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Half a century after Nepal opened its borders to the world, Kathmandu has become a hippie haven, a mecca for trekkers, and a thriving cosmopolitan culture center. Nepal’s largest city, Kathmandu has a gravity that pulls together Tibetan refugees, work-seeking Nepalis, tourists, and cowboy bodhisattvas looking for spiritual salvation in linen shirts and endless hashish. For all its World Heritage sites, this bustling city is no fossil, nor is it just another anonymous South Asian metropolis. The indigenous Newari culture and centuries of turbulent history have left Kathmandu with an unmistakably Nepali fingerprint.
Founded as Manju-Patan around AD 723, Kathmandu was not always the valley’s pre-eminent city. In Malla days, when it was known as Kantipur, it stood at level with Patan and Bhakatapur, though it was more successful at controlling trade with Tibet. Prithvi Narayan Shah made Kathmandu his capital when he unified Nepal in the 18th century, and it has dominated the valley ever since. Bursting into the new millennium as the fast-growing capital of a desperately poor country, present-day Kathmandu bears the imprint of rapid economic growth: an array of imported goods, arts, institutions, diplomatic missions and foreign aid agencies, and, of course, planeloads of tourists. Despite the optimism inspired by the 1990 movement toward democracy, Kathmandu faces plenty of problems. The city suffers from oppressive pollution, a chronic shortage of resources, and a crippling lack of infrastructure, as its government languishes under ineffective politicians.
For the tourist, Kathmandu is a fascinating city where pagodas crowd the traffic into narrow cobbled lanes and neighborhood boys kick soccer balls around dusty stone shrines. Myths and history intertwine at every corner – time-worn shrines stand alongside ancient shops, and the buses careening by bear murals of Shiva’s beautiful blue face. Of course, not everything in Kathmandu is quaint or mysterious; there’s plenty of dust here too, as well as rancid trash and colorless concrete.
Kathmandu is quite small, and navigation is pretty straightforward. The shrines of Swayambhunath and Pashupatinath are at the western and eastern edges of the city, respectively. Almost exactly halfway between them, the two main roads of Kantipath and Durbar Marg run parallel to each other, north to south. Kantipath has the post office and banks; Durbar Marg is home to many airline offices, trekking agencies, luxury hotels, and upscale restaurants, as well as the Royal Palace at its north end. Between the two streets farther south is the Tundikhel parade ground, around which Kantipath and Durbar Marg become one-way streets.
Kantipath and Durbar Marg divide Kathmandu into two halves – most of the older, most interesting parts of the city are to the west of Kantipath. The area east of Durbar Marg is mainly new neighborhoods. West of Kantipath, in the northwestern corner of town, is the year-round tourist carnival that is Thamel. Thamel is joined to Kantipath and Durbar Marg by Tridevi Marg. Kathmandu’s old center, Durbar Sq., filled with magnificent architecture, is west of Kantipath, close to the banks of the Vishnumati River. New Rd., built in 1934 out of the rubble left behind by an earthquake, runs east from Durbar Sq. to Kantipath. New Rd. is the city’s commercial district, with rows of jewelers and electrics sellers. Freak St. runs north-south past the western end of New Rd., starting at the southern edge of Basantapur Sq. A nameless narrow lane that sprouts Indra Chowk, one of Kathmandu’s most interesting neighborhoods, and Asan Tol, the center of Kathmandu’s main bazaar.
Tripureswar Marg is the biggest road in the southern half of town, running east-west and leading to the Patan Bridge. The capital’s twin city, Patan, is across the Bagmati River, the southern limit of Kathmandu. Ring Rd. encircles Kathmandu and Patan, connecting them with the suburbs that have grown up around them.
There are so many temples in Kathmandu that the word “templescape” has been coined to describe the city’s skyline. The city’s main attractions are in Durbar Sq., Indra Chowk, Asan Tol, and Swayambhunath, just west of the city. The best way to tour Kathmandu is on foot.
There is so much compacted into the city of Kathmandu. Here are our favorite spots. Click the links to explore and book tours or local guides.
Beginning with the founding of Kathmandu’s first luxury hotel in 1954 which featured chandeliers and fresh fish carried in by porters, to the advent of “Pie Alley,” where 1960s overlanders gathered for apple pie and hash brownies, Kathmandu has achieved ethnic status as an oasis of displaced delicacies. Today, Western favorites are de rigueur on tourist menus, but much of this food tastes blandly similar, borrowing most of its flavor from the ghee in which it has been ritually drowned. The Japanese, Thai, Tibetan, and Indian restaurants that elbow for room in neighborhoods frequented by foreigners and wealthy Nepalis generally offer more appetizing and less contrived fare.
For a more authentic experience, you can always dig into the undisputed national dish, dahl bhat tarkari (rice, lentils, and vegetable curry) available on nearly every menu as the “Nepali Set Meal.” Indeed, bhat, the word for cooked rice, is often used as a synonym for khana (food). Food in Nepal differs little from Indian food, except for a few Tibetan dishes on Nepalese menus. Ravioli-like momo and thukpa, a noodle soup, are popular. Newari food is largely buffalo meat. Choyala is buffalo fried with spices and vegetables.
The most popular breads are Chappati, identical to the ones you see in India. Most Nepalis don’t really eat breakfast, though it is commonly served in tourist restaurants and hotels. Vegetarians will probably have a better time with the food than meat-eaters.
Milk, or dudh, is an important staple and is often served hot, making it safe to drink if you know it has been boiled. Chiya (tea) is served hot with milk and lots of sugar. Yogurt (dahi) forms the base for lassis and the Newari delicacy juju, made from yogurt, cardamom, and cinnamon. Most sweets, including barfi and peda, are milk-based.
Nepalis drink beer and chang, a homemade Himalayan brew. Raksi is a stronger chang that tastes and feels like strong tequila. Tong-ba is a Tibetan brew made from fermented millet and sipped through a straw.
Nepali arts draw from a synthesis of regional styles. Absorbing Indian and Tibetan aesthetics, the Newari artisans of the Kathmandu Valley developed a distinct style, mostly in woodworks that has since disappeared, but many of the valley’s masterpieces remain in their original settings. Nepalese art has been inspired by religion, funded by kings, and executed by anonymous craftsmen.
Thanks to the boom in tourism, just about anything made in Nepal can be bought in Kathmandu, but many handicrafts are cheaper and available in a better and wider selection in their place of origin. For woodcarving and pottery, head to Bhaktapur; for papier-mache masks and puppets, go to Thimi; for metalwork Patan; and for Tibetan crafts like thankas, the best place to go is Boudha.
The oldest remaining structures in the Kathmandu Valley are stupas, sacred mounds of earth layers with centuries of plaster. They are large hemispherical domes, usually marking Buddhist holy places or sacred relics. Nepalese stupas, such as the amazing Boudhanath Stupa in the Kathmandu Valley, display distinctive symbols on the square, golden spire at their top. These chakus are painted with the Buddha’s eyes surveying the four cardinal directions and a number one to represent universal unity. Stupas are often accompanied by chaityas, small stone shrines holding written mantras or scripture.
The greatest architectural achievements of the Kathmandu Valley are wood-and-brick pagodas, many of which resemble elaborate chakus; from which they perhaps evolved. Nepal is the birthplace of the pagoda – a 13th-century architect named Arniko exported the pagoda form to Kublai Khan’s Mongolia, where it later spread to the rest of Asia. Most of Nepal’s pagodas are Hindu temples built around a central sanctum that houses the temple’s deity. The sanctum is brick, with intricately carved wooden doors, window frames, and pillars. The pillars and struts on the outside support the tiered, sloping, clay-tiled roof. Despite appearances, the upper portions of the temple are not separate stories; they are left empty because of a belief that there should be nothing above the deity except the roof and the heavens. The whole structure sits on a terraced stone base resembling a step pyramid.
The Newaris also planned and built bahals, blocks of rooms surrounding a rectangular courtyard. These compact community units were used either as monasteries or as blocks of houses. Bahals are designed to be perfectly symmetrical, and the main doors and windows usually appear along the group’s central axis.
Despite their xenophobic foreign policy, the Rana prime ministers, who reigned from 1846 to 1951, embraced European neoclassical architecture for the buildings they put up as part of their various modernization drives, and some parts of Kathmandu’s Durbar Square would not look out of place in Trafalgar Square.
Early work in the Kathmandu Valley was influenced by North Indian styles of stone sculpture. Newari artisans of the Licchavi period made devotional images of Vishnu and the Buddha that strongly resembled the work of the Mathura school. Written accounts indicate that wooden sculpture also flourished at this time, though none has survived.
Stone sculpture in Nepal reached it height between the 7th and 9th centuries and virtually disappeared after the 10th. Metal became the medium of choice medieval Nepalese sculpture, again as a result of Indian influence. During the 17th and 18th centuries, the dominant influence was Tibetan. Newari artisans made bronze images of tantric aspects of the Buddha, which were exported to Tibetan monasteries – many “Tibetan” bronze sculptures were actually made in Nepal. Nepalese artists of the Malla period also created fantastic wood sculptures as architectural ornaments. Temple roof struts and window grilles were made of wood ornately carved with plant and animal forms.
Over the last two centuries, the crafts of bronze-casting and wood-carving have declined because of a lack of patronage. Foreign-funded restoration projects have recently given sculptors some business, and the demand created by tourism has encouraged the mass production of consumer-oriented crafts.
The earliest paintings to have survived in the Kathmandu Valley were painted onto palm leaf manuscripts. A few examples have survived from as far back as the 10th century, but most are badly decayed. More common in Nepal today are Tibetan thankas (intricate scroll-paintings of deities) and mandalas (circles symbolizing the universe in hindu and Buddhist art). During the medieval period, a distinctive Newari style of thanka developed, called a paubha. These were painted on coarser cloth and without the landscape background typical of traditional Tibetan thankas. Later paintings in Nepal were heavily influenced by the detailed miniatures of the Indian Mughal and Rajasthani styles.
Music in Nepal is a part of everyday life. The gaine, a caste of musician-storytellers, once wandered the hills, accompanying themselves on the sarangi (a four-stringed fiddle). Music of a traditional panchai baja (five-instrument) ensemble is often played for weddings, processions, and rituals. The women of most Indo-Nepalese castes are usually excluded from music-making, though they are allowed to sing in public during rice-planting and at the teej, an annual women’s festival.
Several traditional styles of hill music still exist. Most popular is the maadal-based (double-sided drum held horizontally) jhyaure music of the Western Hills. The Jyapu farming caste developed an upbeat rhythmic style that uses numerous percussion instruments, including the dhime (a large two-sided drum) wood-winds to accompany nasal singing. The selo style, developed by the Tamangs but shared by others, keeps rhythm with the damphu (a flat one-sided drum).
Music is vital to Hindu and Buddhist ritual. In traditional Newari communities, most young men complete a musical apprenticeship that enables them to participate in festival processions. Newari Buddhist priests chant ancient tantric verses as part of meditation exercises, and on sacred occasions ritual dancing accompanies these hymns. The music of the Sherpas derives much of its character from the ancient rituals of Tibetan Buddhism.
Nepalese dance, in both folk and classical styles, is usually based on dramatic retellings of sacred Buddhist and Hindu stories. The Newaris of the Kathmandu Valley are chief exponents of classical dance. Newari performers enter a trance and become vessels possessed by the spirit of the deity. The gyrate and gesture and generally put on quite a show, dressed in elaborate costumes and ornately painted papier-mache masks. On the tenth day of the Dasain festival (in September or October), the nawa dancers of Bhaktapur perform the vigorous dance-drama of the goddess Durga’s victory over the buffalo demon.
Tibetan Buddhism also uses music and dance in festivals, ceremonies, and sacred rites. Performances often involve intricate hand gestures, ritual objects, and a number of unusual and symbolic musical instruments. Cham is a dance-drama specific to Tibetans and Bhotiyas, in which monks don masks and costumes to enact various Buddhist tales.