World Heritage Sites
The Kathmandu valley is home to hundreds of ancient temples and structures that are still in use today. The UN has declared seven of these structures and areas as World Heritage Sites. The central plazas, known as Durbar squares, of the three major cities of the valley – Kathmandu, Patan, and Bhaktapur – are all World Heritage Sites. Long ago, Kathmandu, Patan, and Bhaktapur were ancient kingdoms that competed against one another to display their wealth and power by building magnificent statues, temples, and even palaces in and around their Durbar Squares. Today, those structures are dutifully preserved in Nepal and protected by their UNESCO World Heritage Site status. Four religious sites are also designated as World Heritage Sites by UNESCO: Swayambu, Pashupati, Changu, and Bauddhanath. These sites all contain important Hindu and Buddhist religious structures, some many centuries old, which are still used for religious festivals today. All of these sites can be easily visited by foreign tourists, and only require a small entrance fee to enter. Tousists can take in the sites independently or with a local guide, who can be hired at the sites or beforehand.
World Heritage Sites to Visit in Nepal
Although much loved for its natural beauty, Nepal is also chock-full of cultural, architectural and archaeological wonders. Four places are officially designated as UNESCO World Heritage sites (http://whc.unesco.org/en/statesparties/np) but that number hides the true variety of sites in Nepal. The Kathmandu Valley UNESCO World Heritage site is actually comprised of seven separate buildings, monuments and attractions. As well as the four official sites, there are many more sites around the country that have been submitted to UNESCO’s ‘tentative list’. This means that they’re being evaluated, and may become official World Heritage sites one day. But whether they do or not, these places are worth visiting, as it is clear that Nepal’s cultural heritage is extraordinary. Here are some highlights.
Kathmandu Durbar Square
The buildings of the Kathmandu Durbar Square mostly date to the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, but the white, European style Gaddi Durbar Palace was built in 1908. Unfortunately, the Kathmandu Durbar Square was extensively damaged during the earthquake of 2015. The ancient Kasthamandap temple--from which Kathmandu derives its name--completely collapsed. However, it is still worth visiting as a number of important buildings remain, and the overall atmosphere--with old men sitting chatting in the shadows, and children chasing pigeons--is as iconically Kathmandu as it always was.
Patan Durbar Square
Patan Durbar Square is smaller than the Kathmandu Durbar Square, but also more architecturally coherent. Most buildings were built in the sixteenth century. A highlight is the Patan Museum, located in a wing of the old Royal Palace. This was developed with Austrian aid, and is an impressive collection of statues and other artefacts relating to Nepali Hinduism, Buddhism and traditional architecture in the Kathmandu Valley and beyond.
Bhaktapur Durbar Square
The third major Durbar Square of the Kathmandu Valley is in Bhaktapur, east of central Kathmandu. Visitors often say that it feels more like a museum than a lived-in space or centre of commerce, like Patan’s or Kathmandu’s Durbar Squares. But it is the place to come for an introduction to fine Newari crafts. The wood, stone and metal carvings around the temples, and the traditional clay pots drying in the courtyards in the sun are beautiful attractions of Bhaktapur
Swayambhunath is a Buddhist stupa two kilometres west of central Kathmandu. It’s perched on a hill, so is visible from various points throughout the city, and when the weather is good, the views of the city and the greater Kathmandu Valley from Swayambhu are impressive. Swayambhu dates from the fifth century. The site is of great significance to Tantric Buddhists. Prayers said here are said to be 13 billion times more powerful than those said elsewhere!
Boudhanath dates from the fifth century, and is one of the largest stupas in the world. It is the most important Tibetan Buddhist site outside of Tibet. Boudha was on the main Tibet-Kathmandu trade route for many centuries. In the 1950s, many Tibetan refugees in Kathmandu settled in Boudha. Nowadays, the town around the stupa is a thriving centre of Tibetan life.
Pashupatinath is Nepal’s holiest Hindu site. It is a collection of Shiva temples on the banks of the Bagmati River, and bathing and cremation ghats (steps). Many Nepali and Indian pilgrims come here, especially during Shivaratri, a festival in March that honours the Hindu Lord Shiva (and the only two days of the year in which marijuana is legal in Nepal!) The site has been holy since around the third century BCE, but the large golden-roofed pagoda dates from the seventeenth century. Only Hindus can go inside the temples themselves.
Changu Narayan is the least-visited of all of the Kathmandu Valley’s heritage sites, but it is an easy trip from Bhaktapur. At the top of the hill sits a two-storey temple dedicated to Vishnu. It is said to be the oldest temple in Nepal, and represents a turning point in Nepali architecture. Although within the Kathmandu Valley, it almost feels like the countryside, and walking and cycling amid the rice fields and brick kilns surrounding Changu Narayan is a world away from busy Kathmandu.
Lumbini, a town on the western plains, is one of the most important historical, archeological and religious sites in Nepal, as it was the birthplace of Siddhartha Gautama Buddha, the Buddha. Lumbini consists of a religious park with monasteries, cultural facilities, gardens, fountains and a tourist village. Several monasteries at Lumbini offer meditation sessions, courses and retreats. The Sacred Garden is where Buddha was born, in the 7th century BCE. The site was ‘lost’ for centuries, and rediscovered in 1896, after much searching by British and European archaeologists.
Chitwan National Park
The Chitwan National Park is a conservation success story. Situated in the Terai, the plains bordering India, Chitwan is particularly rich in flora and fauna--and one-horned rhinoceros! One of the last existing populations of these rhinos is thriving in the park. The population now stands at 645--about double what it was a decade ago--thanks to successful anti-poaching measures. On a jungle safari in Chitwan you are practically guaranteed to see the enormous animals--up close! You can also see the endangered gharial crocodile and an abundance of bird life. The villages of the indigenous Tharu people just outside the park are ideal places to participate in a homestay and learn about a different way of Nepali life.
Sagarmatha National Park
The Sagarmatha National Park is the area in which Everest is situated. As well as the ever-popular Everest Base Camp trek, a number of other fantastic treks can be done in the park, including to the pristine blue Gokyo Lakes. The Sherpa people are the main inhabitants of the region, and their culture can be seen throughout, in the Tibetan Buddhist prayer stones, prayer wheels and traditional homes, temples and monasteries. Several rare species of animal can also (occasionally) be seen in the park, including snow leopards and lesser pandas.
This small Newari town (about 40 kilometres from the Kathmandu Valley) used to be called the second-best preserved Newari town in Nepal. As Bhaktapur was extensively damaged in the 2015 earthquake, Panauti may now take first place. Said to be built upon a single rock, Panauti has proven to be remarkably earthquake-safe. The old centre of town contains one of the oldest, best-preserved three-storey pagodas in Nepal, the Indresvar Mahadev temple, built in 1294. Although Panauti is not extensively developed for tourists (an attraction for many visitors!) there is a good network of homestays throughout the town
Caves of the Muktinath Valley, Mustang
In 2007, the 55 12th-15th century caves with murals depicting the life of the Buddha were discovered. They are special not just because they were hidden for so long, but because they represent a very Indian style of Buddhist painting, unlike the Chinese/Tibetan style more common in Nepal. The Muktinath Valley is accessible by flying from Pokhara to Jomsom (or taking a long, bumpy jeep ride!) and then trekking around lower Mustang.
The earthen walled city of Lo Manthang, in Upper Mustang, is unlike practically anywhere else in the world. The Mustang region of Nepal was a semi-autonomous kingdom until 2008, when it was incorporated into the Republic of Nepal. The culture there is distinctly Tibetan, and the landscape is dry and rocky, as the area lies in the rainshadow of the Himalayas. The city of Lo Manthang was built in the fifteenth century, and is surrounded by a six metre high earthen wall. Inside are fifteenth and eighteenth century palaces and monasteries.
Kirtipur, situated on a ridge in the south-west of the Kathmandu Valley, is a medieval Newari town that was developed with fort-like characteristics. Kirtipur was a tactically important place in medieval times. The town is well-preserved, with a grand temple and traditional Newari homes made of brick and carved wood. On a clear day, the views over the city to the north, with the snow-capped Himalayas behind, are impressive. Kirtipur is also home to one of the most highly regarded Newari restaurants in the Valley, Newa Lahana.
Ram Janaki Temple, Janakpur
The Ram Janaki Temple, in the city of Janakpur on the Terai, is unlike anywhere else in Nepal. The culture of this part of Nepal is heavily influenced by North India, and the colourful temple--influenced by Islamic and Rajput design--resembles the kind of palace more commonly associated with Rajasthan. According to Hindu literature, the Ram Janaki Temple is situated at the birthplace of the Goddess Sita, so it is a very holy place for both Nepali and Indian Hindus. Parts of the site date back to the eleventh century, but the main temple as it stands today was built in 1910.
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