My early childhood impressions of Kathmandu were that of a forlorn land, tucked amongst the towering snow-capped Himalayan peaks and a fascinating Hindu kingdom. The notion was reinforced with my childhood hero Tintin visiting the city and my sarcasm guru Black Adder referring to the place in a nonchalant manner. Growing up, having developed a deep interest in history and philosophy, Kathmandu now started holding more prominence as a tourist destination for me. In my short stay in Kathmandu, I had some of these notions reinforced and some shattered.
On a cold December afternoon after a rickety cab ride into the traveller’s den Thamel where my hotel was, I couldn’t help wondering how easily Kathmandu could have passed for an Indian city and yet there were differences. Take for instance, the unique architecture of the ubiquitous pagoda styled temples here or the wonderful confluence of Hindu and Tibetan cultures. How unique is the charm here! On the other hand, walking on the vivacious Freaky street without being run over by motorcycles is a very Indian experience.
Our primary destination was Pashupatinath temple, in some ways the raison d’etre of our visit to the city, the most important and sacred of Shiva linga (the cosmic symbol of the universe) and the head of the twelve Jyotirlinga (sacred manifestations of Shiva) spread across India. The name “Pashupatinath” describes Shiva as the lord (Pati), man (pashu) and pasha (noose), symbolizing the power of Shiva in leading man to the supreme truth, in Sanskrit language. Situated along the banks of the river Bagmati, the richly ornate temple has always been seeing a steady influx of Hindu devotees since the establishment of the Vedic daily tradition by the great seer Adi Shankaracharya around 400 B.C. Despite man induced disasters like the invasion of the temple by Sultan Shamsuddin and natural one such as the earthquake in 2015, the sanctum sanctorum of the temple remains untouched. Just as the Ganges, the banks of the Bagmati are also used for cremation purposes. A visit to this temple is indeed an astonishing reminder of the fleeting existence of human life.
To the frugal traveler, mini vans termed ‘micros’ are convenient means of transport where I got to rub shoulders (and feet and elbows…) with the locals. A small micro ride from Pashupatinath got us to the Boudhanath Stupa which offered a glimpse into the Tibetan culture of Kathmandu. The immediate transformation from the chaotic main roads to the restrained uniformity of the procedure around the stupa was dramatic. I followed as if in a trance, the peaceful gathering of people, touched prayer wheels, witnessed monks in their maroon robes as they silently offered their prayers and encircled the massive stupa, while divine Tibetan chants filled the air. The exquisite rows of shops selling Tibetan beads, idols, incense sticks and the likes around the stupa made for a pleasant window shopping experience. A similar experience awaited us at yet another splendid stupa at the Monkey Temple or the Swayambhunath, perched atop a hill. The hordes of extremely smart monkeys give the temple its moniker. The tranquil atmosphere, perfumed incense sticks and the view of the valley from the top are one among many reasons to visit this temple.
The ancient and munificent squares and plazas or Durbars of Patan, Kathmandu and Bhaktapur offer a peek into the remnants of a medieval Nepal right amongst the modernity surrounding them. Each of these durbars are UNESCO world heritage sites housing several temples all constructed in the Newari style crafted meticulously on wood of richly decorated motifs of Gods and Goddesses while flocks of pigeons hover around the rooftops of the shrines. While a lot of damage due to the earthquake is visible especially in Bhaktapur where some of the erstwhile beautiful architecture is painfully reduced to rubbles, there is still plenty to see, especially in Patan and Kathmandu.
The places around all of these durbars are lined street after street with shops selling trinkets, singing bowls, woollen clothing, paintings etc. Deep rooted bargaining skills came in handy when I bought myself a beautiful Himalayan scarf after resisting the temptation for too long.
And as for Mr Herge, he wasn’t very inaccurate when he had painstakingly sketched the scenes of Kathmandu: