My daily exploration takes me first to Thamel Chowk – the Thamel Market – then to a square called Thahiti Tole, where I admire a stupa in its center and the medieval-looking Nateshwar Temple on one corner. I then reach Asan Tole, which is notoriously the most chaotic crossroads in the old city; here, at the intersection of six major roads, there is a market where from dawn to dusk sellers of spices, of fruits and vegetables, buyers and passers-by gather. Hindus temples are not to be missed: a small one, dedicated to Vishnu, one with two floors to the elephant-god Ganesh, one with three floors to the goddess of abundance Annapurna, who also gives its name to one of the highest Himalayan mountain range, and one octagonal dedicated to Krishna. From here I continue to another Kathmandu market, the Indra Chowk, meeting point of fabric merchants and stones and bracelets dealers.
Just before I get to the historic Durbar Square, while I wander through messy narrow streets where prayer flags wave and a cow eats advertising posters affixed to the walls, I make the acquaintance of a shopkeeper wearing the puja on the forehead. He insists in teaching me how to play Bagh Chaal. This, I learn, is the national game of Nepal; it looks like draught but instead of pawns there are four tigers and 20 sheep. The aim of the player with the tigers is to climb over the opponent sheep and by doing so, eat them. The other, in order to defend himself, must in turn trap the tigers to make them harmless, blocking their passages within the web of the board. The pieces and the board are generally hand-made with bronze, and they come in different sizes. To my playmate astonishment, as well as that of a friend of his and of various passers-by gathered around the table at the edge of the road, I cunningly manage to win two games out of three, helped by beginner’s luck but also due to a couple of mistakes by my opponent, who congratulates me. I say goodbye and I continue my stroll.
Basantapur Durbar Square, UNESCO World Heritage Site, is vast and majestic, and hosts lots of buildings in typical Nepalese architecture: temples, stupas (Buddhist religious monuments containing relics of the Buddha), gompas (Buddhist monasteries) and every type of monument; they all look well kept and in good conditions, only some are closed for restoration. It is worth mentioning the old building around which the city is located, the Kastamandap, the palace dedicated to Lord Hanuman, temples dedicated to various deities, the Taleju Temple, the Jagannath Temple, the Nautale, and a temple in honor of Lord Shiva. A couple of cows wander around the square undisturbed; tourists and locals share the space with the numerous and ubiquitous rickshaw.
On the steps of the largest temple, as I contemplate the grandeur of the square and watch the dozens of young people and tourists who take pictures of the surrounding beauties, I make the acquaintance of one of the many Sherpa guides around. He is very friendly, a small and thin man who offers me his experience to take me on a trek in the mountains; he shows me his book of written recommendations from the various tourists he accompanied in the past as proof of his skills and reliability. He gives me his phone number before descending the stairs and disappearing behind the stairs.
I sit watching the comings and goings in the square below, and I take the opportunity to read about the various monuments in my guide. The colorful entrance in front of the royal palace, where the Nepali King and the royal family members lived before the massacre carried out by the prince heir to the throne a few years ago, is properly guarded: physically by well-armed Nepalese army soldiers in uniform and white helmet, and spiritually by a pair of huge limestone tigers ridden by gods, duly painted in bright colors, whose task is to drive away the evil spirits. Perched on one of these sculptures, a deft monkey is fast in grabbing peanuts handed over by a holy man passing by.
I enter the temple of Kumari, the Kumar Ghar, and wait for thirty minutes to see her appearance without success, risking the continuous guano bombardment of the pigeons that populate the ancient attics and the beautiful wooden balconies of the residence. The Kumari, or ‘living goddess’, is nothing more than a young child, chosen amongst many, who symbolizes purity. Occasionally, she overlooks from one of the windows, and her appearance can mean good fortune for years to come, so hundreds of locals try their luck every day with a visit to the palace courtyard. The girl remains as Kumari until her body gives off blood, and due to this she is forced to lead a life of semi-seclusion and full of care and precautions to prevent her from hurting. Inevitably, she will be replaced in any case at the time of her first menstruation.
The visit to the historic Basantapur Durbar Square greatly impressed me. The colorful market at the side of the square is well stocked and has an aura of times past; the sellers are all Tibetans, selling replicas of relics of ancient Himalayan civilizations. It is here that I buy my beautiful bronze Bagh Chaal at a reasonable price after an interesting negotiation with one of the nice sellers.
I continue south of Basantapur Durbar Square and up to the legendary Jochne, renamed Freak Street in the 70s for the influx of hippies in the city during those years, when the smell of incense, the children turning the prayer wheels, the cheap inns and spiritual restaurants and shops were the standard. I sit in a cafe, I order a snack and I look around me; certainly Freak Street has lost much of its genuine charm, but its history and its location in the heart of Kathmandu makes it extremely popular and appreciated by tourists .
I return to the hotel and I consider an out-of-town schedule for the next few days…
To learn more browse http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Basantapur_Durbar_Square