In the early 1850s, the English traveler, Francis Egerton, visited Nepal and described the city of Kathmandu as he saw it then: “A picturesque and quaint looking temple and a cluster of wide-eaved houses, profusely adorned with carved woodwork, form a pretty foreground. In the plain below is a broad river, on the opposite bank of which stands the town, with its numberless Chinese-looking temples, the brass work with which they are ornamented glittering in the sun.”
Kathmandu has been “off limits” to most foreigners for many years since then, and it was only in 1951 that tourists were permitted to visit Nepal. Set in the small Kathmandu Valley and surrounded by high mountains, Kathmandu is a medieval metropolis with superb artistic and architectural traditions that have miraculously survived the centuries.
The old town of Kathmandu is a masterpiece of urban planning created by the Newar people.
Most traditional buildings are built of red brick and dark wood. Courtyards and plazas abound on all sides, so that even though the streets are narrow and the population many, there is a feeling of space and harmony. The windows and doors of traditional houses are decorated with lavish carvings of varied designs.
Kathmandu’s royal palace is a massive structure with thick mud walls, shady porticoes and 55 courtyards. It is decorated with huge quantities of gilded copper.
The temples of Kathmandu are everywhere. Small shrines are found in courtyards (chowks), squares and back lanes, and are part of the everyday life.
Dozens of mandirs (temples) are scattered around Durbar Square, including the pagoda-like Jagannath Mandir built in the sixteenth century.
West of the city on a hill with commanding views of the city is the Buddhist stupa (mound-like sacred structure) named Swayambhu (or Swayambhunath). This is the most ancient and sacred Buddhist shrine in Kathmandu.
On top of the mound is a cube with the celebrated “eyes of the Buddha” looking in all four directions, and the whole building is surmounted by a golden spire. Swayambhu is occasionally known as the Monkey Temple, due to the hundreds of monkeys that roam the temple confines. Nepal’s most important and sacred Hindu temple is Pashupatinath. It is dramatically located on the banks of the Bagmati River on the eastern side of Kathmandu. The temple is built as a pagoda, with some of the roofs clad with copper overlaid with gold.
Pashupatinath is regarded as the important Shiva (Pashupati) temple in the world and Hindu pilgrims come there from all over the world, including from every corner of Nepal and India. The temple complex is an amazing scene to behold with pilgrims, semi-naked sadhus (holy men), ritual bathing in the river, and cremation ghats.
Not far from Pashupatinath is Bodnath, the most important Tibetan Buddhist monument outside Tibet. Bodnath is the largest stupa in Nepal and is the religious center for Nepal’s large community of Tibetans.
Kathmandu’s heritage is much more than its architecture. The visitor will enjoy the festivals, the handicrafts and treks to the nearby Himalayan foothills. Kathmandu will richly reward the visitor who is willing to stay for more than a day or two, and who tries to explore the city and the culture a little more and to meet and mix with the local people. With the massive changes brought to Kathmandu with the arrival of mass tourism, democracy, globalization, and new technologies, much traditional life and many customs are disappearing in Kathmandu, especially among the younger generation.
Modern Kathmandu does have its share of problems, including poverty and pollution.
But for the visitor who wants to see and experience a city and a culture that is quite different from the typical city in their home country, Kathmandu is still is a remarkable and unforgettable place in the heart of the Himalayas.