Kathmandu Valley’s Magnificent Monuments

February 24, 1975, was a red letter day in Nepal’s contemporary history. This was the day when a significant number of kings and queens, princes and princesses, and presidents and prime ministers assembled in Kathmandu to witness a once-in-a-lifetime event—the coronation of a king. It was the day when Crown Prince Birendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev was crowned King of Nepal in a lavish ceremony. It was not that he was not already a king. In fact, he had already been proclaimed king on January 31, 1972, that is, three years earlier, on the day his father King Mahendra passed away.

As it turned out, the three-year delay proved fortunate because it became a very important period of architectural restoration in the valley. The precious heritage of the country was in a sorry state and there could not have been a more opportune time to set things right than an event that would practically showcase the hereto relatively secluded nation to the world. The first order of business then was to bring back the glory to the Hanuman Dhoka Palace, which would be the focal point of the grand occasion. The restoration began in right earnest with the appointment of architect John Sanday, OBE, who finished the project in good time thus helping to make the coronation a grand success. He went on to do other restoration works as well in Nepal; this included stabilizing the Swayambhunath complex, which was on the verge of slipping down the hillside due to the shifting of the hilltop.

These pioneering works led to the restoration of other heritage monuments. Well, royalty may be no more in the country, but we have to thank a grandiloquent royal celebration for beginning the process of restoration of Nepal’s marvellous monuments. And marvellous they are! No wonder the whole of Kathmandu Valley was designated a World Heritage Site in 1979 on the strength of its seven groups of outstanding cultural monuments, they being: Kathmandu Durbar Square, Patan Durbar Square, Bhaktapur Durbar Square, Pashupatinath Temple, Boudhanath Stupa, Swayambhunath Stupa, and Changu Narayan Temple.

Kathmandu Durbar Square is also known as Hanuman Dhoka and it has the palaces of the Malla and Shah Kings of yore besides numerous impressive temples. The palaces were built around the 10th Century. The Malla kings ruled over Kathmandu from these palaces from King Ratna Malla’s time (1484-1520). After King Prithvi Narayan Shah’s conquest of the valley in 1769, Hanuman Dhoka became the seat of power of  the Shah Dynasty who ruled from the Square till 1896 before moving on to Narayanhiti Palace. As for the temples, the other predominant feature of the Square, the oldest temples, those of Jagannath, Kotilingeswara, Mahadev, and Mahendreswara, as well as the Taleju Temple, were constructed by King Mahendra Malla (1560-1574). The three-storied palace of the Living Goddess Kumari is situated at the west end of the Square. Kasthamandap Temple, from where the name of Kathmandu is derived, is also within the Square’s precincts. The temples of Shiva-Parvati, Bhagwati, Saraswoti, Krishna, and the Kal Bhairav shrine are also eye-catching structures in the Square.

Patan Durbar Square. image:flickr/Abhishek Singh

Patan Durbar Square is situated in the center of Patan City, also known as Lalitpur (the City of the Arts). The royal family of Patan reigned over this part of the Kathmandu valley from this Square. There are three major courtyards in the palace: Mul Chowk, Sundari Chowk, and Keshav Narayan Chowk. Sundari Chowk is distinguished by the presence of Tusha Hiti, a sunken watering spot, the artistry of which makes it more than just any other watering spot. Mul Chowk is the most ancient of the three while Keshav Narayan Chowk is where Lalitpur’s earliest Malla palace was built. A number of single and multi-tiered temples, built in different architectural styles, are situated on the western part of the complex. Among these, Krishna Temple (1637), Kumbheswor Temple, Bhimsen Temple, and the 12th Century Hiranya Varna Mahavihar especially stand out.

Bhaktapur Durbar Square. Image: flickr/Geoff Stearns

Bhaktapur Durbar Square’s centerpiece is the 55-Window Palace around which is a mix of pagoda- and shikhara-style temples. The Square also has huge stone monoliths atop which are statues of ancient kings. You’ll also be impressed by the Lion Gate (1696) which has two scary stone images of Shiva and Ugrachandi as well the Golden Gate which is richly crafted and is surmounted by images of Goddess Kali and Garuda, the mythical man-bird. This gate leads into the main courtyard of the 55-Window Palace that was built during King Yakshay Malla reign in 1427.
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Pashupatinath Temple, on the banks of the Bagmati River, is an important pilgrimage site for Hindus and religious occasions such as Maha Shivaratri, Teej Akshaya, Sankranti, Rakshabandhan, etc. are times when thousands of devotees visit the site. The pagoda style temple is richly-ornamented and it houses the sacred Lingum (phallic symbol of Shiva) which has four faces and dates back to the 14th Century. And, while the temple itself is believed to date back to the 5th Century, the temple as it stands today was built by King Bhupatindra Malla in 1653. Facing the front of the temple is a 300-year-old bronze figure of Nandi, Shiva’s vehicle, the bull. Behind the temple is the aryaghat, the cremation ground where all Hindus of Nepal aspire to be cremated when their time comes. The complex has many other temples dedicated to other gods.
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Boudhanath Stupa lies about 7 km east of the city center, and it is said to be the largest stupa in the world. It stands 40 m high and has a diameter of some 100 meters. Also known as Kahasti Chaitya, Boudhanath is the most holy Buddhist site in the country. A pyramid stands at the top of the dome on which are painted the all-seeing eyes of Buddha in red, white, and blue. The large dome is built on a three-layered base around which is a circumambulatory path with rows of prayer wheels as well as 108 Buddhist deities. Monasteries of all four schools of Mahayana Buddhism are to be found inside the stupa premises. Festivals like Lhosar are celebrated with much enthusiasm here. According to experts, King Manadeva was the one to build the Stupa during the Licchavi period after which it underwent several renovations in the 17th Century.
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monkey temple

Swayambhunath Stupa. Image:flickr/Geoff Stearns

Swayambhunath Stupa is one of the earliest shrines in Kathmandu Valley and is located on a conical wooded hilltop. It has a lofty white dome and glittering golden spire along with the all-seeing eyes of Buddha (along with a third eye). The shrine can be reached either by climbing a long flight of stairs (365, to be exact) or via a winding metal-topped road. If you climb the stairs, you’ll pass a gilded vajra and come face to face with two stone lions guarding the gate at the top. The Swayambhunath complex has many chaityas, temples, and painted deity images scattered around the site. You’ll encounter many monkeys here, like in Pashupatinath, but perhaps in larger numbers. In recent times, many new additions have come up around the site, including a 57-foot statue of Buddha. Buddha Jayanti, Gunla, and Lhosar are occasions when thousands throng to the shrine.
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Changunarayan Temple. Image: flickr/Stefan Krasowski

Changu Narayan Temple is located 22 km from Kathmandu and 4 km from Bhaktapur. Dating back to the 4th Century, the two-tiered temple is the oldest temple in Kathmandu Valley. The site is famous for some of the finest examples of stone, wood, and metal craftsmanship of the Licchavi era. The temple has colorful roof struts with intricate carvings of Lord Vishnu and various goddesses and it houses a 10-headed and 10-armed 5th Century stone image of Lord Narayan inside. A large 5th Century statue of the mythical man/bird carrier of Lord Vishnu, Garuda, kneels with folded hands before the temple doors. Close by is a stone inscription that is believed to be the earliest inscription ever found in the country. Four pillars can be seen at the four corners of the temple which have symbols representing Vishnu—the lotus, the conch shell, the chakra (disc), and the gada (club). You’ll also see other shrines at the site, including those dedicated to the gods Ganesh, Krishna, Somalingeshvara, and Nateshvara, as well as ancient (8th–10th Century) sculptures of various gods and goddesses.

All said and done, Kathmandu Valley has much to be proud of and much to showcase to visitors from around the globe. The valley’s magnificent monuments are unique and outstanding by any standards. Indeed, sightseeing takes on a whole new meaning when in Nepal!

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