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Nepal: Kathmandu temples and monks

A journey of inner research in Nepal, between the wonderful ancient cities of the Kathmandu valley and the teachings of the Lama in a Buddhist monastery.

For this trip I entrusted ViaggiAvventureNelMondo because several friends had spoken well of it as a tour operator and because it offered a different and more spiritual experience. With me this time my mother, an excellent adventure companion.

Incredible experiences of sleeping at the Monastery: at Benchen Vihar

We arrive in Kathmandu still a little dazed by the journey but enthusiastic and with a great desire to do. The bus throws itself into the traffic and after an infinite time made up of dust, mopeds and horns we arrive at the Monastery.

At first glance it looks like a simple building but it soon becomes a haven of peace with respect to the internal context. The monastery is inhabited by Buddhist monks and lamas who live in a complex to the left of the entrance, while to the right is the beautiful and colorful temple, a small shop and the stairs that climb the hill and lead to the courtyard and the guesthouse. The monkeys wander around happily and are mischievous, taking away food and anything left on the terraces and tables (in fact, there are slingshots scattered everywhere to drive them away without harming them). Our room is 305 and is cozy with two single beds, a small balcony whose door doesn't close properly and a nice bathroom. We quickly understand that we are very lucky because we are among the few to always have hot water. There is no heating and the first night we lock ourselves up in the sleeping bag under 2 duvets but as the days go by we get used to the harsh and humid climate of the night. After dark the monkeys disappear but the dogs arrive to bark at the moon, while at 5 the monks' collection bells begin. Sounds that disturb sleep at first but soon reconcile it and end our days. In fact, we get into excellent habits: 5.30 am wake up, 6 puja ritual at the temple, 7 guided meditation, 8 breakfast, 9.30 teachings of the Lama, then the day flows between lunch, temples and at 7 pm dinner and go to bed by 10.30 pm. Even the food in the monastery is excellent, only vegetables without meat as the Buddhist philosophy dictates for an incredibly good and healthy detox diet.

Like all monasteries there are rules, at 21 the gate is closed, there should be tranquility and silence and no music because the monks cannot listen to it .. we are 24 and chaos reigns supreme, but the monks are serene and smile in our cumbersome presence. When we leave this place on the last day it's like we leave a piece of heart and home.


Monkey Temple

Swayambhunath

As you can imagine from the name, this temple is the kingdom of monkeys, there are many of them, with a red bottom and they wander everywhere in small groups. They are beautiful but you have to be careful because they steal everything they see, so watch out for cell phones. This stupa stands on a hill from which you can see the view of the city, you can get there by car or by climbing 365 steps. The cost of admission is a few euros during the day, while in the evening you can visit for free admiring the lighted candles and taking the blessing from a monk in a small window. In the evening there are many young people who meet to laugh and joke. This complex is a UNESCO heritage site and allows you to observe 3 different styles: Stupa, Pagoda, Shikhara.


Buddhist symbols

The 5 elements are represented in the dome, 5 is a scathed number like 3 and 108:

  • land the white dome;

  • water the white dome;

  • fire a cubic structure with the Buddha's eyes representing knowledge and compassion while below the Nepalese ek symbol of unity and oneness of life; they look in all directions controlling human beings;

  • air/wind, a pyramid-like structure with the 13 levels needed to reach nirvana;

  • soul, the final tip.

At the base of the stupa are the Mani, prayer wheels inscribed with the mantra om mani padme hum and which are spun to spread prayers as one circles the stupa. While on the steps a gigantic golden Vajra (the celestial lightning) which symbolizes the power of enlightenment that destroys ignorance.


Kora of the stupa

Every morning hundreds of Buddhists and Hindus reach the stupa and begin a series of clockwise circles around the stupa. You can climb to the top of the stupa or go around the kora, at the foot of the hill, following the prayer wheels and getting your energy going to start the day right.


Legend

In ancient times, the Kathmandu valley was a huge lake, in which a crystal lotus grew and gave off a beautiful light. Mañjuśrī had a vision and went to worship him; there he realized that the valley could have been a very good settlement and he dug a gorge to let the waters flow away. The stupa of Swayabhunath was then erected above the lotus, which preserves the light emanating from the lotus.


The city of beauty and erotic figures

Patan

Patan is the oldest of the three medieval cities along with Kathmandu and Bhaktapur.

In 1597 it was conquered by King Shiva Malla of Kathmandu who unified the valley and enlarged Patan to its present conformation. It is said to be built in the shape of the Buddhist Dharma-Chakra (wheel of Buddhist righteousness) and is surrounded by four large stupas.

The main area is Patan Durban Square: 'durban' means 'palace' and it is here that the Royal Palace is located with regal facades of red brick and dark carved wood and with a sophisticated system of communicating corridors and courtyards and with the three temples dedicated to the goddess Taleju the most revered divinity in the valley.

The three main courtyards (chowk) are the Mul Chowk the largest and most important where they still make animal sacrifices today, the Sundari Chowk of the royal family with its private fountain where he meditated on a stone in the winter frost, and Mani Keshab Narayan Chowk the government one.


In the square there are also several temples such as the Krishna mandir, the first example of a Shikhara-style temple and the only one with 21 pinnacles, that of the Thousand Buddhas and the Char Narayan Temple dedicated to Vishnu with two floors with red bricks and erotic figures of the kamasutra and the large fountain.


In front of the Royal Palace there is a tall column on which the statue of King Yoganarendra Malla rests. On the head of the King is a cobra and above the cobra a small bird. Legend has it that as long as the bird remains on the head, the king will be able to return to his palace. For this reason there is always an open window.


Patan is also known as "the city of fine arts" for its ancient arts and crafts and for this reason ancient Hindu and Buddhist festivals are still celebrated throughout the year. Here in Patan there are the workshops of the artisans who forge the healing bells or better known as Tibetan bells. While near Durban square there is a very good pastry shop to eat the "barfi", excellent coconut milk sweets.


The most important Stupa, the mandalas and the Tibetan doctor

Boudhanath Stupa

It takes some time to reach this stupa due to the incredible traffic. This stupa is the most important in the world and in Nepal because it contains within it a relic of the Buddha. It is also of great importance for the Tibetans, especially after China in the 1950s decided to annex Tibet and the Nepalese government decided to welcome a large Tibetan community in this area. There is a strong energy here and people of all races and cultures can be seen circling the base many times.

The stupa is 560 meters long and over 700 wheels surround it, there are also the same Buddhist elements and symbols here but in addition we find 16 three-dimensional corners, 108 niches for each Buddhist deity and 27 kg of gold were used to decorate it; today it is inhabited by many pigeons considered sacred by Buddhists. The earthquake had damaged the stupa which was rebuilt thanks to aid from Germany.


Around the stupa narrow streets full of life and typical shops branch off, including the Boudha Stupa Thanka Center where they explain the designs of the mandalas and the Tibetan doctor's office.


School of Thankas and Mandalas

The stupa seen from above has the shape of a mandala, but what is a mandala?

Than means surface and Ka colors. There are 4 main designs: the mandala, the figure of the deity, the wheel of life (usually placed outside monasteries), the life of the Buddha.

The canvases are made of cotton and are worked with tree glue and white Himalayan clay; after 3 days of rest, the fabric becomes resistant and is polished until it looks like a sheet of paper. The drawings are made by hand taking up the ancient manuals with the proportions dictated by strict rules. Different types of colors are used: chemicals for everyone, acrylics for the best artists and mineral stones reserved only for the masters. The brushes come from rabbit and cat hair and only a hair is left for painting. Within art schools there are different levels (even 21) of artists: from students to great masters and you can see the difference on the canvas; only the great masters are capable of drawing freehand without compass and ruler and they are the most beautiful mandalas of meditation.

Mandalas are considered an integral part of tantric Buddhism due to its complexity and mean center, in fact even its designs lead to being focused on the sacred center. Usually the mandalas are drawn with sand through a cone that they slam slowly, taking about 4 weeks and which is then thrown into the river because everything is impermanent. Famous is that of the Dalai Lama and the KalaChackra mandala (kala time, chackra wheel) where the center is nirvana, the colors of the circles are the elements, green is space and gold is wisdom.

The wheel of life, on the other hand, is held by Yama, the god of time who judges us during our Samsara, i.e. the cycle of birth and death. In it are represented the 6 realms (Gods, demigods, men, animals, hungry ghosts, hell) and in the center the 3 poisons: ignorance (pig), anger/lust (rooster), hatred/I (snake). Indeed, ignorance creates hope and fear; if hope is too much it becomes rage that destroys; just as too much greed and desire destroy. Among all the realms that of men is the one that gives the possibility to improve oneself by following the Buddhist practice. Outside the wheel the Buddha who frees himself from mental obstructions helps sentient beings to enlighten.


The city of Bertolucci's Little Buddha

Bhaktapur

Located at 1400 meters it is one of the main attractions of Katmandu: an ancient city that has remained frozen in time, where all the buildings are of the original features. The name means city of devotees and here Hindus and Buddhists coexist in harmony.

Sources of pride are Juju Dhau yogurt, Bhadgaule Topi black hat, Haku Patasi red-trimmed black saree, and earthenware. In fact, there is a beautiful open-air terracotta market (Potter Square) where you can see the craftsmen at work kneading the clay with their hands and working it as it once was.

The main temples and the royal palace are in Durban Square where there is also the Pashupatinath Temple, the oldest one and dedicated to the reincarnation of Shiva. A few minutes walk to the mammoth Nyatapola Temple, a 5-storey 30-metre pagoda built in 1702 which is accessed by a staircase flanked by huge stone figures, its guardian protectors.

Bhaktapur is a wonderful and fascinating place and you have to enjoy every street to discover moments of real life and the craftsmen at work, like the man who sewed mattresses between two temples under a huge ficus tree.


The ancient city of Khatmandu and the modern one

Basantapur, Durban square, Indrachok and Thamel

Basantapur is the most popular tourist square in Kathmandu. Here there are very ancient temples, such as the Lakshimi Narayan ancient guesthouse that the King had built for pilgrims and which is still used today to welcome people. There is also the Maju Denga temple on whose steps the hippies in the 70s; at the time, cannabis was legal and used in medicine and agriculture. Finally, the royal palace of a sparkling white and with a classic western style that detaches a little too much from the ancient context of the square. Continuing towards the Jagannath Temple, you can glimpse the statue of Swet Bhairav which is covered by a grate and only shown on holidays (where free barley beer is offered) because otherwise it scares the children. Nearby the statue of Shiva, bad for bad guys; here legend has it that if a lie were told in front of the statue, blood would be vomited until death.. the superstition still exists and it is said that the policemen use it as an expedient to make the under investigation tell the truth.

In this square it is easy to find the Santoni, people who have stripped themselves of all their possessions to live in prayer and who beg for money to survive; they can be recognized by their flamboyant clothes.


Continuing towards Asan Bazar you arrive at the local market of Indrachok, divided by goods and full of shops and articles: beautiful fabrics for saris, cashmere, red and green beaded necklaces, shoes, gold, spices and much more.

Continuing on foot for another 20 minutes, you reach Thamel, the modern center of the city with restaurants, shops (especially north face trekking clothes) and clubs.



The Arati and the funeral pyres

Temple of Pashupatinath

Arati is the ceremony of Light of the Hindu tradition and is held in the most important temple of the city: Pashupatinath. When I arrive it is dark and there are already pyres lit along the river. Funeral ceremonies are held daily, and there are over a dozen similar but smaller venues in Kathmandu. In Nepal people die at home and, based on ethnicity, they are cremated immediately or kept at home for one or more days. Here in Pashupatinath the corpses are cremated on the pyres and the ashes then scattered in the Bagmati which is considered a sacred river: a tributary of the Ganges it guarantees direct access to "paradise". Because of this, being cremated here is coveted by all Nepalese Hindus (even those living abroad try to have cremation here). From the outside, however, this river is extremely polluted and only the dark of the late afternoon improves its appearance. The ceremony takes place around 18.30-19: the stairs in front of the temple are crowded with Hindus (it's an area reserved for them) while on the other side some tourists like us and many visiting Nepalese...everyone sings, dances and prays together . Arati is the offering of fire that takes place by making ritual movements with a camphor lamp in honor of a deity; since camphor leaves no residue, its flame symbolizes the incarnation of divinity and its transcendence of the bodily form.


The sacred caves

Pharping

Pharping has been a pilgrimage destination for centuries, here are the sacred caves of Guru Rinpoche and the Tenga Rinpoche stupa. It is located 18 km from Kathmandu with not very beautiful roads. Among the most important caves is that of the self-generated Tara, a bas-relief that has been coming out for some years in the rock of the cave; always here a monk every day for about 1.5 years repeats the prayers by himself. In these caves the energy is palpable and the sacredness is perceived; at the same time you can experience the joy of the believers who come in front of the temples on Saturday to celebrate the feast day together with braziers, food and dance. Here there is also a huge statue of the Buddha, a beautiful panorama of the mountains and rice fields and a hill full of Nepalese flags that color the sky.


Useful tips:


Time zone +3.45 - Saturday public holiday (Sunday is working day)


Travel documents

Before arriving in Nepal it is important to check the necessary documents on viaggiaresicuri.it, such as e.g. the PCR swab or the certification of the 3 doses of the covid vaccine. And it is always a good idea to make a photocopy of your passport and bring passport photos in case they require them for a visa or you lose your passport.


Visa

For the visa you need to make a pre-document online on the government website https://nepaliport.immigration.gov.np/ by clicking on the Visa Pre Arrival card where you enter the data of the arrival airport, passport, length of stay and accommodation (important don't get the airport wrong). Once you arrive in Kathmandu (I landed at the TIA) just go to the visa issuing desk and pay 30 Euros; it is advisable to pay with 50€ so as to immediately have rupees as change. Once you have passed the passport and security checks, you can go and collect your luggage and get ready for a lot of confusion right away.


Overnight stays

I slept in the monastery at Benchen Vihar (www.benchen.org - bghouse@ntc.net.np). Otherwise the most well-stocked and lively area is the centre: Thamel


Food

Always remember to eat cooked food and drink bottled water. In Nepal I ate very well, lots of vegetables, rice, noodles, pancakes, soups…Buddhists are vegetarians and it's perfect for purifying yourself a bit. Try "Bara" a kind of lentil pancake, street pancakes, "Momo" filled rice dumplings sometimes very spicy.


Budget

I'm not a fan but it's best to bring cash for purchases and to exchange them. Almost all shops also accept euros and give change in rupees; while credit cards are usable in larger or higher-end shops. As for the costs, Nepal is really cheap: you eat on average with 6-10€ each in restaurants, taxis cost around 3-5€ to get around, to sleep you can start from 15€. In the main squares of the monuments there are no turnstiles but the entrance fee is around €9-10, while the monkey temple around €3.50.


To pack

Comfortable shoes because the roads are often dirt filled with dust. Bring a spare in your hand luggage to avoid panic if you don't find your suitcase. The temperatures in December-January are good: from 10 to 20 degrees, at lunchtime you happen to wear a t-shirt and as soon as the sun goes down it gets very cold (dress like an onion!). Shirts NOT low cut and avoid tank tops, necklines and bare legs for visits to monasteries. Heating is not common, so it is better to bring a sheet bag (I slept with that + 2 duvets on top). The plugs fit ours, so there's no need for adapters.


Medicines and vaccinations

The usual safety medicines for travel abroad (intestinal disinfectant, paracetamol, imodium, plasters, wipes) and absolutely lactic ferments to be taken before leaving and throughout the trip. Vaccinations are not needed, malaria is usually towards the Terai on the border with India.


Day trips from Kathmandu:

  • Budhanilkanta, the largest, most beautiful and most enigmatic stone sculpture in all of Nepal measuring 5 meters covered in flowers and placed in water.

  • Shivapur Nagarjun National Park (trekking): you can also take a taxi and then there are the paths and there are also guides on site

  • Nagarkot Hiking, famous for seeing the sunrise from the tower and trekking in the area to see the snow capped mountains.

  • Disabled Rehabilitation Centre http://www.drcnepal.com/



Must places:

Bhaktapur, Arati at Pashupatinath Temple, Boudhanath Stupa


Itinerary:


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