High Culture

The Cultural Riches of Nepal

All right, we admit it. Most people come to Nepal because of the mountains. That's a great reason. But not everyone wants to trek for weeks, and all visitors spend at least some time in the Kathmandu area.

The Kathmandu Valley is an amazingly rich treasure trove of history, art, and architecture interwoven with a complex culture. Kathmandu's uniquely favorable climate and soil fostered an early blossoming; and the heritage of those ancient cultures means there is wonderful sightseeing that is, in the words of author, renaissance man, and longtime Kathmandu resident Desmond Doig, "rich enough to consume several lifetimes."

For a sample of a program focusing on culture and handicrafts, click Handicrafts Tours

While Trekking... we will introduce you to some of the 40 ethnic and language groups in Nepal, with extensive time to meet them and opportunities for home stays. And your Sherpa Guides, the living embodiment of the spirit of the mountains, will unfold the many legends of the Himalayas for you.

In the Jungle... you will meet the fascinating Tharu people, descended from refugees who fled the Moghul invasion of India about 800 years ago and developed a unique culture and resistance to malaria which once plagued the jungle regions.

The Magnificent Seven - The World Heritage Sites of the Kathmandu Valley

The Valley of Kathmandu is fertile, flat and compact. It is situated at the altitude of between 1,200 to 1,500 meters (between 4,000 to 5,000 feet).

The valley is also small, with an area of only 220 square miles (570 square kilometers). Yet in its smallness, there are record seven World Heritage Sites declared by the UNESCO - a fact unrivaled anywhere in the world! The seven man-made wonders are the milestones of Nepal's past and a "living museum".

Kathmandu Durbar Square is also called Hanuman Dhoka (the gates of Hanuman) and is divided into two principal chowks (courtyards). The outer one is renowned for the Kumari Ghar (the house of the Kumari - or virgin - "living goddess"), Kasthamandap (the wooden house), Narayan Mandir, the stone statue of Garuda (man-bird), and the Shiva-Parvati Temple.

The inner chowk is the old palace complex. The principal chowk-within-a-chowk is Nasal Chowk, the seat of important national ceremonies including coronations. Mohan Chowk, Sundari Chowk, and Lohan Chowk are other courtyards. There are four towers named after Basantpur, Kirtipur, Lalitpur, (Patan) and Bhaktapur.

There are many exceptional temples in the area, the most notable being the Teleju Temple dedicated to the female royal deity, Taleju Bhawani. This ultra-sacrosanct temple is opened only once a year, and only the king and certain priests can enter it.

Patan Durbar Square  Patan is also notable for the four stupas erected by Emperor Ashoka at the four cardinal directions of the city. The palaces square sits between these four milestones. The royal place's sprawling landmarks are Sundari Chowk, Tusha Hiti, Mul Chowk, Bidya Mandir, Taleju shrine, Taleju Bhawani Temple, Golden Gate, Keshab Narayan Chowk, and Degu Talle.

The outer perimeters are noteworthy for the Krisha Mandir in stone, Hari Shanker Temple, Bishwanath Mandir, Bhimsesen Mandir, Mangal Hiti and others.

Medieval Bhaktapur is entered through a massive royal gate and opens up to a most unspoiled complex of palaces, shrines and other landmarks in the Valley. On the left is a pair of statues in stone of Ugrachandi with her 18 arms. Then there is the Rameshwor Temple, and in the middle of the square, the gilded statue of King Bhupatindra Malla seated on a tall stone pillar faces the most exquisitely artistic Sun Dhoka, or the golden gate, leading into the royal palace. The royal palace is also known as the "palace of 55 windows". The inner portion of the palace has the Taleju courtyard and her temple. Beyond is the Sundari Chowk.

The outer perimeters of the complex are replete with pillars and pavilions: Chyasalin Mandap, Durga Temple, Taduchhen Bahal, Batsala Durga, Pashupati Temple, Taumadhi Tole and others. To the right, and in another square, is the famed 30-meter (98 feet) Nyatapola Temple, the tallest and most multi-roofed edifice in Nepal. To its right is the Kashi Vishwanath Temple. On the side of the square is the Nyatapola Cafe, and beyond it is the community of the famous potters.

Swayambhunath Temple Complex is a Buddhist stupa on a western hill of Kathmandu. More than 2,500 years old, this ancient landmark is connected to the visit of Manjushree who created Kathmandu - a lake then - by draining its waters. The sage saw a celestial lotus in bloom on the top of this hill and sanctified it.

The stupa of Swayambhu is a hemispherical mound of compacted earth, and is built to specific rules, and is replete with symbols. The mound represents the four elements of earth, fire, wind, and water. The 13 gilded rings of the spire symbolize the 13 steps of the ladder leading to nirvana, the final salvation. The shrine is bedecked in colorful prayer flags.

The pilgrim's progress to Swaymbhunath's holy premises is actually through a sylvan path of 365 steps. The entrance is graced by a huge vajra (symbol of Thunderbolt). Statues of Buddha are on the four corners of the stupa. Statues of goddesses Ganga and Jamuna guard the eternal flame behind it. There is a Tibetan gompa (monastery) and innumerable chaityas (small stupas). The balconies of Swaymbhunth are ideal for viewing the entire Valley.

Boudhanath Stupa is the largest in Nepal. It is in various levels of terraces, and is painted with saffron garlands and adorned with prayer flags. It is set in a mandala (mystical circle) design. Altogether 108 Buddha images and 147 inset prayer wheels adorn the base of the huge circular edifice. The settlement of Boudhanath has the largest community of Tibetans, some 12,000 in all.

Changu Narayan Temple This is the most ancient Hindu temple in Kathmandu and is dedicated to Lord Vishnu. Another fact is that the complex is built on a peninsula which was not submerged in water as most of the flat valley once was. The lavishly decorated two-tiered principal temple stands in a spacious courtyard and is littered with artistic and priceless statues, idols and sculptures, some dating back to the 4th century.

Pashupatinath Temple The most sacred Hindu temple in Nepal is dedicated to Lord Shiva. In February-March the site holds the famed Maha Shivaratri festival, the great night of Shiva. The temple complex is very large, with guesthouses, temples, shrines and other landmarks. Its burning ghats on the river banks are the holiest in Nepal.

The aforementioned seven wonders of the Valley are not singular destinations. Each one leads to other many and different attractions - other temples, shrines and monasteries, bazaars, rural areas, short treks, countryside visits and other joyful activities. John, the marketing director for Friends in High Places, has written a book of short walking tours in Kathmandu, Patan, and Bhaktapur: Streets of Silver, Streets of Gold.

Click for some Cultural tips about fitting in and about Nepali Do's and Don'ts.