color * history * rituals
Namaste, and welcome to our post on Kathmandu, Nepal. Where do I begin? It is a photographer's dream. We took 2600 photos in six days. Kathmandu reminded us of India, Cairo, and Morocco; three of our favorite cities, all rolled into one. Crazy, crowded, colorful, dirty, interesting... a third-world country for sure. This is what we seek when we travel, and we LOVED Kathmandu!
Kathmandu Valley comprises the three ancient cities of Kathmandu, Patan, and Bhaktapur; which were once independent states ruled by the Malla kings from the 12th to the 18th centuries. We stayed in Patan in a small boutique hotel called Traditional Homes - Swotha. Our hotel was a block from the stunning square shown in the photos above and below.
I was in awe of these ancient buildings and monuments. The central part of Patan, called Durbar Square, is a UNESCO World Heritage site and you can certainly see why. These photos do not begin to show the beauty and the immense feel these structures create. Its beginnings date back to the third century BC.
Officially Nepal is a Hindu country, but you see Hindu and Buddhist beliefs intertwined. I found this particularly interesting about the country. Even the temples and their monuments and statures are a mixture of both. Religion defines art, culture, and the ritual of daily life there. “Religion in Nepal comprises a net of magical, mystical, and spiritual beliefs with a multitude of gods reflecting the diverse facets of Nepalese life.“ I read this line and felt it described Kathmandu perfectly.
People ring bells at the temples from early in the morning until late at night to wake up the gods. They also light candles and leave offerings. You can hear bells throughout the entire city.... even when you wake up!
Offerings for the Gods... notice the poinsettia leaves. They grow wild throughout the country.
Kathmandu, built in 723 AD, is the largest city and capital of Nepal. It is a landlocked country bordered by China in the north and India in the south, east and west. It is one of the poorest and least developed countries in the world.
This was a biggy for me, Nepal was my 50th country! Notice the layers of clothing I am wearing? Nepal does have a winter and the temperatures were in the mid to upper 60's during the day and colder at night. We enjoyed the cool weather!
Mount Everest, the highest peak in the world, is on the Nepal-China border. We had a great view of Mt Everest as we flew into the city... on D's birthday! D was quite excited about this.
We were also there for Christmas and had one Santa (and his brother) sighting. There were only a handful of Christmas decorations, which makes sense with only 1.4 percent of the population being Christian.
These little girls were excited to wish us a Merry Christmas and show us the Santa images on their faces. Cute. When we were walking around on Christmas day, several people would say Merry Christmas to us. There were very few westerns visiting at this time so we did stand out.
On the first day we realized that there was much to learn about this fascinating county and culture, so we hired a guide for two more days. One of the first places we visited was the Pashupatinath Temple, the oldest Hindu temple in Kathmandu dating back to 400 A.D. It is dedicated to a manifestation of Shiva called Pashupati (Lord of Animals).
As non-Hindus, we were not allowed in the main temple, but there is so much to see all around the temple. The most interesting part is the cremations, which are in the open and you can see the entire process very vividly. In the photo above, you can see several pyres where they burn the bodies. You can walk right next to the pyres and the bodies laying in preparation.
Did we watch a cremation? Yes. It was like a National Geographic special. In the photo below, we sat on the left-hand steps close to the water and the cremation was directly across from us.
It was an elaborate cremation as it was for a retired army general. He was laid on a special bed of orange marigolds. The male family members bathed and shaved their heads for the ceremony and wore all white. The oldest son builds and lights the fire. The area where the deceased man was burned is reserved for the royal family and very important people only. We were happy we had a guide, as there was so much for him to explain.
Am I glad I did it? Yes. But it was mentally and emotionally draining. I cried. Our guide told me not to cry, that death is viewed as a natural aspect of life and eventually we all must die. In the Hindu religion they believe in the cyclical reincarnation of the soul. We have some VERY graphic images of the body burning, too harsh for the blog. The one below is borderline.
The temple is on the Bagmati River which, is said to have highly sacred properties. When a family member dies, they are wrapped and carried by family members to the river. Family members will put the body in the water prior to the cremation. Below, they are preparing a body on the steps going into the river. We did not see any deceased bodies placed into the river.
You will see people walking in the river, putting the water on their face, even drinking it – the SAME water where the cremations occur. And just down stream where the cremations take place, people wash their clothes.
People also wade through the water looking for gold that may have fallen off of the bodies. You can see two men below pushing a casket through the water. I have to admit, this was one of the most bazaar experiences we have ever witnessed.
We also saw many Sadhu (Hindu wandering holy men) at the temple.
Again, it was nice to have a guide so we could talk to the Sadhu. They are not like monks in that you are allowed to talk to the Sadhus.
There was a group of Indian women who asked to have their photo taken with me; and as a thank you, the one women offered us a blessing. She had holy water from the Ganges in India, the Bagmati (where we were), as well as a few other holy sites.
She showed us how to put it on our heads.... yes, water from the cremations. We accepted to be polite. How bad could it really be? People were drinking it! I felt honored she wanted to share it with us as she did not have much. Our guide told us they believe in karma and if she gave to us, good would come back to her.
Later that day we visited the Bodhnath Stupa, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was built during the 5th century AD and is the largest stupa in Nepal and one of the largest in the world. In the late afternoon, locals come to the stupa to spin prayer wheels, which are believed to accumulate wisdom and good karma, and ward off negativity. You must walk clockwise around the stupa (actually all stupas and temples in Nepal).
We celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary while we were in Nepal. What did we do on our special day? We went to Dakshinkali Temple (or Dakshin Kali Temple) to see animal sacrifices. Isn't this what everyone does on their wedding anniversary? Dakshinkali is a 15-minute drive from Kathmandu. The morning drive was very cloudy but it provided some breathtaking views of the valley.
On Saturdays, Nepalese families travel to this Hindu temple to perform animal sacrifices, mainly chickens and goats, in front of the statue of Kali. In presenting a sacrifice, it is done to ask for good luck or healing - for instance if a wedding is coming up or you have a sick relative you would sacrifice an animal.
As you walk towards the temple, there are vendors selling everything from chickens, to paint pigments, to toys to flowers for offerings.
We received our own little blessing from a Sadhu. He gave us a yarn bracelet, a marigold necklace, and put a tikā/teeka (a mixture of a red powder, yogurt, and grains of rice) on our forehead . It is applied with the thumb, in a single upward stroke. This temple was NOT for tourists - it was real.
Once you get up to the temple, you have to wait in a long line to make the sacrifice. I am pretty sure this happy little girl had no idea what was going go happen to her goat! Since we were not sacrificing an animal, we did not have to wait in line.
This is the temple where the sacrifice is done. We were not permitted to go past the gold gate, but we did walk up to it for a better view. And yes we did see several sacrifices. Each one was quick and clean.
Below are a few chickens that have already been sacrificed. Notice how everyone is barefoot, walking in the blood from the animals.
A stop at the butcher is the next step in the process. The butcher completely cleans the chicken and gets it ready for you to cook. It was actually quite clean.
Then time to cook and eat it. There is a large amount of land around the temple and people set up and cook what they sacrifice and have a party. It is a big family event. That's a big pot below. Must have been a goat. :-)
After this we went for our "anniversary lunch" - nothing but the best for me. We were with the guide, otherwise we would have never known this place was a restaurant - and I use the term "restaurant" loosely. And, I am pretty sure very few tourists have eaten here.
Me with the local Nepalese men - they were quite amused with us.
The kitchen was directly across from our table. Not sure if this was a good or bad thing.
I ate the potatoes but refused the buffalo meat. I put D on quarantine after he ate the buffalo pancake and drank the rice wine - I would not eat/drink after him for weeks! I was convinced he would get sick, but he did not!
In the back room of the "restaurant" a young girl was pounding grain into paste that was used in the buffalo dish above. There was also a young man around 10 years old bathing.... he had on underwear. I so wish I had a photo to share with you. You know we eat at a lot of questionable places, but I have to admit... I was actually afraid of this one!
Our adventure continues.... our guide stopped to visit a friend and the gentleman invited us to have a drink in their apartment. How fun to see a local's home. We sat on their bed and they sat on the floor across from us. They served D rice wine and I took tea that I "pretended" to drink, as there is no running water in any of the towns and we saw the "well" where they get the water. I am especially cautious when it comes to water.
They also served us buffalo meat and a local recipe of pickled vegetables. They brought out one fork for 4 of us (including our guide). I refused, but D felt he had to eat to be polite. Not me. He was then on double quarantine. He was very lucky he did not get sick.
The whole family and me in front of their carved-wood store. We left as friends.
Temple, statues, and stupas
The city is full of religious art, temples, and monasteries. Every corner you turn has stunning temples and statues. We visited so many that I can't remember the names of each, but I still want to share them with you.
As we walked along the main streets, we could not tell that behind each cluster of apartments there was a courtyard with a stupa tucked behind them.
This one had treasures like what you might see in a museum. We had to walk down a narrow alleyway to get to them.
We loved the tiny, decorative doors in the narrow streets.
The people are so colorful, and many dressed in local costumes. This woman was very poor. I gave her money, which I normally avoid. I just loved the mixed fabrics, her diamond nose earring, and necklace. What stories she could tell!
There were many women sitting in the sun knitting in the small villages...
... and spinning cotton into yarn. These women are not just spinning for tourists, they make a living from the yarn they spin. There’s big business in the textile industry throughout the Kathmandu valley in Nepal today.
Even the simple street scenes are so colorful.
The infant below is only a few weeks old. It is customary for mothers to give new newborn babies "sun baths" where they keep them outside in the sun for hours. Oh my - I was cringing. I am a sun-block fanatic! Look how dark that baby is!
Because of the warmer days (upper 60s), there were many people out sunning. This group climbed on the roof. Even the toddler is up there.
As I mentioned earlier, it is third-world country. Here are a few shots of typical city streets.
We visited a few old towns that were off the beaten path, Khokana and Chobar. Although I have to say, most all of Kathmandu is off the beaten path! In the smaller villages it felt like you stepped back in time 100 years. We kept saying it looked like something from a movie.
I love this photo - she is working away while he naps.
The community spends most of their days outside their houses.
I thought the old wood windows were beautiful. They are referred to as Desay Madu Jhyā and date back more than a thousand years. The intricate carvings depict religious motifs, ritual objects, mythical beasts and birds.
Cows are sacred in Nepal and it is illegal to kill them. You will see them wandering all over, even in the streets. It is considered good luck to feed them.
Nepalese do eat buffalo as being sold by the local butcher below. Really, this is a "butcher shop."
Water and electricity are scarce in Nepal. While we were there they had scheduled blackouts for electricity. Our hotel had no electicity from 7 am to 3 pm and 6 pm to 9 pm. They do not have plumbing in their homes so they go to a community well to get their water every day.
Below is a view of where the water comes from. If you look closely on the left you can see the water running from the wall. There are stations like this all over the city and as you can see, you have to wait in line, sometimes for hours; then carry the heavy pails/containers of water home. It is not an easy life.
They do a lot of their washing outside as well. A little one getting a bath in the sun...
a big one taking a bath...
and women doing their wash, all very common scenes. And remember, it was not that warm!
Always sweet to photograph the children.
What a playground: a thousand-year-old monument!
The kids were playing a game swapping cards. Not sure if you can tell, but the cards are American wrestlers. Pro Wrestling cards were collected by all the boys we met.
Must be a good story he just told she is watching him with such intent.
This little girl was so cute. She just kept repeating Namaste, Namaste, Namaste and placing her hands in a prayer pose, and giggling. I kept saying it back to her.
If you have read this far, thank you! If you are enjoying Kathmandu and would like to see more photos - we created a slide show just for you! It is better to watch it in on the original size - if you enlarge the screen the photos will be blurry. Or you can click on the youtube icon on the bottom right and watch a slightly larger format.
What a spectacular county to see. If you have ever thought about going, we highly recommend Kathmandu, Nepal. There is also so much to see in the beautiful countryside - mountain climbing and trekking. Next time!