By Brad Olsen
India, Nepal, Bhutan, Pakistan and most countries in South Asia lie directly south of the towering Himalayan mountain range, one of the most awesome sights in the world. The mythical country of Nepal rises from steamy jungles to foothill valleys, all the way up to soaring peaks. On the border between Nepal and Tibet looms the world’s tallest peak, the 29,029-foot (8,709 m) Mount Everest, commonly called the “Roof of the World.” The lofty Hindu kingdom of Nepal, tucked away in the shadow of the Himalayas, only opened its doors to the outside world in the mid-20th century. Now adventurous travelers can see for themselves this tiny Shangri-La, the Kathmandu Valley, whose trademarks are majestic mountains, the Yeti or Abominable Snowman, breathtaking vistas, and the legendary endurance of its Sherpa porters.
Stepping into the ancient world of Nepal
Two primary world religions began in Nepal. On the lower slopes of the highest mountains in the world sprang Hinduism and Buddhism, among other minor belief systems. Thousands of holy men from all over the Sub-Continent make pilgrimages to the sacred Kathmandu Valley every year. Gautama Buddha was born in southern Nepal in 560 BCE, and as a young man he often visited the Kathmandu Valley where there are now several Buddhist shrines, temples, and other holy places. The pagoda was developed in Nepal as a representation of a peak before the image spread throughout the Orient. In the spirit of ascended masters in the Himalayas are the various manifestations of the immortal Babaji, a Christ-like being of pure light. It is reported that Babaji will occasionally meet visitors, but only if they are coming to him with pure intention.
Kathmandu is a timeless city, a place where the modern and the ancient blend harmoniously. Holy men and monks wander the streets, giving the city a quasi-mystical guru atmosphere. Kathmandu is a charming medieval city, graced with many square oriental pagodas, little shrines and temples at every turn, the constant ringing of bells, the smell of incense, garlands of flowers on statues, and the sound of unceasing prayers being recited. Indeed, Kathmandu is a sacred and mystical place. The heart and soul of the city is Durbar Square. The square, also called the Hanuman-Dhoka, is home to an intriguing assemblage of temples and palaces. Many of the Hindu buildings near the square contain erotic wood carvings on the walls, which legend says protect the buildings from the destructive Goddess of Storms. Supposedly, Mother Nature is rather prudish, and thus refrains from striking Durbar Square with her thunderbolts. Near the square stands the House of the Living Goddess (Kumari Devi), where a young female and her entourage reside. Before reaching puberty, the chosen girl is worshiped as a living deity. Upon puberty she is replaced and thus returns to human status. The goddess is taken through the city on a special carriage during the Indra Jatra Festival, celebrated in September. The Kathmandu Valley has long been a pilgrimage center for Hindus and Buddhists. It is home to many temples, palaces, shrines, stupas and a living goddess.
Kathmandu Valley Adventures
The elliptical-shaped Kathmandu Valley is sprinkled with many spiritual sites. Throughout the history of Nepal the valley has been the cultural and political core of the nation. Surrounded by the most revered mountains in the world, it was almost a given that the valley would develop a complex sacred topography. Nepali legend relates the tale of the Kathmandu Valley once being covered in water by the Lake of Snakes. One day a demigod named Manjusri was meditating on a mountain overlooking the lake when he suddenly decided to free the lake. Taking his great sword, he cut the mountain in half and the lake emptied into the plains of India, taking all the snakes with it. As such, the river drainage at Gorge of Chovar on the southwest end of the valley is an important pilgrimage destination. Perhaps the most famous site in the valley is the Boddinath Stupa, the highest stupa in the world. The characteristic eyes of the “All-Seeing” on the stupa remind everyone of the “enlightened ones” who are ever-present, yet invisible. Prayer flags surrounding the stupa send continuous prayers Heavenward. Boddinath is residence to Tibetan refugees, Buddhist monks and a Tibetan lama as its chief custodian.
Of Kathmandu Valley’s more than 2,500 shrines and temples, only a few remain purely Buddhist or purely Hindu. In the distant past, a blending of faiths led to a strange intermixing of the two major religions, which continue to co-exist peacefully in Nepal. Just outside Kathmandu is the riverside Pashupatinath temple complex where Shiva, also called, “Lord of the Beasts,” is worshiped. Hindus revere the Bagmati River as a source of the sacred Ganges, and thousands come daily to cleanse themselves of past karma. The holiest Buddhist shrine in the valley (also sacred to Hindus) is Swayambhunath, or the Bowl of Buddha, and is occupied by a vociferous pack of monkeys. The Bowl of Buddha hill and lofty sanctuary are said to lie along two powerful ley lines, and reputedly dates back to Buddha’s visit of Kathmandu. Buddhists faithfully flock to the hill every day to walk around the base, turn prayer wheels and prostrate themselves to earn merit from such devotional practices.
Getting to Kathmandu and access to the Nepalese Himalayas
Kathmandu is the capital city of the Kingdom of Nepal, and is easily accessed by international flight or by bus. The land route connecting China may or may not be open, depending on the current political situation in Tibet. Several bus companies from India run buses across the border several times per day. All major bus routes within Nepal connect with Kathmandu in some way. One-month visas to Nepal are available upon entry.
The best way to experience the splendor of the Himalayas is to walk many days among them. Trekking in Nepal is an age-old religious custom, as well as a practical mode of transportation. Walking with a group of friends is an exhilarating experience, yet being alone with nature and the elements can be equally satisfying. The austere surroundings awaken spiritual consciousness. The three most popular treks in Nepal are Annapurna Circuit, Everest Base Camp and Annapurna Sanctuary. Excellent day hikes also exist outside Kathmandu and Pokhara. Bus routes access most of the popular trailheads. Camping and trekking supplies are easily obtained in Kathmandu or Pokhara.