Kathmandu’s Durbar Square
The Kathmandu Valley has three main cities, Kathmandu, Patan, and Bhaktapur, though Kathmandu (KTM) has basically swallowed Patan. They used to be rivals (after one kingdom was split between three sons) who competed to have the biggest, most ornate, most impressive buildings, which were clustered around the palaces. So now each city has an area of temples, a palace, and monuments called Durbar Square.
They are the required tourist sites, so our first day in Kathmandu we walked down through the frenetic streets of rickshaws, motorcycles, dust, cows, dogs, garbage, vendors, and the constant stimulation of colors, smells, and sounds that felt like a rugby game for the brain
KTM’s square, more than the others, is chaotic, crowded, and that remarkable blend of sacred and profane that characterizes the developing world in my mind. It’s the piles of garbage gathered and left to rot in the sun around temples and stupa’s on back streets. The tourist kitsch pedalled out of ancient palaces. Muddy prayer flags fallen in a heap. It’s the goats walking around the Dattatraya Temple in Bhaktapur, dropping crap pellets in all the carved oil-lamp holders they’re stepping over. It’s the taxi’s and motorcycles parked under the Maju Deval temple, and the exhaust stains on crimson banners. Spray-painted slogans and pictures of Vishnu and Ganesh. It’s the offerings given every morning and the stray dogs eating them and leaving a steaming pile of shit behind. It’s the sacred cows (and sometimes non-castrated bulls) left to wander the streets after being offered in ceremonies of the devout, which graze in the piles of rotting garbage on street corners, hooves battered from a life on pavement.
It’s a living city after all, and the laundry has to dry someplace.
We walked around the square that hot morning, trying to remember details from the guide book read before leaving the hotel (I can’t bring myself to walk around those places with the book open in my hands). We were just discussing finding a café to get a lassi and read up on what the hell we were looking at when a chipper little fellow approached us with a very “official” looking laminated guide badge with his picture on it.
When we were in Tikal two years ago I waved off all the guides automatically, and after an hour of wondering what the hell each impressive pyramid was used for, decided maybe we should have sprung for a guide. So when this fellow waved his badge long enough to see but not really inspect, I heard him out.
It was the usual lines about him studying history at a local university and yada yada yada and today is a very special day, when I can get you in to see something special, but it closes in an hour. He wanted about $4.
So we had a guide. He told us his name was “Chico” because previous tourists had told him he looked Peruvian, that he didn’t like Israeli’s, and that he met his wife half an hour before he married her. Chico was a nice enough fellow, but didn’t seem to actually know anything about Durbar Square or its monuments.
He was handy for keeping the other touts away though, and at the Trailokya Mohan Narayan temple (whose window carvings date back to 1680 by the way) he spoke with one of the guys resting from their never-ending work of carrying massive burdens across town on their backs. Chico smiled and told me the guy had agreed to let me try his burden, and that I was lucky, it wasn’t very heavy that day. I fit the greasy strap over my forehead and stood up to find that apparently local’s aren’t used to this sight, and a surprisingly large crowd had gathered to watch me hobble around. No, that wasn’t embarrassing or anything. (That’s one of the things I love about travelling. I can humiliate myself, and be anonymous again ten minutes later.)
After the tour he wanted to show us the best view of the square, and surprise, it’s a restaurant! So we had a snack and offered to buy him something. He ordered a big plate of fried rice and a beer. The beer in Nepal costs twice as much as a meal and comes in gigantic bottles, it’s gotta be a liter in those puppies, or at least ¾. Chico downed his beer and began telling us more and more about his arranged bride. She was okay, but his mother-in-law… He had a number of interesting things to say about his new mother dearest, which included the fact that she won’t let him drink any alcohol. Luckily they eat fast in Nepal, so we finished our food and ran before he could get too gabby.
Here Chico is in the mirror of the Ganesh temple that you have to visit before beginning any journey. This includes trekkers, so supposedly Tenzing and Hillary did a puja here before leaving for the first summiting of Everest. It is described as one of the four most important Genesh shrines in the valley; I had to lead Chico to where it was. (The mirror is provided so worshippers can check the tikka’s they self-apply from the provided materials.)
We ended up coming back to KTM’s Durbar Square with our volunteer group. For that visit (the director) Rajesh asks one or two people to serve as tour guides for the others. K and I volunteered, and after a little more research could talk about the small temple to Narayan, whose primary statue was stolen in 1766, and had not been replaced by 1768 when the city was conquered, so the conqueror just filled the void with his own choice, Bhagwati.
And could point out the elaborately carved balcony where the royal family used to watch festivals, back when there was a royal family (Nepal’s monarchy was abolished in 2008).
And about the theory that the famous erotic carvings on the roof struts of many temples may be intended to protect the structure from lightning, since the goddess of it is a shy female, so she would be too embarrassed to visit a structure with such explicit images. (I think this was made up to please tourists. I find it more likely that they just liked sex, or even wanted to inform the masses, the world’s first self-help books. And given that at least one temple in Bhaktapur shows elephants doing it in basically the missionary position, I think they were also just entertaining themselves.)
And the smaller square in the corner, closed most of the year, where in 1846 a prince massacred most of the royal family, paving the way (in blood) for the corrupt and selfish Rana pseudo-dynasty that ruled and neglected Nepal for the next 101 years. Every year they sacrifice 100’s of buffalo and goats there during Dashain (which begins in a couple weeks). (There was another royal massacre in 2001, in case that sounds familiar.)
And that the temple with the often-photographed statues of Shiva and his consort Parvati looking out the window, may actually be built on a much older platform which was used for dances and other religious rites centuries beforehand. I think it was during that anecdote that one of the Dutch girls stepped back and threw up in the street.
Nepal is cleaner than India, which is famous for giving all tourists a case of “Delhi Belly”, but a lot of visitors to Nepal still get a case of the Kathmandu Quickstep. Luckily for the Dutchling, hers was coming out the top that afternoon. She was embarrassed, the locals were pretty uninterested, and I realized that if you are going to throw up in a UNESCO World Heritage Site, this is the one to do it in. It fit right in.
Here’s Chico again, the massive Maju Deval on the left and rickshaws behind, trying to make a buck in Nepal. So much beauty, so much poverty; so much nobility and desperation and more world than we can ever hope to know.