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Sightseeing In Kathmandu: Monkeys, Monks, Goddesses, and Cremations

Kathmandu reminds me of Kyoto, Japan – there’s plenty to see but most of it is temples. Since I only had a couple of days to sightsee, I started bright and early the first day partly to avoid the draining heat and partly because I was eager to see what this city had to offer.  It turns out, the first day of sightseeing would end up being the most random day of my traveling history.  Maybe even of my life.

We started out visiting Swayambhunath, also known as the Monkey Temple, since there are – you guessed it – monkeys all over temple grounds.  Since I love monkeys, I was excited to see them in action at the temple… admittedly maybe a little more interested in them than the temple itself!  😉

(These monkeys are such scavengers. They’ll hunt you down for anything remotely resembling food.)

The temple is on a hill and sprawling.

(Monkey Temple)

There are stupa as well as images of divinity carved out of stones everywhere.

(Lots of Buddhas everywhere you go.)

The locals come here to give offerings and pray, which inevitably involves a lot of touching of the stone carvings, lining up for your opportunity to pray to a Buddhist god, and spinning of prayer wheels.  With the sheer number of carvings, Buddhist statues, and prayer wheels at this temple, this place could keep someone busy for a whole day!

(In full disclosure, this prayer wheel is at Boudhanath Stupa, not the Monkey Temple, but all the prayer wheels look the same. My guide spins the wheel as he walks by.)

The coolest part of the visit, however, was walking into this room:

(All the monks were chanting, but a couple kept looking up at me. I hope I didn’t disturb them.)

All the monks were in deep meditation!  Given the bustling crowds outside the temple, this room was a nice respite.

After we left the Monkey Temple, we went to Kathmandu Durbar Square, an UNESCO World Heritage site.  The square is filled with many temples that resemble the pagodas in Japan.

(A small section of Kathmandu’s Durbar Square)

I walked around (again, tons of crowds) admired all the shrines and then headed to the Kumari Residence, which is where the living goddess resides.

(The goddess lives here!)

Say, what?!  Yes, there is a real goddess in Kathmandu.  She’s a child; all goddess are children here.  And I saw her!  From one of the windows in the residence, she graced us with her presence and waved but I wasn’t allowed to take pictures.  If you want more info on the living goddess, go here, but the main things I remember from my guide (remember, I was in full-blown ADD mode here) are that the goddess is a young girl about 6-7 years old who is chosen by priests.  Once chosen, she has to live in the Kumari, her feet are not allowed to touch the ground (and why should they? She’s a goddess now for cryin’ out loud!) so she has people, and she’s only a goddess until she starts menstruating – not a very long goddess-ship IMHO.  Also can you imagine having the whole country know you’ve started menstruating?  I can’t, but I suppose you shouldn’t argue with the terms of the job.  Anyway, she’ll then be replaced with a new younger goddess and the “consolation prize” is that she’s now hard to marry off.  I would have thought she’d be in high demand (who doesn’t want to be with a goddess?) but the men here believe ex-goddesses are bad luck.

After my goddess encounter, we headed to the biggest stupa in Nepal, Boudhanath Stupa.

(Boudhanath Stupa)

After enjoying lunch with a view of the stupa and walking around it clock-wise (you’re supposed to walk clock-wise around the Buddhist temples), we went to a sacred Hindu temple, Pashupantinath.  This temple has a deer park, lots of Hindu shrines, a “residence” for their sadhu (Hinduism’s holy men)…

(The sadhus chill out by the temple, pose for pics, and ask for money afterwards. Since they must live in the present, they can only use what people give them.)

…and ongoing cremations.  WHAT THE HECK?!  Hindus believe that the Bagmati River is holy and that dipping the corpse’s feet in the river is auspicious… so within a few hours of someone’s death, the corpse is brought here to undergo the ceremonial cremation which the family watches.  I was shocked to see the number of simultaneous cremations going on (there were 7 going strong) at the time as well as the stoic expressions of the family watching!  This was the first time I’ve ever seen a dead body.

(See the smoke? Yea, that’s coming from the current cremation. If you look closely you can see the corpse that’s next in line with his feet currently dipped in the holy river. I opted to post this picture only because it’s one of the less gruesome ones from that day.)

Interestingly, there were lots of locals watching the cremations from above.

(Spectators watching the cremations as if this were a side-show.)

Is this just a hang out spot?  I’m not going to pretend to get it. The smoke billowed endlessly and emitted a stench I hope to never smell again.  I couldn’t believe this is an attraction here…. or that downstream there were kids and monkeys bathing in the river – the same river where the ashes are dumped!

(Kids swimming and bathing out in the open. There were monkeys nearby waiting for their turn to dip in, too.)

Living in the U.S., nothing about this day was ordinary – not the monkey sitings, monk sitings, goddess siting, or cremation siting.  When I headed back to the hotel on the heels of witnessing the cremations, I was not only speechless, I wasn’t sure what just happened.  On top of it all, the part that trips me out the most is that I am pretty sure my extraordinary day was just an ordinary day for Nepalis.

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Trevor - May 10, 2013 - 10:25 am

Wow… the living goddess concept is fascinating. I looked up the Wikipedia. She needs to have “A neck like a conch shell, A body like a banyan tree, Eyelashes like a cow, Thighs like a deer, Chest like a lion… “. I’m surprised so much emphasis is placed on physical characteristics.

Just Wanderlust - May 10, 2013 - 6:14 pm

Having seen her I can attest to all those characteristics – jk! All I remember is the amount of (heavy) makeup she wore, haha. I can’t say I’m surprised, though. There’s a lot of emphasis placed on astrology, the heavens, and inanimate objects here.

Johanna - December 17, 2013 - 5:37 am

I really enjoyed reading your post. In Kathmandu now, curious if you did an organised tour or by yourself? How did you get around?

JustWanderlust - December 17, 2013 - 1:17 pm

Hi Johanna – I had a guide who showed me around. I was by myself so I was weary of venturing out alone with the exception of walking around Thamel at night.

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