As tourism goes, Nepal is quite young. The famously secretive Himalayan nation only opened its doors to foreigners in 1951. When it did, masses of counter-culture flower children and troops of mountaineers poured in, the former to seek nirvana and follow in the ways of Lord Krishna amidst wafts of incense and the latter to conquer the Annapurna Range and the imposing peak of Mt. Everest. As more travelers visited, word got around that this was a place not to be missed. No matter your religious persuasion or trekking abilities, peak experiences were waiting to be had here. And nowhere was there a greater concentration of Nepal’s rich and exotic culture than in Kathmandu.

Kathmandu Treasures Frozen in Time

Just 45 years ago, Kathmandu and the surrounding valley were home to as many temples and shrines as houses. Development has changed all that, of course. But the city remains Nepal’s major trade, religious, and cultural center, largely because the valley in which it rests is one of the few habitable places in this famously mountainous region. It is no surprise, then, that the concentration of historic monuments, palaces, and temples is intense and unique, earning the city’s Durbar Square (durbar means “palace” in the local language) UNESCO World Heritage Site status, which it shares with other historic places throughout the Kathmandu Valley.

More than 50 temples, shrines, and palaces are in and near the bustling square. Exploring here, it’s easy to believe you have transcended the real world for another, the 21st century for the 16th. Triple-roofed houses keep watch over a scene of merchants selling tiger balm to weary hikers, bicycle rickshaws delivering passengers, stone carvings of Hindu and Buddhist gods, prayer flags draped from windows, cinnamon-colored anointments on foreheads, marigold wreaths draped over motorcycle handlebars, prayer beads wrapped around wrists, and colorful paintings of Shiva on vehicles.

Indeed, a rich blend of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Tantrism is alive and well here. Its buildings represent four kingdoms – Kantipur, Lalitpur, Bhaktapur, and Kirtipur – and have been watched over by Malla and Shah kings. Among the most fascinating is the Hanuman Dhoka Palace of the Malla Kings, a five-acre complex that was once home to the royal family. For a bit of intrigue, find the curious 17th-century inscription in the wall of the palace. It is written in 15 languages, and local legend says that if anyone deciphers it word for word, milk will spill from an adjacent spout.

Speaking of mysteries, the three-story palace residence of Kumari Ghar in the square is home to Kathmandu’s very own kumari. In Nepalese tradition, kumaris are living embodiments of the divine female energy – the goddess Taleju – that protects Nepal from evil. Even the president shows them deference. Each of the valley’s three royal cities—Kathmandu, Bhaktapur, and Patan—worships one in the form of a pre-adolescent girl. She lives a reclusive life, appearing to her devout followers once each day through her residence window. She does, however, receive visitors who seek her blessings. It is best to catch a glimpse of her before 10 am, which is when her schooling begins.

Perched on a hill overlooking the valley is one of Nepal’s most recognizable sites: the 1st-century Buddhist stupas of Swayambhunath. In the indigenous Newar dialect, this remarkable stupa complex is named for a Buddhist notion, Swayambhu, meaning “that which is created by its own accord.” Neighboring Tibetans translate it as “sublime trees.” The spirit of both these translations rings true for any visitor, whether viewing the oldest stupa in the valley here or any of the other revered, richly decorated structures. Each is adorned with two eyes, one for wisdom and one for compassion. The third eye, so say the devout, emanates cosmic rays to heavenly beings when the Buddha preaches, signaling them to come down to earth to listen.

Sacred Splendors Beyond Kathmandu

Other cities in the Kathmandu Valley boast their own richly historic Durbar Squares and deeply spiritual temples, each a time capsule of centuries-old architecture, art, and culture.

In the Durbar Square of Patan, an incredible cultural heritage is on display. Called the “city of festival and feast,” many celebrations of its arts and crafts tradition unfold in its Durbar Square. Ancient Newa architecture is everywhere here, including the ancient Royal Palace where the Malla kings resided for six centuries. With 55 Hindu and Buddhist temples in and around the square, it stands as a prime example of the harmonious fusion of religions in Nepalese history. Perhaps best of all, the square prohibits car traffic, making exploring a delight.

The “City of Devotees,” as Bhaktapur is known, is admired for its tidy streets, rich culture, and artwork made of wood, metal, and stone. The city’s Durbar Square – which by some counts consists of four squares in total – is one of Nepal’s most charming places for its colorful and evocative displays of the country’s ancient arts. Its Lion Gate is guarded by two huge stone lions; the intricate Golden Gate (Lu Dhowka) has been called the most beautiful example of its kind in the world; the Palace of 55 Windows is a wonder of woodcarving. This is just a small sample of its marvels.

Non-Hindu visitors may view this pagoda-style complex of temples and ashrams of Pashupatinath from across the Bagmati River. But only the devout are permitted inside. Though it is the oldest and most sacred Hindu temple in Nepal (with its core originally built in the 5th century), Mughal invaders ruined much of it in the 14th century. Much of what we see today of this hallowed Hindu creation site dates to the 19th century. Residing priests have long been Brahmins from South India, originally sent here in the 8th century to encourage cultural exchange. The temple is renowned for its breathtaking architecture and the cremation platforms along the river.

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