Erotic Art (or How They Did it in Ancient Times)
The most eye-catching decorations on Nepali temples are the erotic scenes, often quite explicit, that decorate the tunala (roof struts). These scenes are rarely the central carving on the strut; they’re usually the smaller carving at the bottom of the strut, like a footnote to the larger image, and in a crude, even cartoonlike style.
The purpose of the images is unclear. Are they simply a celebration of an important part of the life cycle? Are they a more explicit reference to Shiva’s and Parvati’s creative roles than the enigmatic lingams (phallic symbols) and yonis (female sexual symbols) scattered around so many temples? Or are they supposed to play some sort of protective role for the temple? It’s popularly rumoured that the goddess of lightning is a shy virgin who wouldn’t dream of striking a temple with such goings-on, although that’s probably more a tour-guide tale than anything else.
Whatever the reason for their existence, these Tantric elements can be found on temples throughout the valley. Some temples reveal just the odd sly image, while others are plastered with the 16th-century equivalent of hard-core pornography, ranging from impressively athletic acts of intercourse to medieval ménages à trois, scenes of oral or anal intercourse or couplings with demons or animals.
The temples you may want to avoid showing your kids include Kathmandu’s Jagannath Temple, the damaged Basantapur (Kathmandu) Tower and Ram Chandra Temple; Patan’s Jagannarayan Temple; and Bhaktapur’s Erotic Elephants and Pashupatinath Temples.
Kathmandu has more than its fair share of quirk and, as with most places in the subcontinent, a 10-minute walk in any direction will throw up numerous curiosities.
The corridors of the Natural History Museum are full of bizarre moth-eaten animals and jars that lie somewhere between a school science experiment and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The 20ft python skin and nine-month-old baby rhino in a jar are guaranteed to give you nightmares. The other exhibits are a bit slapdash, including the line of stuffed birds nailed carelessly to a bit of wood to indicate their distribution, or the big pile of elephant dung deposited randomly in the front corner.
The nearby National Museum also houses more than its fair share of weirdness, including the skin of a two-headed calf, a creepy doll collection and a portrait of King Prithvi Narayan Shah giving everyone the finger (apparently symbolising the unity of the nation…).
Once it reopens following earthquake repairs, the Tribhuvan Museum in Hanuman Dhoka should still be the place to see such quirky gems of royal paraphernalia as the king’s personal parachuting uniform, his film projector and his walking stick with a spring-loaded sword inside – very ‘007’.
Kathmandu’s Kaiser Library is definitely worth a visit, partly for its remarkable collection of antique travel books but also for the main reading room, which has antique globes, a stuffed tiger and suits of armour that you expect to spring to life at any moment.
Compared to all this funkiness, Kathmandu’s old town is pretty docile. Look for the antique fire engines hidden behind a grille just west of the junction of New Rd and Sukra Path.
If you get a toothache during your trip, be sure to visit the old town’s toothache god across from Sikha Narayan Temple – the god is represented by a tiny image in a raggedy old stump of wood covered with hundreds of nails and coins.
Kathmandu’s backstreets are dense with beautiful temples, shrines and sculptures, especially in the crowded maze of streets and courtyards in the area north of Durbar Sq, and exploring these half-hidden sights is a real highlight.
The old town is bursting with traditional markets, temples, tole (streets), bahal (Buddhist monastery courtyards), bahil (residential courtyards) and chowk (intersections), which remain the focus of traditional Nepali life. You only really appreciate Kathmandu’s museum-like quality when you come across a 1000-year-old statue – something that would be a prized possession in many Western museums – being used as a plaything or a washing line in some communal courtyard.
For the best markets and most important temples explore with our backstreets walking tour between Thamel and Durbar Sq. For fewer spectacular sights but where the everyday life of city dwellers goes on and tourists are few and far between, follow our walking tour south of Durbar Sq.
If walking tours leave you wanting more, pick up Annick Holle’s book Kathmandu the Hidden City or John Child's Streets of Silver, Streets of Gold, both of which detail dozens of backstreet courtyards across town.
Kathmandu’s Durbar Square was where the city’s kings were once crowned and legitimised, and from where they ruled (‘durbar’ means palace). Tragically, parts of the square were seriously damaged during the 2015 earthquake. As the first tremor hit, palaces crumbled and temples tumbled from their plinths, reducing several temples in this Unesco World Heritage–listed site to a mound of splintered timber and brick dust. Despite this, much still endures amid the destruction and rebuilding has already started. Many key monuments such as the palace of the Kumari – Nepal's living goddess – stand in defiance of the disaster.
The government of Nepal has pledged to rebuild the lost monuments, but even without these, there is still a huge amount to see, and it is easy to spend an hour or two wandering from temple to temple and watching the continuous flow of humanity that moves through these streets as it has done since the time of Prithvi Narayan Shah. Although most of the square dates from the 17th and 18th centuries (many of the original buildings are much older), a great deal of rebuilding had already taken place here following the even larger earthquake of 1934.
The Durbar Sq area is actually made up of three loosely linked squares. To the south is the open Basantapur Sq area, a former royal elephant stables whose northern palace wall remains unstable and is closed off. The main Durbar Sq area is to the west. Running northeast is a second part of Durbar Sq, which contains the entrance to the Hanuman Dhoka palace and an assortment of temples. From this open area Makhan Tole, at one time the main road in Kathmandu and still the most interesting street to walk down, continues northeast.
The Durbar Sq monuments are listed moving from south to north through the square.
The admission ticket to Durbar Sq gives access to all the temples in the square, as well as Hanuman Dhoka and technically the museums inside it (though the museums are currently closed for renovation). The ticket is only valid for the date stamped. If you want a longer duration you need to go to the site office, on the south side of Basantapur Sq, to get a free visitor pass, which allows you access for as long as your visa is valid (if you extend your visa you can extend your visitor pass). You will need your passport and one photo and the process takes about two minutes. You generally need to show your ticket even if you are just transiting the square to New Rd or Freak St. There is a toilet near the site office.
North of Durbar Square
Hidden in the fascinating backstreets north of Durbar Sq is a dense sprinkling of colourful temples, courtyards and shrines. The best way to get a feel for this area is on our walking tour.
East of Thamel
There are a couple of interesting sites in the modern new town bordering Thamel district.
South of Durbar Square
The southern part of Kathmandu’s old city was the heart of the ancient city in the Licchavi period (4th to 8th centuries AD). Unfortunately, several monuments were lost here in the 2015 earthquake, including the historic Jaisi Deval Temple, a triple-tiered Shiva temple that played an important part in the city's ceremonial life. Further south, the Bhimsen Tower (Dharahara) became the unfortunate symbol of the earthquake in the international media when it collapsed to its foundations, showering rubble onto crowded shopping streets and killing 180 people, many of whom were sightseers who had climbed the tower to admire the views. Today just the base remains as a shrouded unofficial memorial to the disaster.
Kathmandu's Royal Palaces
Kathmandu is littered with hidden Rana-era palaces, some still in use, others crumbling in neglect. The most impressive is the royal palace of the Singh (or Singha) Durbar at the end of Prithvi Path, built in 1907 and now home to Nepal's government. With over 1700 rooms, it was once the largest private residence in Asia, until fire destroyed 90% of the complex in 1973. The compound was further damaged in the 2015 earthquake and is not open to visitors.
The Keshar (Kaiser) Mahal Palace (1895) near Tridevi Marg still retains some atmosphere thanks to its creaky Kaiser Library, though its western wing was long ago sold off and developed as part of Thamel. The palace grounds were restored as the Garden of Dreams. Another notable former palace is the Electoral Commission Building, visible from Kantipath. At one point the building housed Kathmandu's first hotel, the Royal, established by Boris Lissanevitch. Other notable palace conversions include the restaurant Bhojan Griha and the shopping arcade of Baber Mahal Revisited.
Kathmandu's most impressive palace is the huge Narayanhiti Palace, home to the royal family until 2008 and currently a museum.
Durbar Square's Lost Legacy
Nowhere are the scars of the 2015 earthquake more obvious than in Kathmandu's Durbar Sq, where a succession of landmark temples and palaces were literally shaken apart by the force of the tremor. In time, some of these monuments may be reconstructed, but the grandeur of Durbar Sq has been somewhat diminished by their loss. As you wander around, you will see the plinths that once supported the following temples.
Kasthamandap The building that gave Kathmandu its name, built in the 12th century as a pilgrim shelter but with roots dating back to the 7th century. It was later converted into a temple to Goraknath. Largely destroyed.
Maju Deval A handsome, three-tiered step-roofed temple that was formerly one of Kathmandu's principal landmarks, built in 1690 by the mother of Bhaktapur’s king Bhupatindra Malla. Only the 10-tiered base remains.
Trailokya Mohan Narayan Temple A three-tiered temple to Narayan/Vishnu, formerly famous for its carved timbers; only the fine carved Garuda statue in front survived the quake.
Kakeshwar Temple Built in 1681, but damaged in the 1934 quake and rebuilt in a hybrid Newari and India shikhara style. Under reconstruction.
Krishna Temple An elegant octagonal temple in the Newari tiered style, constructed in 1648–49 by Pratap Malla. Under reconstruction.
Krishna Narayan Temple A three-tiered Narayan (Vishnu) temple to the west of the Shiva-Parvati Temple. A pile of bricks sits unattended on the empty plinth.