The city of fine art

The Kathmandu Valley contains the three ancient cities of Kathmandu, Lalitpur and Bhaktapur, each one a masterpiece in urban design and elegant architecture, and a refined culture that has an unbroken history going back over

a thousand years. The three pack within their small confines a concentration of superbly artistic edifices and monuments unequalled in the world, while the streets are lined with houses adorned with exquisite carved-wood windows. And around every corner, the visitor confronts imposing multi-roofed pagodas or temple courtyards. No wonder all three are UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Among the three cities in the Valley, Lalitpur is the “City of Beauty”. A city of many names (Lalitpattan, Patan, Yala), Lalitpur lies across the Bagmati river to the southeast of Kathmandu. Chronicles indicate its founding around the eighth century AD.

The artistic grandeur of Lalitpur converges on its Durbar Square, the ancient royal palace complex. The Durbar Square, more like an open museum, is a melange of palace buildings, massive temples and impressive shrines which illustrate the skill of the ancient craftsmen in stone, metal and wood work. Most of the Durbar Square was put together in the 16th and 17th centuries, during the reign of its illustrious Malla kings. The Krishna Temple, a masterpiece in stone, stands out in a city dominated by monuments of brick-work and carved-wood. Its design is also very different from the usual pagoda structures that are scattered all over the Kathmandu Valley.pg_10b.jpg (25650 bytes)

The Patan Museum inside the palace is an added attraction. The museum exhibits bronze statues and religious artifacts that cover both the Hindu and Buddhist iconology. Some of the art goes back to as early as the 11th century.

Another outstanding monument in Lalitpur is the terra-cotta temple of Mahabouddha. Each of the bricks in the towering shrine is imprinted with a figure of the Buddha. Lalitpur is also known for its many Newar Buddhist monastery courtyards, specially Kwa Baha. The courtyard is famed as the Golden Temple because of its roofs and much of other surfaces which are covered with gold-plated copper. Kwa Baha is an important pilgrimage site for Buddhists from Tibet as well. The multitudes of sacred metal images that ornament the walls, windows, doorways and roof struts of Kwa Baha exemplify another of Lalitpur’s specialties. The city is the center of image-casting in the Kingdom, where the ancient “lost-wax” process still thrives. Its craftsmen are among the best in casting and carving images, and their brass, bronze and copper creations grace temples everywhere. Lalitpur is also the center of handicraft manufacture for export.

With these cultural treasures, Lalitpur revels as one of the most popular tourist haunts in the Kathmandu Valley. Tours of its Durbar Square, superb monuments and monastic courtyards are not only enjoyable but also make for a thrilling experience of a heritage that is still very much alive.

Best of Nepal in three days

Tour operators in Nepal offer excellent packages to visitors for exploring the beauty of the country in a short time. But for the traveller with a tight schedule, the 2 nights/3 days Pokhara-Chitwan tour, which packs Himalayan views and jungle safari into one thrilling circuit, is an unbeatable way to experience the rich diversity of the country.

Pokhara, with its laid-back atmosphere, has a mild climate. The mountains reflect on the beautiful Phewa Lake, and an array of restaurants strewn across the lake-side serve varieties of international cuisine.

After arriving in Pokhara (30 minutes by air or six hours’ drive from Kathmandu), visitors begin with a bout of boating on Phewa Lake. The pure pleasure that comes with feeling the water underneath while watching the conspicuous Machhapuchhre (Fish-tail) mountain surrounded by the giants of the Annapurna range is out of this world.

After a few hours of boating, a sight-seeing tour of Pokhara is next on the agenda. The enigmatic Devin’s Falls is a few minutes’ drive away. The Pardi Khola is the outflow from Phewa Lake, and at Devin’s Fall it disappears into a mysterious cavern in the ground, creating magnificent sprays. Another attraction is the Seti Gandaki river, which flows right through the heart of the town. The limestone in the soil gives the river its milky color. At certain spots, the Seti Gandaki runs completely underground. There are a number of Tibetan settlements around Pokhara which sell handicraft goods and Tibetan carpets.

The four-hour drive to Chitwan the next day consists of more thrilling views along the Narayani river. The lively atmosphere of the plains of Nepal becomes more and more evident as one reaches the Royal Chitwan National Park, considered among the best wildlife parks in Asia.

Many jungle resorts have cropped up inside and outside the park. They offer all the modern amenities imaginable, but usually in a beautiful village-style house. Your tour begins with an elephant safari. Riding the back of an elephant, you penetrate the deep jungle. Visitors might catch a sight of a rhino here, a barking deer there, and, on a lucky day, even the Royal Bengal tiger. Over 50 species of mammals are found here. The park is also a haven for bird watching with over 525 species, including the endangered Bengal florican, giant hornbill and the black-and-white stork, nesting here.

After a couple of hours of elephant ride, visitors can splash around in the swimming pools that are inside many of the resorts. Dinner is followed by a Tharu stick dance. Tharus are the indigenous inhabitants of the jungles, and their rich culture manifests itself in this joyous dance they put for the guests. The rhythmic clatter of the sticks, accompanied by invigorating music, even invites the guests to join the fray, which many do with zest and relish.

The next morning, visitors can go on a jungle walk with a trained guide who shows them the myriad of flora and fauna around them. Alternatively, they can choose a jeep safari, which goes deeper into the park to encounter even more wildlife. Then visitors return to Kathmandu, which is another four-hour ride.

The three-day Pokhara-Chitwan tour is one of the best ways to experience the diverse beauty and culture of Nepal. It’s a great way to take in quite a bit of the country, ranging from the lakes and mid-hills in Pokhara to the vibrant wildlife of the Terai, in the shortest possible time.