For our last few days in Nepal, we decided to give ourselves (and our lungs!) a treat and stayed outside of Kathmandu in the surrounding valley. With many sacred sites, exploring this area provided us with lovely last memories of Nepal.
Historically three rival city states existed in the Kathmandu Valley; along with Kathmandu, the cities of Patan and Bhaktapur vied for control of the valley. Today, it is difficult to distinguish where one city ends and the other begins due to urban sprawl. Nevertheless, we found some respite in Bhaktapur, a medieval city that is now famous for its brick and wood buildings that were constructed by Newari people (one of Nepal’s ethnic minority groups). Founded around the 9th century, by 1200 it was the ruling city. It continued to retain power for over 200 years, when the then ruler, Yaksha Malla, divided the kingdom among his three sons – a bad idea that resulted in much bickering over the ensuing generations.
In order to visit the central parts of the city, you must pay a rather hefty entrance fee. The fee is used, in part, to support the maintenance and restoration of the city’s buildings, and it would appear to be a great success. Feeling that we wanted more than just a quick visit we opted to stay within the boundaries of the historic city and spent two days poking around. Given that most tourists only come for a day visit, we relished the early morning photo opportunities that staying on-site provided.
Durbar Square is the heart of the city and within it are wonderful temples, along with the Royal Palace. The eastern wing of the palace is known as the Palace of 55 Windows as it has this number of superbly carved wood windows. The Newaris were (and still are) renowned for their wood carving and we saw many examples of their skill as we wandered around.
We also were captivated when we visited Potter’s Square; some of the potters still working there use a very basic wheel to throw their pots. The wheel is balanced on some sort of pivot point. The potters stand above the wheel and set the wheel in motion with a long stick, spinning it faster and faster. Eventually, it is going fast enough, and has sufficient ‘weight’ behind it, that they can spin two or three pots without having to ‘restart’ the wheel again.
From the predominantly Hindu city of Bhaktapur, we took a relatively short taxi ride to Boudha (another ‘fringe city’ of Kathmandu) and found ourselves staring up at the largest Buddhist stupa (or shrine) that any of us had ever seen. The historic origins of the stupa are apparently uncertain, although there are two fantastic, but competing tales to explain its existence. The first posits that it was started by a woman who petitioned the king for some land upon which she wanted to build a Buddist shrine. The king acceded but only granted her an amount that could be covered by a buffalo hide. Cleverly, she cut the hide into small strips and joined them to cover a large area. The other states that the stupa was built by a prince as penance for mistakenly killing his father. Regardless of the truth of either of these stories, it is believed that the stupa holds some of the Buddha’s relics and body parts; but no one really knows for sure as it has been sealed for centuries. The stupa is the largest Tibetan Buddhist site outside of Tibet and, since 1959, a key site for exiles from that country.
Depending on the time of day that you visit, walking around the stupa is a full sight, sound and smell experience. In the mornings and evenings, the cacophony of chanting, praying, and drumming is matched by the odour of burning incense. Several monasteries are located within Boudha, several of which allow visitors to come observe during morning and evening prayer. Knowing this, Chris and I pulled ourselves out of bed at some ungodly hour and followed the drumming; we silently slipped in and sat in meditative silence as 4 rows of monks completed their morning prayers – it was hypnotic!
A mere 2.5 kilometers from the very-Buddhist Boudha lies Nepal’s most sacred Hindu pilgrimage site: Pashupatinath. Dating back to the 3rd century B.C., for Hindus this site represents the location that Shiva (one of the three main gods in the Hindu faith, along with Brahma and Vishnu) turned himself into a one-horned stag in order to escape his obligations as a god. Pursued by the other gods, he fled into the forest. Unfortunately, he was caught by the others. His horn was broken off, but was changed into a linga (or phallic stone fertility symbol) – an icon that is central to the Hindu faith. The linga was apparently lost, but later found by a cow who magically began sprinkling the spot with her milk. An observant cowherd noticed these activities and promptly dug the lost linga out of the ground and established a shrine on the spot.
Aran was not feeling well the day that we set out to visit, but Eva was a trooper and came along. I can hear you wondering why I am saying that Eva was a trooper? Well, not only does Pashupatinath have shrines to see, it also has riverside ghats … where dead bodies are cremated in the open beside the Bagmati River. Suffice it to say, Eva was not that keen to go, but we hired a tour guide who explained the process and rituals behind the ceremony. Apparently to be cremated here is the pinnacle of religious achievement; people cremated here are virtually guaranteed to be released from the cycle of rebirth and death. As we watched, numerous bodies were brought down to the riverbank to first be bathed, and then cremated. Despite the fact that the water is incredibly polluted, it is also considered auspicious to bathe in the waters. We didn’t see any bathers, but watched two young enterprising lads scouring the riverbed looking for gold and other items that would be swept into the river along with the ashes.
On the far side of the river across from the ghats are 15 small structures, each sheltering a linga. Each of these shelters was erected by the ruling family to honour women who had committed sati, or self-immolation, on their husband’s funeral pyres. It was here that we learned the term ‘sati’ comes from Sati, Shiva’s first wife. Offended by some insult toward her husband, Sati apparently threw herself onto a fire, thus giving rise to the term. Fortunately, the practice of sati is now outlawed, but this wasn’t done until the early 20th century.
Having had our fill of smoke and stories we walked the distance back to our guesthouse in Boudha, discussing our most fond memories of this wonderful and welcoming country. That night, we packed our bags and got ready to jump on the plane the next day – Thailand, here we come!