By Thommen Jose
Some readers of my travel blog, mostly students who are staring at regular month-long semester breaks as well as those graduating looking at longer hiatuses, wrote to me requesting recommendations for vacation destinations. While a few merely wanted to reaffirm places they had already decided upon – one or other of the hill stations to where everyone makes a beeline for this time of the year – some were open to, demanded, actually, something ‘not run-of-the-mill.’ Somebody even wrote ‘life-changing’, upping the experiential ante of my intended itinerary. It had to be off the beaten path as somebody else wanted the trip to ‘mould some never-before memories.’ As longer breaks – anything that lasts up to a month – meant a stretched rupee, the destination had to be budget and preferably close.
Bumming around, slumming some – which actually throws up local life up and close, a spot of adventure thrown in, a dash of holiday romance perhaps, a chance at volunteering, experiencing culture and sampling cuisine, visiting heritage and history – education doesn’t take a break, really. There, I had my brief.
And I zeroed in on my destination.
Ruggedly beautiful: A country of rich diversities and colourful contrasts
Nepal. A country of contrasts. A country where gods and mortals live together. A rugged terrain protected by the Himalayan peaks which also adds to its rich diversity and traditions. A land where the geographic contrasts are wondrous at the same time appalling – you find tropical jungles, frozen peaks and high altitude deserts – all within this mountain-clad country. A country known for the harmonious coexistence of different tribes and traditions, culture and architecture making the society dynamic and progressive yet firmly moored in tradition. A cauldron of cultures and beliefs, heritage and history. If you are looking for a wholesome – and pocket-friendly – destination this summer, head here.
There are direct flights from all major Indian cities; while from Delhi it takes an hour-and-a-half, from Mumbai it takes an hour more.
Here's a look at some of the selected sights from the picturesque Himalayan kingdom.
The Kathmandu Durbar Square
There are three durbar squares in capital Kathmandu and all are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The Kathmandu Durbar Square is the biggest and is right in the heart of the city. All the temples here have a unique style, which hasn’t changed much over several centuries. The locals refer to the place as Hanuman Dhoka, after the monkey god who is revered as the protector of the Square. There are over 50 monuments and temples here and this is on the top of any tourist’s sight-seeing list. The Kathmandu Durbar Square also houses the palaces of the Malla and the Shah dynasties who ruled over the country. At the southern end of the durbar square is the Kumari Ghar, home of Kumari Devi, a young girl traditionally revered as a goddess-incarnate.
Bhaktapur Durbar Square
Through the 14th and 16th centuries Bhaktapur was the capital of Nepal. It might have lost the privilege to Kathmandu today but it still retains its culture and traditions, which, some say, is even better than Kathmandu. ‘Bhaktapur’ meaning ‘city of devotees’ proudly bears the title of the ‘cultural capital of Nepal’ and lives up to it. Listed as a World Heritage by UNESCO for its exquisite temples, exotic wood carvings and other rococo works in stone and metal, Bhaktapur is in a class of its own. Compared to the other durbar squares, the Bhaktapur Durbar Square is quite spacious. Ironically, this is because of an earthquake that happened in 1934 which destroyed many of the temples and monuments that stood here once. This is living heritage in every sense. There is even a school inside the premises, the entrance to which is the famous lion gate.
Patan Durbar Square
The ancient city of Patan, known as the city of fine arts, is just 5 km southeast of Kathmandu. It is widely believed to have been founded by Emperor Asoka in the third century BC. Patan is the oldest of all the cities in the Kathmandu Valley. It was a well-developed and progressive town right from the earliest days. The city was designed in the shape of the Buddhist Dharma Chakra or the Wheel of Righteousness and it is believed that the great Emperor Asoka came visiting Patan with his daughter Charumati in 250 BC and built Buddhist stupas here. There are approximately 1,200 Buddhist monuments spread around the city. The most spectacular sight of the durbar square is the Royal Palace guarded by Narsingh – half man, half lion.
The Pashupatinath temple, dedicated to Lord Shiva, is a very important pilgrimage as well as tourist destination. A UNESCO World Heritage Site like the Durbar Squares, the temple is situated five kilometres east of central Kathmandu. The approach to the Pashupatinath temple, as with any other buzzing pilgrim destination, is lined with vendors selling flowers, holy necklaces, engravings of gods and other puja requirements. Bargaining is on in right earnest by pilgrims who also look for items to be carried back as memorabilia. A lingam or the phallus is worshipped in this temple, also called ‘The Temple of Living Beings’ symbolising Lord Shiva. The Pashupatinath Temple is by the banks of the Baghmati River, which is lined with cremation ghats and pilgrim guesthouses or dharamsalas. Photography is strictly prohibited within the temple.
Nepalese legends believe that the country was formed when Manjushree, an avatar of Buddha, came to a holy lake to worship the blue lotus, which contained the eternal flame of the Primordial Buddha. To make passage for the devotees easier, he drained the lake which revealed a fertile valley and which eventually became Nepal. The site of the Swayambhunath stupa marks the place where the original island stood. The eyes of the Buddha that gaze in all directions denote that this was an important centre of Buddhist learning for several centuries. The gigantic white hemispherical mound of the Swayambhunath represents creation and is designed per certain rigid parameters. The 13 gilded rings on the spire represent the 13 degrees of knowledge required for enlightenment and finally to nirvana, represented by the umbrella at the top of the stupa.
Parts of the iconic ‘Hare Rama, Hare Krishna’ song in the eponymous movie filmed on Zeenat Aman and Dev Anand were shot here.
Buddhaneelakantha, 9 km from Kathmandu, is one of the earliest settlements in the Valley. This little village sits comfortably at the foot of Shivpuri Hill – a 2,732-meter summit which is a hotspot for trekkers, birdwatchers and picnickers. Here, the monolithic black statue of the reclining Vishnu rests on a bed of snakes. Vishnu is part of the Hindu trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva and is most revered by many Hindus as he is the creator and the keeper of the world. He has a thousand avatars among the more popular ones are that as the frolicking god Krishna and as Narayana – as he is depicted here, floating in the primeval ocean, resting on a bed of snakes. Some 1,500 years ago a massive five-metre rock was dragged and placed in this pond at the foot of the Shivpuri Hills, which was sculpted by master craftsmen into a literal translation of Vishnu as Narayana. Modern folklore says that no Nepali King ever visits the Buddhaneelakantha as it supposedly led to a premature death.
Kantipath is one of the busiest and historical roads of Kathmandu. Traffic flows in an organised cacophony. As with the rest of Kathmandu town, here too, pollution levels are on an all-time high. Thamel, where most of the foreigners stay, shop and hang out, is next to the Kantipath. This is where trekkers and mountaineers congregate to hire guides, porters and other support staff. They also come here to celebrate a successful ascent or an eventful escape in any of the several bars that dot this touristy neighbourhood. As with any other place that thrives on tourism, in Thamel too shops are aplenty peddling almost everything – from magazines and books to roadside art, from high-end trekking gear to eat-on-the-go. Hotels are not at all hard to find – there is one for every pocket. For pilgrims too, Thamel is the base – where they hire transport and guides as they make their way to Lake Manasarovar or Mount Kailas in neighbouring Tibet.
Jawalakhel Carpet Centre
Following the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1959, the Dalai Lama sought political asylum in India. Some 100,000 Tibetans too took flight with their leader. While some followed him to Dharamshala in India, others took up refuge in neighboring Bhutan and Nepal. Those who came to Nepal were provided shelter in Jawalakhel near Patan. The Jawalakhel Carpet Centre, the pioneer in the carpet industry of Nepal, is synonymous with the Tibetan refugee camp. If you are asking for directions to the centre, more than for ‘carpet centre’ you should ask for the ‘Tibetan refugee camp’. This is a name which has stuck despite over half a century of existence and considerable contribution to the foreign exchange earnings of the country annually. The popularity of the name is because the centre provides employment to around 500 Tibetans. The surrounding area is taken up mostly by the families of these employees.
Fewa Lake, Pokhara
Pokhara is the second most popular tourist destination in Nepal. Tourism figures say that one in every four travellers to the country come to Pokhara on their way to trekking in the Annapurnas. Pokhara is situated at an elevation of 900 metres which is quite lower than Kathmandu. This accounts for the generally warmer climate and humidity. Pokhara Valley lies close to 200 kilometres to the west of Kathmandu. By road it takes the better part of a day but flights are available which takes half an hour – a rickety racket, not for the faint-at-heart. Though there are a total of eight lakes in Pokhara, Fewa is the biggest. Colourful boats dot the two km long Fewa Lake and hiring one is one of the best ways to view the laidback Pokhara.
International Mountain Museum, Pokhara
You don’t have to be a museum enthusiast to enjoy the International Mountain Museum in Pokhara. Here you find history, culture, all with a dash of adventure. The museum was established to document the developments in three areas: the origin of the major mountain systems of the world, the different people inhabiting the mountain regions and important feats in mountaineering. This International Mountain Museum is apparently the only one of its kind in the world. Set up as a tribute to all mountaineers who surrendered their lives to their brave endeavours, the mountain museum is a favourite with climbers of every grade who come here not just to pay tributes but even pick up important lessons from history. The model of the Manaslu mountain by the museum entrance is evocative of the tribute. The Manaslu, unlike most of the Himalayan peaks, was first climbed by the Japanese, giving it a special place among Asian mountaineers. Not only was the first conquest Asian, but a large number of Japanese, Nepalese and South Korean lives have been lost in attempts to reach its summit. Manaslu, which means ‘soul’ in Sanskrit, also lays claim to the largest toll on lives by any peak in the region. On a spring day in 1972, it wiped off an entire expedition party of 15 in an avalanche.
If Pokhara is an escape from the bustling Kathmandu, then Chitwan is an escape into the wild. You will get mini buses from Pokhara which leave every half an hour for Chitwan. Do make a point to remember that your baggage – which will be stacked atop the bus – has been secured proper for the ride is quite a bumpy one. The road winds its way up through deep cut gorges, across a dozen bridges and about five hours later you enter the leafy plains of the Terai which marks the beginning of the national park. The sturdy Tharus were the earliest settlers in the Terai regions of Nepal. They were also the largest tribe spread. They were gentle by nature and hardworking, turning to the land for most of their needs. Before 1950, there were only Tharus in Chitwan region. The tribe had a natural resistance to the endemic malaria. After the eradication of malaria through joint efforts of the Nepal government with international development agencies, Chitwan was cleared and cultivated. Settlement of other tribes from all over began in right earnest. The declaration of Chitwan as a sanctuary first in 1964 led to serious skirmishes between the government and the native Tharus. A very basic but quite informative museum in the village faithfully records the feuds over land rights of the Tharus and preservation efforts by the authorities.
Tourism was a late-bloomer in Nepal making its appearance in the 1960s only. Hence it was only much later the resorts and boutique hotels came up in neighbouring Nagarkot. But today, all kinds of creature comforts are available here to suit every budget. Many tourists head to Nagarkot directly from the airport instead of stopping even at Kathmandu. Nagarkot is 30 kilometres from Kathmandu town. Vast expanses of green fields cuddle the road from both sides. The architectural legacy of Bhaktapur, the city of devotees, can be found even when you are passing by – there are figurines in stone strewn along the side of the road you pass through. Endless green fields stretch on both sides punctuated by intermittent concrete structures. Nagarkot means ‘fort of the city’. Occupying a strategic location in the ancient trading route between Tibet and Nepal, the town is historically relevant as a trading outpost. Perched at an altitude of 2165 metres, the mountain township is several degrees cooler than Kathmandu and the Himalayas are visible from here on a clear day. All these have made Nagarkot a favoured weekend destination.
Thommen Jose is a filmmaker and communication consultant for development projects. He is also a freelance travel writer; newest assignments include two guidebooks for a leading publishing firm. He blogs at Wanderink.com