Temples of Kathmandu

By now I am rather far away from Nepal, but I cannot resist writing two more posts about the Peaceful Kingdom. Well, Republic nowadays. This post is about the temples of Kathmandu. Their names have already been mentioned time and again in the posts about the magical Kathmandu itself as well as the stay in the orphanage. Many of my temple visits were with the kids from the orphanage.

Swayambhu was for sure our favourite temple. It is the temple that rises on the top of a hill to the West of Kathmandu, being the main temple of Newari Buddhism – the branch that historically developed in the Kathmandu valley. From up close it is difficult to make a photo that would take it all in. An attempt:


Swayambhunath is indeed a large temple complex. The main entrance is the long staircase that runs down in the direction of central Kathmandu:

In truth though we never used the front entrance. There are many ways to access the complex from the back and that way no entrance ticket is necessary – nobody actually checks it. In my 40 days in Nepal I visited Swayambhu at least five times, and to buy a tourist ticket every time would be quite ridiculous. There are many interesting places at the back of the complex, such as a monastery and a number of secondary temples.

Three giant statues greet a visitor arriving at the back of the complex (the way most Nepali visitors arrive):

One of the main courtyards in the back looked thus on Buddha Birthday:

Buddha Birthday again. On that day Swayambhu was choke full of people. I was happy to see free water and orange juice distributed to everybody. Ceremonial objects for processions are given out in this tent.

This wonderful Buddha statue is devoted to – as you can read – world peace. A small cauldron is placed at its feet. You are supposed to throw coins there and make a wish. Actually no coins are used in Nepal nowadays as the smallest 1-rupee coins are essentially of no value, but you can buy some of these right next door. With a 5-rupee bill you get four coins.

As we visited Swaymbhu with the kids, I gave each a coin and so we competed at throwing. A great excitement transpired when one of us would hit the target!

Swayambhu is special because of its peaceful atmosphere. On a usual day there are very few people. Prayer flags blowing in the wind. The prayer wheels make a rhytmic sound. The smoke raises from the altars. The sun is shining. You seem to be nowhere and everywhere.

The eyes of the Buddha never leave you.

From the temple, a great view of Kathmandu:

On Buddha Birthday though all this peacefulness was quite swamped by the crowds of visitors:

Swayambhu is actually a Buddhist stupa. But as is common in Nepal, around the stupa there are several Hindu temples. On Buddha Birthday the believers are trying to get the sacred water onto their hands.

The second major Buddhist temple in Nepal is Boudhanath. It is the main temple of the Tibetan tradition. A giant white stupa is by some accounts the largest in the world. Historically it was by the road to Tibet, and so the Tibetans would settle there. Today a number of Tibetan monasteries surround the stupa. In 1950s many Tibetans fled as their homeland was conquered by China and the refugees leave by the stupa to this day.

The mighty Boudhanath:

The spherical stupa is surrounded by the circular plaza:

Secondary stupas are placed on every side:

These huge prayer wheels can be found in quite a few large temples. Mantras in Sancrit are written all over them. It is thought that to turn this wheel is equivalent to reading a mantra. Alisha is turning one here:

And now for two Hindu temples. The main Hindu temple of Nepal is Pashupatinath. A visit to this place is not to be taken lightly. The temple complex is divided into two by the Bagmati river. On the banks of the river you can observe the funerary ceremonies that take place continuously. The pedestal by the water hold funeral pyres. The smoke from the fires covers the complex.

Pashupatinath from the opposite river bank. The main temple is the edifice with the golden roof on the right. The entry to the temple and the surrounding courtyard is closed to non-Hindus. Down below you can see the steps leading to the river. The main pedestal in front of the temple were meant for the cremation of the king’s body only. As Nepal has become a republic, the pedestal is used to cremate various dignitaries.

Here you can see a red stone which kind of leads down the steps in front of the temple. It is believed that a person that dies on this stone escapes the cycle of pain and ascends to the nirvana. One of the buildings next door contains a hospice. The dying from the hospice are often led to die on the stone. So many want to reach nirvana that there is a queue and they only get 15 minutes on the stone.

An entrance to the temple’s main courtyard. I can go no further.

What I can do though is to walk around the temple and take a look at the courtyard from a higher vantage point. In front of the temple is a giant golden statue of Nandi, the riding animal of Shiva. The whole complex is devoted to Shiva and is Shiva’s largest temple in the world. Most pilgrims are actually from India, as Pashupatinath is considered the fifth most important temple in Hinduism.

To the East from the temple, behind Bagmati river, there is a large park containing a number of smaller temples and passages:

I visited Pashupatinath in the evening, when the priests start singing their prayers in front of the believers. The crowds of people sitting on the steps on this photo are the spectators waiting for the fire dance and singing ceremony to start.

But I did not stay for the performance. It was very difficult for me to be there. First because of the suffocating smoke rising from the funeral pyres which made me cough non-stop, even when I covered my face with a face mask. And second because of the general overwhelmingly dark atmosphere of the place.

Finally the last major temple in Kathmandu, the Budanilkantha Vishnu temple. This temple is only about 15 minutes walk from the orphanage. Basically the new Budanilkantha quarter is built around it. We went there many times of course. The temple itself though is very old. This is what is at its centre:

It is a statue of Sleeping Vishnu. According to the legend, a peasant working his field came across it as he dug a little deeper in one place.

Because the Nepalese kings were living incarnations of Vishnu, they were forbidden under the threat of death to visit and look at the statue in Budanilkantha. One king however could not resist the temptation. According to the legend, as he arrived, the stone snakes surrounding Vishnu became alive and went to chase after him.

The king managed to escape, the snaked returned to their sleeping master, but one snake turned into stone among the roots of a giant tree by the temple:

As is wont in Hindu temples, there are a number of smaller shrines inside the main temple devoted to other gods. This is a statue of Saraswati, the goddess of wisdom and learning. Students write their names all around it hoping for a better grade at a forthcoming exam!

In one of peripheral temples around the main statues I came across a photo of Sai Baba with some surprise. Turns out he is considered an avatar of Vishnu. A self-appointed guide who joined us on one of our visits claimed though practically everybody happened to be Vishnu’s avatar: from Nepalese royalty to Sai Baba to Krishna to Buddha himself.

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