Category Archives: Ancient Architecture

What I Loved And Hated About The Taj Mahal

There are plenty of blogs about the Taj Mahal, and many of them are rather negative. I visited the Taj in November 2016 and thought it was a beautiful monument.

But, like many visitors, I was less than thrilled with my experience of it. Here are some of the things I loved and hated about the Taj Mahal.

It started with the long lines to buy a ticket. Painful, but couldn’t be avoided. It was one of the times I felt privileged to be Indian, because I had to shell out so much less for my ticket than the foreigners.

The Great gate (Darwaza-i rauza) – Gateway to the Taj Mahal

Unfortunately, the man at the gate insisted I show him my Indian ID (he thought I was a foreigner trying to sneak in). That was rather unpleasant and brought to my mind some choice Hindi gaalis (expletives). But that wouldn’t have helped me get in.

Finally got that bucket list photo

Then there were the crowds and the scaffolding, which made the experience less magical.

The scaffolding detracted from the spectacle somewhat

Being November, there was quite a bit of smog and pollution, but the weather was cool and pleasant and the mist around the Taj gave it an ethereal look that I loved.

Taj Mahal in the mist

Stupidly, I fell for a tout’s spiel and agreed to let him take photos of us. It was the only way I could get photos of my kid and me together. I’m not a fan of selfies.

Can’t-miss cheesy poses for the album

I paid him a considerable amount, only to realise that the photos I took with my phone camera were way better. But how else could I have taken embarrassingly touristy poses like this one on the Diana seat?

Must get that touristy pose on the Diana seat

So we went into the inner sanctum, where Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan’s tombs lie, and found some obnoxious tourist clicking photos despite a sign forbidding it. Really? Can you not read the “Photos Forbidden” sign?

I must admit, at this point, that I hate crowds and having to work my way through them tires me out very quickly. The only thing I can think of doing after that is running off to find a quiet spot, which we did.

Escaping to a quiet spot in the gardens

By this time I was touristed out, so we didn’t bother visiting the Mosque and the Mehman Khana, the two sandstone buildings that flank the Tāj on either side.

Never did get to see the mosque and Mehman khana

We spent about half a day at the Taj Mahal and I came away both loving and hating it. Loving the architecture and the exquisite relief carvings (munabbat kari), and hating the crowds and obnoxious tourists.

Exquisite relief carvings (munabbat kari) on the arches

I was not as lucky as Liz here, who had a marvellous time and wrote a hilarious blog about it (thanks for the laugh, Liz). I was a bit underwhelmed and all I could think of was getting out of there pronto.

Then again, my primary reason to visit Agra was to visit Wildlife SOS, a wildlife rescue and rehabilitation organisation that does some amazing work in Mathura, an hour from Agra.

Visiting the Taj Mahal was more of a bucket list trip that I just wanted to tuck away in my “been there, done that” list. Being Indian, it was embarrassing having to admit to foreigners that I’d never seen the thing.

What I did love about the Taj Mahal was its stunning art and architecture, which never fails to move me. That someone can create a monument of such beauty makes me marvel at the depth of human ingenuity and creativity that went into its making.

The Taj Mahal framed in the archway

As the story goes, it was built to fulfil Shah Jahan’s promise to his beloved wife, Mumtaz Mahal, that he would “erect a monument to match her beauty,” as she lay on her deathbed. Having seen the Taj, I can only imagine she must have been a very beautiful woman.

Also read: Walking With Elephants: A Visit To Wildlife SOS In Mathura

Kashmir’s Martand Sun Temple: Intriguing Ruins Of A Lost Dynasty

In early November 2011, I was fortunate to go on a 10-day trip to Kashmir, a state at the very north of India, that has since been overrun by terrorism and violence.

During our sightseeing tour of Kashmir, our guide, Parvaiz bhai, took us way off the usual tourist route to see some gems of Kashmiri architecture that very few people get to see. One of these was the Martand Sun Temple that lies 8 kilometres (5 miles) from Anantnag.

The kids roaming in the ancient ruins

History Of The Martand Sun Temple In Kashmir

Martand is another Sanskrit name for the Hindu Sun-god, Surya. It was built during the 8th century A.D. by the third ruler of the Karkota Dynasty, Lalitaditya Muktapida, and destroyed by Sultan Sikandar Butshikan in the early 15th century.

Now only the ruins remain to tell the story of this excellent specimen of Kashmiri architecture, blended into the Gandharan, Gupta, Chinese, Roman, Syrian-Byzantine and Greek forms of architecture.

Greek style pillars line the smaller shrines surrounding the courtyard

Situated on top of a plateau, one can view the whole of the Kashmir Valley from this temple. The courtyard has a primary shrine in its centre and is surrounded by 84 smaller shrines, incorporating a smaller temple that was previously built.

Primary Sanctum of Martand Sun Temple Kashmir

According to Wikipedia, the primary shrine is located in a centralized structure (the temple proper) that is thought to have had a pyramidal top – a common feature of the temples in Kashmir.

A number of wall carvings in the antechamber of the temple proper depict other gods, such as Vishnu, and river goddesses, such as Ganga and Yamuna, in addition to the sun-god Surya.

Hindu god and goddess carved into the walls

Many other carvings, like this one depicting a lone musician playing the flute, can be found among them.

Musician playing the flute

In a straight line from the central shrine, was a carving of what looked like a flower, but is more likely the sun.

Carving of the sun in the floor of the temple

Strangely, this stone carving is no longer visible in any of the later images of the Martand Sun temple online. Was it destroyed or stolen by vandals? I would really love to know what happened to it.

Another carving that I have not seen anywhere else online is this Shivling (Shiva Lingam depicting Lord Shiva’s male organ) with a reddish, barely discernable Sanskrit ‘Om’ symbol painted on it long ago, that lies forlornly in the lawns of the ruins. Shivlings are worshipped all over India as a sacred Hindu symbol of creation.

Shivling in the temple grounds

There are some more fascinating relics of the ancient civilization that built the temple, like this motif displaying the ancient Śāradā script.

Motif displaying the ancient Sarada script

Although the Martand Sun Temple is a site of national importance and appears in the list of centrally protected monuments as Martanda (Sun Temple), these relics of a lost dynasty are lying in ruin today and there seems to be no motivation to restore them.

When we went, there was no security guarding the ruins. We could just walk in and out without anyone stopping us. I guess that’s why it’s so easy to vandalise these ancient sites.

I imagine that, with all the unrest in Kashmir, the Archaeological Survey of India can’t do much to preserve these ruins. However, they were recently in the news recently for a much more undesirable reason.

The Martand Sun temple was used as the backdrop for the song Bismil from the Bollywood movie, Haider, in which it was controversially shown as a place of evil. You can watch the video below.

As a lover of ancient ruins and architecture, I considered myself lucky to get a glimpse of this striking example of Kashmiri architecture in 2011,  at a time when the Kashmir valley was still relatively peaceful and tourism was flourishing.

How To Reach The Martand Sun Temple?

The best way to go here is to hire a taxi from Srinagar or Anantnag. On the way, you can visit a few other sights like the Kokernag Botanical Gardens and the Verinag Springs.

Watch the video below for more photos of our visit to Kashmir’s Martand Sun Temple.

Also, read:

Patan Durbar Square: An Enthralling Glimpse Of Nepal’s City Of Fine Arts

Of all the places I visited on our FAM tour of the Kathmandu valley at the Himalayan Travel Mart 2018, I found Patan the most fascinating.

Located about 8 km south of Kathmandu, on a plateau across the Bagmati River, Patan is called the city of fine arts. It is one of 3 royal cities in the Kathmandu valley, the others being Kathmandu and Bhaktapur.

The royals and the commoners

Lalitpur, historically Patan, is the third largest city of Nepal after Kathmandu and Pokhara. It was founded by King Veer Deva in 299 A.D.

The fine art of woodcarving is alive and well in Patan

Turn anywhere in this city and you’ll see an abundance of wood and stone carvings, metal statues, ornate architecture, including dozens of Buddhist and Hindu temples, and over 1200 monuments.

Woodcarvings of deities line the walls

The city was once an independent Newar kingdom before the Shah dynasty took over and is best known for its rich tradition of arts and handicrafts and as the birthplace of master craftsmen, like these woodcarvers, we met in the Patan Durbar Square.

Woodcarvers take a break from work in the Patan Durbar Square

Patan Durbar Square

One of the three Durbar Squares in the Kathmandu Valley, all of which are UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Patan Durbar Square is situated at the centre of Lalitpur city. One of its attractions is the ancient royal palace where the Malla Kings of Lalitpur resided.

Entrance to Patan Durbar Square

There’s a lot to see in Patan Durbar Square, including ancient palaces, pagoda temples, stone baths, Hindu and Buddhist statues, bas-relief and engravings, and bronze carvings. The Patan Museum houses bronze statues and religious objects, some dating back to the 11th century.

An ornate stone bath in Patan Durbar Square

Ever since I found out that Patan Durbar Square was one of the locations for shooting the Marvel movie, Dr Strange, starring Benedict Cumberbatch (the other location is the Pashupatinath Temple), I was very eager to go there.

Every doorway looked like the mythical Kamar Taj to me

The Durbar Square is a marvel of Newar architecture. The floor is tiled with red bricks, like the ones we saw in Bhaktapur. There are many temples and idols in the area.

A doorway embellished with woodcarvings and deities

The Square also holds old Newari residential houses. There are various other temples and structures in and around Patan Durbar Square built by the Newa People.

This building represents Newari architectural style

The Patan Durbar Square was heavily damaged by the 2015 earthquake and many of its historical structures are still being repaired and reconstructed.

Reconstruction and repair work on the damaged monuments

Patan Durbar Square’s Golden Temple

The Golden Temple (Bhaskerdev Samskarita Hiranyabarna Mahavihara), built in the 12th Century by King Bhaskar Verma, was one of the most fascinating places I’ve ever seen.

Entrance to the Golden Temple

I could have spent all day here exploring, appreciating the intricate carvings and metalwork and taking photographs. Unfortunately, we were a bit rushed and didn’t have the time to do justice to this marvel.

Doorway to the inner sanctum of the Golden Temple

This three-roof Buddhist monastery is adorned with a golden facade, four large gateways, a clock tower, and two lion sculptures. Inside are golden images of Buddha, wall carvings, and a prayer wheel.

I was mesmerised by the detail of the metalwork
A glimpse inside the place of worship

The Vajra – A Symbol for Hindus and Buddhists

But by far, one of the most prominent and fascinating objects in Patan’s Golden Temple was the vajra – a ritual object associated with Tibetan Buddhism, and also called by its Tibetan name, Dorje.

The Vajra  – Indra’s weapon and a symbol of Vajrayana Buddhism

In Hinduism, the vajra is the weapon of the Vedic rain and thunder-deity, Indra. In the tantric traditions of Buddhism, the vajra is a symbol for the nature of reality, or sunyata, indicating endless creativity, potency, and skilful activity.

It is the symbol of the Vajrayana school of Buddhism, the tantric branch whose rituals help attain enlightenment in a single lifetime, in a thunderbolt flash of indestructible clarity.

In Tibetan ritual, the vajra is often used with a bell (ghanta). The vajra is held in the left hand and represents the male principle — upaya, referring to action or means. The bell is held in the right hand and represents the female principle — prajna, or wisdom.

A bell and prayer wheels in the Golden Temple

The vajra is used symbolically by the dharma traditions of Buddhism, Jainism and Hinduism, to represent firmness of spirit and spiritual power.

In fact, so enraptured was I by this object which, to me, represented an otherworldly power, that I bought my own vajra in the gift shop at the Kathmandu airport before I left Nepal.

The Vajra I bought at the airport gift shop

After interrupting a Buddhist ceremony being held in the monastery upstairs, we were kindly invited inside by one of the monks so we could look around.

A ceremony held in the monastery upstairs
A huge prayer wheel in the monastery

My tour of Patan Durbar Square was far too short. I really wish I had all day to spend here. But our group had just returned from our Bhaktapur walking tour and we were tired.

A view of the  Golden Temple from the monastery

My Kathmandu valley tour and the monuments we visited were a captivating glimpse into the history, culture, art and architecture of Nepal.

The metalwork of these figurines is stunning

On my next trip, with family this time, I hope to explore Nepal’s other cities, like Pokhara and hopefully, visit the Chitwan National Park.

If you do go to Nepal, please be a responsible tourist and be mindful of your environmental impact.

Also look at staying in a community homestay so that you can give back to the people of this country, who are still recovering from the devastating 2015 earthquake.

Also, read:

Bhaktapur Walking Tour: Following The Red Brick Road In Nepal’s Cultural City

An adorable spaniel sat at the entrance of a shop, gazing out solemnly at the people milling about in Bhaktapur’s Durbar Square. It looked very different from the other dogs who made their home here.

Cute spaniel in Bhaktapur Square

Being a dog lover, I would have loved to stop and click photos of every pooch in Nepal. Had I done that, I would have got left far behind by my group, a bunch of travel experts and content creators attending the Himalayan Travel Mart 2018 in Kathmandu.

Another cute dog asleep in Bhaktapur Square

We were on a FAM tour that included Bhaktapur – Nepal’s cultural city – a collection of exposed brick houses linked to each other by a network of red brick roads that were surprisingly clean, if not always evenly laid.

Following the red brick road on our walking tour of Bhaktapur

Bhaktapur’s history goes back to the early 8th century when it was the capital of Nepal till the 12th to 15th centuries. Until the early 18th century, the city was almost like a country unto itself, surrounded by boundary walls and city gates.

Village elders gather to chat in the lanes

Most of Bhaktapur’s 100,000 citizens are peasants, with businessmen, handicraft producers and public employees making up the rest of the population.

A lady prepares savoury snacks in a lane in Bhaktapur

The city is well known for certain products like it’s Juju Dhau (yoghurt), Bhadgaule Topi (Black Cap), Haku Patasi (black saree with a red border), pottery and handicrafts. You can even find Tibetan Thangka art studios here.

Pottery and Tibetan Tangka paintings in Bhaktapur

Bhaktapur’s Durbar Square is a World Heritage site, and it was well worth the trip on our walking tour of this ‘Living Museum’ of Newari culture.

Goat perched on a temple ledge

As I strolled through the narrow red-brick lanes lined by red-brick houses, with doors and windows framed by intricate and ornate wood carvings, I felt like I was stepping into a land that Time had forgotten.

Ornately carved doors embellish even the simplest of homes

Our guide, Mr Badri, told me that the Government offers subsidies to those who build homes in the traditional style. It’s a good way of keeping these ancient cultural traditions alive, especially for tourists like me, who were seeing it all for the first time.

These latticed carved wood windows were a beautiful sight

During the earthquake of 2015, this ancient city sustained severe damage. Many buildings collapsed and many people lost their lives.

Unfortunately, some people have not managed to rebuild their homes and still live in shanties, while basic services, like a regular water supply, are also lacking.

People whose homes were destroyed in the earthquake still live in these shanties

We saw a number of women lined up behind a water tanker brought in to supply water. It was quite a depressing sight and a sharp reminder for us visitors of the extent of the devastation.

Women line up to fill water from a tanker

Despite these hardships, the people of Bhaktapur seem a contented lot. Besides the craftsmanship and the adorable animals, watching and photographing the people of the city became my next favourite thing to do.

These ageless beauties of Bhaktapur were happy to pose for me

We spent some time in the main Durbar square, checking out the exceptionally intricate carvings, metalwork and terracotta work on the temples and houses of worship.

The best carvings and works of art were around the temples

After our tour of Bhaktapur, we returned to Kathmandu to visit the Patan Durbar Square. I will cover that in the next post, so do subscribe for updates.

A statue of Garuda and a charred lamp near the temples

Also read:

Kathmandu Temple Tour: Doorways To Nepal’s Art And Culture

Before I visited Nepal for the Himalayan Travel Mart 2018, I thought the only things there were to see in this country, that abuts the north-eastern states of India, were temples and mountains.

I didn’t opt for the FAM tour that included mountains because I don’t trek, but I did get a tour of Kathmandu’s temples, many of which are World Heritage sites.

I also learned not to travel to a new place with preconceived ideas, because what I saw on my Kathmandu sightseeing tour was a fascinating repository of Nepalese art, history, culture and tradition.

The Sadhu and the flag seller in Kathmandu Durbar Square

On the first day of our FAM Tour, our tour guides, Mr Badri Nepal and Mrs Sushila Kumari Baral picked us up from the Traditional Comfort Hotel in Kathmandu and took us by mini-bus on a tour of three heritage sites.

Hanuman-Dhoka Durbar Square

Most of the cultural centres of Nepal are concentrated around the Kathmandu Valley. Among those, one of the most important is the Hanuman-Dhoka Durbar Square.

Entrance to the Hanuman-Dhoka Durbar Square

Located in the heart of Kathmandu, this complex of temples and shrines, both Hindu and Buddhist, epitomizes the religious and cultural life of the people of Nepal. It is also called the Kathmandu Durbar Square.

A bell and a tiny lamp in the Durbar Square

A rich sense of community infuses Nepali life like the smell of incense that spreads through the air in its temples.

Dogs coexist peacefully with pigeons in the Durbar Square

This sense of community is very important to the Nepalese people. It’s why they are so happy even when they have very little, says Mr Badri.

A flower seller in the Hanuman-Dhoka Durbar Square

The Durbar Square, with its old temples and palaces, was the centre of the community, a place for people to come together and celebrate.

Pigeons among the Pagoda-style temples

Most of the monuments were built between the 12th and 18th centuries, in the pagoda style, and embellished with intricately carved exteriors.

Intricate wood carvings are a staple of Nepali architecture

The name Hanuman-Dhoka Durbar came from the kneeling statue of the Hindu god, Hanuman, who is always depicted in the form of a monkey.  It sits on a tall stone atop a pedestal and was built by the King, Pratap Malla, at the entrance of the Royal Palace in 1672 A.D.

The Hanuman shrine and candles at the entrance to the square

In Nepal, religion brings people together across boundaries such as Hinduism and Buddhism. Many Hindu and Buddhist temples sit cheek-to-jowl here.

In India, Hindu temples are usually built in the Sikhara style, while in Nepal, many of them have the Pagoda style architecture.  Both styles can be seen in the Durbar Square.

Sikhara and Pagoda style temples in the Durbar Square

This nine-storeyed tower called the Basantapur Darbar was built by Prithvi Narayan Shah in 1770 and renovated many times over the years.

Restoration of the Basantapur Darbar

It sustained considerable damage during the 7.8 magnitude Gorkha earthquake of 2015 and is currently being restored with aid from China. See images of how many of Nepal’s landmarks looked like before and after the earthquake.

Museum exhibit showing the damage to the Hanuman Dhoka Palace after the earthquake

The Hanuman Dhoka Palace Museum also has many artefacts salvaged from the rubble of the earthquake. It is worth a visit if you’re interested in the history and culture behind the monuments that were severely damaged.

The lotus base from the Kamdev temple salvaged from the rubble of the earthquake

The Durbar Square is actually made up of two sub-areas. The outer complex has some interesting temples, such as the Kumari Ghar – the home of Nepal’s Living Goddess. It also holds the Kasthamandap, Shiv-Parbati Temple, and the Jagannath Temple.

The Uma-Maheshwara (Shiv-Parbati) temple

The Kal Bhairav, which represents the god, Shiva, in his destructive manifestation, is used by the government as a place for people to swear the truth.

Kal Bhairav represents Shiva as the destroyer

Funnily enough, there’s a small police station aptly located right near this huge stone image. I guess the police can use all the (divine) help they can get in catching criminals.

Police station near the Kal Bhairav image

Another intriguing structure in the outer area is the Gaddi Baithak, a building in neo-classical architectural style, built in 2008 by the then King of Nepal, who was fascinated by Western architecture. I thought it looked a bit out of place among the Nepalese temples and shrines.

Gaddi Baithak inspired by neo-classical architecture

The inner complex of the Durbar Square comprises the old palace area, Hanuman-dhoka and its courtyards. It also holds the Taleju Temple, dedicated to the female royal deity of the Malla kings, which can only be visited by Hindus once a year on the ninth day of Dashain.

The goddess Taleju, or Taleju Bhavani – the wrathful form of the Goddess Durga – has a special place of worship among the Newar society in Kathmandu.

The Kumari or Living Goddess, a controversial tradition practised by ultra-religious Hindus, is a young girl considered to be the human manifestation of the Goddess Taleju.

Mr Badri explains the tradition of the Kumari – Nepal’s Living Goddess – in the Kumari Ghar

According to the article here, there are several different versions of the myth, but they all point to a Malla king upsetting the Goddess so greatly that she refuses to appear to him in her true form.

Instead, a young girl is chosen from the Shakya clan, taken from her family, declared a living goddess, and cocooned in her royal chambers (Hindus are allowed to go up into the Kumari Ghar for her blessings, but foreigners are not allowed).

Taleju Temple and the entrance to the Kumari Ghar

There she stays, cut off from all the things a young girl in the modern age would be exposed to – and meeting her parents occasionally – until she begins to menstruate, at which time she is considered impure and goes back to live with her family.

Then another newly-weaned toddler is chosen as the living Goddess and the cycle continues. As a mother and a feminist, I found this tradition, and the superstitions that go with it, rather distressing.

So it was with relief that I read the Nepalese government will give former Kumaris the monthly allowance of 10,000 Nepalese rupees ($101) from July for the next 10 years.

This doesn’t compensate for “an awful system that removes girls from their families, treats them like queens before they’re even old enough to know what’s happening, and tosses them aside the moment they’ve outlived their usefulness.”

I agree that it would be best to do away with this outdated tradition altogether. But I also commend the government for taking a step forward in a deeply religious society that is not likely to give up its traditions easily.

The flea market in Hanuman Dhoka Durbar Square

Before we left, Mr Badri took us to a corridor housing the images of all of Nepal’s rulers and gave us a brief history of Nepal’s monarchs and the Nepalese royal massacre in 2001. I found myself thinking it was a good thing Nepal abolished the monarchy in 2008.

A history of Nepal’s rulers

The Great Boudha Stupa

Since we had to stop for lunch, our guide decided to take us to a restaurant at Boudhanath, the location of one of the largest Buddhist stupas in the world and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

By Bijay chaurasia, CC BY-SA 4.0

When refugees entered Nepal from Tibet in the 1950s, many decided to live around Boudhanath and over 50 gompas (Tibetan monasteries) were built around the Stupa, which is said to entomb the remains of Kassapa Buddha.

The Stupa is a very important shrine for the Tibetan community in Nepal and has become the centre of a thriving town of monasteries, craftsmen, and businesses.

Colourful Tibetan masks and prayer wheels in the courtyard of the Boudha Stupa

The April 2015 Nepal earthquake badly damaged the Boudhanath Stupa, severely cracking the spire. The entire structure above the dome and the religious relics it contained, had to be removed and reconstructed.

We made our way up four floors to a rooftop restaurant with a panoramic view of the 100-foot dome of the Boudha Stupa and the courtyard below. After I had a nice thali for lunch, we descended to the courtyard and spent some time exploring the shrine.

A nice thali on the rooftop of the Golden Eyes Restaurant

As we entered the courtyard, the soothing chants of the Tibetan mantra “Om Mane Padme Hum” wafted through the air, while a gong sounded solemnly from one of the buildings surrounding the Stupa.

Accompanying this orchestra was the whirring of Tibetan prayer wheels, as hopeful devotees walked around the shrine turning them in prayer, and the fluttering of colourful prayer flags in the breeze at the top of the shrine.

On top of a monastery, solar panels gleamed in the sunlight while monks in red robes looked down at the crowd from a balcony.

The ancient and the modern coexist peacefully in Nepal

Devotees prayed while animals were fed. Both humans and animals seem to get what they want in this sacred place.

Devotees of all kinds find what they’re looking for

In the windows above the courtyard, painters practised the art of creating elaborate Tibetan Thangka paintings – Buddhist paintings on cotton, silk appliqué, usually depicting a Buddhist deity, scene, or mandala.

Painters creating exquisite Tibetan Thangka paintings
An elaborate and intricate Tibetan Thangka painting

As I went around the shrine taking photographs, I got separated from my group, so I just waited near the entrance till Mr Badri found me. By this time, the heavens had opened up and a downpour had started, so we decided to hurry on to the next temple – the Pashupatinath Temple.

The Pashupatinath Temple

Our next stop was the Pashupatinath Temple, a famous and sacred Hindu temple complex on the banks of the Bagmati River. During the 2015 earthquake, the main temple complex and the sanctum sanctorum were left untouched, but some of the outer buildings were damaged.

My primary interest in it stemmed from the fact that it was one of the locations for shooting the Marvel movie, Dr Strange, starring Benedict Cumberbatch. Of course, it’s also of interest that this temple complex is on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Only Hindus are allowed into the main Pashupatinath Temple. For people of other religions, all the other parts of the building are open except the main temple.

In front of the Pashupatinath Temple since we weren’t allowed in

The Temple’s origins date back to 400 B.C. and the richly ornamented pagoda houses the sacred linga or phallic symbol of Lord Shiva. According to Hindu belief, the twelve Jyotirlinga in India are Shiva’s body and the Jyotirlinga at Pashupatinath in Kathmandu is the head over his body.

If you visit this complex, remember that it’s not just a single temple you’re visiting. It’s a sprawling collection of temples, ashrams, images and inscriptions encompassing 264 hectares of land, including 518 temples and monuments. So there’s a lot of walking involved.

A view of the temple complex and the river

There’s also a crematorium on the banks of the river that you can visit if you like that sort of thing. I preferred to stay with my group and watch the monkeys that scurried about the complex.

Pashupatinath is another name for Lord Shiva, so about 1 million devotees tend to congregate here on Maha Shivaratri (the Great Night of Shiva), a major Hindu festival. Imagine the kind of organisation it takes to make that happen.

A row of shivlings leading up the stairs and smaller temples line the way down

The only reason why we did so much sightseeing in Kathmandu on one day was that it was a FAM Tour and a whirlwind one at that. Personally, I found it very tiring and a bit too much to take in.

You can make it easier on yourself and enjoy your time more if you spread your Kathmandu city tour over at least 3 days – and spend an entire day at each of these places – because you’ll be walking a lot and there’s plenty to see and photograph.

Also read:

Kathmandu, Bhaktapur And Panauti: My FAM Tour Of Nepal For #HTM2018

The lightning flashed and crackled outside the window. I was flying Nepal Airlines flight RA 202 into Kathmandu and we were caught in a thunderstorm.

A massive rain cloud was shooting forks of lighting as large and scary as Thor’s Mjolnir. It was an electrical party in the sky with the clouds all around us providing their own personal laser light show.

A lightning storm is an orchestra of electricity that I like to call “God’s Own Theatre,” and being in the middle of one, up in the air, is the closest I’ll ever come to having a religious experience.

It was exciting and scary all at once and I felt a twinge of disappointment when the pilot announced that the weather was clearing. The plane lurched and shook as we began our bumpy descent. The lights of Kathmandu twinkled below like diamonds strewn carelessly on a bolt of black velvet.

For me, the descent is the scariest part of the flight and I can’t relax till tire hits tarmac, the brakes come on and the flaps open up. Our crew had navigated us safely through a thunderstorm and I was grateful.

From the exhilarating flight into Kathmandu to the FAM Tour and the International Travel Bloggers & Media Conference (ITBMC), my hosted trip to Nepal to attend the Himalayan Travel Mart 2018 was an experience to cherish.

Here’s a photo I took from the plane of the moon rising above the tail of the plane. Like the song Bad Moon Rising, it did bring us plenty of lightning, but unlike the song, we survived and reached safely.

Like the song Bad Moon Rising, the moon brought us plenty of lightning

When I reached Kathmandu airport, I was welcomed by a bunch of the nicest young people – hotel management students who are part of the PATA Nepal Student Chapter.

They gave me the traditional Nepali welcome by placing a silk scarf around my shoulders. As we chatted, we found we had something in common – our love of Comic-Con and Marvel movies.

Nepal is very much like India

One of my big surprises was finding that Nepal is very much like India – from the language to the culture, and even the food. Nepali women are voracious consumers of Indian soap operas and Bollywood movies, so they can also understand and speak Hindi.

The Nepali language is not very hard for Indians to understand and the script is the same script we use (Devnagiri) so we can read it easily, even if we don’t understand all of it.

But one thing that shocked even me, an Indian, were these Medusa-like wires hanging over the streets of Kathmandu and Bhaktapur.

Medusa-like wires hanging over the streets of Kathmandu

For the life of me, I have never seen anything like this in India and I think the Nepal government needs to clean this up and put them underground as soon as possible if they want to be seen as a modern nation.

And while they’re at it, can they please clean up Kathmandu’s air pollution? It was quite disturbing to see so many people wearing face masks.

Staying at the Traditional Comfort Hotel in Kathmandu

PATA Nepal arranged for my fellow-delegates and me to stay in the Traditional Comfort Hotel in Kathmandu.

Buddha welcomes us at the entrance of the hotel
Newari design and wood carvings

The rooms were very comfortable and the Wifi was excellent. I loved the Newari designs and wood carvings in the lobby, a result of employing local artisans in the design and construction of the hotel.

Traditional Newari motifs decorate the pillars
Angled ankhi-jyaal windows that cast geometric shadows

The breakfast was pretty good too. I tried out some traditional beans from Lukla, a place in north-eastern Nepal.

Traditional beans from Lukla for breakfast

I also love it when a hotel employs responsible environmental practices like using glass bottles, instead of plastic bottles, to provide drinking water in the rooms.

I love it when a hotel uses glass bottles instead of plastic

A Whirlwind Tour Of Kathmandu And Bhaktapur’s Attractions

Over the next couple of days, we visited a few of Kathmandu’s many attractions – the Great Boudha Stupa, the Pashupatinath Temple, the Hanuman-Dhoka Durbar Square and Thamel, Kathmandu’s touristy shopping centre, along with our tour guides from PATA Nepal Chapter, Mr Badri Nepal and Ms Sushila Kumari Baral.

Uma Maheshwara temple
The Great Boudha Stupa

Mr Badri’s explanations of Nepal’s culture, religious ethos and community life left us spellbound. But my favourite part of the tour was watching and photographing the animals – pigeons, dogs, goats and monkeys – that live in the shrines.

Pigeons, Pigeons everywhere
Brownie Rinpoche catching flies
Cute spaniel in Bhaktapur Durbar square
Mountain goat precariously perched on a temple ledge

As an art lover, I also loved the colours and sophistication of the elaborate Tibetan Thangka paintings – Buddhist paintings on cotton, silk appliqué, usually depicting a Buddhist deity, scene, or mandala.

Painters creating exquisite Tibetan Thangka paintings

We also visited Nepal’s cultural city, Bhaktapur, and Patan Durbar Square, a centre for fine arts. I could have spent all day photographing the exquisite wood carvings, idols and sculptures in Patan’s Tibetan Buddhist ‘Golden Temple’ (Hiranya Varna Mahavir).

Exquisite wood carvings in Patan’s Golden Temple
Deities in Patan Golden Temple

I really wish I could have spent more time taking photographs, but we were in a mixed group consisting of travel agents, travel writers and a videographer (who went off by himself to take videos), and every time I stopped to take photos, I would get left behind.

Buddhist ceremony in Patan Golden Temple
My fellow-travellers and me on our FAM Tour of Kathmandu

As a huge Marvel fan, I was also thrilled to discover that both, the Pashupatinath Temple and Patan Durbar Square were locations for shooting Kamar Taj in Marvel’s Dr Strange movie.

Kamar Taj from Dr Strange?

In 2015, Nepal was hit by the devastating Gorkha earthquake that killed nearly 9,000 people and injured nearly 22,000. Many of its ancient temples and historical structures were damaged in this earthquake, some beyond repair.

Scenes of devastation in Kathmandu

Three years later, scenes like this one are still common and the country is slowly and painfully rebuilding and repairing many of these historical structures.

Rehabilitation of historical buildings in Hanuman Dhoka Durbar Square

However, there are many that were undamaged or only lightly damaged and these are definitely worth exploring. I will post a detailed blog of our Kathmandu tour soon.

Our Community Homestay in Panauti Village

After our tour, we were scheduled to stay at a community homestay at Panauti Village, around 1.5 hours from Kathmandu. We were all welcomed at the Community Hall by a group of women in bright red sarees who greeted us with garlands and vermillion tikkas.

Being welcomed by the women Homestay owners of Panauti

My German friend, Katrin and I opted to stay together at the Homestay of a lovely lady called Sabita, who has a house at the top of a small hillock. We found our accommodations very comfortable and our hostess was a wonderful cook.

Getting to know our hostess, Sabita and her daughter, Monika

Panauti, situated at the confluence of the two rivers Rosi and Punyamati, has been regarded as an important religious site since very early times.

The confluence of two rivers in Panauti

We visited the Indreshwar temple, one of the largest and tallest pagoda style temples in Nepal. It was originally built over a lingam in 1294, making it the oldest surviving temple of Nepal.

Indreshwar temple in Panauti
Some more scenes from Panauti museum and town

In the evening, after our tour of Panauti, splashing through the small village roads that had been turned into slush by the rains, we helped our hostess make aloo parathas for dinner.

Helping our hostess prepare aloo parathas for dinner

We also learned about her life and about CommunityHomestay.com, an organisation that is helping women in Nepal empower themselves by earning an income hosting travellers in their homes.

Read more: How Community Homestays Are Empowering Women In Nepal

The next day, on the way back to Kathmandu, the rains played havoc with our plans to visit the Namobuddha Monastery by turning the roads into a swamp. Afraid that our bus would get stuck in the mud, we turned back and returned to Kathmandu without seeing the shrine.

Road turned to slush on the way to Namobuddha Monastery

The same evening we were treated to an authentic Nepali Dinner Reception at the  Bhojan Griha restaurant, a 150-year-old heritage building which housed the late Royal Priest of the King of Nepal.

It was hosted by Mr Bharat Basnet, founder of The Explore Nepal group. We tried the local rice wine (potent stuff!) and the food was prepared from local organic sources grown on their own farm.

Nepali rice wine was served in these little cups

My favourite dish was a delicately-flavoured mushroom preparation whose name I didn’t get. Our food experience was enhanced by folk dances of Nepal performed vigorously by local dancers.

In the next few posts, I discuss the Himalayan Travel Mart 2018, that began the day after our hosted dinner. More detailed posts coming on Kathmandu, Bhaktapur and Panauti, too. Subscribe to receive them in your inbox.
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Verinag Springs, Kashmir: Origin Of The Jhelum

The kids squealed. As they threw dough balls into the spring waters, the carp sprang up to snap it up. The spring waters were a Maldivian turquoise and clear as crystal.

Carp in the spring waters

Our visit to Verinag Springs in Kashmir in November 2011 was quite a thrill. It was a great place for the kids to witness how a river originates.

The origin of the Jhelum river, these ever-flowing springs were built by the Mughal emperor Jahangir in 1620 A.D. The Mughal Arcade and gardens around the spring were built later by his son, Shah Jahan.

Clear blue-green waters of Verinag Springs

Today the springs and the Mughal Arcade around it are recognized as a Monument of National Importance. The name of the springs, Verinag, arose because the nearby town was known as Vér. Nag is the local name for a spring.

Verinag springs in autumn

Before Emperor Jahangir decided to build a spring here, it was just a pond of water that formed a marsh. Always eager to improve on the beauty of Nature, the Emperor built the octagonal tank of sculpted stones using carvers from Iran, and – because that’s what Mughal emperors do – created a garden around it.

Mughal garden around Verinag Spring

The Mughal gardens were built as an adaptation of the traditional Persian Charbagh (four gardens), which takes its inspiration from the Quranic description of heaven as having four rivers, of wine, honey, milk, and water.

Entrance to Verinag Springs

From the entrances, a walkway takes the visitor towards the octagonal pool, which is approached through a colonnade.

Arch around the colonnade

This colonnade, composed of 24 arches, surrounds the pool, whose water comes from the spring deep below. The water exits from the pool into the 300-yard main axial water canal, which then flows down to the Bihat river.

The springs lead into a water canal
Water canal through Verinag Garden

Vernag is located on a steep hillside, with its water source at the top. The traditional Charbagh design had to be altered to fit the site’s topography, as the source of water shifted from the traditional centre of the square garden to the highest point of the garden.

Verinag Mughal Garden Plan by Akshey25, CC BY-SA 3.0

His son Shah Jahan, constructed the cascades and aqueducts laid in straight lines through the garden. Little trace remains of the hot and cold baths he built to the east of the garden, or of the pavilions that once decorated the area.

Could this be one of the hot or cold baths?

On the stone slabs built into the walls surrounding the spring are carvings in Persian that describe how the source of the underwater spring is contained without revealing its architecture. The construction date is also inscribed on a stone slab built into the southern wall of the spring.

Inscriptions in Persian in the stone slabs around the spring

The structure is also a sacred place for Hindus as there is a shivling, built in honour of Lord Shiva, in one of the arches.

Shivling in an arch around Verinag spring

How to get to Verinag Springs:

There are two ways to get to the springs:

  1. You can take a bus from Srinagar to Anantnag and then by taxi to Verinag.
  2. You can come the way we came, by car from Srinagar to Verinag via Kokernag, Achhabal Mughal garden and the Martand Sun Temple.

If you’re not pressed for time, the second route is preferable as it has much more to see along the way. Check out the video of our visit to Verinag springs below.

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All images are © Priya Florence Shah unless otherwise mentioned.