The Kathmandu valley is made up of three historic cities: Kathmandu, Patan (Lalitpur) and Bhaktapur. Kathmandu, a city filled with medieval temples, palaces and modern high rise structures, is a fusion of the old and the new. With a rich past and a history that speaks of gods and goddesses mingling with mere mortals, one can find a story behind every temple, monument, locality or festival. The valley of Kathmandu abounds in tales and legends, stories that have been handed down from generation to generation. Though an outsider may find these tales far fetched, yet it is the belief and faith of the people that has kept the cultural heritage of this ancient valley alive and breathing. Here are some of the popular myths and legends that surround the three medieval cities.
When Kathmandu was a lake………..
According to a popular legend the valley of Kathmandu was once a lake. There were lotuses floating around this big lake. Once, the Boddhisattva Manjushri saw a bright flame coming out of a lotus that seemed to be planted in a hill. He wanted to have a closer look, so with a strike from his sword of wisdom he cut a gorge near Chobar hill. The water from the lake drained out of this gorge and the valley of Kathmandu came into being. Chobar with its famous gorge is situated 9kms South-west of Kathmandu.
The bright flame and the lotus turned into the Swayambhunath stupa. The shrine is holy to both Hindus and Buddhists. This is the one of the UNESCO cultural heritage site.
It lies 3-kms west of Kathmandu City and is situated on a hillock about 77meters above the valley. It is believed that the followers of Manjushri established a city near the Swayambhunath known as Manjupatan.
According to another legend, it was Lord Krishna who slashed through the gorge with a powerful thunderbolt to drain the waters that submerged the valley of Kathmandu.
The story of Kasthamandap, the wooden building, Kathmandu is named after……
Once, the celestial tree Kalpavriksha came in human form to the city to witness a festival. A learned tantric saw through his disguise and bound him with a spell which he was prepared to break if Kalpavriksha provided wood from the celestial tree to build a large building. Kalpavriksha accepted and the wood was provided. A huge three tier wooden building was built from the wood. The wooden structure stands to this day with an image of Gorakhnath at the centre of the ground floor. Named Kasthamandap, the building is said to be constructed out of a single tree. The city of Kathmandu is named after this wooden building. Kasthamandap stands in the Kathmandu Durbar Square, located at the centre of the city.
The House of the Living goddess (Kumari Bahal)……..
Legend has it that the Goddess Taleju used to visit the king in human form at night to advice him and to play dice. One night the king, Jaya Prakash Malla, looked at the goddess lustfully. Enraged the goddess announced that she would never come to him again. She predicted that both the end of his reign and the fall of his dynasty were at hand. When the king begged for forgiveness, the goddess at last made a concession. The king was to select a virgin child from a Newari caste, proclaim her the living goddess Kumari and worship her, for in this child she herself would manifest.
The Kumari is selected from the Newari caste of Sakya goldsmiths who are Buddhists. She must have the thirty-two virtues, among which is an unblemished body, the voice of a bird, and the neck of a duck. She must never cry or show fear. To test her courage the child is shut in a room where severed heads of sacrificed animals are placed. The one that emerges without a trace of fear is the chosen one. Her horoscope must match that of the king in every detail. She must also not bleed. As soon as she bleeds during puberty or due to an injury the goddess is believed to leave her body and the child is relieved of her duties as a living goddess and the search for another goddess begins.
The Living goddess is housed in a building overlooking the Hanumandhoka palace and the Taleju temple, at the Kathmandu Durbar Square. The entrance to the building is guarded by large stone lions. If one is lucky, one can get the darshan of the Kumari as she looks out from the window of the second floor. During the Kumari Jatra, which coincides with the Indra Jatra celebrations, the king comes to receive tika from the Kumari. The king offers a gold coin and touches the feet of Kumari while seeking her blessings.
Where the Divine couple Dwell…………
While taking a walk across Kathmandu Durbar Square you will come across the statue of a couple looking out from the first floor window of an ancient house. The couple is none other than the divine couple Lord Shiva and his consort Parvati. In the days of yore, it is said that Lord Shiva visited Kathmandu to see the divine dances performed during the festivals. Later on he was accompanied by Goddess Parvati in his daily jaunts. It was King Rana Bahadur Shah who decided to have a house built for the divine couple. The house, which is elaborately decorated, lies on a raised plinth which has a grandstand view of the old palace square. The images of Shiva and Parvati rest on a window rail looking out over the passing scene.
The Golden doorway to the Hanuman Dhoka Palace…..
In the middle of Kathmandu Durbar Square is the imposing Hanuman Dhoka palace. Once the royal quarters of the Malla kings and the Shah rulers, the palace now houses a museum. A kneeling figure of Hanuman guards the palace’s golden gate. The idol was built during the time of King Pratap Malla in 1672. A scarlet cloth covers his head and eyes to prevent him from seeing the erotic carvings on the nearby Jagganath temple. The golden doorway to the palace is guarded by the figures of Shiva and Shakti astride two lions.
Taleju Bhawani, the Temple dedicated to the royal goddess………..
The most majestic temple at the Durbar Square in Kathmandu is the one dedicated to the patron goddess of the royal house, Taleju Bhawani. When it was built, the Malla king ordered that no other building in Kathmandu should rise higher than its gilded roofs. It was raised on several receding brick plinths, to attain its imposing height. Only royalty is allowed to worship at the temple, except during the festival of Dassain when its doors are thrown open for the public to pay respects to the goddess and offer sacrifices.
The Holiest of shrine, Pashupatinath…………
At the present place where the temple of Pashupati rests, there used to be a mound. A cow frequented this mound and offered her milk there. A cowherd noticed this strange occurrence and out of curiosity, dug at this spot. As he began digging a great light poured out. The light had come out from a linga with faces of Shiva carved on four sides. The people built a shrine to shelter this linga. This shrine came to be known as Pashupatinath, dedicated to Lord Shiva in his incarnation as Pashupatinath, the protector of animals. Thus no animal is sacrificed within the temple. Situated 5-kms east of Kathmandu, and lying on the banks of the holy river Bagmati, the two tiered pagoda temple with heavily gilded roofs includes many small temples, dharamshalas, bathing and burning ghats (where the last rites for the dead are performed). The ornate silver doors of the temple are closed to non-Hindus. But one can clearly see the temple and rituals being performed from the eastern bank of the Bagmati River. The temple is listed in the UNESCO world Heritage Monument list. The temple comes alive during Maha Shivratri, the night of Lord Shiva, which falls in the month February/March. Thousands of pilgrims flock to the temple to celebrate the night dedicated to Lord Shiva. Another festival that is celebrated at Pashupatinath is Teej. This festival is celebrated in the month of Bhadra (August/September). On this day women observe a fast and pray to Lord Shiva for the long, healthy and prosperous life of their husbands. From dawn, a long line of women dressed colorfully in red saris and green pote (glass beads), carrying an offering to Lord Shiva can be seen. Many of them dance and sing in groups while waiting for their turn to worship at the shrine.
Boudhanath, the Stupa of a Million Dewdrops………
Once, a king who ruled over Kathmandu constructed a pool near his palace with three stone fountains. But no water gushed out of the fountains. He consulted his oracles who advised him that a man possessing the thirty-two virtues should be sacrificed at the spot. The king summoned his son and told him to go to the spring at dawn and severe the head of a shrouded person he would find sleeping there. The prince did as he was told and water gushed out from the fountains. But to his dismay he found that the shrouded person he had killed was his own father. Driven by his grief he left the palace and led the life of an ascetic. A terrible drought plagued the kingdom. The prince had a visitation from goddess Bajra Yogini who ordered him to build a shrine to Buddha. She told him to release a white bird and at the place where the bird lands to build the shrine. He began the construction work but since there was no water to mix the clay and sand, large sheets were spread upon the ground each night to be saturated with dew. When wrung out, the sheets provided the necessary water. This was carried on for twelve long years, when at last the stupa of a million dewdrops stood completed at last. The huge white dome of the Boudhanath rests upon three enormous tiers. The Stupa of Bouddhnath lies 8-kms east of Kathmandu. This is the one of the UNESCO cultural heritage sites of Nepal.
Akash Bhairav, the temple of the Kirat King slain during the epic battle of Mahabharata………….
The Kirats are the first documented rulers of the Kathmandu Valley. The remains of their palace are said to be in Patan near Hiranyavarna Mahavihara (called “Patukodon”).
The first and best remembered king was Yalambar. Legend has it that when Yalamber heard about the great battle that was fought in the distant plains of Kurukshetra, he too wanted to participate in this battle. So donning a fierce and silver mask of Bhairab, the Lord of Terror, he went with his army. At the battle field he was met by Lord Krishna who asked him whose side he was on. He replied that he would take the side of the losing army. Lord Krishna fearing that the fearsome warrior would join the Kauravas, decapitated his head with such force that it flew past the Himalayas to Kathmandu and rested at the place where the Akash Bhairab temple now stands. The temple, a three storey structure now stands in the busy square of Indra Chowk. The mask of Bhairab is taken
The Temple Forbidden to Nepali royalty …….
A farmer while tilling his field struck his plough under a rock. He tried to chip at the rock to free his plough, but to his horror blood began to ooze from the rock. As he cleared the soil away, he uncovered the great stone image reclining amidst coiled serpents. Water began to rise from the earth until it seemed the huge image floated on the surface of the pond. People flocked to worship this strange god that had risen from the ground. In the 17th century King Pratap Malla, the ruler of Kantipur (present day Kathmandu) dreamed that if he or any of his descendants gazed upon the face of the reclining Vishnu, they would die. Thus to this day no royal monarch is allowed to visit this place. This temple lies about 8-kms north of Kathmandu, at the bottom of Shivapuri hill and is known as Bouddhanilkantha.
The temple of Changu Narayan, the most ancient in the valley…………
A brahmin used to frequent a shrine located on top of a hill. He discovered that someone stole the milk that he offered at the shrine. In order to catch the thief, one morning he hid behind a tree. After some time a young man came out of the camphor tree that grew near the shrine, and drank the milk. The angry Brahmin came out of his hiding place and struck a blow on the young man’s head. There was a deep gash on the man’s head, from where emerged the four-headed figure of Lord Vishnu. He thanked the Brahmin for freeing him from a powerful spell. From then on, the place is known as Changu Narayan. The temple of Changu Narayan is said to be the most ancient temple in the Kathmandu Valley. Although it was rebuilt in 1702, its origin goes back to the 4th Century. Located on the top of a hill that rises in the eastern part of the valley, it is 22 kilometers from Kathmandu. The temple is listed in the UNESCO World Heritage Monument List.
Indra Jatra, festival in honour of Lord Indra, the King of the heavens……….
Once Lord Indra came down from devlok(heaven) to Kathmandu disguised as a poor peasant, to gather parijat flowers for his mother. He was plucking the flowers from a garden when he was caught. People took him for a thief and had him bound. Meanwhile his white elephant wandered the streets of Kathmandu searching for him. His mother also got anxious when he did not return. So she too came down to Kathmandu to look for him. She discovered him at the city square where people had bound him up. When the people discovered that the person they had bound up was actually Indra, the Lord of Heaven they were very embarrassed. They sought his pardon and later on celebrated his visit to Kathmandu with feasts, processions, singing and dancing. To this day people of Kathmandu celebrate this occasion with a festival known as Indra Jatra during August/September. The festival lasts for eight days with singing, mask dancing and rejoicing. The chariot of Kumari – the Living Goddess is taken through the main streets of Kathmandu with much fanfare. On the first day, the King of Nepal also pays homage to Goddess Kumari. The crowd of excited people from performers to spectators engulfs the streets of Kathmandu during this festival. People get to enjoy various religious dances like the Devinach, Majipat Lakhe, Bhairav and Bhakku and Mahakali Nach. During the festival the chariots of Ganesh, Bhairav and Living Goddess Kumari are dragged on the streets of Kathmandu.
Kathmandu Valley, it is one of the prime destinations well acknowledged as the place where the Eastern culture began and thrived in harmony with its long neighbor India. Unsurprisingly, it is also the land of the densest concentration of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the world. The history of the Art War that began in the valley between the kings of then three medieval kingdoms (Kathmandu, Bhaktapur & Patan) is as old as 4th century.
Artistically built Durbar Squares where cluster of temples, museums, royal residences and bahals manifest tremendous skill of expert architecture of the ancient and medieval eras. The gigantic dome shaped stupas at Boudhanath & Swayambhunath demonstrate the Buddhist influence in the valley for a long long time and the sacred Hindu Temples like Pashupatinath and Changunarayan is the religious showcase of ancient Hindu rituals and culture. In short, the biggest hub where Hinduism so well blends with Buddhism is Kathmandu Valley.
Traveling around the major landmarks of Kathmandu, which are UNESCO World Heritage Sites is an opportunity to see the best of Nepal’s ancient and medieval treasures. The word treasure clearly signifies the architectural, historical and the cultural values these landmarks cater. Moreover, the activities that are always vibrant in these landmarks of the valley cater tremendous opportunity of cultural exploration along with the Photography opportunities.
Apart from the UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the authentic and rich Newari culture seen in few villages lying around the valley literally takes you to the past. The only place on earth that boasts on creating Gods and Goddess and showcasing them with spiritual devotions during the festivals unique in themselves is Kathmandu Valley.
Housing the capital of the country, the valley also has some weird aspects that totally fantasizes the travelers at times and irritates at others. Cosmopolitan valley has massive pollution amidst the cultural opulence. Not well managed honking vehicles and motorbikes trigger long traffic jams at peak hours of the day. Despite everything that doesn’t attract a westerner who is used to with the well managed lifestyle, sometimes weirdness does grab their attentions. In the case of Kathmandu, weirdness looks even more beautiful because the cultural richness so well blended with crazy modern aspects is found nowhere else on earth.
Kathmandu Valley, known as city of temples is believed to have originated in the 8th century or even before. It boasts seven mounments listed under World Heritage Sites within a range of 7km – Kathmandu Durbar Square, Patan Durbar Square, Bhaktapur Durbar Square, Changu Narayan, Bouddhanath Stupa, Swayambhunath Stupa & Pashupatinath Temple. Here are some of the snapshots of the valley and its monuments as seen in the past centuries.
View from Basantapur Durbar Square in 1920. Taleju temple, the then highest building is visible in background.
Bhaktapur Durbar Square. Bhaktapur still retains the beauty and traditions of the old days.
Dharahara, also known as “Bhimsen Tower”
Bhimsen Tower, Ram Chandra Temples and Bag Durbar. Bag Durbar or Tiger Palce was constructed in 18th century for Bhimsen Thapa, and was so called because he kept cage with living tigers at the entrance.
Seto Machindranath, or white Machindranath festival in Kathmandu in 19th century. The chariot is made entirely of wood & the festival is still the same today. A similar red machindranath chariot is pulled in Patan as well.
Patan Durbar Square in the 19th century. The statue in the middle has now been transfered to Patan Museum.
The Garden at Kaishar Mahal, now opened to public as “Garden of Dreams”. Established by Kaishar Shumsher, it also holds the Asia’s largest private library – the Kaishar Library.
Swayambhunath Stupa, aslo known as “Monkey Temple” as seen in the 1960.
All photographs are from “Images of a Century – The Changing Landscapes of the Kathmandu Valley”
It was a Great Trip! I had a good tour guide and the itinerary was excellent. The overland drive was comfortable
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