Around Bhaktapur

The area surrounding Bhaktapur is one of Nepal’s greatest treasures, but few tourists will spend any time there. This is a pity. Because more than any other place in Nepal, Bhaktapur’s environs embody the essence of Newari culture and the beauties of the Kathmandu Valley. A few days exploring the many scenic vistas, and ancient out-of-the-way temples, will recharge your ‘batteries’ drained by the pollution and commotion of Kathmandu.

For an easy stroll, go down to the highway past the trolley-bus and then head up hill. From here you can photograph an unbelievable view of the city backed by the movie-like sets of gigantic Himalayan peaks. Past this about twenty minutes lies the Surya Vinayak Ganesh temple. This is an auspicious place to start your exploring around Bhaktapur, because Ganesh is worshipped before starting any new endeavor. Here the elephant headed good is known as the ‘Sun Ganesh’, because this is the first place in the Valley that the sun's rays hit each the Earth morning. People come here to pray if their children are having trouble learning how to speak, or for just about any activity that requires a little luck. At the top of the hill, a steep flight of stairs leads up to the shrine itself, which is set in a shady forest. Ganesh dwells beneath a golden torana and a big white shikhara. Mounted on a pillar in front of his image is a statue of a large and very realistic looking rat, the god’s vehicle. At the top of the hill, about another five minute walk, is a shrine to Ganesh’s mother, Parvati. Surrounding the temple is a small beautiful forest. People from all over the Valley come and picnic here, especially on Tuesday, Ganesh’s auspicious day and Saturday. Don’t forget to bring Ganesh’s favorite offerings: radishes, ladoo and sesame seed balls.

Besides Surya Vinayak two other Ganesh Shrines surround Bhaktapur. One of these Ganesh’s temples is Kamal Binayak, which is located just to the northeast of town, along the Nagarkot road at Kamal Pokhari. The other, Chonga Ganesh Temple, is located in the Sallaghari forest, just to the west of town. When women make ‘raksi’, the local home-made liqueur, they come and worship at this temple, offering Ganesh some of the local brew. These three Ganesh temples are said to create a magical triangle that forms the outer ring of a Mandala which symbolically protects Bhaktapur. The center of this mandala is said to be either the Taleju Temple in Durbar Square, or the Tripursundari Temple located near Sukhudhwakha. This is depicted in the Shri Yantra Mandala , a Newar painting from the 19th century, which can be seen on the first floor of the National Art Gallery which is located in Bhaktapur’s Durbar Square.

Three kilometers west of Bhaktapur is the large town of Thimi. It is a typical Newar settlement rising up like an island out of a sea of rice fields. From Bhaktapur, don’t take the main highway to get here, but use the smaller alternative road which runs through the Sallighari forest and then up a steep hill. The first shrine you will come to is dedicated to Bal Kumari, the ‘child princess’. This is the most important of the Valley’s many holy sites dedicated to the Kumari, the tantric mother goddess who takes the form of girl. Kumari’s mount, a gilded peacock, perches atop a pillar in the front of the temple. Notice the dozens of coconuts nailed to the temple. These are a peculiar offering sacred only to her. During Biska Jatra, the Valley wide New Year celebration, the goddess is paraded about in a palanquin as the revelers splash themselves and everyone else with colored powders. If you come for this festival make sure to wear old clothes! In the next square is a Buddhist temple to the bodhisatwa Karunamaya (Avalokiteswyar). It is ringed by 108 images of him.

Follow this road and it will eventually join back with the paved road from Bhaktapur. Cross this the larger road and continue to Bode, and the river side shrine of Nil Barahi. Bode, which is located about a twenty minute walk from Thimi’s center, is the location of the tongue-boring festival. A village man of high caste has a thin metal spike thrust through his tongue by the temple’s priest. The penitent then parades around town bearing a bamboo rack of oil lamps. After returning to the temple, the spike is removed and packed with mud scrapped off the temple’s floor. If no blood flows, it is a sign that he has earned great religious merit for himself and the entire town by offering his body to the goddess. If blood flows it is considered inauspicious, and a bad sign for the coming year.The festival is obvered on the second day of the Nepalese New year.

Heading further out, the beautiful and historic temple of Changu Narayan, stands on a hilltop about a two hour walk north of Bhaktapur. While the temple itself only dates to 1702, many of the temples stone images date back to the Lichhavi period. The double-roofed temple is dedicated to Vishnu in his incarnation of Narayan. The temple is fronted by a figure of the bird-man Garuda, Vishnu’s vehicle, which dates to the 5 th century. Beside the statue is a stone inscription from the Lichhavi period. Near the Garuda statue, in a gilded cage, are a statue of a Malla King and one of his queens. Nearby, two pillars carry Vishnu’s traditional symbols, the conch shell and chakra. In the north-west corner of the courtyard there is an image of Vishnu riding Garuda. Reach into your pocket and pull out a Nepalese Rs. 10 bank note, this is the image depicted there.

Heading even further out from Bhaktapur, one can make the long trek up to the mountain-top rest station of Nagarkot. Or, for a sane alternative, you can ride public transportation up the hill and walk back down. For a real treat, follow the main road past Dattatreya temple and head straight east, heading out of town. The road continues on into the countryside and finally to the Newar village of Nala, and from there onto Banepa. This is a long hike or a wonderful mountain bike ride. If you keep heading up this road, you like the ancient Newar traders, will eventual find your way to Tibet.


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