With lofty mountains as a backdrop and a Living Goddess to bless your visit, exotic Nepal offers an amazing sojourn into age-old culture, history, adventure and religion.
Words: R. Rajendra Photography: Adam Lee
Nose pressed against the aircraft window, I tried to catch glimpses of the land below as the AirAsia X flight descended through a flurry of thick clouds, heading for the runway at Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu. Nepal is as exotic as it gets and the fact that the clouds kept shrouding the country as the aircraft entered its airspace added to its mystery.
Until recently, this landlocked nation at the foot of the Himalayan range was the last remaining kingdom in the modern world. It still worships a pre-pubescent girl as the living embodiment of the Hindu warrior Goddess Durga, and has seven groupings of buildings and monuments listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites within the Kathmandu Valley alone! Rumours of the Abominable Snowman roaming the mountainous regions are rife, and this is also the birthplace of Sherpa Tenzig Norgay who, together with Edmund Hillary, scaled Mt Chomolunga (that’s Mt Everest to you and me) – the highest point on earth at 8,848 metres. So, you can’t fault me for being overly excited to lay eyes on this fabled land.
Then, like a magician yanking the cloth off a table to reveal the treasures beneath, the clouds parted and glorious sunshine lit the Kathmandu Valley. Green vales streaked with fast rushing rivers, verdant paddy fields interspersed with boxy homes, temple rooftops and stupas and, in the distance, snow-capped mountains all came into view before the landing gear of the aircraft made contact with the tarmac. I had arrived in Nepal.
Adam and I had reached Nepal on a very auspicious day as the locals were celebrating Teej in full swing. Married women dressed in their best red sarees, looking like young brides, made their way to temples to pray for their husbands’ well-being, while single women in equally colourful shalwar kameez tagged along to pray for good husbands. Groups of women sang and danced to infectious beats at shrines along the city roads, while the local TV channels continuously broadcasted married women making merry, all dressed in the prerequisite auspicious red.
That night, we visited Pashupathinath temple, a UNESCO World heritage site just five kilometres outside the city. Bijay, the manager at Incentive Travels insisted that we start at this Hindu temple that dates back to 500 AD. The temple is a fascinating piece of history, culture, religion and even animal husbandry as monkeys, cows, pigeons, cats and dogs lazily ambled about. Perhaps the creatures feel safe here as the principal deity of the temple is Lord Shiva in the form of Pashupathinath – the Lord of Beasts.
As we arrived at the temple complex, a small group of devotees were chanting, dancing and playing small drums as three young priests performed the Bagmathi Arathi. This special prayer is only performed in India for the Ganges. The holy Bagmathi is the only other river to have such prayers performed. We were doubly lucky to have witnessed this ancient tradition that not only celebrates the divine, but honours the river as a life-affirming source. But as life was being celebrated on one side, funeral pyres were being kindled on the other. The river bank is a sacred site for Hindus to cremate their dead. The duality of the Hindu tradition of life and death and, samsara (ever-changing life) continues to play out at this holy place as it has for centuries.
Kathmandu Durbar Square, Pathan and Bakthapur
There are enough temples, palaces and public spaces in these UNESCO World Heritage listed sites to offer a lifetime of wonderment. Amazingly, these places are buzzing with locals going about their daily activities as they have for hundreds of years. The only difference, which annoyed the daylights out of me, was the presence of motorised vehicles that intruded on the sanctity and serenity of Kathmandu Durbar Square. Mercifully, Bakthapur, and Pathan to a lesser extent, prohibit vehicles from entering the squares.
Kathmandu Durbar Square is the most popular amongst the three as it is located in the city centre, comprising about 60 important temples, palaces and public spaces. This square with awe-inspiring structures steeped in history can be a little overwhelming as exotic attractions vie for your attention at every turn. Most awe-inspiring is the temple dedicated to Goddess Taleju Bhawani, the clan deity of the Malla kings who ruled Nepal between the 12th and 18th century. Built by King Mahendra Malla in 1564, the temple design is based on a holy geometrical design (yantra), said to emanate magical powers. Legend has it that the goddess herself appeared in the form of a bee to witness the consecration ceremony of the temple. Two other temples dedicated to this goddess are located in Patan and Bakthapur. Unfortunately, these temples are off limits to non-Hindus. Nonetheless, images of the goddess can be seen on the eaves above the main entrance to the temples and visitors can still enjoy them from the outside.
The Kasthamandap Temple located at the southwest corner of the square was built in 1596 by King Laxmi Narasingh Malla, and is said to have been carved from a single sal tree (Shorea robusta). The name ‘Kathmandu’ is believed to originate from the name of this temple.
One of the holiest Buddhist sites in Nepal, Swayumbhunath is a peaceful piece of heaven just three kilometres outside Kathmandu. Historical accounts date this site to over 2,000 years ago, predating even the arrival of Buddhism. By around the 13th century, the temple complex had already become an important centre of theology and learning for Buddhists. The site attracts both Buddhists and Hindus who come to pray, marvel and meditate on the gilded stupa that features the famous, lowered eyes of Lord Buddha looking out to all four directions. The squiggles that represent the nose also mimic the number #1, suggesting the omniscience of the Divine.
A staircase with 365 steps, representing the days of the year lead up to the temple complex, passing by a huge vajra or thunderbolt, a ritual object that represents indestructibility and divine force. Filled with temples, shrines, carvings, mini stupas and shops selling religious paraphernalia and tangka drawings, the calm, spiritual energy that permeates this site is salve to any soul in need of a little tranquillity.
As you leave Swayumbhunath, spend a few minutes at the Buddha Park at the foot of the hill that’s home to the gilded statues of the Three Buddhas. At the back, a huge prayer wheel is housed in a small room decorated with exquisite frescoes of Buddhist deities.
Pokhara and Sarangkot
The second largest city in Nepal, Pokhara is about 200 kilometres from Kathmandu and is accessible by air and road. Although travelling by road will take anything between three to five hours, the journey offers stunning vistas of fast running rivers, deep gorges, small towns, lush paddies and steep mountainsides. Having arrived after dusk, the city was already covered in darkness. But above, stars sparkled so vividly, I could practically count them! Although the city is only 800 metres above sea level compared to the lofty mountain range you see elsewhere in the country, Mt Macchapuchre (fishtail) at 6,993 metres and Mt Annapurna at 8,091 metres seem close enough to touch. These holy summits are best viewed from the hill station of Sarangkot, about a 30 minute drive from Pokhara.
Adam and I were the first to arrive at Sarangkot on a nippy morning at about 4.30am. Having set up camera, we waited for sunrise to cast its golden rays and light up the east-facing walls of the massifs. Within minutes, the viewing platform filled with over 100 tourists from all over the world. Then, as the first pink hues of sunlight streaked the horizon, both mountains began to reveal their shapes. Soon, the snow-covered tips emerged looking almost like a painting. It felt surreal. The mountains seemed less than 10 kms away and towered above us, with an almost perfectly blue sky in the background. The chatter quietened as cameras clicked furiously to snap that perfect moment when the mountains lit up majestically. Within minutes the full tableau was revealed and the whole valley came into view, including Lake Phewa. Soon, the crowd dispersed little by little, leaving us to enjoy the hush that returned. Mountains are often said to be the abodes of gods and goddesses and it felt as if we’d just been given first row seats to a magnificent sight. As we left Sarangkot, the distinct shape of Macchapuchre’s fishtail trailed us until the clouds decided to end the show and dropped the curtains once again.
And that was not even half of what I saw and experienced in Pokhara, Nagarkot and Kathmandu. Words often fail in describing the scenery, culture and people. Trying to squeeze all the experiences into one article is truly an exercise in futility. Perhaps that’s what you get when a living goddess bestows a country with charm, beauty and spirituality.
The Living Goddess
The practice of deifying a prepubescent girl from a Buddhist Newari family as the living embodiment of the Hindu Goddess Durga is an age-old Nepalese tradition that is said to bring about prosperity, peace and good fortune. Young girls between the ages of four and seven are screened to ascertain if they possess 32 attributes of perfection that include horoscope, colour and shape of eyes and teeth, demeanour and even quality of voice. The selected girls are then herded into a darkened room where mysterious and often terrifying tantric rituals are performed to see who is able to stay focussed and collected throughout the ordeal. The lass who emerges unscathed is then proclaimed the Kumari and is worshipped as a Living Goddess, enjoying all the privileges of an anointed one till she reaches puberty. The Living Goddess resides in the Kumari Ghar in Kathmandu Durbar Square and can be visited, albeit from a respectful distance.
Incentive Travel & Tours
Nepal is very appealing as an exotic destination for leisure, adventure, culture and pilgrimage travels. But, it can get a tad overwhelming, especially if you’ve never embarked on such a trip before. Luckily, Incentive Travel & Tours (P) LTD is well placed to serve all your needs according to budget and time constraints when you visit Nepal, Tibet and Bhutan. A renowned travel and tour agent that holds the impressive record of having organised and operated a pilgrimage tour for over 500 pilgrims to the Holy Rakshas Taal, Lake Manasarovar and Mt Kailash (holy abode of the Hindu god Shiva), the agency can also arrange permits for trekking and mountaineering. Amongst others, the agency offers:
- 4D/3N trip to Kathmandu, Pokhara and Sarangkot
- 4D/3N trip to the holy site of Lumbhini (birthplace of lord Buddha)
- 6D/5N Rafting & Jungle Safari at Kathmandu, Chitwan and Pokhara
- 8D/7N Himalayan Golf Tour