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A spiritual week seeking out temples, festivals & the living goddess, Kumari, in Kathmandu, Nepal

Before I even landed in Nepal, a line of snow-capped peaks reaching high up into the clouds met my eye from the plane window. The bright white of the Himalayan mountain snow, against the bright blue of the sky took my breath away and I continued to be enthralled by Nepal for the rest of my stay. I spent a couple of weeks trekking in the mountains and visiting the lakeside town of Pokhara, but for the rest of my time in Nepal, I based myself in Kathmandu, a city so fascinating I fell in love instantly. 

buddha eyes ancient buddhist complex blue sky
The smiling Buddha eyes of Swayambhunath Temple

Durbar Square, filled with crumbling temples, brick piles and majestic buildings - supported by bamboo poles - remained a shadow of its former self when I visited in the wake of the 2015 earthquake, I had little to compare it to but still adored the square for its people watching, intricate Nepalese structures and stalls selling garlands of bright orange marigolds by women perched under sun shades.

garlands of marigolds on brick wall kathmandu
Marigold garland stall in Kathmandu

The day I arrived, the Hindu festival of Tihar began, a five-day event of singing, dancing and celebrations, where not only people are celebrated, but also animals and birds, too. I saw dogs all over the city draped in marigold garland offerings; some had even been smeared with bright red tika down the centre of their head. As well as celebrating the animals of the city, many people had also drawn amazingly beautiful patterns using brightly coloured powders on their floors or in public courtyards. The patterns, known as rangoli, create a sacred space to welcome the gods and goddesses of the Hindu religion and are believed to bring good luck. 

dog with red tika and marigold garland kathmandu
A city dog is celebrated at the festival of Tihar 

On my third day in Kathmandu I found a rickshaw driver to take me to Swayambhunath Temple, an ancient Buddhist complex and Unesco World Heritage Site perched on top of a hill overlooking the city. Once at the top of the endless steps that lead to the temple complex, your eyes are drawn immediately to streams of bright prayer flags, faded from the sun and many mischievous monkeys hanging from trees all around. The main white temple stupa is topped off with a golden structure, on which two large eyes that symbolise Buddhism are painted, with a stroke of luck (or maybe protected by the knowing eyes), this beautiful temple sitting high on a hill remained undisturbed by the earthquake, while surrounding buildings had crumbled.

Back in the city, I’d heard fascinating stories about a living goddess, Kumari, who lived in Durbar Square in the Kumari Ghar or ‘Temple of the Living Goddess’. I went back to Durbar Square to try and catch a glimpse of her one afternoon, (she occasionally looks down from a balcony in a tiny courtyard inside the temple grounds), and amazingly, I was in luck. Just as I entered the courtyard, the few people already there became silent and by chance Kumari, a young girl, in red with an eye painted onto her forehead, appeared above us. To see her on one of these unscheduled appearances is said to bring good fortune, so of course I became enchanted with the stories surrounding her and started reading a brilliant book called The Living Goddess by Isabella Tree while in the city (bookshops throughout Kathmandu sell this, as well as countless other intriguing books about the country). The current living goddess has been serving in her role since 2017 and went through a strict selection process before gaining her status, involving sleeping in a room with severed animal heads and passing physical examinations. 

durbar square filled with brick piles and crumbling temples post 2015 earthquake
Children play amongst the pigeons in Durbar Square after the 2015 earthquake

Kathmandu is full of spiritual and interesting places and another I loved visiting was Pashupatinath Temple with its burning ghats, just outside of the city. After visiting the Indian city of Varanasi a few years before, I naively thought I knew what to expect, but no matter how many times you see it, nothing can prepare you for sight of a burning human body. I spent a few hours wandering through the temple grounds, before walking the 5km back to Kathmandu, with thoughts on life and death running through my mind. 

boys playing in river running through pashupatinath temple
Boys playing in the river running through Pashupatinath Temple

Kathmandu is a real place of contrasts, poverty and smiles, pollution and nature, life and death, it’s a curious place but a truly beautiful one, too. I stayed at Dream Nepal Hotel for my week in Kathmandu and can’t recommend it highly enough, the staff are incredible and the breakfast is pretty good too, rooms cost from £22 a night.



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