The Kathmandu valley comprises Kathmandu, the capital city, and the cities of Patan (Lalitpur) and Bhaktapur, which were separate kingdoms before the unification of Nepal in 1768 by King Prithvi Narayan Shah of Gorkha. Its most famous pilgrimage sites are the Pashupatinath Temple, revered by Hindus all over the world, and Swayambhunath and Bauddhanath - centres of Newar and Tibetan Buddhism in Nepal respectively. All these three sites are included in UNESCO’s World Heritage list.
Despite having a predominant Hindu population, the two major religions of Nepal, Hinduism and Buddhism, have blended and co-existed in utter harmony and mutual respect, with followers of the two religions visiting and worshipping each other’s holy places as not seen or experienced elsewhere in the world. The country has also shown a high degree of religious tolerance and reverence towards other faiths as well. Kathmandu has mosques, churches and a Sikh gurudwara, some of them grandly located in the city’s busiest centres, where devotees offer their prayers according to their faith. There are also shrines or centres dedicated to Sai Baba, Krishna Pranami, Osho and Brahma Kumari. Several Lamaist Buddhist monasteries representing all four orders of Tibetan Buddhism - Ningmapa, Sakyapa, Kagyukpa and Gelukpa - are also found here. There are also a number of Theravada monasteries. Several of these monasteries offer courses on Tibetan Buddhism.
This temple situated on the banks of the holy River Bagmati is the most revered Hindu temple in Nepal. The main temple complex is open only to the Hindus; non-Hindus can observe the temple premises and activities from the terraces across the Bagmati River to the east. As a mark of reverence and tradition, leather items that include shoes, belts and cameras are forbidden within the temple complex and must be left outside. Photography is strictly prohibited inside.
The most important festival observed here is Shivaratri, or ‘the Night of Lord Shiva’ - the night Lord Shiva self-originated - when devotees and pilgrims from far and wide across Nepal and India, including sadhus (barely attired holy men with long locks of hair and smeared in ashes) and ascetics, throng the temple to have a darshan (glimpse) of the sacred Shiva lingam. The other holy occasion when devotees descend to the temple in large numbers is on Teej (a festival solely observed by Hindu women) in mid-September. The whole temple complex and the adjoining areas turn into a sea of red as women draped in their bridal red sarees and wearing yellow or green bead necklaces offer prayers for the well-being, prosperity and longevity of their husbands. The temple is just as crowded with devotees every fortnight on the 11th day of the lunar month on Ekadashi. Among the Ekadashis, the most prominent and holiest two are the Harishayani Ekadashi in Ashadh (June/July) and four months later, Haribodhini Ekadashi in Kartik (October/November).
The Slesh Mantak forest encircles the holy site where monkeys abound, and deer is reared in captivity to revere the animal form that Lord Shiva took as per the Swasthani Brata Katha.
Main Temple Complex
The word Pashupati means “Lord of the Beasts”. It is one of the most venerated and famed Shiva temples for the Hindus. The main temple, a two-storey pagoda temple measuring about 24 metres in height and built on a square platform, is believed to be three centuries old. It stands in the middle of an open courtyard. The massive doors on four sides are silver plated and intricately carved with images of deities and auspicious signs. The main idol, or Jyotirlingam, carved on black stone has four faces facing in four directions, and a fifth one is believed to be facing upwards. The four faces are named as Tatpurush in the east, Aghor in the south, Bamadeva in the north and Sadojat in the east.
The Shiva linga is believed to be seven centuries old as the former one was supposedly disgraced by the Muslim invader, Sultan Shamshuddin from Bengal, who attacked Kathmandu in 1346. To the west of the temple are the figures of two bulls; the smaller one facing east towards the temple was constructed during the Malla period. The second one, a massive size bull made of brass and also facing the temple was built by Rana Prime Minister Jung Bahadur’s son, Jagat Jung, as an offering to Lord Pashupatinath. The bull known as Nandi is the baahan (carrier) of Shiva. It may be interesting to note that all Shaiva temples have Nandi, the bull, seated facing the temple.
Inside the temple complex are idols of many Hindu gods, goddesses and deities enshrined and instituted at different periods of history. The Vasuki Temple, devoted to the Snake God, was constructed by King Pratap Malla in the 7th century. The temple of Unmatta Bhairab is to the south of the main temple. The main entrance to the temple complex is on the west. There is an entrance from the east also, which leads/descends to the sacred Aryaghat along the Bagmati River, which is the cremation ghat for Hindus.
The western door of the main temple opens at 5 in the morning for worshippers, and the remaining doors are also opened to the devotees from 9:30 a.m. to 14:30. Doors reopen at 18:30 till 19:30 for Aarati (offering of oil lamps). Water and liquid offerings to the Shiva linga flows down the sacro sanctum to a place called Brahma Naal, a rectangular stone slab on the bank of the River Bagmati where those who are on the verge of death are laid down to breathe their last in the belief that dying at this spot at the foot of the Lord would assure them a place in Heaven.
Access: The temple lies 5 km to the east of the city centre. Besides taxis, microbuses or three wheelers called tempos will drop you at Gaushala from where it is a short walk to the temple.
It is one of the famous Shakti Peeths in Nepal and is located on the banks of the Bagmati River near the Pashupatinath Temple. Here too, non-Hindus are denied entry. The goddess is replicated here in the form of a silver plated water-hole which is kept covered by a silver kalash (auspicious water jar).
The Swasthani Brata Katha chronicles the origin of the temple. Following the death by self-immolation in a fire by his beloved consort Sati Devi, a grief-stricken Shiva wandered aimlessly across the earth carrying her dead body on his shoulders. In the course of his directionless wandering, the corpse began to rot, and parts of the body fell at different places.
Wherever those body parts fell, a Shakti Peeth originated, and the Mother Goddess in her manifestation as the consort of Lord Shiva came to stay there. Gods, sages and celestial beings came to the Shakti Peeths to do penance or offer worship to the goddess (Ishwari), and thus these spots became holy places. It was at this spot that the Guhya (anal portion) of the corpse fell, and hence this place came to be known as Guhyeshwari.
The Changu Narayan Temple is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is perched atop a small hill to the east of Kathmandu in Bhaktapur district. It is one of the best known Vishnu - Narayan is another name of Vishnu - temples in Nepal and is visited by a large number of devotees especially during Harishayani Ekadashi in the month of Ashadh and Haribodhini Ekadashi in Kartik, over the four month period when Lord Vishnu is supposed to retire to sleep.
At the front of the temple is a beautiful statue of Garuda dating back to 5th century Lichchhavi period. This Garuda is unique in that it resembles a human being except that it has wings unlike other Garuda statues found elsewhere. The Garuda is the baahan (carrier) of Lord Vishnu, and it is interesting to note that all Vishnu temples have the celestial bird seated on its knee with folded palms in front of the temple.
The temple is one of the most elaborate in the Kathmandu valley, rich in wood and stone carvings. It is a two-tiered pagoda structure and was re-constructed in 1702 after the old one was gutted by fire. A stone tablet Shilapatra, discovered in the vicinity of the temple, dates from the 5th century, the oldest such inscription discovered in Nepal. The main courtyard has several temples and idols of gods with intricate carving in stone accomplished between the 5th to 12th centuries, making it the highest concentration of ancient art in Nepal.
The temple has a gilded copper roof with a pinnacle. On each of the four doorways are four toranas, or exquisitely carved crest suspended over the door. In the temple courtyard are pillars on which are positioned the four divine possessions of Lord Vishnu consisting of the sankha (conch), chakra (discus), gadaa (mace) and padma (lotus). The temple complex also contains the idol of Vishnu Vishwarup considered by some to be one of the most beautiful idols ever made in Nepal. There are also smaller shrines dedicated to Goddess Chhinnamasta (goddess devoid of a head), Badeshwar Mahadev, Laxmi Narayan and Kileshwar. In the northeast corner of the courtyard is the beautiful bas-relief of Vishnu mounting on the back of the Garuda which dates from the 12th century. The importance of this image can be ascertained from the fact that it features in the Nepali 10 rupee banknote. Although Changu Narayan is primarily a site sacred to the Vaishnavites, there are also idols of Shiva and Durga, making it a site equally important to the Shaivas and Shakti upasaks, thus demonstrating a high degree of mutual respect and tolerance between the different sects within Hinduism.
Access: Changu Narayan is situated 12 km to the east of Kathmandu. There are microbuses from Bhaktapur that leave regularly for Changu Narayan. Some visitors also trek from Nagarkot to Changu Narayan and return to Kathmandu via Bhaktapur.
It is situated in Pharping at the southern point of the valley on the way to the famous Dakshinkali Temple. The Vishnu temple is built on a cliff known for its stalactites and is one of the four prominent Narayanas (or Vishnus) in the valley, the other three being the Changu Narayan (described earlier), Ichangu Narayan at Halchowk (west of Swayambhunath Stupa), and Bishankhu Narayan en route to Godavari. A huge fair takes place in the four Narayan temples in the months of Ashadh and Kartik on Ekadashi.
Access: Shesh Narayan is reached by the same transportation that takes you to Dakshinkali.
This site, situated at the foot of the Shivpuri hills in the northern-most part of the Kathmandu valley, has probably the largest stone statue of Lord Vishnu in Nepal reclining on a bed of snakes in the middle of a pond. The five-metre long granite image carved out of a single rock dates back to the Lichchhavi period. According to folklore, a farmer was ploughing his field one day when his plough struck a boulder, and to his surprise and alarm, blood started oozing out of the cut in the stone. Upon digging around the huge boulder, he unearthed the magnificent image of the reclining Vishnu that had remained buried in the ground. A big mela (fair) is held at Budhanilkantha on the auspicious two main Ekadashis, Harishayani and Haribodhini, marking the four month period when the Lord retires to sleep.
Access: There are regular microbuses from Kathmandu’s city centre to Budhanilkantha, 9 km to the north.
It is situated in Gokarna which lies in the northeastern part of the valley - hence the name Gokarneshwar. This pagoda-style Shiva temple constructed in the 16th century is situated on the bank of the Bagmati River. Several devotees visit the temple during the waxing new moon according to the lunar calendar in the Nepali month of Bhadra (August/September) and Paush (December/January) to perform the shraddha ceremony of their deceased parents and ancestors. The courtyard of the temple contains idols of many Hindu deities such as Surya, Chandra, Kamadeva and Narad which are normally not found elsewhere.
Access: Gokarneshwar Temple can be reached by taking a bus to Sundarijal and disembarking at Gokarna point.
Situated at the south end corner of the Kathmandu valley, Dakshinkali is one of the most famous Shakti Peeths in Kathmandu dedicated to Goddess Kali; hence the namesake which means “Kali of the south”. The temple precinct overflows with crowds of zealous devotees especially on Tuesdays and Saturdays when ritual animal sacrifices are performed. It is to be noted that Nepal’s Shakti Peeths never accept female animals for sacrifice. Tucked in a scenic sylvan setting, the place has become a favourite haunt for picnickers.
Access: The shrine is situated 22 km from Kathmandu on the southern rim of the valley. There are tourist buses, taxis and public transport to reach the shrine.
This temple is one of the major Shakti Peeths of the Kathmandu valley and is situated on the outskirts of the old city across the Bishnumati River. The temple is a two-storey pagoda with brass roofs. The goddess is worshipped by both Hindus and Buddhists. Tantric rituals are followed in worshipping this deity. People throng the temple in large numbers from the wee hours of the morning during the Navaratra, the nine days that mark the Dashain festival in October. Near the temple is the cremation ghat along the bank of the Bishnumati River.
Access: This temple is a 10-minute leisurely walk from downtown Kathmandu.
Bagalamukhi and Kumbheshwar
The two temples, one a Shiva temple and the other a Shakti Peeth, are located in the same temple complex, south of the city of Patan. Bagalamukhi is one of the most famous Shakti Peeths of the Kathmandu valley and is visited by a large number of devotees especially on Thursdays. The goddess is known as the one who fulfills the devotees’ wishes. The inner shrine is carved with silver. Navaratra draws large numbers of devotees to the temple from the wee hours of the morning.
Kumbheshwar is dedicated to Shiva, the Lord of Aquarius or Water Pitcher (kumbha). It is a five-storey pagoda temple made of wood, one of just two five-storeyed temples in the valley. The temple dates from 1392, making it the oldest temple in Patan, Lalitpur. There is a large silver Shiva lingam inside the temple. There is a pond nearby whose water is said to flow all the way from Gosainkunda Lake nestled in Langtang Himal in Rasuwa district. A big fair is held here on Janai Purnima in August.
Bajrajogini, situated in Sankhu village 20 km east of Kathmandu, is a prominent Tantric deity which is worshipped by both Buddhists and Hindus alike. The three-storey pagoda was constructed by Kantipur (Kathmandu) King Pratap Malla in the 17th century. There is also the temple of Khadgajogini in the area. Goats, chicken and ducks are offered as sacrifice to the deity during festivals such as Dashain. Buddhists following the Vajrayana sect also consider the temple to be sacred. There are a number of prayer wheels with inscriptions of “Om Mani Padme Hum” written in Tibetan script.
Access: Buses leave Kathmandu’s old bus park for Sankhu. It is an hour uphill climb to the shrine. One can also reach the shrine from Nagarkot, which is a two-hour trip.
Perched on a hillock west of Kathmandu, Swayambhunath is, perhaps, the most eminent Buddhist monument in Nepal. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is also mentioned as the ‘Monkey Temple’ owing to the presence of a large number of monkeys around the area.
The oldest written reference to the stupa dates from the 5th century, but it could have existed much earlier. It is said that when Sultan Shamshuddin from Bengal invaded the Kathmandu valley in 1346, he broke open the dome to see if there were gold and valuables hidden inside. It was renovated over the centuries. Legend, however, has it that the stupa evolved spontaneously at the time of the valley’s creation.
Pilgrims circumambulate the base of the hill of the stupa. A steep climb up a stone stairway on the eastern flank of the hill takes you to the dome of the stupa where the first thing one comes across at the end of the ascent is the huge vajra, or thunderbolt, also called dorje. Around the periphery of the circular base of the white dome at intervals are placed the five meditating Buddhas enclosed in the walls within iron veils, ostentatiously to protect them from theft. Prayer wheels of copper inscribed with the chant ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’ are fixed along the periphery of the dome, and pilgrims rotate the wheels as they circumambulate the stupa.
The stupa is one of the several shrines and temples in the complex. There are two white shikhara-style temples constructed by King Pratap Malla of Kathmandu in the mid 17th century known as Pratappur and Anantapur facing east on either side of the vajra. To the west of the dome, there is a two-tiered temple of Ajima, or Harati, known as the protector of small children and the goddess of smallpox. According to legend, Harati was a mother to 500 children and was used to kidnapping others’ children to feed her own. On the plea of those who had lost their children to Harati Ajima, Buddha one day made off with the youngest of her children and hid him beneath his begging bowl. When she came to know that her child was lost, she was overwhelmed with grief and inconsolable. The Lord then told the grief stricken mother that if she was so overwhelmed with grief at the loss of one child (she had 500), then imagine the pain caused to other mothers who had lost their only child to her. The Lord then returned the child safely to her. From then on she became the ultimate protector of children, and the temple is dedicated to her.
On a hillock west of Swayambhu is a shrine dedicated to Manjushree who is credited to have drained the lake and made the valley habitable. The idol of Manjushree is also worshipped as Saraswati, or the ‘Goddess of Learning’ by Hindus. A large number of devotees and students, in particular, visit this shrine during the Basanta Panchami in February with prayers for knowledge and education. Parents bring their very young children and have them scrawl alphabets on the walls of the shrine in the belief that the goddess will make them studious and scholarly.
There is a Tibetan Buddhist monastery of the Kagyukpa order north of the Swayambhunath stupa called Karmaraj Mahabihar. On a clear day, a beautiful panoramic view of the Kathmandu valley can be had from the platform surrounding the chaitya. Access: Swayambhunath lies 2 km west of Kathmandu and is a 40-minute walk from the city centre. There are public buses and tempos that will drop you at the foot of the hill. From there, it is a steep climb up the eastern stairway. Alternately, the easier route is ascending from the western side.
The Bauddhanath Stupa is one of the most imposing landmarks in Kathmandu and is also another centre of Buddhism in the valley. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The entry to the Bauddhanath Stupa complex is through a gate, and shops selling tourist paraphernalia and restaurants ring the stupa. The path around the stupa is crowded with devotees circumambulating clockwise round the stupa, turning prayer wheels with the writing “Om Mani Padme Hum” inscribed on them. Devout pilgrims prostrate themselves along the path.
The stupa is said to contain relics of Kashyapa Buddha, who preceded the arrival of the Enlightened Buddha, according to Buddhist holy texts. The stupa, originally constructed around the 5th century, is said to have been renovated in the 7th and 8th century to the present form. To the north of the stupa is the temple dedicated to Harati Ajima, the goddess that protects children from diseases such as smallpox. According to folklore, she was used to devouring children of the settlements. Buddha persuaded her to give up the cannibalism, and she now protects the shrine. According to legend, however, the temple is dedicated to Sukhotama Devi who is supposed to have built the stupa.
The stupa has three terraces. The four corners of the stupa contain statues of Heavenly Kings. There are prayer wheels of copper with “Om Mani Padme Hum” inscribed in them fixed to the walls. The four sides of the stupa have the all-seeing eyes of the Buddha painted on them, which are supposed to represent the wisdom and compassion of the Buddha. The nose as a question mark represents a Perfectly Enlightened Buddha. The spire is made up of 13 levels and represents the 13 stages of the path of Bodhisatva.
There are a large number of Buddhist monasteries at Bauddhanath. Most of these were constructed in the second half of the 20th century.
A large number of pilgrims visit the Bauddhanath Stupa during Lhosar, or the Tibetan New Year, or on the occasion of Buddha Jayanti, the day Buddha was born. Pilgrims light butter lamps and offer prayer flags to the stupa.
Access: There are microbuses, taxis and tempos to Bauddhanath, which is 6 km east of the city centre in Kathmandu.
Kapan Monastery is situated on a hillock north of Bauddhanath and is one of the most famous monasteries in Nepal. This monastery was established in 1970 on a piece of land owned by a royal preceptor of Nepal. There is a huge statue of Tsnokhapa inside the monastery. Courses are offered on Tibetan Buddhism in the monastery and a significant number of students from Western countries attend here.
Access: There are direct microbuses from Kathmandu’s city centre to the foot of the hillock where Kapan is located. One must climb the hill to reach the monastery.
Holy sites of Kirats
Hattiban in Lalitpur district has holy sites associated with the Kirat religion.
Two mosques, the Kashmiri Taquiya and Jame Masjid, are located at Durbar Marg in Kathmandu on either side of Ghantaghar (Clock Tower) and Tri-Chandra College. The northern mosque known as Kashmiri Taquiya, or the Kashmiri Mosque, was originally built by Moslems from Kashmir who came to settle in the Kathmandu valley during the Malla period. The mosque to the south is known as Jame Masjid, renovated in the 1990’s to the present structure. Most of the devotees to this mosque come from certain districts of the southern Terai region where there is a larger Muslim population. Faithfuls throng the mosques on Fridays and during Moslem festivals.
The Sikh Gurudwara is at Kopundol near the bank of the Bagmati River.
There are several churches in Kathmandu which include both Catholic and Protestant.