Tuesday, August 10, 2010


Patan also known as ‘Lalitpur’ literally, the City of Artisans, lies 5km southeast of Kathmandu, and is home to the valley’s finest craftsmen who preserve ancient techniques such as repouss√© and the lost wax process, still producing exquisite pieces of sculpture. The city retains much of the old charm with its narrow streets, brick houses and the multitude of well-preserved Hindu temples and Buddhist monasteries (Vihars). The predominant sound in Patan is not motor vehicles but the tinkering of craftsmen bent over the statuettes they are shaping. As in Kathmandu, Hinduism and Buddhism have co-existed here for ages, influencing each other and the religious harmony is exemplary.

Around Patan

Hiranya Varna Mahabihar: Dating back to the 12th Century A.D. the three storied golden pagoda of Lokeshwar in Patan was built by King Bhaskar Varma. Located in the courtyard of Kwabahal, this temple is in a class of its own. On the upper floor is a golden image of Lord Buddha and a large prayer wheel on a pedestal. Intricate decorative patterns on its outer walls add charm to the mellow richness of the shrine.

Kumbheshwar: The temple of Kumbheswar is the only five storied pagoda in Patan and is dedicated to Lord Shiva. It is believed that a natural spring within the courtyard of this temple has its source in the very popular glacial lake of Gosainkunda. Built by King Jayasthiti Malla, the golden finial was added later in 1422 A.D. During his time the pond was cleaned and various images of Narayan, Ganesh, Sitala, Basuki, Gauri, Kirtimukh and Agamadevata were added around the pond and in the courtyard. A large gathering of devotees arrive here for ritual bathing on the day of Janai Poornima each year.

Jagat Narayan: The Jagat Narayan temple on the banks of the Bagmati River at Sankhamul is a tall shikhara-style temple consecrated to Lord Vishnu. Built of red bricks, the temple has many fine images. An attractive metal statue of Garuda mounted on a stone monolith is accompanied by several images of Ganesh and Hanuman.

Mahaboudha: The famous temple of Mahabouddha in Patan is unique for its thousand little images of Buddha in terracotta. This artistically built shikhara-style temple is a fine specimen and owes its existence to a priest named Abhaya Raj. Every brick on the surface of this shrine bears a small image of the Buddha. After it was completely destroyed during the great earthquake of 1933, a new one was built replicating the original to the exact specifications. Mahaboudha is one of the major attractions of Patan.

Ashoka Stupas: Although there is little evidence that the Emperor Ashoka ever visited Kathmandu valley, there are four stupas supposedly built by him in 250 AD. Marking the four corners of Patan, three of these stupas are merely mounds of earth with prayer wheels around them while the fourth near Shankamul is a beautiful concrete stupa. At the time they were built, Buddhism flourished in the Kathmandu Valley.

Machhendranath Temple: The temple of Red Machchhendranath, the God of Rain is of great importance in Patan. The temple lies in the middle of a wide, spacious quadrangle just at the outer rim of the market place. A clay image of Red Machchhendranath or Avalokiteshwar is kept here for six months each year, after which it is placed on a chariot and taken round the city of Patan in a boisterous colorful procession as part of a festival that begins in April-May and lasts for several months.

The Tibetan Refugee Camp: A large number of Tibetans fled their homeland in Tibet and settled in Nepal during the early 1960s. To shelter these homeless people the government of Nepal set up the Tibetan Refugee Camp on the outskirts of Patan. The Tibetans brought their carpet weaving skills to Nepal and soon a carpet industry was thriving in the valley. The camp has become a tourist attraction with its souvenir shops that sell carpets and handicrafts such as prayer wheels made of wood, ivory, silver or bronze along with an assortment of belt buckles, wooden bowls and jewelry. A stupa and a number of shrines have also been built within the camp.

Thursday, August 5, 2010


Legend has it that there was once a primordial lake surrounded by lush green forested mountains. In this pristine lake lived giant serpents until one fine day, Manjushree raised a mighty sword and in one fell swoop, cut open the side of a mountain at a place now known as Chobar. The voluminous waters of the lake gushed out leaving behind a fertile valley which we know today as Kathmandu valley.

Once known as ‘Kantipur’, Kathmandu, the largest city of Nepal, is the political capital and a cultural one as well. Nestled within a large valley, it enjoys a pleasant climate second to none and is a relatively safe place to live. Like any big city, Kathmandu has seen rapid expansion in the last decade and the hustle and bustle is typical, yet the people remain as refreshingly friendly as ever. The old, fabulous palaces, the superbly crafted pagodas and the monumental stupas are reminders of the Golden age of architecture in Nepal. They stand testimony to the artistic genius of the Newar craftsmen, the original inhabitants of the valley, whose skills were championed by the Malla kings and appreciated even by Mongol rulers of 18th Century China. And rightfully, the Durbar Square, Swoyambhunath, Boudhanath and Pashupatinath have been enlisted as UNESCO World Heritage Monuments.

The older part of the city with its center in Asan, is a maze of tiny backstreets strewn with a temple or small shrine every 50 meters or so. Kathmandu is a city where ancient traditions rub shoulders with the latest technological advances. However, it is the grandeur of the past that enchants the visitor whose gaze may linger on an exquisitely carved wooden, window frame, an 18th century bronze sculpture or the spiritually uplifting stupa of Boudhanath.

Retaining ancient traditions, Kathmandu is blessed not only by a Living Goddess but also by tantric priests and reincarnated Lamas who are revered for their spiritual prowess. The city is enriched by such living traditions and the spectacular religious processions that take to the streets every now and then with throngs of devotees seeking blessings. Major tourist attractions, these religious festivals are steeped in legend and are quite a spectacle with chariot processions, masked dancers often possessed by the spirits of deities and the inevitable ceremony of sacrifice.

General information Geological studies have shown that the Kathmandu valley indeed was once a massive lake. The three cities that were subsequently built in the valley: Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur have seen many battles and intrigues through the centuries and have benefited from the artistic rivalry that led to the building of opulent palaces, fabulous squares, artistic temples and other well-designed monuments. The richness of the cultural heritage has led UNESCO to designate three palace squares, two stupas and two temples in the valley as World Heritage Sites. Covering an area of 564sq.km.the valley is 1,348m. above sea level. The artistic brilliance of the Newar inhabitants is showcased by the exquisite wood carvings, the skillfully crafted statues and statuettes and the architectural marvels: the pagodas and stupas. In this valley, Buddhism and Hinduism have co-existed in religious harmony over the centuries, and many deities are common to both religions.

Around Kathmandu

Asan: Once the center of old Kathmandu, Asan has six roads radiating in all directions. The three storied pagoda style Annapurna temple plays a pivotal role in most festivals held here and is dedicated to the Goddess of Grains. The other temple of importance is the two storied shrine dedicated to Lord Ganesh. Asan is still an important shopping center and one of the busiest markets places with shops selling anything from imported spices to kitchenware, fresh vegetables, Chinese goods, hardware and clothes.

l: As the tourist district of Kathmandu, Thamel bustles with activity late into the night. It is a mere10-minute’s walk from the center of Kathmandu, yet completely different from the rest of the city. Thamel caters entirely to tourists with its scores of hotels, rows of restaurants and bars, book shops, inviting souvenir shops, cyber cafes and travel agencies. All that a tourist needs can be found here, even friends and traveling companions.

: The soaring landmark of Kathmandu, the Dharahara tower is 50.5 m high and was built by the then Prime Minister Bhimsen Thapa in 1832. Once closed to the public, it was recently opened and anyone can go up after paying the entrance fee. The 360 deg. astounding view of the Kathmandu Valley is well worth the long climb up the spiraling staircase.

Balaju Gardens
: 5 km north-west of Kathmandu is the Balaju Gardens, a quiet park ideal for relaxation. The park has a line of twenty-two stone water spouts built in the 18th Century, each of which has an ornately carved crocodile head. During an annual festival, people come here to bathe. The garden has a swimming pool open to the public and the ponds beside the flower gardens are teeming with fishes. A replica of the stone image of Budanilkantha was built here specifically for the royal family as they were barred from visiting the real one.

Garden of Dreams: In close proximity with Thamel, the Garden of Dreams is part of the Kaiser Mahal, a palace built in 1895 by the then Prime Minister Bir SJB Rana. It was later inherited by his son Chandra SJB Rana who went on to create the landscaped garden. He eventually presented the remarkable garden to his son Kaiser SJB Rana as a wedding gift. A learned man with great aesthetic sense, Kaiser Shumsher turned the garden into a work of art. It included a fabulous lawn, wooded area where birds roosted, flower gardens and a pond for ducks. Within the Garden wall, Kaiser Shumsher created an exquisite ensemble of pavilions, fountains, decorative garden furniture, and added European features such as verandas, pergolas, balustrades, urns, and birdhouses. He erected six impressive freestanding pavilions, each dedicated to one of the six seasons of Nepal namely- Basanta (spring), Grishma (summer), Barkha (monsoon), Sharad (early autumn), Hemanta (late autumn) and Shishir (winter). However, after the death of Kaiser Shumsher in 1965, his family bequeathed some portion of the Kaiser Mahal including his garden and Kaiser Library to the government. After years of neglect the garden was in ruins. However, recently it was renovated and restored to its former glory. Today it is open to the public with a restaurant and bar to raise money for its upkeep.

Budhanilkantha: The largest of Vishnu’s stone statues, Budanikantha also known as ‘the Reclining Vishnu’ is located 8 km north of Kathmandu. Known as Budhanilkantha, the large impressive statue of lord Vishnu reclines on a bed of snakes known as ‘Nags’. Located in the center of a small pond, this 5th Century shrine attracts Hindu pilgrims and large crowds gather during the festivals of Haribodhini Ekadasi and Kartik Poornima.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010


Nepal has a long-standing feudal tradition with the priestly class of Brahmins and the warrior class of Chhetris dominating the caste-based hierarchy. Nepalese also divide themselves into Paharis, Madeshis and Bhotias: hill people, plains folk and those from the northern border respectively. The sure-footed Sherpas and Tamangs live a largely nomadic life in the upper Himalayas. Madeshis are largely of Tibetan-Burmese origin including groups such as the Rais, Limbus, Jirels, Gurungs, Thapalis and Chepangs.
The plains-settlers are mostly Indo-Aryan groups like the Tharus, Rajputs, Rajvashis, Dhimlas and Dhangars. Across communities males dominate and male life expectancy is, not surprisingly, higher.

The Newaris, who make up about 4% of the population, are thought to be among the earliest inhabitants of this mountain country. They practice a synthesis of Buddhism and Hinduism and Tibetan influences can be seen in their language and art. Newari cuisine and art stands apart from the others. Strong flavours, heavy spice and buffalo meat figure prominently on the table. Newari wall hangings called Paubha paintings are simpler versions of the Tibetan Thanka.

For a long time the inhabitants of the terai, tribes such as the Tharus, Safars, Yadavs, Rajvanshis and Dhimlas and the resident fauna, were protected by marauding hordes of malarial mosquitoes. With the coming of the road (east-west highway), quinine and insect repellent, the terai is now accessible like never before. With the coming of airplanes and canned oxygen, so too are the great Himalayas. Consequently all of Nepal, people, animals, and the land alike, is dealing with the angst of 'development'. There is a sizeable population of Indians and Tibetans in Nepal too. In many cases, they settled generations ago and are now indistinguishable from the indigenous people


The deaths of King Birendra and his heir-apparent, Dipendra, in the aftermath of June 1 'accidental' shoot-out mark the end of an era of direct succession of kingship established by the founder of modern Nepal, King Prithvi Narayan Shah in the beginning of the 18th century. The line of succession has now been shifted from the son to brother. Prince Gyanendra has become the 13th King of Nepal. Many of Nepal's 23 million people still revere the king as an incarnation of Hindu god, Vishnu, and the Hindu-Buddhist faith is that monarchy mediates the material and spiritual power that establishes its authority and legitimacy in the Nepali society.

Many political symbols are attached to the institution of monarchy. For example, it is regarded as a symbol of national unity and its ideological glue - nationalism - is the raison d'etre of modern nation-state. The monarch is also perceived as a lord having spiritual and temporal authority to protect the sacredness of Nepal Mandala, the universe of Nepal. It is considered to exist for the "Reasons of State" where people as citizens sustain their private and public life in social existence- peace, amity and cooperation.

The theory that upholds the belief that "King does no wrong" is embedded in its non-partisan formation. The practice of worshipping monarchy thus springs from the notion that King performs Rajdharma (statecraft) to regulate society, observes the Sanatan Dharma (the eternal religion), is of virtuous conduct, dispenses justice and safeguards the motherland from external intrusion. Popular expression like "Go to Gorkha for justice" captures the judicious tradition of the Nepali monarch in this historical aphorism.
The founder of the Shah dynasty, King Ram Shah, established rule of law and social justice in the hills of Nepal at a time when many parts of the world were in a Hobbesian state of nature. He did not only solve the problems of anarchy and chaos but had some conception of a higher law than his self-will, a will to individualize himself through the trajectory of history.

King Prithvi Narayan Shah, the founder of present-day Nepal, rediscovered the roots of native virtues and introduced a vision of progress, patriotism and participation of diverse people in the social, economic and political construction of the nation-state through the institutionalization of monarchical institutions, system of rights for the people and their places in society. The spread of nationalism and the articulation of coherent geopolitical worldview he defined latter became rallying points for his successors to marshal the support of people on behalf of the goals of modern state.

The identification of monarchy with social physics of the nation molded by Hindu-Buddhist mores proved itself to be the most resilient institution that derived its legitimacy from the act of national unification, dharma-mediated statecraft and a radiator of native culture. In so doing, monarchy safely adapted to the Western ideology of Enlightenment -rationalism, modernity and aspiration of the age.

Two kinds of reason have thus been combined to nourish the institutions of monarchy. The standardization of administrative, legal and economic practices, spread of Nepali language, literature and culture and art and tradition, focus on development tours to several places and construction of shrines and symbols around the country were designed to construct the "national identity". The unifier had an ardent belief that freedom of people rests on the freedom of the State - a State capable of building its own national culture and civilization upon the materiality of the territory it possesses.

In the 1940s, it was King Tribhuvan who provided guidance to the then political parties and leaders in their effort to take the country out of the clutches of autocratic Rana rulers. The Rana regime had kept the people politically docile up until that time. Monarchy's help to resolve the conflicts between aristocracy and democracy in favor of the latter is a recorded fact. In other words, it sought to create virtuous environment for the achievement of common good.

In a delicate geopolitics of the nation, symbols were transformed into substantive legitimacy to the popular movement aspiring for democracy. His feat was by no means small as he articulated the need for collective national consciousness for holding the State and society together under constitutional bounds. The essential differentiation between politics and morality, which the then political leaders failed to make clear, widened the gulf between law and politics.

The institution of monarchy was, therefore, particularly important when political institution building was critically required to stipulate the expected behavior of all forces but very difficult to achieve. A salient example can be traced from the monarch's efforts, matching the European models, of protecting the national heritage and projecting the identity of Nepal abroad despite immense pressure for conformity and uniformity.

Monarchy's ability to transcend "partisan politics" not only set itself above many institutions of governance but also helped achieve a "single national community" as opposed to the ideology of identity politics and caveman feelings of mutual hate. Evidently, monarchy seems to have known that a purely Utopian approach to the problem of national community offers little hope of escape from the impending anarchy.

Monarchy often played the role of a safety valve of society against the threat of imperialism and native radicalism without being socially conservative in its ideology. This is the reason social change in Nepal
often occurred in a spiral manner. Yet, the geniuses of monarchs are full of dramatic contrasts based on the individual personality of kings: some were powerful and assertive, while others were mere figureheads. Quite a few of them were captive of local aristocracy and some even upheld an image of constitutional monarch.

A similar contrast is also found at the elite and mass level. For example, both the groups do not fully grasp the vision of democracy and used constitutional interpretations for their own interests. Here, too, the role of monarch remained salient in facilitating the political transition along democratic lines. Monarchy is regarded as an element of continuity, a continuity of Nepali history, society, institution and the statehood. And, it percolated institutional memory of managing political order at a time of the crisis in civic and political institutions. Several institutional and policy innovations underway since the 1950s marked a point that monarchy also served as a catalyst for social and political reforms. Late king Birendra can be considered as a key force in himself for the restoration of democracy, human rights and social justice. During his reign, Nepalis found their sovereignty in a unity between political life and the institution of monarchy.

How does one overcome increasing democratic deficit and the crisis in public institutions now? It is obviously something that cannot be answered in a straightforward way. One can defend the argument for constitutionalism of the state, the market and civil society. This is the way to overcome an element of parochialism in Nepali politics which continues to operate as a counter force against the achievement of a democratic state and, in the process, losing the moral and constitutional checks the institution of monarchy provided until recently.

The other is by establishing the credibility of democratic life. Who can act as a conscience-keeper of the nation when the institution of monarchy is drastically weakened by an ordeal as the present one while national political parties and elites are sharply divided along geopolitical lines lacking an anchor and purposive direction? The springs of restless democratic aspirations are spiraling the source of rebellion in all aspects of national life. A collective political effort alone can help solve the growing crisis of govern ability arising out of pervasive poverty, political drift and Maoist insurgency and thereby restore the normalcy in public life.

Simultaneously, monarchy as a seat of statesmanship should seek to fulfil the expectations attached to Rajdharma. Late King Birendra proved an illustrious monarch. King Gyanendra, it is hoped, will follow the glorious tradition his ancestors had set. (The author is professor of political science at Tribhuvan University, Kathmandu)