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City of Temples: Exploring the Blended Cultures in Kathmandu

Story and Photos Tom Truty

Web Feature Sponsor Art of Compassion

Originally published in Driftwood Issue One

Surely you’ve heard about the April 2015 earthquake that devastated Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu, and the surrounding area. I took my trip to Kopan Monastery, just up the hill from the Kathmandu city center, before the quake, but I’ve stayed in communication with residents at the monastery, and the news could be worse. While you probably imagine a leveled, blacked-out city, the truth is that the public services are all working, daily life has largely returned to normal, many buildings remain intact, and repair and rebuilding has begun. It is suggested that you come “with an attitude of kindness,” but feel free to visit. You may experience some of the aftershocks that just won’t quit, but they’re so mild that many don’t even notice anymore.

The fact is, especially since the earthquake, Nepal relies on tourism. Decades of struggle over both governmental structure and the pressures of neighboring world powers, namely India and China, looking to exert control—and benefit from untapped mineral resources—have left much of the population in poverty. But while tensions continue, Nepal is a culturally diverse home to Tibetans, both refugees and families who'd settled along the trade route between Tibet and northern India over the centuries; the Sherpa, ethnically Tibetan migrants who have been settling the northern highland regions for the past 500 years; Indians; and native Nepalese. Perhaps this is part of what makes Kathmandu the incredibly tourist-friendly city that it is. People come through from all over, on either Buddhist or Hindu pilgrimage, to head up to the mountains for climbing, and simply to experience a city rich in ancient culture.

I had just completed Kopan Tibetan Buddhist Monastery's month-long retreat program. The plan was for all 230 students to go on pilgrimage to Boudhanath and Swayambunath Stupas—as two of the oldest and largest, among the most sacred sites in Tibetan Buddhism—to do korwa (the meditative practice of circumambulation, walking clockwise around a holy object while reciting mantras and so on) and of course a little shopping and lunch.

I had a meeting scheduled, so rather than go with the group, some Nepal-savvy friends offered to be my guides on our own schedule. Their hotel was just down the hill from the monastery, across the road from Kopan Nunnery. You have to be really careful walking down the hill—there are motorcyclists everywhere, and they cut the engine when going downhill to save gas. So these speeding motorcycles silently creep up on you.

We walked down the rest of the hill and negotiated our fare with a taxi driver. It’s standard to negotiate the rate when you get picked up—but then you don’t tip your driver. Rates are based on time of day, and be aware that taxis stop running late in the evening if not prearranged.

After more than a month in Nepal, I had only ventured out into the city a few times. I spent my retreat within the walls of the monastery and only saw the city from high above. After such focus, jumping into the hornets’ nest of motorcycles, tiny cars, animals, bicycles, giant trucks, mopeds, pedestrians, and rickshaws that fill the city’s largely unpaved roads was overwhelming. Cutting across several neighborhoods and districts, we passed the palace of the old Nepalese monarchy (now a museum). The drive was about 20 minutes but seemed like hours.

Our first stop was at Vidyeshvari, a sumptuous example of the overlapping of Hinduism and Buddhism in Nepalese culture. This is an ancient temple of the Buddhist tantric goddess Vajrayogini. On top of a hill in the middle of what was until recently a charnel ground (above-ground cemetery where remains are left uncovered to decompose), the temple sits in a large courtyard full of 3- or 4-foot-tall stupas (structures of a dome and spire symbolic of the enlightened mind) of unique Nepalese design, incorporating both the Buddhist-style stupas and Hindu lingam and yonis (representations of the gods Shiva and Shakti, the male and female reproductive energies).

Having convinced our driver to hang out so we wouldn’t have to haggle with another taxi, we headed in. I don’t know how long ago the area ceased being a charnel ground—or if it really even had—but it looked like a neglected vacant lot beside a river, with Bodhi trees growing all over, and a steep, narrow cement staircase to the temple on top.

We climbed carefully, paying caution to the tale of injies (Tibetan slang for Westerners—not necessarily offensive) falling down stairs like these and dying in Nepal every year.

We lost ourselves photographing the stupas in the courtyard, draped with marigold garlands and sprinkled with colorful powders as offerings, and then went into the temple, where photographs are forbidden. It had a very low ceiling—not much more than 6 feet high—and was entirely black, every surface carved extensively with Tibetan mantras and symbols. At one end of the room sat a small shrine with three stunning statues of Vajrayogini and a shelf with hundreds of candles burning. We each lit candles given to us by an ancient Nepalese woman as offerings to the goddess. Then we each rang a bell three times and made a small offering of money to the temple.

On our exit, just before the steep stairway was an old woman begging. It is said female beggars outside Vajrayogini temples could be the goddess herself, as deities are said to take a lowly form to test your perfection of charity. We each gave her a small offering (about 500 Nepalese rupees, so around $5—not too large, which is considered offensive).

Back to our taxi, we headed west through the Kathmandu valley to the Swayambunath stupa. This avoided much earthquake damage and is open for visitors, but its surrounding temple complex was quite damaged. It’s located on top of a hill, said to have a crystal stupa (or flame) inside. Both Buddhists and Hindus consider this a holy place, but the scene is predominantly Buddhist. Korwa is done around the base of the hill, about 2 miles around, and also at the top, where a giant stupa and dense complex of smaller stupas and temples sits. We pulled up to the main gate, and since the stairway there is extremely steep, we took the much more gradual side entrance. But first we had to meet the holy monkeys! The gateway is flanked by Bodhi trees and an infinite network of telephone lines, all of which were filled with monkeys. Looking them in the eye is grounds for attack, as is holding open food or getting too close.

We walked about half a mile (clockwise, of course) around the outer korwa circuit and hiked up, through giant pines and the occasional monkey gang. At the next stairway, I encountered my first lepers, old men and women seated on blankets spaced every 6 or 7 feet. My friend started making small offerings, but I only had large bills on me so I ran over to a vendor and bought a mala so I could get small bills and offer a couple hundred rupees to each of the lepers, some of them missing fingers.

Reaching the top gave an incredible view over the opposite side of the valley from Kopan, but the haze was too thick to see that far east. We wandered through the forest of stupas, tiny shops, and temples that surround the enormous whitewashed dome of the great central stupa. Our path led us around to where the main steep stairway came to the top, with an impressive golden vajra dominating the entrance. When we carefully climbed back down to do the outer circuit around the base of the hill, we encountered scores of stupas of every style. A really special aspect of the Swayambunath site is this collection of smaller stupas donated by Buddhists from all over the world, each representing that specific tradition. This speaks to the openness of the religion, that it has been adopted and translated by so many over the centuries.

Along the way, the trees started to thin and we came around from behind three golden statues about three stories high of enlightened figures. This led into a long series of walls with bas-relief carvings of hundreds of Buddhist enlightened heroes, surrounding more stupas, shrines, and prayer wheels great and small.

Our taxi driver was happy to take us back to Boudha, so we rode with him back across the city to the front gate of the korwa circuit at Boudhanath. From this angle the stupa sported a large, ornate archway and a sign in multiple languages declaring this as a World Heritage Site. We skirted around to a side street to enter the korwa circuit and avoid the spurious gate fee collectors. Boudhanath Stupa is larger than the main stupa at the top of Swayambunath hill but has a smaller complex of stupas around it. The main stupa did see some damage in the quake. It lost some gold tiles and the top part went crooked, but repairs were scheduled to commence after summer monsoon season.

Around the stone pathway of the korwa circuit is a bustling crowd of four- and five-story narrow buildings, all fronted with shops on their main floor. I learned quickly to not buy anything until having gone 'round the compass once, as you’re sure to find the same item cheaper, or a nicer version, at the next shop. Here, we met up with another friend who’d been living in Kathmandu for several months. He took us through the area adjacent to Boudhanath to Kunga Hotel Restaurant, a favorite for Chinese food among the local Tibetan community. With a central veranda attached to the kitchens and private rooms, the restaurant's outdoor seating consisted of covered platforms separated by curtains. Sitting on cushions surrounding a broad, low table, we adjusted the curtains to block the midday sun but still allow fresh air to breeze in at the bottom.

Just enough space, in fact, to let an attention-drunk kitten stroll in.

After making the rounds smelling and getting more scratches from each of us, she curled up in the corner and dozed off. The fully illustrated handbook to the dishes they offered was too complicated for the rest of us, so our friend ordered a completely vegan meal of several entrées, with plenty of rice and noodles on the side. I had never in my life had or even heard of any of the dishes, but was assured they were completely authentic.

Chunks of tofu in spicy sauce, long green beans with garlic—after a month of eating at the monastery, which offered vegetarian but not always vegan meals (lots of butter/ghee to avoid), I had gotten used to the few main dishes they rotated through the week I knew I could eat. This opulent feast of a cuisine I realized I had never really tasted authentically was an awakening of its own. We ate and talked, compared some of our purchases...ordered a few more dishes.

The kitten grew bored and moved on to the next target as the sun crept lower and lower on the curtains. As we wrapped up, I knew I had to at least cover the bill in thanks for the remarkable day my friends had shown me. I went up to the counter and asked for the tab, amazed to find our feast came to a total of $25 US.

Before making our way back up the hill, we strolled through the neighborhood, popping into a few shops. I had been looking for a statue of a particular protector buddha. Of course we found a place where I had several to choose from. I picked a small statue that had a hollow bottom (so it could be stuffed full of printed-out mantras) but no cover piece. The shop owner pulled out a small piece of copper, a pencil, and tin snips, and said he’d have one in 10 minutes.

No problem. We found a nearby café on the korwa circuit and sipped tea while watching the after-dinner korwa crowd blur past us. Perfect punctuation to the day for a tired pilgrim.


Ready to head out on your Nepalese excursion? Solid prep = a much more relaxed and enjoyable trip.

1. Books and notebook

These are for the inevitable 12-hour layover—since nobody flies directly into Kathmandu. Might as well keep yourself entertained.

2. Eye mask and earplugs

Believe it or not, these are not for the flight. Good sleep can be challenging, especially thanks to the thousands of barking dogs and early-morning temple bells.

3. Lotion and sunscreen

At such high altitude, the sun can do some damage, even on a chilly day.

4. Mala

If you forgot your mala (Buddhist and Hindu prayer counter), you’ll find plenty in the markets, especially at pilgrimage sites and in the Thamel neighborhood.

5. Sunglasses

Sun isn’t the only danger to your eyes. You’ll want to keep the dust and smoke (burning garbage!) out, too.

6. Blankets

Himalayan tradition says keeping your kidneys warm will keep your whole body warm. You can pick these up in markets all over. Watch out—while synthetics are not uncommon, lots of the local textiles are made from animal fibers.

7. Currency

At 100 Nepalese rupees (not Indian rupees) to the dollar, the city is cheap, but make sure you have plenty on you for offerings, taxis, and shopping.

8. Quick-dry towel

Basically, pack like you’re camping. Assume nothing. You could be washing your clothes in a bucket. “Better safe than sorry” never rang truer.

9. Inflatable meditation cushion

Most temples provide cushions, but bringing your own is optimal for hours of sitting. This inflatable model is really just a beach ball in a cover, but it’s rated to 200 pounds and makes everyone else jealous.

10. Headlamp

Between rolling blackouts and no streetlights, hands-free illumination (get it?) is a life-saver.

11. Unlocked phone

If you bring an unlocked cell phone, you can pick up a cheap SIM card almost anywhere.

12. Water purifier

This is a place where you don’t even want to get water in your mouth while showering. The UV pen can help keep you from wasting a few days in your room, miserable.

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