Kathmandu Valley the epicenter of the Himalayan Kingdom
Known as the city of Gods and Goddesses, Kathmandu is the capital of the largest Himalayan Kingdom in Asia. Standing at an elevation of approximately 1,400 meters, the bowl shaped valley of Kathmandu is historically termed as the “Nepal Proper” and has been the home of numerous cultures concentrated in the cosmopolitan. An ever-expanding urban civilization in the Himalayan foothills, the city of Kathmandu was the royal capital of the Kingdom of Nepal and hosts various palaces, mansions and gardens of the Nepalese aristocracy. Many of the monarchial buildings and old historical sites have also been listed on the UNESCO World Heritage Sites list as well. Kathmandu is also the headquarters of the South Asian Association of Regional Co-operation (SAARC) since 1985.
Kathmandu Valley: Art and Architecture
Kathmandu Valley is described as “an enormous treasure house of art and sculptures”. Made of wood, stone, metal, and terracotta and found in profusion in temples, shrines, stupas, Gompa, chaityas and palaces, the valley’s architectural integrity is profound. The art objects are also seen in street corners, lanes, private courtyards and in open ground of the city. It is also a center for art in Nepal and displays the work of contemporary artists in the country and also collections of historical artists.
Art in Kathmandu is vibrant. It demonstrates a fusion of traditionalism and modern art, derived from a great number of national, Asian, and global influences.
Being the centre of Nepal’s history, art, culture and economy, Kathmandu is brimming with multiethnic population with people following the religion of Hinduism and Buddhism as a majority. Religious and cultural festivities form a major part of the lives of people residing in Kathmandu. As the valley acts like a gateway to the Nepalese Himalayas, Kathmandu holds a strong hand in tourism; and this aspect plays an important part in the city’s economy as well. Although many of the historic areas of the city were devastated by the earthquake of 2015, renovation and reimbursement work has managed to recover some of the artifacts and restore the sites to their old self.
In 2013, Kathmandu was ranked third among the top ten upcoming travel destinations in the world by TripAdvisor and was ranked as first in Asia. Named after the Kasthamandap Temple that stood in the Durbar Square, Kathmandu has countless dedications to various gods and goddesses pertaining to pantheons of Buddhism and Hinduism. The two-storied structure of the Kasthamandap Temple was built entirely out of wood from a single tree and used no iron nails nor supports. Unfortunately, the structure collapsed during the major earthquake of 2015. During medieval times, the city was also called Kantipur. If we break down the etymology of the word “Kantipur”, the word translates to the “City of Light”.
Kathmandu: A Brief History
When archaeological excavations were conducted in the city, evidence was found of ancient civilization. One of the oldest findings from the excavation is a statue found in Maligaon that dates back all the way to 185 AD. Stone inscriptions are ubiquitous elements at various heritage sites around the city and are key sources for the history of Nepal. The ancient history of the city of Kathmandu is mostly described and flounced in its traditional myths and legends. Perhaps the most supported legend of the emergence of the valley is that depicted in the Swayambhu Purana where it says that the valley was once a deep lake named “Nagdaha”. The lake’s water was drained by the demi-god Manjushree when he cut a gorge clean through the Chovar Hill with his flaming sword and made the valley habitable. When scientific examination on the soil of the valley was conducted, evidence was found that the soil was really lacustrine and fertile, further supporting the claim that the valley was indeed underwater.
Various dynasties of kings and monarchs ruled over the country in various time periods. Among all of the dynasties, the Licchavi dynasty holds the most responsibility towards modern Kathmandu. Because of scripts, sculptures and carvings depicting the love of the Licchavi rulers to build temples and work towards economical and architectural development of the country, the rule of the Licchavi dynasty is also called the “Golden Age of Nepal”.
During the Licchavi rule, the city served as an important transit point in the trade between India and Tibet as well, which led to tremendous growth in architecture. Descriptions of buildings such as the Managriha, the Kailaskut Bhawan, and the Bhadradiwas Bhawan have been found in the surviving journals of travelers and monks who lived during this era. The first coin called “Mananka” was also introduced during the reign of the Licchavi King, Amshuverma. The introduction of Mananka ended the barter system and made trading on foreign lands easier for the country. Managriha was also the first government building built in the country.
The artistry of the Newar people—the indigenous inhabitants of the Kathmandu Valley—became highly sought after during this era as well, both within the Valley and throughout the greater Himalayas. Newar artists traveled extensively throughout Asia, creating religious art for their neighbors. The most famous account of this affair comes from the history of Araniko, one of the key figures in the arts and architecture of Nepal, Tibet and the Yuan Dynasty of China. Araniko’s work in the court of the Mongol emperor Kublai Khan, the founder of the Yuan dynasty (1279–1368) is highly celebrated as he brought the Nepali trans-Himalayan artistic tradition to influence the Chinese art.
The Nepali currency became the standard currency in trans-Himalayan trade during the rule of the Malla kings who came into power after the Licchavi dynasty in medieval times. During the latter part of the Malla era, Kathmandu Valley was comprised of four fortified cities: Kantipur, Lalitpur, Bhaktapur and Kirtipur. These served as the capitals of the Malla confederation of Nepal. These states competed with each other in the arts, architecture, aesthetics and trade, resulting in tremendous development. The kings of this period directly influenced or involved themselves in the construction of public buildings, squares and temples, as well as the development of waterspouts, the institutionalization of trusts (called guthis), the codification of laws, the writing of dramas, and the performance of plays in city squares. Architecturally notable buildings from this era include the Kathmandu Durbar Square, the Patan Durbar Square and the Bhaktapur Durbar Square, the former Durbar of Kirtipur, Nyatapol, Kumbheshwar, the Krishna temple, and others- a majority of which are listed under the UNESCO World Heritage Sites list.
Kathmandu: a brief overlook at the city’s natural topography
The city of Kathmandu is dissected by eight rivers. The main river of the valley, the holy Bagmati and its tributaries are predominant throughout the city. The tributaries of the Bagmati River flowing through various locations throughout the city include the Bishnumati, the Dhobi Khola, the Manohara Khola, the Hanumant Khola and the Tukucha Khola. The mountains from where these rivers originate are in the elevation range of 1,500–3,000 meters and have passes which provide access to and from Kathmandu and its valley. An ancient canal once flowed from the Nagerjun Hill through Balaju to Kathmandu but this canal is now extinct. Kathmandu and adjacent cities are composed of neighborhoods, which are utilized quite extensively and are more familiar among locals. However, administratively the city is divided into 35 wards, numbered from 1 to 35. Due to huge commercialization of the city and rapid modernization, the population in the city is ever-increasing as people in-migrate. Because of this, Kathmandu has one of the highest population densities in the country.
Five major climatic regions are found in Nepal. As Kathmandu valley lies in the elevation range of 1,200 to 2,300 meters, the climate in Kathmandu is fairly temperate and atypical. The average summer temperature of the Kathmandu valley approximately varies from 28 to 30 °C (82 to 86 °F). The average winter temperature is 10.1 °C (50.2 °F). The city generally has a climate with warm days followed by cool nights and mornings. Unpredictable weather is expected, given that temperatures can drop to 1 °C (34 °F) or less during the winter.
Kathmandu’s Heritage and Historical Sites
The ancient trade route between India and Tibet that passed through Kathmandu enabled a fusion of artistic and architectural traditions from other cultures to be amalgamated with local art and architecture. The monuments of Kathmandu City have been influenced over the centuries by Hindu and Buddhist religious practices. In 2006, UNESCO declared seven groups of monuments as a World Heritage Site within and around Kathmandu city. Here is a list and description of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the valley of Kathmandu:
The Kathmandu Durbar Square
The Kathmandu Durbar Square is one of three Durbar Squares in the Kathmandu Valley in Nepal, all of which are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The literal meaning of ‘Durbar Square’ is a “Place of Palaces”. The complex has 50 temples and is distributed in two quadrangles of the Durbar Square. The outer quadrangle has the Kasthamandap, the Kumari Ghar, and the Shiva-Parvathi Temple; the inner quadrangle has the Hanuman Dhoka Palace. The Durbar Square is surrounded with spectacular architecture and vividly showcases the skills of the Newar artists and craftsmen over several centuries. It held the palaces of the Malla and Shah Kings who ruled over the city. Along with these palaces, the square surrounds quadrangles, revealing courtyards and temples. It is known as the Hanuman Dhoka Durbar Square, because of a statue of Lord Hanuman- the monkey devotee of Lord Ram, standing at the entrance of the palace.
Several buildings in the Square collapsed due to the major earthquake that occurred on the 25th of April, 2015.
The Pashupatinath Temple
A famous 5th century Hindu temple dedicated to Lord Shiva, the holy temple of Pashupatinath is situated on the banks of the Bagmati River in the eastern part of Kathmandu. It is the oldest Hindu temple in the city. In the event of Shivaratri, the temple attracts thousands of devotees and sadhus. This temple complex is on the UNESCO World Heritage Sites’ list since 1979. There are various tales and legends surrounding the origin of the temple. Perhaps one of the most famous legend is that of the finding of the Shiva-Linga at the temple’s site in ancient times. It is said that the wish-fulfilling cow Kamadhenu took shelter in a cave on the Chandravan Mountain. Every day, Kamadhenu went down to the place the lingam was sunken into the soil and poured her milk on top of the soil. After a few thousand years, people saw Kamadhenu pouring milk on that same spot every day and started to wonder what that would be. So they removed the soil and found the beautiful shining lingam and started worshiping it. The temple was then built around the lingam and was renovated and new constructions added over the centuries by many kings.
One of the holiest Buddhist sites in Nepal along with the Swayambhunath, Boudhanath is a very popular tourist site of Kathmandu. Situated about 11 km from the center and northeastern outskirts of Kathmandu, the stupa’s massive mandala makes it one of the largest spherical stupas in Nepal. Boudhanath became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979.
The base of the stupa has 108 small depictions of the Dhyani Buddha. Surrounded with a brick wall with 147 niches, each with four or five prayer wheels, Boudhanath attracts many Tibetan Buddhist pilgrims every year who perform full body prostrations in the inner lower enclosure of the stupa, walk around the stupa with prayer wheels, chant, and pray. Thousands of prayer flags are hoisted up from the top of the stupa downwards and dot the perimeter of the complex.
Situated atop a hillock at the northwestern part of Kathmandu, Swayambhunath is among the oldest religious sites in Nepal. Revered by both Buddhists and Hindus, the stupa consists of a dome at the base with a cubic structure on top with the eyes of Lord Buddha looking in all four directions. There are pentagonal Torans above each of the four sides with statues engraved on them. Behind and above the Torans, there are thirteen tiers and a small space above where a statue of the gajur lies. The Tibetan name for the site means “Sublime Trees”, named for the many varieties of trees found on the hill. Swayambhu is also known as the Monkey Temple as there are holy monkeys living in the north-west parts of the temple. They are considered holy because Manjushree, the demi-god who cut open the hill and drained the valley’s water away, was raised the hill which the Swayambhu Stupa stands on. He was supposed to leave his hair short but he made it grow long and head lice grew. It is said that the head lice transformed into these monkeys. The stupa also has many artifacts stored inside it.