Historically, Kathmandu in Nepal has had three major Durbar Squares (Kingdoms) – Patan, Bhaktapur and the Kathmandu Durbar Square. All three of these are now UNESCO World Heritage sites and are major attractions for any traveler visiting Kathmandu. Rightly so, given the rich heritage and culture that is still preserved within the crumbling yet beautiful walls of its monuments. If you are a history buff like me, then you are sure to feel like a kid in the candy shop – not knowing what to see first. On my previous visit to Nepal, I was fortunate enough to visit Patan and Bhaktapur Durbar Square but could not manage Kathmandu Durbar Square. Even in the ones I visited, I seemed to have left some bits unseen. Thanks to my recent trip to Nepal, your Nepali Jones emerged once again – all ready to complete all that was left unseen last time over – starting with the Kathmandu Durbar Square.
It seemed to be my destiny that this time I actually, got to stay right in that one Durbar Square that I had missed the last time. This was perfect for me as I managed to thoroughly explore the entire place over 4 days that I was there. It was fun getting lost in those lanes which led to not just the royal enclosures of Kathmandu Durbar Square but also, help discover the homes & hidden stupas around this place. There is plenty which has been lost to the Gorkha Earthquake but what still stands is worth a visit. While it will be impossible for me to add every bit of what I saw here, let me share the key sights of the historical Kathmandu Durbar Square.
History of Kathmandu Durbar Square
Also known as the Basantpur Durbar Square, this one was first built by the Malla Kings and then, later conquered by the Shah Dynasty. The buildings here trace back to the Licchavi period, as early as the 3rd century. The Malla Kings ruled here till the 1720s, after which they were overthrown by King Prithvi Narayan Shah. The Shahs favored this square right up till 1820s after which they abandoned it as a residential place and moved to the Narayanhiti palace. However, the Kathmandu Durbar Square continued to be an important spot for events like the coronation of Kings – including the famous Gyanendra Bir Bikram Shah in 2001. Even today, this is widely used for the annual festival of Indra Jatra. Moreover, the abode of the Living Goddess Kumari still remains as its key attraction.
Shiva Parvati Temple
Right from my hotel room, I could see the tall towers of the temples of Kathmandu Square and I really could not wait to get started on exploring this historical square. As soon as I got out of my Hotel – Dwarika Chenn, all I had to do is take a left to see this gorgeous temple dedicated to Shiva Parvati. The Newari art was evident here with its stunning carvings of doors and windows. Popping out of one of those windows on the top is the heavenly couple – Shiva and Parvati, showering their blessings on the passers-by.
The temple was built by the Shah dynasty and hence, is quite recent compared to the other relics in the Kathmandu Durbar Square. It is still functional for when I visited it, there were some Poojas in progress.
Guarding the temple, were huge lion guardian, that faced the rest of the square. If you were to climb up like I did, you would see them looking straight at the epic Kumari Ghar.
This actually, is the landmark icon of the Kathmandu Durbar Square for it houses the living icon – Kumari. I did spend considerable time inspecting this monument for its lovely architecture, all of which I have shared in my earlier post on Kumari. You can click through to take your virtual tour of the Kumari Ghar and while you do so, don’t forget to see the Snake temple right next to the Kumari Ghar. Even if it is closed, you will still be able to glimpse the golden Naga deity through the holes.
In contrast to the dark wooden palace of the Kumari and opposite it, lies this huge white building that seemed quite modern to me. A signboard told me what it looked before the earthquake – a huge white mansion in a colonial, European style with long columns that take you back to the Greek era. The Gaddi Baithak used to be the powerhouse where the Kings received their foreign delegates and held meetings. The building was built in the 1900s and is currently being renovated to mend the damage of the Gorkha earthquake.
I found this site to be quite unique for everywhere around it was the typical heritage styled decor while this one mimicked the west. And while I stood there looking at it, I also, realized that I was at a crossroad where if I went left, it lead to some more of the royal buildings, turning right would be some temples and collapsed structures and if I went straight pass the Gaddi Baithak, I would most likely be lost in the lanes. Wanting to do it all, I marked this building as my home point to return to after visiting each lane.
After a quick Ini Mini Mynah Moh, I turned right to first explore what lay behind the Gaddi Baithak. Most of it was out of bounds as there was a lot of restoration work in progress. However, even within the closed ruins, the Basantpur tower stood dominant. This was originally the tallest structure here with 9 different floors. The 9 floors gave it the name Nautalle Durbar (9 towered Durbar). The 9 floors are hidden amidst the 4 roofs.
The Basantpur Durbar was built by the Shah dynasty as a pleasure house. The monument is a blend of Newari and Mughal architecture style with its lower floors following the local style. Today there are only two roofs that you see but even in those, I was quite enchanted by the detailing the roof brackets and around. It seemed so beautiful now that it made me wonder how breathtaking it must have been back then – when it was whole.
Tracing back my steps to my home marker, I took the other lane from the Gaddi Baithak that led to various temples. Most of these temples had collapsed and all you could see was rubble. One of these temples -the Trilokya Mohan Narayan used to be a huge temple that housed the 10 incarnations of Vishnu. The only identifying part of this temple is a huge Garuda that somehow, still stands facing it in salutation
Right behind the Garuda, is the Kasthamandap. However, right now this is in complete ruins. This was quite a significant building as it was constructed using wood of a single tree. It is said that Lord Gorakhnath was captured by a Tantric priest when he was on earth in disguise. In return for his freedom, he magically gave the wood of a single tree for the construction of this very temple. They say that the wood carvings with the temple were quite a joy to behold but we will never know as there exists none now to show. All you can see are the stone lion guards of the temple.
Around the Kasthamandap are some more significant buildings like the Silyan Sattal, rumored to be built from the remains of the same tree used to build the Kasthamandap. Also, don’t miss the Maru Tole, where you will find plenty of temples and a square that used to host many poets, dancers, musicians and artists.
Hanuman Dhoka at Kathmandu Durbar Square
Circling back to my marker, I finally took the path away from the Gaddi Baithak towards what seemed to be the smaller lanes of Kathmandu Durbar Square. This route takes you past the Shiva Parvati temple to what I fondly term as the cultural square or the Hanuman Dhoka Square. The area is termed as Hanuman Dhoka owing to this statue of Hanuman that was erected by the Malla Kings. It is believed that the statue helped give strength to his army and his home. As you might have already guessed, this was the place where you can visit the palace but besides this, you can also, see some of these –
The warning bell that seemed to be omnipresent in all the Durbar Squares. This was also, the grievance bell that the subjects rung to get the attention of their king.
The Bhairava statue that during Indra Jatra spewed alcohol and fish.
This is one of the oldest temples here that was set by the Malla Kings. Though the carvings and the designs here are quite noteworthy, it is not just those that bring people here. This is a huge pigeon feeding ground where everyday men, women and kids come by to throw grains for the pigeons and earn their good deed of the day. Over the 4 days that I stayed here, this became my favorite place to capture those blissful smiles.
Nasal Chowk within the Basantpur Palace
The Basantpur Palace has suffered quite a bit of damage from the Gorakha Earthquake and hence, when I visited it, most of it was out of bounds. Except for the Nasal Chowk – the main courtyard that was used for all important royal functions including the coronation. As you enter, remember to check out the Narasimha statue on your left. The statue has an interesting tale attached to it. The King Pratap Malla was rumored to have the spirit of Lord Vishnu within him and to get rid of the same, he was advised by some priests to build a statue of Lord Narasimha tearing open the demon Hiranyakashyap. Once made, the spirit of Lord Vishnu is said to have transferred itself to the idol and since then, the statue has been kept where it is now.
A large platform in the centre was the main ceremonial platform while around it you can see the Gaddi Baithak and the Basantpur Durbar. All of this is boarded up for restoration but I sure would have wanted to run in and check it out for myself. The only thing that I could get a glimpse of was the golden thrones used by the king, now kept behind a glass display.
Another eye-catching sight here is this huge tower that is a part of this temple called Panchamukhi Hanuman.This temple is out of bounds for all except the priest. Remember to carry a zoom lens to check out the circular roof of the temple. It has some stunning pieces of art all around it.
The palace is also the gateway to the Mul Chowk and Sundari Chowk – the residential courtyards of the Kings but those are now out of bounds for us. There is a small museum that houses the royal relics and you can even get a glimpse of the various royal palanquins in the Nasal Chowk. Don’t miss the ceremonial throne displayed here.
This is one of the key temples in Hanuman Dhoka Chowk that is dedicated to the clan Goddess Taleju. It opens once a year during a festival and you can see the many-hand Goddess idol here. The Temple seems quite at a height and is widely considered as the most beautiful of all the temples in Kathmandu Durbar Square. For now, I could at best, admire the lovely gates that restricted it.
The stone Bhairava statue that is said to force people to speak the truth. Also, one of the main Bhairava idols during Indra Jatra.
As I continued walking past the Taleju Temple along a few lanes that had shops selling beauty wares, I came across this Golden temple that was dedicated to Akash Bhairava. The stunning horses and doors is what first drew my attention followed by the blue faced deity that seemed central to the Indra Jatra proceedings that were going on here. I had just discovered the Akash Bhairava temple.
Akash means sky and there is a reason for this name given. As per a local, one of the kings during Mahabharata age had disguised himself as a Bhairav and when Lord Krishna found that, he cut off his head. The head turned blue and was sent back to Kathmandu via the sky. It remained buried for sometime till it was found again and since then, it has been worshipped once a year, during the Indra Jatra.
Newari Homes & Hidden Stupas
It was fun getting lost deliberately in the lanes of Kathmandu Durbar Square for I found plenty of beautiful homes, sunken baths and hidden stupas. It felt as if every lane and every building had a story to tell and I for one, was definitely not tired of the same. There is so much to see and absorb here that a complete day might not seem enough. I wonder if you too, feel the same way.
- Kathmandu is the capital city of Nepal and is well connected by road and air to all the major cities of the world.
- Kathmandu Durbar Square is central to the city and you can reach here by taking a taxi from anywhere in the city.
- The entrance tickets to the Kathmandu Durbar Square for a Non-SAARC citizen is Nepali Rupees 1000 and for a SAARC country resident is Nepali Rupees 150. The camera charges are extra.
- If you want to visit the Nasal Chowk, you will have to purchase a separate ticket. The ticket for the same is Nepali Rupees 100. There is also, an audio tour available for an additional price
- There are plenty of shops around the place where you can buy Thangka Art, curios, magnets and the other traditional arts. Remember to bargain well.
- The Kathmandu Durbar Square is a busy area with plenty of crowd. The 4 wheel vehicles are not allowed here but the two-wheelers are.
- A lot of temples here are functional and hence, please be mindful and respectful of the same.