Magic Kathmandu – Part 1


Baba in Kathmandu

Baba in Kathmandu

The long flight is almost over and I am about to land in Nepal. From the top of my seat, the views of the Kathmandu valley, the Terai jungle and the Himalayan mountain range makes me wince. November is climatically the best month to visit Nepal, especially if you plan to go hiking. At the airport arrivals there is a lot of people; I wait in a queue for more than an hour to get the visa, another hour to pick up my luggage from a messy conveyor belts area with baggages from the several incoming flights. At the exit, I contract a taxi for the ride to Thamel, the heart of the tourist area of Kathmandu. After checking-in at one of the several affordable guest-houses, I undo the backpack and go out to familiarize with my new surroundings.

Kathmandu is situated at 1300 meters above sea level, in a basin surrounded by a valley full of lofty hills that are home to small villages at a height range of 2000 to 2700 meters, Hindu temples and Tibetan monasteries. Since China took control of Tibet, Tibetans have made of Nepal their second home. The streets are relatively clean, the shops are many and for each there is a character that politely invites passers by to enter without hassling them. Tourists are so many on the streets, by the hundreds; restaurants, bars, cafes and bakeries alternate each other on either side of the narrow streets, that are mostly pedestrian.

Kathmandu is fascinating and spiritual, a lively city made ​​of tiny streets and alleys paved with pebbles and stones. The buildings are of medieval architecture, with wooden balconies carved with exquisite motifs; there is little traffic, mainly composed of bicycles and rickshaws. The air is quite clean, it is only five in the afternoon and it is already chilly. No wonder a t-shirt is not enough to warm one’s body, we are at the foot of the Himalayas. A number of women and children sell handicrafts and musical instruments from the road sides, all ready to give you a smile and a Nepalese hello, the namaste. The evening is rather cold, so I retire to my room, I cover with a quilt and try to sleep.



Kathmandu: Ugratara temple

Ugratara temple

The next day I wake up and I glance out of the curtains: it is a gorgeous sunny day. I have decided to follow the Kathmandu city trail recommended by the guide on foot; here everything is nearby and you can walk to mostly everywhere. Some of the temples that I find along the way are really big, while others are so small and hidden that if you are not careful you are likely miss them out. They are hidden in a maze of alleyways and narrow passages, often indicated only by small piles of ash, by consumed candles and flowers, the offerings to the gods from the daily ceremonies.

I visit large squares with their central traditional stupa – a Buddhist shrine – where groups of hard-working women spread rice on jute rugs to make it dry in the morning sun. I make the acquaintance of a nice gentleman mostly clad in rags yet orderly; he wears a full beard and carries an aluminum container to receive offers. He paint a red dot on my forehead, a puja, a respect ritual for worshipping the gods that serves as a good omen; he then waits patiently for my tip. They are many here who have let go of all their material possessions and have devoted themselves to prayer, living off food offerings that they collect from the streets and in the markets.

In one of the squares I catch sight of a stupa that looks larger and more decorated than others; several colorful prayer flags hang from it. The various pagodas that are spread around its circumference have effigies and statues of gods enclosed in niches; on their doors are guardian dragons painted in white, blue and yellow hues. Several devotees walk around the stupa lost in thought, spinning the dozens of bronze prayer wheels supported by ancient metal structures in the process, stopping in front of each niche to touch the deity and pray. At the top, a section over which the mystic symbol of the Buddha’s eyes are painted forms the base of the wooden conical structure that culminates in a magnificent top.

At the foot of the shrine sits a priest dressed entirely in white; he wears a long garland of orange carnations around his neck, and his head is covered with a cap made of six large petals of red cloth, each of which has an image of the Buddha painted on canvas stitched to it. He is sitting on the ground cross-legged, peaceful and surrounded by a dozen people who follow his sermons, for which he uses many symbolic objects placed on the ground around him: he  tinges his fingers with a natural red powder stored in a wooden box, then goes to touch and stain various bronze dishes, phials containing liquids, bowls filled with rice and flower petals. Chunks of coal and resins burn in a brass plate at the side of which lie an apple, an orange and a pile of leaves; they give off a faint smoke and a bearable smell. Each of his followers carries a basket containing food to be offered to the Buddha; I look at them while they move slowly, and I ask myself what kind of procedures they are following, and how many symbolisms every action encompasses.

Among the various temples described by the guide, there is one that particularly intrigues me: the Temple of Ugratara. It is said that this small temple, with its triple canopy pagoda from which creased drapes and golden bells hang, has the power to heal eye blemishes and eye diseases; it appears that it is enough to touch the inside of it through the protecting bronze and wrought iron railing to improve eyes conditions, be it a simple conjunctivitis or a serious case of myopia. The important thing is to believe. In its vicinity there is a large crop of solid wood fixed to a wall to which thousands of coins have been carefully nailed; carved in the center there is an image that represents the deity in question, which has the power to heal the toothache of anyone who makes the offer of a coin, which needs to be nailed to the stump.

And if this method does not work, do not worry, the dentists’ neighborhood is conveniently located in the vicinity! Their insignia, skillfully hand-painted, show giant dentures containing the name of the surgery written in Nepalese characters. The dentists wait patiently in front of the windows behind which are on display baskets full of (real) teeth divided by type, the molars in one, the front teeth in another, and so on, as well as (used) dentures of various sizes and forms, and instruments of the trade. I ignore their origin, but someone said they are the teeth of dead people, or teeth extracted from other patients. Let’s just hope I will not need them.

Brimming with information and tired from the long walk, I eat a Dhaal Baht and I am off to bed, but not before having planned tomorrow…


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About the author

Thomas has a university background in the UK and in Latin America, with studies in Languages and Humanities, Culture, Literature and Economics. He started his Asian experience as a publisher in Krabi in 2005. Thomas has been editing local newspapers and magazines in England, Spain and Thailand for more than fifteen years. He is currently working on several projects in Thailand and abroad. Apart from Thailand, Thomas has lived in Italy, England, Venezuela, Cuba, Spain and Bali. He spends most of his time in Asia. During the years Thomas has developed a great understanding of several Asian cultures and people. He is also working freelance, writing short travel stories and articles for travel magazines. Follow Thomas on

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