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Kathmandu Valley Travel

Kathmandu Valley Travel
Nepal Travel Destination

A Brief History of the Kathmandu Valley
Kathmandu Nepal Travel is special because many places across the world have historical sites that are not allowed to be touched but just admired from a distance. Here in Nepal, any ancient home, religious site, or temple is most definitely going to be used today as it was thousands of years ago. Now to travel to Kathmandu and have no idea why the buildings, temples and other places of worship are so valued and interesting to the community and to tourists alike, would be a shame. We wanted to provide a bit of historical information about Kathmandu and how it was unified, because in the past Nepal consisted of several semi-independent kingdoms. Here are some of the past incidents and events that began the shaping of the cultures and the three main cities you find today in the capital of Nepal.

The valley is said to have been around for over 3,000 years, it is believed that the valley was originally a large lake nestled at the foothills of the surrounding hills. One day a Bodhistav named Manjushree traveled to the then-lake and cut a into one of the surrounding hillsides (creating Chobar Gorge) with his flaming sword. The “proof” (put in quotes for you to decide if this is true) is visible by the sword stroke in the hillside left behind.

With this act, all of the water spilled out of the now-valley, creating the holy Bagmati River that flows through the Kathmandu Valley all the way to the Ganges (both rivers are considered holy by Nepal and India alike).

Now the valley was empty of water and the fertile lands made this an ideal place for settlers and could support a large population of people. The first settlers – although not the proclaimed first rulers – that moved into the valley were from the Newar community.(read more about the Newars on our ethnic groups page)

The Kriats
According to some old preserved Indian chronicles from the Pamayan and Mahabharat times, there are in these recordings references of the first rulers of Nepal being Kirats. They ruled for over 1,500 years from 1000BC to 500AD when Licchavis took over. (During the Kirats reign, around 600BC is when the Buddha lived in Lumbini).

Licchavi Dynasty

The Licchavi Dynasty ruled the Kathmandu Valley for about 500 years. Near the Changu Narayan temple there is even a sculpture with an inscription dating from 464 AD having a cross reference of this time period from a dependable diary of a Chinese pilgrim living in the valley at the time. This pilgrim has left us with insights to the past of the valley and the impeccable Newari artistic skills of woodcarving, stone, metal and painted pieces of work. There are also references to the Pashupatinath and Changu Nrayan temples as well as the Boudanath and Swayambudnath stupas.

These rulers were Hindu but showed a great tolerance for other religious practices which allowed Buddhism to continue thriving in the country. During this time there were a high number of dialects but the main language was Newari and Sanskrit. One of their rulers, Amshuvarma even opened trade routes to Tibet. The same routes that today are your major trekking routes.  At the same time they refined the art of sculptures made from bronze and stone.

Thakuri Period
The next rulers of Nepal, during the Thakuri period (Thakur is Sanskrit for distinguished ruler) was not reigned by one family but by different Indian clans from Rajputana. In these times there were two important changes to the accepted Nepal (and Tibetan) culture. The first was the introduction of Tantric Vajrayana Buddhism and the second was the implementation of the erotic sculpture decorations found around temples. This form of Buddhism (Tantric Vajrayana) was unlike that of the common practices which avoid sacrifices, offerings and rituals, the new style emphasizes sacrificial offerings, rituals, and magical incantations.

Malla Dynasty

The Malla Dynasty who ruled Kathmandu for over 568 years until the year 1768, made significant changes to the temples we see today in the valley. Jayashiti Malla (ruled 1382-1395) was trying to bring together the majority of the valley so they would eventually favor his rule. His goal was to eradicate Vajrayana and the Tantric cults that were growing more popular and to sway the people towards Hinduism.

King Jaya Malla is perhaps the man to blame for the magnificent structures that we have now in the Kathmandu Valley. He had three sons who had a taste for competition. He gave each son a city within the valley and the power to rule their surrounding area. The three cities given to the princes were Kathmandu, Patan, and Bhaktapur. The men were always eager to out-do one another with the grandeur of their city and their community meeting spot of each town called Durbar Square (see the Durbars on this page) so there was constant remodeling and adding of intricate art – wood carvings, paintings, stone cutting and architecture of new shrines and dedications to deities – for these temples.

The continuous desire to having a more beautiful and better city than the next brother, the people living in the different sections also held great pride for their hometowns. These times were more peaceful times but the small kingdoms spreading across the country were very isolated from one group to the next and some thought it would be a better way of life for the people as a whole to be united.

Shah Dynasty

Prithvi Narayan Shah was the ninth generation descendant of Dravya Shah (1559-1570) who was the founder of the ruling house of Gorkha. Being educated from a ruling class Prithvi was also knowledgeable with administration and the art of warfare. He started to spread his own influence in Nepal and actively used it to start unifying the small kingdoms near Gorkha in hopes to eventually unite the whole country from east to west.

He became King of Gorkha in 1743 after the death of his father (King Narbhupal Shah). Although at this time the political and economical situation in and around Gorkha was not so favorable with the British imperialism on the horizon, he still had the dream to unite the different Nepali ethnic groups and castes.

He started his forceful trial and error process with the help of the infamous Gorkha army and finally conquered Nuwakot in 1744, and then Belkot. He made strategic moves by winning over the respect of different ethnic groups and castes around the hills of the Kathmandu Valley, causing communication between the valley inhabitants to/from the outside world to be cut off. He continued to capture principalities of Bode, Khkana, and Pharphing and had his first unsuccessful attack on Kirtipur. After more fighting, trials, and losses he was finally successful in conquering Kirtipur and the larger battle with a three-sided attack on Kathmandu while the local population and the Malla King Jaya Prakash were celebrating the Indra Jatra festival.

Upon this attack the Malla King fled to Patan and eventually Bhaktapur but both fleeing attempts were only a temporary relief and gave an excuse for Shah’s and the Gorkha army to attack both Patan and Bhaktapur. The capture of the Malla King in Bhaktapur gave great power to the Gorkha King and when he went to eastern Nepal, there were other kings who voluntarily gave up their reign and joined his efforts in the unification of the country. Through his determination and success Nepal was now united with its diverse religio-ethnic groups under one flag giving the population a feeling of belonging and national pride.

To further this King’s ego boost of being such an important role of what Nepal has become today, he had suffered through first hand experiences with Muslims and also knew what schemes the British were planning and he banished Muslims and Christians from the Kingdom. He had a very low opinion of those who did not worship the Hindu Gods and Goddesses so he allowed only teachings of Hinduism and Buddhism to prevail.

His successors continued his efforts of unification and of course this is not the end of the different Kings that have ruled this country, but they are the most significant of Nepal’s major attractions – temples, shrines, ancient cities – in the Kathmandu Valley and the beginning efforts of unity in the country.

The Three cities of Kathmandu

Travelers to Nepal will find three ancient, once royal cities of the Kathmandu Valley are all important in their own way – the city of Kathmandu, the city of Patan, and the city of Bhaktapur. They were all at one time, independent states ruled by different Malla Kings, nowadays they are still used for storing this history of Nepal, artistic monuments, and provide a place for the oh-so-many festivals and ceremonies celebrated in Nepal. They all have the famous title of a UNESCO “World Heritage Site” and with the preservation of these old world landmarks and the honors of such a highly respected title, tourists from all over the world visit these places and are rewarded with the beautiful sights and know the feeling of stepping back in time.

The Durbars

The Durbar Squares were once used by Kings and their people to have meetings or for celebrating festivals as a community. Over the thousands of years that they have been around, their purpose has not changed much. Although there is no longer a King to hold meetings at these precious sites, they are still used daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly by the locals – just as they have been since they were first built. The main gatherings in these meeting places (besides a tourist attraction or a pleasant place to sit and rest with your family) are the countless festivals that Nepal has (all the time!) These are a constant reminder of how life has been and how it should be with common, conveniently located places for people to easily come together and celebrate (or just visit) with friends and fellow countrymen alike. The Durbar Squares in Kathmandu, Patan, and Bhaktapur stand for community unity.

Kathmandu Durbar Square

Sitting in the heart of the Kathmandu city, the most well known “Durbar Square” of Nepal, originally started being built from the King Rathna Malla ruling (from 1484-1520) and was added to upto the Prithvi Bir Bikram Shah ruling (1875-1911). It is no secret why this is a UNESCO “world heritage site,” Durbar Square has numerous reiligious and historically important, beautifully decorated pagoda style temples throughout the courtyards of the area as well as elaborate shrines and strong feelings of the past. Some of the more important (or more visited by tourists) are the Kumari Ghar which is the home of the Living Goddess Kumari. You can gather in the courtyard of her palace and you might just get a glimpse of her walking by her window or perhaps blessing those waiting in the courtyard. Jagannath Temple is known for the erotic Kama Sutra carvings and was added to the collection in 1563. Krishna Temple is the octagonal-shaped temple dedicated to Lord Krishna by King Pratap Malla in memory of his two queens who had died. The large stone column is a statue dedicated to the Goddess Taleju (who is the goddess inhabiting the Kumari) and is a statue of Pratap Malla praying to the Goddess. One of the most important temples in the Durbar Square area, to most Hindus and Buddhists, is the Ashok Vinayak, or Ganesha (known as the elephant God) and the magnificent shrine dedicated to him. There are several other temples in the square but the mentioning of them might be more important for when you get to Nepal. (For more info on the city of Kathmandu and the Kathmandu Durbar Square, see our city of Kathmandu page.)

Patan Durbar Square

Also a UNESCO “world heritage site,” this square is made up of courtyards, complex palace buildings from past kings, beautifully carved bathes, and various temples. Patan is also known as Latipur which means the city of arts. The Patan Durbar Square is mostly known as the oldest of Kathmandu Valley’s three cities and for being the home to some of the finest arts and crafts. You can take a tour of the palace complex as well as the surrounding monasteries and temples. Being the oldest of the three cities of Kathmandu, it also is made up of three main courtyards; the Mul Chowk, Sundari Chowk which is home to the stone sculpture called the Royal Bath which was used for ritual bathing, and the Mani Keshab Narayan Chowk, which is home to the Patan Museum. The Krishna Mandir temple was built for Lord Krishna in the 17th century by King Siddhi Narsingh Malla and is the first piece of work built in the Shikhara style (completely made of stone). The Taleju Temples (goddess that inhabits the Kumari), like the five-storied, and the three-storied octangle-shaped temples are home to the Taleju Bhawani and the Digu Teleju and are made with exquisite wooden craftsmanship. This area of multiple temples, shrines, and sculptures is definitely an enjoyable destination for anyone looking for some spectacular sites and for those interested in art and history.

Bhaktapur Durbar Square

Actually, Bhaktapur, meaning the city of devotees, is made up of three main squares; Durbar, Taumadi and Dattareya Squares. Bhaktapur is a little town with beautiful shikhara style monuments, intricately designed palaces and pagodas as well as monasteries and courtyards housing all of the spirit and culture that surrounds the area. The more favored by travelers of Nepal’s Durbar Squares for its “old feel” is the one in Bhaktapur, it has also received the title of a UNESCO “world heritage site.” Bhaktapur Durbar Square’s most popular site is the 15th century Palace of 55 Windows constructed in 1427 and later embellished in the 17th century, is made up of supreme wooden architecture and it dominates the square. The Golden Gate which serves as the entrance to the Taleju complex was built in 1754 by King Ranajit Malla. The Vastala Temple, dedicated to the supreme Goddess Durga, was built completely out of stones in shikhara style in the 17th century. The Yakcheswor Mahadev temple was built in 1480 is a replica of Kathmandu’s Pashupatinath Temple. It was said to be built here so that the community of Bhaktapur would not have to make such a difficult trip to the original temple and there are legends that the Lord Pashupati showed up in the dream of a king from Bhaktapur telling him to build it so Pashupati could move in there.

Bhaktapur Taumadi Square is home to one of the most famous pagodas of Nepal, the Nyatapola. It was built to keep the balance of male and female energies pervading the earth and it is a 5-tiered temple which symbolizes the five basic elements of nature. On each stair tier it has a different pair of animals and muscular men guarding the temple and each pair higher than the next is said to be ten times stronger than the one below. Taumadi Square is also home to the Bhairav Nath and the Teel Mahadev Nayayan Temples.

Bhaktapur Dattareya Square is home to the Dattareya, Bhimsen, and Pujari Math (which is now home to the Wood Carving Muesum) Temples. The Dattreya Temple is special because it is the only temple in Nepal dedicated to the God Dattatreya who is (combined) an incarnation of the three supreme Gods: Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva.

To view pre-designed Nepal travel packages, see our programs page or the encyclopedia for more Nepal Travel items.

Main Temples of the Kathmandu Valley

Travel to Nepal, is travel to a country of diversity – ethnically, culturally, and a large part religiously. There is a harmonious blend of these different factors that make Nepal an ideal place to live and visit. With its religious roots (dominantly Hindu and Buddhist or a mix of both!) having such an important role in daily life there are of course countless shrines, temples, monasteries, and other ancient places of worship to visit. Below are just the few major temples and stupas in the Kathmandu Valley that Nepali’s hold as if they are their own personal treasures. Although there are other religious places of interest in and around the valley, these are the most popular and the most traveled to by locals and tourists alike. They are all known to have grand celebrations at one time or another with thousands of devotees for many of the holidays and festivals throughout the year. Below are some details about the Hindu temples of: Pashupatinath and Changu Narayan and the Buddhist Stupas of Swayambhunath and Boudanath. (See our festivals page for more info.)

Pashupatinath Temple

Straddling the shores of the Bagmati River, Pashupatinath is famous as one of the most sacred places for Hindus from all over the world. Besides the golden roofed pagoda housing one of the only multi-faced lingas (phallic symbols) of Lord Shiva, it is also home to hundreds of other shrines and temples on its grounds. Some of the other temples that are in the sacred perimeter are the Kirateshwor, Gorakhnath, and the Parbati among dozens more temples dedicated to different Gods and Goddesses. The Pashupatinath Temple was named after Pashupati, meaning “Lord of Animals” fitting, given the hundreds of monkeys, cows and other animals that roam the temple complex. This site also given the UNESCO title of a “world heritage site” the age of which is still an unknown, is an important travel destination for any Hindu from anywhere in the world to see at least once in their lifetime. In order for them to be truly blessed and cleansed, pilgrims must travel to the four dhams: Dwarika, Kedar Rameshwar, Jaganath (all of these in India) and finally Phashupatinath in Nepal where they should take a bath in the holy Bagmati River freeing them from their cycle of birth and re-birth. As a side note, travel to Nepal’s Muktinath, will accomplish the same feat negating the need to travel to all venues. A large amount of the premises have been converted into rest and prayer areas for the travelers and locals alike. One of the popular yet semi-private and spiritual sites to see is the cremation grounds. Along the banks of the Bagmati are the cremation pallets where it is a dream for many Hindus to be placed here after their death. Although that side of the river is sacred to Hindus, there are places to see these emotionally moving events from the other side of the river. The Pashupatinath Temple also provides a grand stage for many festivals celebrated throughout the year.

Swayambhunath Stupa

There are eyes facing each side of the temple (of Vairochana) watching over and protecting this area that is also known as monkey temple because of the animals living around the Swayambhunath Stupa (temple). If you look around the temple or up in the trees you might be able to find the monkeys and maybe even the dominant one. The main structure of the temple is a solid hemisphere of brick and earth supporting a sublime cone-like shaped spire topped with a pinnacle of golden copper. The legend of this temple started with the belief that the Kathmandu Valley was once a grand lake with a lotus striving up from the middle. Upon hearing about this lake with the lotus, a Chinese saint chose to travel here and cut through the southern wall of a hill with his great sword. His sword actually caused the whole lake to drain of its water leaving a lush valley perfect for human settlement. He found the flowering lotus and planted it on the peak of a hill. Now this stupa thrives on a hilltop with a lotus mandala base. It is one of the most important places of worship for Buddhists in the world. The area includes some tiered pagodas as well as shrines and is a really interesting place for travelers to see thousands of pilgrims gathering who have traveled here for special festivals throughout the year. The area around the stupa is loaded with symbols of the 13 stages to salvation as well as sacred sites representing the five elements of nature: Vasupura (earth), Nagapura (serpents, the lord of water), Shantipura or Akashpura (space or sky), Vayapura (air), and Agnipura (fire). This beautiful site with panoramic views of the Himalaya and also the Kathmandu Valley is also a UNESCOworld heritage site.”

For more info on Swayambhudunath, visit the Swayambhunath page or the “attractions encyclopedia“.

Boudanath Stupa

Also one of UNESCO’s “world heritage sitesBoudhanath is a famous stupa dating back to the 5th century and seems to have popped up in the middle of a town center. It is completely protected and secluded from the busy car-lined streets of Kathmandu by shops, restaurants and lodges and other monasteries. There are 108 different nooks for icons of Buddha, Bokhisatavas and other female Goddesses around the stupa and surrounding area. There are also some monasteries and many places of worship that are actively used on a regular basis for cultural activities, meditation, multiple festivals and centers for learning by locals. The temple and surrounding space especially come alive during some important festivals during the year. There are so many conflicting legends on why this unique stupa was built as well as conflicting stories recorded in various literary texts that it is really up to you to decide who was right.

One of the myths for the building of the stupa: there was a poor but still very charitable girl who had a deep desire to spread the teachings of the Buddha. When she approached the current King for a piece of land to build a stupa, he granted her wish and she did so with the help of her four sons.

Another myth (probably based off of the same girl): a woman wanted to build a place of worship for her Lord Buddha but did not have the means to do so. She asked for financial help from her King. His reply was she could have a piece of land and all the construction materials needed, but the land had to be the circumference of one cows coat of hair. The woman was very clever and she cut the coat of hair into string-like strips and used them to create a large perimeter. When the King saw what she had done, he stood by his word and provided all of the materials and staff to help her build this grand stupa that stands in the center of the square today.

One of the other myths, though not as innocent of a story: Kathmandu was having some very difficult times, drought was upon the people and it was causing King Dharma Dev much anxiety. He consulted with an astrologer who told him he needed to find someone with 32 virtues and sacrifice them in front of the dry water spigot, this would stop the drought and bring rainfall to the land. The king knew only himself that was close to this description, so he told his son to go to the dry spigot and behead the man dressed in a white cloak – but he should not look at the man’s face.

The son did as he was told, but when he realized it was his father who he had killed, he prayed to the Goddess Vajrayogini who said his sin could only be lifted with the building of a Stupa and continuing to pray at this site.

For more info on Boudanath, visit the Boudanath page, or the “attractions encyclopedia

Temple of Changu Narayan

Situated on a hilltop with panoramic views of Bhaktapur and the Kathmandu Valley combined, the Hindu Temple of Changu Narayan, sits and protects several ancient Nepali pieces of art made from wood and metal. The building itself is an amazing example of one of Nepal’s oldest pieces of architecture. This jewel, which has the title of a UNESCOworld heritage site” was originally built in the 4th century and is the oldest pagoda style temple in Nepal. It is dedicated to Lord Vishnu (the provider) and his consort Goddess Laxmi who is the Goddess of wealth and prosperity. Within the temples premises there are sculptures of Lord Vishnu with the Garud which is a heavenly bird. There is also a preserved inscription on a column that is dated the year 464 and is perhaps the oldest inscription in Nepal. Its legend started when Lord Vishnu beheaded a Brahman mistaking him to be a demon, after the terrible death, he realized his mistake. Vishnu lived on this hilltop surviving solely off of milk that had been stolen from a cow that belonged to the hermit Sudharshan. When the hermit found Vishnu stealing from him, he beheaded the God, which actually freed him of all his sins. Now the site is home to this sacred temple. (See our festivals page under Nov/Dec Thiar dedicated to Goddess Laxmi.)

To view pre-designed Nepal travel packages, see our programs page or the encyclopedia for more Nepal Travel items.


Nepal National Ethnographic Museum

The Nepal National Ethnographic Museum, located at the Nepal Tourism Board building at Bhrikuti Mandap in Kathmandu, has diorama displays of 11 unique ethnic groups of Nepal, placing them in “common life” settings. When you visit the museum, you can get a great glimpse of Nepals culture like how they dress and home structure that varies from house to house just as much as it’s vegetation. There are also lovely paintings of Nepal’s ethnic groups many of which are not featured inside the actual museum hung just outside of the museum, lining the hallways. There are also photos of cultural events or festivals that have been celebrated in the Kathmandu Valley and in surrounding villages in a collage-like display.

National Museum at Chhauni
At the foot of Swayambhunath there is the National Museum at Chhauni. It houses relics of the Great Earthquake of 1934 as well as ancient firearms, weapons and paubha paintings and other statues.

Nepali Folk Musical Instrument Museum
For the musical instrument fanatic, there is the Nepali Folk Musical Instrument Museum, at Bhadrakali. Here there is a collection of more than 160 of these instruments along with the methods of playing them and a little background info. on each.

Mahendra and the Tribhuvan Museums
Near Kathmandu’s Durbar Square, there are two museums dedicated to some late kings. The first the Mahendra Museum, gives you a glimpse into the life of King Mahendra who ruled from 1955-1972. There are displays of his writings, gifts, decorations as well as other personal items. The other Tribhuvan Museum also located at this Durbar Square, shows you a little about King Tribhuvan who ruled from 1906-1955. Here there are rare photos and paintings of other Shah rulers and some information on Tribhuvan himself who helped to free the country from the Rana regime.

Museum of Natural History & Swayambhu Buddhist Museum
Near Swayambhunath, there are also two different museums with very different information for the curious. One of the museums is the Museum of Natural History and has displays of butterflies, plants and animals of Nepal including some of birds and even crocodile. The other museum in the area is the Swayambhu Buddhist Museum which provides a home for some ancient stone sculptures of Gods and Goddesses as well as some stone inscriptions.

Patan Museum
The Patan Museum located near the Patan Durbar Square provides shelter for important Hindu and Buddhist bronze statues and ritual objects dating back to the 11th century.

National Art Gallery
At Bhaktapur Durbar Square there is a beautiful collection of scroll paintings and images made out of stone, bronze, and wood in the National Art Gallery.

National Wood-working Museum
Also in Bhaktapur in the 15th century Pujari Math, located by the Dattatreya Square, the National Wood-working Museum has some of the most interesting Newari art including its peacock window.

Bronze and Brass Museum
Across from the Pujari Math still at the Dattatreya Square in Bhaktapur, is the Bronze and Brass Museum. It has a wide collection of regular and special occasion metal-ware like inkpots, jars, lamps and spittoons.

To view pre-designed Nepal travel packages, see our programs page or the encyclopedia for more Nepal Travel items.