5 Books About Kathmandu Everyone Should Read to Get a Glimpse of the Heart of the City

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Kathmandu’s religions and cultural complexity can make it as obscure as a mandala, multi-faceted, branching like a huge tree, intertwining like its roots. Wandering through an old quarter can feel like being in an artists’ maze, full of creative genius and heavy with mysticism. There is a longing to know more: who did this and why, what is this strange structure at the crossroads, why is this festival celebrated and why something is taboo. Towns as old as those in the valley require a bit of deciphering. An afternoon is barely enough to spot the surface, let alone scratch it. Most of us cannot devote the lifetimes necessary to come to an understanding that is more than an appreciation. Fortunately, the valley has attracted enough people who have dedicated their lives to doing just that. Tomes on its many facets have resulted. There are scholarly works as well as passionate accounts of life in this mandala. Here are five timeless books about Kathmandu that recount, celebrate and investigate the magic that lingers in the valley.

1. Nepal Mandala, by Mary Slusser

This voluminous two-volume work is one of the landmark books on art, architecture, religion, festivals, gods, goddesses and all that makes up its rich culture in Kathmandu. Slusser first came to Nepal with her husband, a diplomat stationed in Kathmandu. Widely respected for his contribution to bringing Nepalese art out of the larger shadow of Indian art, Slusser’s writing is lucid and richly descriptive. The book is an inexhaustible resource for anyone looking to better understand the meaning and significance of larger practices as well as small details like stelae, eardrums or the reason for the existence of a stonefish in the middle of a road.

2. Frog Hymns and Rain Babies, by Gautama Vajra Vajracharya

books about kathmandu

The mating figures on the struts and friezes of Nepalese temples have long fascinated, amused, appalled and embarrassed those who have seen them. Theories abound: the goddess of lightning is a virgin, so she avoids a building that bears images of sex, which guarantees the building’s immunity to lightning strikes and fires; the images were intended as sex education in a society where there was no formal sex education; sexual union is an allusion to the spiritual union of two forces – male and female – which combine to power the universe. This riddle is just one of many that Vajracharya unravels in this work which has remained one of the most interesting books on Kathmandu over time. He distilled a lifetime’s study of ancient Sanskrit texts and the value of a career studying sculptures and paintings at religious sites in this seminal book. The other positive point of the book is the wonderfully lucid and simple writing, which makes the theses discussed in it intelligible even to non-academics.

Vajracharya’s central thesis is that the art of the Indian subcontinent, which has survived to this day in all its Vedic originality in the Kathmandu Valley, is an extension and expression of the agrarian way of life of its ancient population. . He digs deep (quoting Vedic hymns) and ventures far (frescoes on the walls of Ajanta caves) to find clues to support his thesis, which is like a beam of light on the art of Kathmandu. Almost a journey down the historical continuum from ancient India to today’s Kathmandu, as one of the best books on Kathmandu, this book not only explains the art and practices of the valley, but also inspires us to look at them in a new light. .

3. The Living Goddess, by Isabella Tree

Isabella Tree, an acclaimed travel writer, weaves this intriguing read around Kathmandu’s quintessential enigma: the Kumari. It took Tree a decade to research and write the book, and after reading the book, you realize it was necessary. This lengthy period of research not only allowed Tree to build relationships with some of the cult’s guardians, but also provided opportunities to see the ancient cult face unprecedented historical events that threatened to undermine it, if not destroy it. uproot it. How the cult and its guardians deal with these changes – losing its greatest patron, the king, for example – highlights the difficulties of keeping a mystical cult alive in the midst of a city spiraling into modernity. Tree masterfully brings out the human side of this esoteric culture.

In one of the important historical books about Kathmandu, the author steers clear of sensationalism, which is not easy considering that the cult of Kumari has been wildly rumored since time immemorial. Nevertheless, she mentions some interesting tales associated with the Kumaris. For example, the elaborate pujas that King Birendra performed at midnight at Hanuman Dhoka Palace.

Tree also narrates, examines and explains, often with the help of experts and insiders, the historical background and cultural context behind unique features of Valley culture such as the coexistence of Hinduism and Buddhism, the Kumari being a Buddhist, the origin of the Taleju Bhavani temple, the reasons for the sanctity of the valley, the esoteric rituals performed during Dashain, why an outgoing Kumari should not bleed, the origin of eating buffalo meat , the connection between Nepalese monarchs and Tantrism, why Bhaktapur has a more Hindu character and what aspect of its rulers Prithvi Narayan Shah hated.

On a personal note, Tree recounts the psychological impact of meeting a Kumari, ruminates on the symbolism of bowing down to a little girl, and what effect this has on men’s attitudes towards women. This is also a reason why this remains one of the best Kathmandu books to know about the culture and tradition here.

4. Patan Museum, by Götz Hagmüller

The title of this book gives little indication of the heartfelt chapters on the history, culture and architecture of the valley it contains. Hagmüller, the project manager of the Patan Darbar renovation project into a Patan museum, succeeded in transforming the geometry of architectural designs into poetic expressions. As he admits in the book: “…Although I failed to learn the spoken language of my Newar neighbours, I was rewarded with some understanding of the poetic vernacular of their architecture and the rich articulation of their urban space.” He amply shared the rewards of life and lifelong learning amidst this poetic vernacular.

As one of the most important books on Kathmandu, this book explains the museum, and like the museum, it endows and illuminates aspects of the architecture that abound outside the museum, in Patan Darbar Square, in the squares of Kathmandu and Bhaktapur, and all the ancient structures in the valley. It is a revelation, an invitation to wonder about the heritage of this incredible Valley:

[The Patan Museum] is not merely intended to display a collection of objects, many of which have been created in the workshops of this city over hundreds of years, but also to display the Malla period palace itself. It has been designed to explain the spiritual, social and geographical context of these treasures within the living culture that lies just beyond the walls of the museum.

Readers benefit from the author’s attention to detail as it is prominent in all books about Kathmandu. The book’s passages extolling the Valley’s ancient architecture also inspire us to see them in a new light, as structures and legacies that hold deeper meaning than meets the eye. As Niels Gutschow, architect and eminent researcher of the heritage of the Valley, says:

Urban space remains a flat dimension if it is simply perceived visually and not illuminated by the imagination. Cities become inhospitable as they lack an imaginary context. Others, like the Newars, lit up their cityscapes with “unearthly lights”. Presumably, these lights will no longer shine in the cities of the future. It is up to us to seek new dimensions in the darkness.

5. Vishvarupa Mandir, by Jeff Lidke

Perched on a sacred hill, far from the hubbub of Bhaktapur, Changu Narayan Temple was more than a sacred edifice; it was a repository of culture. Although the 2015 earthquake leveled it, it remains an incomparable source of the valley’s history and culture. It will be some time before the temple is standing again (it is being rebuilt) but in the meantime we have Jeff Lidke’s comprehensive book to educate us on the significance of the temple.

As with anyone who has wandered through Changu Narayan’s courtyard, Lidke was also delighted by the sheer number of sculptures there:

Stopped to digest [the temple’s] imposing central sanctuary whose pinnacle extends for about thirty feet in the blue sky, the eyes begin to scrutinize the periphery. It is a historical wonderland. The stone laid courtyard is dotted with sculptures and inscriptions dating from the fifth century AD There are over twenty stone sculptures of the gods Krishna, Avalokiteshvara, Vaikuntha, Narasimha, Bhairava, Vamana and Narayana; eight shrines surrounding the deities Chinnamasta, Krishna, Lakshmi-Narayana, Shiva and Ganesha.

This enumeration of shrines causes a sense of loss when one remembers the recent earthquake. But Lidke, in one of the best books on Kathmandu, points out that the temple transcends the physical sphere:

On this site the Nepalese tradition is alive. In the cross-cultural language of artistic beauty, he speaks to you about every image and every sanctuary. Here, the world of the gods comes crashing down on the human sphere. The medium is a sculpted form. Through architectural and sculptural forms, Nepali artists have created a structure that sends the mind soaring towards metaphysical thought. Changu Narayan has endured nearly two thousand years of earthquakes, fires and cultural changes. Its exterior structure has been razed several times, but each time it has been rebuilt. Here, expressed in a unique and ancient architectural form, is the enduring spirit of the Nepalese religion.

Excerpts like these make it one of the best books on Kathmandu and come across as an academic work in their own right. But the book is delightfully instructive, whether it’s elucidating the temple’s architectural plan or ruminating on why the central image is headless. With the temple as a pivot, Lidke delves into other religious and cultural facts of the valley: why the Pashupatinath temple allows entry to Buddhists on a given day a year; how ancient temple designs were imitations of trees, mountains, and lakes; the purpose of false windows on temples; pot coloring, pot breaking and rice feeding ceremonies.

Ultimately, a book about an ancient place is just one way to interpret what you see. Lidke’s interpretation is fascinating, one that stimulates further investigation. “The temple is a brick thought,” he writes. “In it is enshrined the symbolic spirit of Nepal.” The book is an invitation to look carefully at this symbolic spirit.

Originally published October 3, 2017

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