaka topi, a traditional Nepali hat, having a chat on the steps of Maju Dega.

A little bit of history: the Kathmandu Valley once contained three different kingdoms: Kathmandu, Bhaktapur, and Patan, which were ruled by the Malla kings. So there are actually three Durbar Squares (all of which are UNESCO World Heritage Sites), one in each of these former kingdoms. Eventually, in a campaign that lasted over a period of twenty-five years, they were conquered and unified by the Gorkha king, Prithvi Narayan Shah, and became part of the new kingdom of Nepal.

A stupa in the center of a bahal, a traditional monastic courtyard, with attached residential areas.

Another one of our favorite things about Kathmandu were the bahals, traditional monastic courtyards, which are scattered throughout the city. They are sometimes hard to spot, accessible by tiny, almost hidden alleyways, often guarded by stone lions. They are a beautiful example of traditional Newar architecture and centers of community for the residents who live in the attached buildings.

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Another beautiful example of Newar craftsmanship

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Pigeons love the big, open plazas (that are for the most part, free from vehicular traffic) as much as we did! And the kids love to run around scaring them.

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An image of the Buddha in Durbar Square

The religious character of Kathmandu was a unique dovetailing of Hinduism and Buddhism that I have never quite encountered before.

“The blending of Hinduism and Buddhism and the religious tolerance it demonstrates, was, to me, one of the most beguiling aspects of Nepal…In the melting pot of the Kathmandu Valley, these two strands of belief grew so entwined as to be profoundly confusing to outsiders…the two faiths borrow practices and ideas from each other, worship each other’s deities, only with different names, and lend each other priests.”

–excerpt from The Living Goddess, by Isabella Tree

The result, from our perspective, was a culture of religion that was part of the fabric of everday life, yet still largely a mystery to us. However, it was a mystery that we felt comfortable being in, and the general ambiance was inherently peaceful.

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The Kasthamandap Restaurant was one of our last stops before heading home, and the view from their rooftop was almost worth the astronomical prices. You can see Anthony down below, and in the distance on the hill by the top tier of this temple, you can see Swayambhunath Temple!

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Bye bye Himalayas, helloooooooooo Indian fog.
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