Kathmandu and the valley boast five World Heritage Sites.
Durbar Square is Kathmandu’s number one tourist attraction and is always teaming with life. This is where Kathmandu’s kings were crowned and where they lived (‘durbar’ means palace). A few of the square’s 50-plus monuments date from the 12th century, but most are from the 17th and 18th centuries during the time of the Malla kings. Many of the buildings were damaged during an earthquake in 1934, but have been rebuilt. The square was designated a World Heritage site in 1979.
Probably the most famous building here is the Kumari Bahal, a building richly decorated with beautiful woodcarvings, which is home to the Royal Kumari, the Living Goddess, and manifestation of the great goddess Durga. The Kumari Devi is a young girl, selected from a particular Newar caste. While there are several kumaris in the Kathmandu Valley, the Kumari Devi is the most important, coming out only a few times for ceremonies like the Indra Jatra, festival in September, when she is paraded through the streets in a gigantic chariot over the three days.
Nearby the former Royal Palace is a Malla dynasty dwelling, which used to be considerably more extensive than today. Within, the courtyard Nassal Chowk, originally hosted dramatic dance performances. It was also the coronation site of the Shah kings and contains some of the finest wood carvings you will see anywhere in the kingdom.
The 14 th century Jagannath Mandir is the oldest temple in the area, its steps carved with inscriptions in many languages. Nearby, the Telaju Mandir is one of the largest and finest temples in the Valley. It is dedicated to the patron deity of the royal family, Taleju Bhawani, a wrathful form of Durga who once demanded human sacrifices.
Freak Street runs off Basantapur Square, where the former royal stables were located. This street used to be famous as a hippy hang-out during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. It was a meeting area of travelers overlanding through Asia. The weird and wonderful ‘freaks’ that gave the street its name have long gone, and only a few places are left that echo those days.
Swayambhunath Otherwise known as the ‘Monkey Temple’ for the number of macaque monkeys that live here, this is one of the most ancient and enigmatic of the Valley’s holy shrines. It is a golden-spired stupa that sits at the top of a wooded hillock on the edge of the main city center, beside the Ring Road. Records of its history date as far as the 5 th century, but its origins are believed to be older. It is the Kathmandu Valley’s most sacred Buddhist shrine and whilst its worshipers include the Vajrayana Buddhists of northern Nepal and Tibet, Newari Buddhists are the most fervent devotees.
The white stupa is topped by a golden spire with the eyes of Buddha, staring out in four directions. The stupa is symbolic, with the white dome representing the earth, and with the 13-tiered structure at the top symbolizing the 13 stages that need to be passed to reach nirvana. There are ancient and beautiful carvings all around and the atmosphere is further enhanced by incense and butter lamps in the shrines. Around the main stupa are bronze images and further shrines and temples.
Pashupatinath This is Nepal’s most sacred Hindu shrine and one of the subcontinent’s greatest Shiva sites. The supreme holiness of the site stems from the Shiva linga enshrined in its main temple and its location. It expresses the very essence of Hinduism as pilgrims, priests, devotes, temples, ashrams, images, inscriptions and cremation ghats intermingle with the rituals of daily life, all sprawled along the banks of the sacred Bagmati River. Here, Shiva is worshiped as Pashupati, lord of the beasts rather than as Bhairab, god of destruction
Only Hindus are allowed to enter the compound of the temple, but there are several points around the perimeter wall where you can see what’s happening inside. The temple is surrounded by a colorful market of stalls selling all sorts of religious paraphernalia.
The temple’s origins are obscure. An inscription dates from 477, but a shrine may have stood here for 1,000 years before that. The present pagoda-style temple was built in 1696.
The Bagmati River is very sacred, despite being very polluted. Pashupatinath is equivalent to Varanasi on the Ganges in India and is revered as a very sacred place too. The cremation ghats along the riverbanks are used for cremations and you will see the funerals of Nepalese that take place to the south of the temple. Only the royal family are allowed to be cremated immediately in front of the temple.
Boudhanath (Boudha) This great stupa is one of the most important Buddhist sites in Nepal. Distinctive, the stupa has a diameter of over 100 meters and is amongst the largest in the world. There are a number of legends accounting for its construction, but it is generally believed to date from the 5th century. All stupas contain holy relics and Boudha is said to contain the remains of the skeleton of Siddhartha Gautam, the revered Buddha.
Boudha is a particular focus for Kathmandu’s Tibetan community and throughout the day hundreds of pilgrims and visitors come to circle the stupa, spinning prayer wheels and reciting mantras. Surrounding the stupa are six major monasteries and a host of smaller ones as well as cafes, restaurants, Newari silversmiths and shops selling Tibetan carpets.
Historically, the stupa was on an important trade route between Lhasa and Kathmandu, where Tibetan traders would stop to pray here for a safe journey home. Many Tibetans live here, having settled since 1959 when China took over Tibet.
You should always go in a clockwise direction around stupas and other holy places.