on November 27, 2009
Certain peculiarities of cultures may make them difficult for the traveler. Strange languages written in unknown alphabets are one of them. Other relate to different conventions. In Thailand and Laos, a province, a district and a city may feature the same name. Locals would refer to them just using the words: "province," "district" and "city." That makes a lot of sense of you are a denizen, but unluckily, regardless the place in the country the traveler is, the locals would claim he is in the "muang." Confusing.Hardly surprising is the fact that Nepal has a local equivalent called "Durbar." Every one of the Kathmandu’s valley three cities (Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur) has a Durbar Square. All three of them were recognized as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Board a taxi in Kathmandu and say: "to Durbar Square." "Which one?" would be the answer in the best case. "The UNESCO World Heritage Site" would be another wrong statement uttered by the traveler. A short trip to Bakhtapur – the farthest one from downtown Kathmandu - would be the result in the worst case.Simply, Durbar Square is the generic name for the plaza opposite the former royal palaces on each one of these cities; "durbar" is the name for a royal palace.Why bother visiting them? Simply, these squares are surrounded by temples which are the epitome of Nepali architecture and Newari wood carving. This is where strikingly beautiful pagodas transfer the traveler to another world, where statues are gods and living persons are sometimes recognized as such. Durbar Square(s) is the reason many visit Kathmandu, even if they do not know its name, or its meaning.Most of the buildings date back to the 16th and 17th centuries, though older ones exist. The original palace – which does not exist anymore – was built circa 1000 AD. Until the 19th century the palace next to the square was the royal residence. Even now, the square is the stage of important religious ceremonies, like Indra Jatra (see this journal).In fact, Durbar Square is a compund of three small squares and the streets connecting them. It has a definite medieval ambience, with no signs of an underlying plan, nor any modern touches.AccessThe area is better visited during the early morning or the evening; guides should be avoided, if wishing one, contract him through the tickets office. Despite the area being open and well connected to the town, tourists are supposed to buy a visiting ticket; policemen in the compound may ask to see it. Several types of tickets are offered, beginning with a daily one and ending with the monthly option. The last is the best fore those planning a trek, in such a way they can visit the square – the major attraction in the city – before and after the trek. A passport sized picture is needed for getting this card.A good timing for the visit is the Indra Jatra festival, especially if planning a trek in the Everest region just before the end of the season.Taleju TempleThese two towers at the center of the main square and in front of the palace is the best known landmark of the complex. Atop pyramid shaped bases, are two three-tiered temples (the tallest of this type is five tiered and in Bhaktapur).Sitting on the pyramidal bases is best for enjoying events on the square. If planning to witness Indra Jatra from there, arriving a few hours early is recommended.Hanuman DhokaThis is the palace’s side entry. At its gate is a Hanuman – a monkey god – covered with so much mustard oil and vermilion that its features cannot be elucidated anymore.Kumari ChowkKumari is the name of a living goddess, a girl that holds the position until she touches the ground or loses blood. Her palace is perpendicular to the royal one and sections of it can be visited. The goddess is one of the participants of the Indra Jatra festival, when she is carried on a hand held carriage along the square. Her house windows features what is may be the best sample of Newari wood carving.Sweta BhairabBehind a heavy door, this statue is shown only for three days a year during the Indra Jatra festival, see picture. During the last evening of the festival beer is spilled through a small tube placed in the statue’s mouth, to the joy of the denizens.Kala BhairabSimilar to the former, but accessible at all times, is this image in which Kala Bhairab steps on a human corpse, symbolizing ignorance. "Kala" means "black," as in Kala Pattar. Bhairab is Shiva in its most fearful incarnation, with six arms holding various weapons, and a headdress and belt of skulls. Completing the theme, nearby is the Saraswati Temple which belongs to the goddess of knowledge and learning.Shiva ParvatiThis complex is on the northern side of the square and includes a long building with shrines to Shiva and Parvati. Next to it is the Manju Deval, probably the most beautiful temple in the whole area. This three tiered temple is similar to the Taleju Temple, but its base is more beautiful, looking like an inverse image of the temple’s roof tiers. It is also dedicated to Shiva.JagannathThis temple features wood carvings of Hindu gods on its doors, windows and roof. When built it was dedicated to Vishnu, but later Jagannath won the honor.Nasal ChowkNamed after the statue of a dancing Krishna, this temple was the Shah kings crowning place.Mul ChowkThis temple is open once a year during the Dashain Festival (I left the town for a trek one day after Indra Jatra and returned in time for Dashain), when buffaloes and goats are sacrificed to the goddess Taleju.KasthamandapLiterally meaning "Wood House," this is the structure that gave Kathmandu its name, though it is usually referred to as Maru Sattal. The building was supposedly built from a single tree, again featuring a three-tiered roof. Originally it was a gathering place, later it became a shrine for Gorakhnath, whose image is at its center.This is not allReviewing all the temples, structures and work arts in the complex would be the theme for a book and beyond the scope of such an entry. Yet, there is a very definite medieval ambience to the place that cannot be attributed to any single structure; it is the result of their relative setup. There is no better way of experiencing this than walking from Thamel to the square. In such a way, the last would be accessed through the north, from Makhan Tole. A narrow street with no sidewalks, but with cows, rikshas and monkeys connects both through a swaying path that definitely belongs to medieval times – the smell of incense seems to be the result of the last camels’ caravan that crossed the city – and makes the perfect prelude for a visit to Kathmandu’s heart.
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