The charm of Nepal’s ancient temples and squares, lively streets and mountain magic cannot be smothered by any calamity discovers PRIYA GANAPATHY
‘We are in the year 2074,’ my guide Bir intoned solemnly in what sounded like the opening line of a futuristic sci-fi saga. Given its seamless blend of tradition and modernity, one does feel like a time-traveller in Nepal, but I discovered that the country has its own calendar – the Bikram Sambat Nepali Patro – and an unhurried sense of time!
Nepal has attracted mountaineers and hippies since the 60s, but a lot had happened since my last visit 12 years ago in the middle of bird flu and a palace coup! The month-long trip was a screaming rollercoaster of landslides, bungee jumps, canyoning, rafting and paragliding besides sedate explorations of Kathmandu, Pokhara, Chitwan and Lumbini. This time, I had a more enriching purpose.
In 2015, I had helplessly watched Nepal receive a body blow from a devastating earthquake. So when Marriott Hotels decided to celebrate their 30th Anniversary by inviting guests from across the world to participate in a home build project, I jumped in. Partnering with Habitat For Humanity, we were to build one of 12 homes for needy families around the globe. Kavre, a region near Kathmandu badly affected by the earthquake would be our worksite for a Nepalese family that had lost their home.
The 40km bus ride to Kavre passed through scenic Nagarkot and the 143ft tall copper statue of Kailashnath Mahadev, built by a Jain businessman from India on the Sanga Hills that divide Bhaktapur and Kavre. This was the traditional village of oil-producers – sang is Newari for mustard oil and ga means village. We drove past rice terraces and the quaint town of Banepa, an old trading outpost between Tibet and Nepal. Everywhere mud and stone homes bore scars of the quake.
At Kavre, we grabbed gloves, donned hard hats and picked our tools to dig foundation trenches and clear boulders. After completing our ‘Rally to Serve’ project, we visited Habitat for Humanity’s model town in Pipaltar village, where volunteers had helped rebuild 87 houses. Three years on, as the country hobbles back to its feet with rebuilding and restoration projects, tourists are streaming in again, smitten by its irresistible charm.
On our return we stopped at the plush Dwarika’s Resort in Dhulikel for a traditional Newari meal. Tasteful decorated with Nepali artifacts, the emphasis is on holistic living and healthy food using ingredients sourced from their organic farm. Their Himalayan Salt Room ensconces you in a pink cocoon of healing salt while the Chakra sound therapy chamber stimulates the body’s seven chakras. We sipped local beer and dined outdoors, savouring the view of majestic Himalayan peaks.
Thamel Trail & Durbar Squares
On the surface, Kathmandu seemed the same – crowded and dusty with the familiar charm of brick houses, smiling faces and walls splashed with colourful graffiti. After champagne and high tea marking the launch of Fairfield by Marriott – the first Marriott hotel in Nepal – we took an evening rickshaw ride around the tourist-friendly hub of Thamel. We rolled down Tridevi Marg towards the winding maze of festooned alleys selling an assortment of exotic art and crafts. The streets were lined with bars, pubs, tour agencies and adventure equipment stores.
We learnt that Dharma Kirti Vihar, located behind Swayambhunath stupa was the school where Myanmar’s icon of democracy Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi studied Buddhism and taught English four decades ago. Sambhu, our charioteer stopped by an unusual tree stump covered with coins at a street corner. “That’s Vaisha Dev, the ‘dentist god’. Nepalese people hammer a coin into the idol to solve their dental problems!”
Hopping off at Basantapur Durbar Square, we set off on a twilight heritage walk with Bir, our guide. The carved spires of temples were silhouetted against an indigo sky. The brackets depicted gods and goddesses as locals believed only they had the power to hold the weight of the massive conical roofs. Swinging between memories and the moment, I tried to fix the missing pieces. One of the oldest structures, Kasthamandap, the wooden architectural wonder that gave Kathmandu its name was completely razed.
Further away, the beautiful carved stone Garuda stared at the vacant space where the multi-tiered 1680 Trailokya Mohan temple should have stood. The Krishna Temple was another gaping spot. The ornate beauty was marred by dense scaffolding, which enveloped the monuments in a skeletal hug. One wasn’t sure how or where to begin healing the city.
The tall fierce image of Kala Bhairava glowered in lamplight as people bowed their heads in reverence to the God of Time, offering flowers, incense and butter lamps. The temple of Thulja Bhavani, closed throughout the year, is opened to public only on the eighth day of Vijayadashami. We noticed that the structures showed British influences. Bir pointed out a stone inscription in various languages including French; apparently King Pratap Malla who ruled in the 1700s was a polyglot!
The Jaganath temple, famous for its erotic art had been sadly defaced. With Buddhism emerging as the main religion in the 17th century, several people had adopted a monastic life of celibacy and the population in Nepal had dropped drastically. These amorous carvings were created to encourage people to marry and have children! It is also believed that it would prevent Kumari, the incarnation of the Virgin Goddess considered to be a form of Thunder and Lightning, from striking the temple.
We saw the magnificent 9-storeyed palace built by King Prithvi Narayan Shah, the architect of modern Nepal who conquered the three Malla kingdoms of Nepal and unified it with the Gorkha kingdom. In Indra Chowk, the Akash Bhairav temple honored the unusual terrifying form of Shiva regarded as the Master of the Sky.
His giant form is artistically ‘caged’ to prevent him from flying off and the temple is opened only once a year during Kali Jumma. After wandering around the famous Freak Street (now Jochne) we guzzled local beer at New Orleans, a popular restaurant with retro architecture and a great vibe.
Stupefying stupas & Himalayan views
The next morning, we headed for our Everest flight. The destination board at the airport counter simply stated “Mountain”! Buckled into a small seat on the tiny Buddha Air 19-seater Beechcraft 1900, with propellers spinning, we were off for a close encounter with Sagarmatha. The scene of high altitude lakes, marbled mountains and glaciers ringed by the world’s best-known peaks seared my mindscape. It was a dreamy tour as we flew just 20 miles short of the world’s highest peak. You even get a chance to sneak into the cockpit for an uninterrupted view and click a few pictures for posterity.
Back on terra firma, I was still dreaming as I walked down Tridevi Marg to the Garden of Dreams (Swapna Bagaicha), famous as the Garden of Six Seasons. The serene Edwardian botanical garden inside Kaiser Mahal, former home of the late Field Marshall Kaiser Shumsher Rana begs you to linger despite the damage to its stunning pavilions, statues, fountains and ponds.
A leisurely lunch awaited us at Mulchowk Restaurant, a gourmet dining space inside a leafy courtyard of Baber Mahal. Named after Patan’s Mul Chowk or Main Square, the restaurant is set in the erstwhile palace residence of Baber Shumsher. Now renovated by his descendants into a complex of restaurants and multiple courtyards enveloped by a maze of boutiques, art galleries and swanky stores, the luxe hangout is a delightful tribute to Rana architecture.
We headed to the famous Patan Durbar Square, a market cum temple plaza – its atmospheric appeal heightened by the golden glow of sunset. A local band regaled the crowds in one corner as elderly folks and couples chattered around the temple pati (resting plinths) and steps.
Tourists followed their babbling guides or haggled with hawkers along the cobbled pathways. King Yog Narendra Malla’s golden statue on a stone pillar loomed above as we explored the historic heritage site. We could cover only three of the ten odd temples in this vast complex and the trio of courtyards in the old palace – Mul Chowk, Sundari Chowk and Keshav Narayan Chowk.
The Mulchowk Palace Museum had a collection of statues, paintings and images of Hindu and Buddhist divinities. We saw the Thulja Bhavani shrine where the Malla kings performed sacred rituals and the stunning Sundari Chowk with its unique lace-like wood and ivory carved window, a masterpiece of Newari architecture. The exquisite sunken royal stone bath Tusha Hiti was suffused with intricate carvings.
The Krishna Mandir, built from a single stone, flaunted its 21 pinnacles and scenes from Hindu epics. The 3-storeyed Golden Temple or Hiranyavarna Mahavihar monastery displayed outstanding metal sculptures. There was so much to Kathmandu our appetite couldn’t be quelled! After a late dinner, we hit the swanky rooftop lounge Prive at Labim Mall to catch the sparkle of the city’s nightlife.
Before heading to the airport next day, as I grabbed some traditional sel rotis to accompany my potato mash, Bir nodded approvingly. According to tradition, visitors and family members are offered this unusual ringed deep-fried bread made with rice flour, bananas and cinnamon before they travel. Since the sel roti’s ends meet and overlap like a bracelet, Nepalis consider it a symbol of reunion – a circle of life. “You may go around the world my friend but like the sel roti, you will return to Nepal someday.” he affirmed.
Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan Airport is just a 1hr 45 min flight from Delhi.
Where to stay
Fairfield by Marriott, Thamel
Dwarika’s Hotel Kathmandu
Dwarika’s Resort Dhulikel
Tariff Rs.25,000 + taxes onwards
Where to Eat
Garden of Dreams Café
Prive, Labim Mall
For more info, visit www.welcomenepal.com
Author: Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 24 August 2018 in Indulge, the supplement of The New Indian Express newspaper.