21 Jan 2023

Kathmandu Story: When Less Is More

kathmandu-story-when-less-is-more

Take a wander around Kathmandu to visit and inspect some of its lesser trumpeted gems. You’ll not come away disappointed by the new narratives you will discover.

Garden of Dreams

Having abandoned yourself to the allurements of the hectic Thamel bazaar scene in tourist Kathmandu, take a breather and escape to the calming retreat of the Garden of Dreams, one of the lesser trumpeted gems of the national capital. While it may not have the atmospheric vibrancy of Thamel, this picturesque setting has gleaned the riches of Nepal’s verdant beauty and serenity of its mountainous enclaves.

The story of this lovely space in bustling Kathmandu winds back to the year 1920. This was when the son of the Prime Minister Chandra Shumshera, the sophisticated Field Marshal Kaiser Shumsher Jung Bahadur Rana commissioned a landscape artist to create this dream space in his palatial residence, Kaiser Mahal.

The garden, next to the former Royal Palace (now a museum) at the entrance to the Thamel tourist area, finds its inspiration in the seasons of Nepal and the Edwardian neoclassical nuances of a formal English garden.

Though this lovely spot spread over four acres fell into neglect after the Field Marshal Rana’s death in 1964, it has been restored to his former splendour. At the heart of the Garden of Dream, designed by landscape specialist Kishore Narsingh, were six pavilions that were symbolic of the six seasons of Nepal. In tune with its mock-Edwardian look was an ensemble of paved paths, pergolas, fountains, balustrades, urns, statues, a variety of subtropical flora and a sunken garden with a serenity pond as a centrepiece. Three of the six pavilions along with the landscaped expanses, fountains etc have been revived under a restoration project under Austrian Development Aid and Nepal’s Ministry of Education. The Kaiser Café Restaurant & Bar is a popular addition to the garden, considered a national treasure. Kaiser Shumsher, statesman, scholar, linguist, and connoisseur of horticulture, created a legacy which, in its design and literary allusions, is forever linked to the collections of books about gardening, architecture and literature in his fabulous library.

Nepali Folk Musical Instrument Museum

Lovingly preserved for posterity Nepal’s musical heritage finds voice in the beautiful collection of folk music instruments showcased in one of Kathmandu’s loveliest temples–the Tripureshwar Mahadeva Temple complex, near the banks of the Bagmati River. Built in 1818 by the Queen Tripurasundari in memory of her husband, King Rana Bahadur Shah, the colossal shrine is steeped in Nepalese artisanal heritage and cultural nuances.

There are reasons galore for visitors to linger in what is ranked amongst Kathmandu’s largest temple. Collector Ram Prasad Kadel has delved deep into Nepal’s ethnic music traditions from which have emerged over 1,300 unique designs of musical instruments produced by its 100-odd ethnic communities. The museum he set up here in 2002 features 650 musical instruments, which are originals or copies of those which were still in use in the 77 districts around Nepal that he visited. It was his way of pursuing his passion in a sustainable way, while supporting and helping keep alive these living traditions in Nepal. Kadel often arranges public concerts when recordings are also preserved of the performers. At the entrance, visitors will encounter a massive sarangi, the iconic traditional stringed Nepali instrument. It’s believed to be the largest sarangi in the world.

Seto Machhendranath Temple

If you are looking for a deep dive into Newari culture, which leads you to its Buddhist influences, head for the Seto Machhendranath Temple in the old city marked by one of the busiest routes of Kathmandu, from Ason to Indra Chowk. The area is a lively hotspot for the Newari and Marwari communities. Along the way, keep a lookout for some of those traditional Newari-style houses which stand cheek-by-jowl with more modern establishments. The 17th century Seto Machhendranath Temple ranks amongst the primary shrines of the god Seto Macchendranath, protector of the Kathmandu Valley.

What’s unique about the temple is that it’s a huge draw for Hindus and Buddhists. Also going by the name Janabahal (bahal-meaning Buddhist monastery) the complex is one of the 18 leading viharas in the Kathmandu Valley. Lord Seto Machhendranath is revered as an avatar of Avalokiteshvara by Buddhists. Bahals are originally the part of the Newari-Buddhist culture. Janabahal is one of those rare monastic courtyards at the heart of which, on a traditionally Newari-style square base, stands this double storied pagoda-style, highly ornamental temple. The temple is surrounded by chaityas and pillars featuring Buddhist deities which reveal its Buddhist links from ancient times. The bahal dates back to the 15th century and was a school for Buddhist study.

Janabahal, which richly reflects Newari and Vajrayana Buddhist cultural traditions, is a hotspot of religious and cultural diversions. Temple rituals are driven by the Newari who also follow Buddhism, so you get a mix of Hindu and Buddhist ceremonials at the shrine. Some other remarkable features are its intricate metal and stone work, traditional Newari wood carving, gilded accents of the deities–and everywhere the wonderment of high refinement and detailing showcased by accomplished artisans. A time to visit for a full-on cultural extravaganza is the annual Jana Baha Dyah Jatra when the deity, placed in a chariot, is taken in procession through the streets to the delight of his devotees. The Indian government has been collaborating with minimal interventions in the conservation and restoration of this living heritage site, which underwent some damage from the 2015 earthquake.

Whenever you get an opportunity to visit Kathmandu next make a plan to discover some more hidden gems. Sometimes just following a stream of locals could take you there; sometimes it could be a chat with a vendor in the bazaar…

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