Discovering Kathmandu’s Durbar Square and 5 of its must-see highlights
Durbar Square lies at Kathmandu’s heart - a complex of palaces, ancient temples and courtyards, honouring Nepal’s revered deities and housing the city’s royal history up until the 19th century. Streets overflowing with life radiate from its edges, carrying with it Nepal’s residents as they go about their daily lives. Visiting the Square is an integral part of any Kathmandu experience, where the city’s history is at its most beautiful in ornate wooden architecture, and religious rites and festivities at their most fervent.
Durbar Square can be overwhelming on first sight - with so many temples and religious representations from different sects of Hinduism and Buddhism, where do you start? To help orient you in this UNESCO World Heritage Site, here are a few of Durbar Square’s must-see highlights.
1. Start at Kathmandu’s namesake temple - Kasthamandap
|Kasthamandap temple is an impressive display of Nepalese construction, built without nails or rivets, in a squat, pagoda-style. Photo by wonker|
A good place to start is the building which gave the city of Kathmandu its name - Kasthamandap. This temple, built in the 16th Century by King Laxmi Narsingha Malla, originally functioned as a community hall for ceremonious gatherings. It was later converted into a temple and its deity, Gorakhnath, a yogi aligned with the Shaivism sect of Hinduism, can be seen enshrined at the centre. Legend states that Gorakhnath was trapped within Kathmandu by a religious devotee who demanded materials to build a temple in return for freeing his captive disciple. In the months which followed, an immense Sal tree grew on the devotee’s property, enabling him to construct this temple from the wood of a single tree.
Tourists are free to wander within the temple and witness its central wooden enclosure housing the image of Gorakhnath. Texts from the Ramayana and Mahabharata are inscribed on the temple’s walls, while four statues of Ganesh, the god of wisdom, knowledge and new beginnings, are displayed in each of its corners on the second floor. Architecturally, it is an impressive display of Nepalese construction, built without nails or rivets, in a squat, pagoda-style.
2. Worship the Living Goddess in Kumari Bahal
|Kumari Bahal was designed in a Buddhist style, blended with traditional Newari architectural influences, such as ornate wood carvings on the facade.|
Kumari Bahal is home to the ‘Living Goddess’ or Royal Kumari of Nepal. This young girl is chosen as the goddess Durga’s living incarnation until she reaches puberty, a Nepalese tradition which dates back to the 13th Century. The Bahal was built by Jaya Prakash Malla in the mid-18th Century following his return from exile. After fleeing the city, a Buddhist from Kathmandu visited him and, by allowing him to worship his daughter, the new Kumari, restored his power to the throne, permitting him to return to Kathmandu.
This prominent three-storied building overlooks Durbar Square and was designed in a Buddhist style, blended with traditional Newari architectural influences, such as ornate wood carvings on the facade. Look above the entrance for the carving of the Hindu deity Durga whom the Royal Kumari incarnates, as well as the impressive peacock carvings above the first floor windows.
The Living Goddess appears at a window on the third floor to receive offerings by spiritual leaders and (for a fee) tourists are allowed to observe her here, although photos are strictly forbidden. Once a year, during the Indra Jatra festival, she is on full display, however, paraded through the streets on a sedan-chair for devotees and tourists alike to worship and pay their respects.
3. Witness the oldest temple of Durbar Square - Taleju Temple
|Surrounded by miniature temples and heavily adorned with carvings around its windows, Taleju Temple is one of Durbar Square’s most beautiful temples.|
Believed to be the oldest temple built in Durbar Square, the Taleju Temple stands prominently on the northeastern side, atop a 12-stage platform. Revered by both Hindus and Jains, this three-tiered temple is closed to the public, but its magnificence can be witnessed from outside.
It was built in 1564 by Mahendra Malla in honour of the South Indian goddess, Taleju Bhawani, famous for having four heads and ten arms. She was the then kingdom’s titular deity and it is believed she appeared before the king as a bee and instructed him in the design of the temple, shaped like a yantra or mystical diagram. Surrounded by miniature temples and heavily adorned with carvings around its windows, it is one of Durbar Square’s most beautiful temples. Temples dedicated to Taleju can also be found in Bhaktapur and Patan within the Kathmandu Valley for those inspired by the goddess’s creation here.
4. Understand Vaishnavism at Trailokya Mohan Narayan Temple
|The door and window carvings of Trailokya Mohan Narayan Temple are beautiful, adding to the aesthetic harmony of the temple, set atop a five-stage plinth.|
A kneeling figure of Garuda, offering namaste, fronts this elaborate three-storied temple, built by King Prithvibendra Malla in 1679. It is located on the southern side of Durbar Square and was built for Narayan (a Sanskrit name for the deity Vishnu). Its major feature is the stunning Vaishnavite images and deities which have been carved along the roof struts, representations from this major branch of Hinduism which venerates Lord Vishnu. The door and window carvings are also beautiful, adding to the aesthetic harmony of the temple, set atop a five-stage plinth. The large image of Garuda at its base was added by the king’s widow following his death, with the god considered the carrier bird of Lord Vishnu.
If you want to see the Trailokya Mohan Narayan Temple explode into life then visit during the Indra Jatra festival, when dances illustrating Vishnu’s ten incarnations are performed on its eastern platforms.
5. Explore the royal history at Hanuman Dhoka Palace
|The impressive Hanuman Dhoka palace complex within the square is named for the sculpture of Hanuman, the Hindu monkey god which stands at the main entrance.|
This impressive palace complex within the square is named for the sculpture of Hanuman, the Hindu monkey god, which stands at the main entrance (dhoka translates as ‘door’). While originally built throughout the 4th to 8th Centuries, much of the palace was reconstructed during the 17th Century by King Pratap Malla. It is lavishly decorated with images of Hindu deities - Lord Krishna is seen above the main palace gate, while Shiva and Parvati ride stone lions on either side, and Vishnu is depicted in man-lion form in a large Narsingha Statue within the Nasal Chowk.
Although much of the palace complex was flattened during an earthquake in 1934, it is still a fascinating mix of courtyards (chowks), bathing pools, intricate wooden wall carvings and palatial rooms, many of which are open for you to visit as part of the Hanuman Dhoka Palace Museum. Royalists will be in heaven with lots of exhibits presenting royal regalia and recreated living spaces, while personal belongings offer an intriguing insight into the lives of former Nepalese kings and queens. The steep ascent up to the Basantapur Tower is worth the effort, with impressive views across the palace complex, Durbar Square and Kathmandu city from the top.
Visit Nepal during the Indra Jatra Festival
If you want to see Durbar Square’s religious atmosphere at its most vibrant, then coincide your visit with the annual Indra Jatra Festival. Held over eight days in mid-September, it remembers those who are recently deceased and pays homage for the coming harvests to Indra, the ancient Aryan god of rain. Deities, such as Kala Bhairava and Seto Bhairava, are displayed and represented through masked dances, a chariot procession featuring Kumari the ‘Living Goddess’ takes to the streets, and music ignites the square. The festival attracts thousands of people and is an incredible display of Nepalese religious devotion.
Understanding Kathmandu’s Durbar Square
For those not acquainted with Hindu and Buddhist architecture, beliefs and deities, Durbar Square can appear as just an impressive city scape, bustling with the day-to-day action of Kathmandu’s inhabitants and a magnificent place to watch the world go by. But if you take the time to understand a little of the significance of the area’s temples, palaces and courtyards, your appreciation of this mesh of Nepal’s history will add significantly to your visit.