Stone and wood built temple surround a square with children and pigeons
Architecture,  Culture & tradition,  Nepal,  Writers' Quotes Wednesday

In Kathmandu’s Durbar Square

Katmandu, I’ll soon be seein’ you

And your strange bewilderin’ time

Will hold me down.

Cat Stevens / Yusuf Islam

In the heart of Kathmandu is a cluster of ancient temples, places and open spaces, known as Durbar (meaning royal palace) Square. This UNESCO World Heritage site was badly hit by the earthquake that struck Nepal in April 2015, but no amount of damage could destroy its unique atmosphere. And today much has already been done to restore it to its former glories.

Here history weighs heavily, but it is very much a living place, filled with active temples that draw a constant stream of worshippers.

On our recent memorable trip to Nepal, this was the first place that we explored in depth. I want to share some images that I hope at least in part capture its unique atmosphere for Marsha’s Writer’s Quotes Wednesday ‘Memorable Trips’ challenge. After all, how could I ignore a theme so close to my heart?!

For most of our time here we simply strolled around the area, taking in the atmosphere and trying also to take in the many facts that our guide Pritik shared with us. I didn’t remember the names of all the temples but in the end that didn’t matter. The beauty of the architecture and the buzz of the square was more than enough.

People-watching

The place was thronged with worshippers, garland sellers, rickshaw drivers and of course tourists like ourselves.

Pigeons were everywhere, stirred into flight by excited children and settling again to eat the bird seed offered by both children and adults alike.

Girl in red dress feeding pigeons
Feeding pigeons
Girl in pink dress surrounded by pigeons
Chasing pigeons

Kumari Gaur

One of the main buildings we visited was the Kumari Gaur, the house of the living goddess. One of the country’s most unique traditions is that of worshipping a young prepubescent girl as a living goddess, a Kumari. There are many such living goddesses in Nepal, ten in the Kathmandu Valley alone. But the Kathmandu girl is considered the Royal Kumari of Nepal. She is chosen from a particular Buddhist clan and undergoes a rigorous selection process, elements of which are very secretive. During her time as Kumari she remains in this house, apart from a few festival days each year when she is carried through the streets on a palanquin as her feet must never touch the ground. When she has her first period her reign is over, as the Kumari must never shed blood. If she falls and cuts herself at any point, again her reign must end.

Seeing the Kumari
Photo of a young girl in elaborate costume
Kathmandu Kumari poster on display in Patan

The Kumari makes brief appearances at one of the courtyard windows from time to time. We were too early on our first visit to the house but were advised to come back after 10.00. We did so and were there to witness an appearance. This was carefully choreographed by a lady inside and a man in the courtyard with us. He made sure no one had their cameras or phones switched on, poised for photos (which are strictly banned). The Kumari appeared at the window, unsmiling, and looked down at the small group of people below. As we’d been instructed, we all greeted her with a ‘Namaste’. She made no response.

Then she was gone, retreating into the dark recesses of the room. Despite being able to receive family and friends as visitors (according to Pritik), it must be a lonely life for a child.

Right at the end of our trip, in a Buddhist temple in nearby Patan, we were able to photograph this photo of the current Kumari. It must have been taken fairly recently. She looks pretty much as she did when she looked out of the window at us on this first day in the city.

If you are as curious to read more about this practice as I was, I found this website to be very informative. It also includes a link to an interesting video about the life of a Kumari: https://heavenhimalaya.com/goddess-kumari/

Elsewhere in the square

We couldn’t tour the Royal Palace as it was closed for the Diwali festival. That didn’t seem to matter, there was so much else to see! I was simply happy taking photos and absorbing all the details of carvings etc.

What a way to start our memorable trip around Nepal!

I visited Kathmandu in October 2022

36 Comments

  • Monkey's Tale

    I didn’t remember that you couldn’t photograph the Kumari. It’s such an awful tradition for those poor girls, one of many that are still in practice. Again younhave such beautiful pictures of our favourite country. Maggie

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Views on the impact of being a Kumari seem to vary (see Amanda’s comment below). To the Nepalese it’s a great honour to be chosen and I’m sure that’s true, and there are definite benefits. But as I said, it must make for a lonely childhood. However, at least it’s a temporary position and the girl is able to return to the outside world. As Lynn says (also below), it would be interesting to read interviews with them looking back on the experience.

  • rkrontheroad

    How wonderful that you saw the Kumari! It must be a strange existence for her. I was at Durbar Square for Happy Holi – a crazy time! I bought a t-shirt a few days before, after learning about the event, and it has kept some of the colors thrown on it. So fun. Great photos as always.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Siobhan. For the most part I will associate my experiences in Nepal with vibrant colours, but as I know you’ve seen, I did find some shots that worked well in B&W 🙂

    • Sarah Wilkie

      The details everywhere were amazing. As you’ll no doubt see in my subsequent posts about this trip, I just couldn’t get enough of them! And it was lovely to see how much the children enjoyed the pigeons 🙂

  • Amanda

    The Kumari tradition is an iconic part of Nepalese culture and it is a much privileged position, so I think many girls would love to be chosen and live as a goddess for a time and I don’t think it is for tourists to judge. Religion is part of everyday life. To be declared a living goddess isn’t for everyone, but would grant the girl so many privileges denied to others even after her reign. I loved re-visiting Durbar square virtually with you. My ties with this marvellous city and special people, have not waned over the years. Your photographs appeare timeless, as Nepal is, in itself. They could be my photos as they look similar to the ones I took back in the eighties, except seems to be less people, but more pigeons.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you for your insights Amanda 🙂 I completely agree that it’s not for us as outsiders to judge and I hope I wouldn’t do so, but perhaps it’s inevitable that we speculate about any tradition so different from our own. It is certainly a privilege for these girls to be chosen and it comes with huge benefits and I’m sure a sense of pride, but it is (you must agree) an unusual life for one so young and I don’t think it’s judgemental to conclude that it must be a lonely one at times. That’s true perhaps of privileged children in other cultures too (our royalty to some extent?) and for many will be a price worth paying in return for the rewards. As Lynn says below, it would be interesting to know what the girls themselves feel about their experiences as a Kumari when they look back later in life.

      If there are fewer people in my photos it’s probably tourists who are lacking. While there were quite a few around I don’t think Nepal has recovered its tourist numbers post-pandemic. Indeed, I don’t think that prior to Covid it had fully recovered from the slump after the 2015 earthquake. On the whole I didn’t photograph the damaged buildings but there are still quite a few, so that’s a difference you would definitely notice. And many of the temples in my photos have been completely rebuilt from the rubble. so while they may look the same they have internal reinforcements to (hopefully) protect them if another earthquake strikes. Actually, there was one in the far west of the country while we were there, albeit not so strong. We felt its rumblings in the night but there was relatively little damage and ‘only’ two people died, because it was in a very remote region.

  • bluebrightly

    There’s certainly no need to remember temple names when your photos convey the atmosphere so well. I love the choices and compositions you made. This part of the world always fascinated me so I knew about the Kumari. It’s interesting to read your first-person account of being there and seeing her. I don’t want to think it’s an entirely negative experience – what a study one could make, interviewing ten Kumaris about what they think this experience meant to them, but ten or twenty years after the fact. Thank you for posting this!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Lynn – I’m happy you like my images of this amazing place 😊 I agree that being a Kumari wouldn’t be a purely negative experience, it comes with lots of benefits and privilege (and for her family too). You’re right, a study of how the girls feel about it when they look back later in life would be fascinating. I wonder if there are any interviews at least? I may search!

  • thehungrytravellers.blog

    Well this Kumari ritual is new on me – and one I actually find a bit of an unpleasant thought. I don’t want to be controversial but depriving young ones their childhood in the name of religion seems a strange way to celebrate religion. Nevertheless and as ever it’s fascinating to visit these places and learn such things, learn the ways of others. Those temples look fabulously exotic too.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      I do know what you mean. I find myself rather conflicted. I respect other religions and cultures and hesitate to judge from a western European perspective. And I know if you grow up and live in a society with very different beliefs to ours, those are of course the norm and are perceived through a different lens. At the same time I hate to think of a child deprived of a ‘normal’ childhood. Of course her normal wouldn’t be the same as ours normal and plenty of children there have very tough lives which she will escape by being chosen, so we shouldn’t fall into the trap of comparing like with like. It’s a tough one.

  • Marsha

    Sarah, this is a fascinating article in every way. I saw a movie based on the young life of the Dalia Lama and he was treated in much the same way. Princesses or those who might become one also had similar lifestyles without the blood or blemish requirement. It is super foreign to us, and you would think it causes mental health issues. But it is what it is and these babes are probably not unaware of the situation even as toddlers can learn about Santa Claus. Your pictures are spectacular, as always. How wonderful that you just had this amazing trip. I feel honored to be traveling vicariously with you.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      So glad you found this fascinating Marsha 🙂 Yes, there are definitely parallels with the Dalai Lama, but while the Kumari only holds her post for a few years, his is permanent! You may well be right that they are more accepting of the circumstances than we would be, having known little else. It’s certainly an intriguing aspect of religious life there.

  • Anne Sandler

    Wow Sarah, thank you for sharing your visit to Durbar Square and the customs of its people. I love the beauty and intricacies of all the carvings, and the life of the Kumari. She must have a lonely life until she reaches puberty.

  • margaret21

    It’s good to learn that the Living Goddess’s life is not as sequestered as in former times. All the same, I wonder what the consequences for her and her family are from being prevented from having a normal family relationship. I love old traditions being maintained, but this is one I wouldn’t have wanted to be part of, or for my daughters either. Thanks for the link. Fabulous photos as ever.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      I agree – it’s fascinating but you wouldn’t want anyone you cared for to be involved, either as the Kumari or as the parent of one. But different places, different customs. Maybe if it’s something you’ve always known about and accepted, and it’s considered such an honour, you would find it more acceptable. I try not to judge although sometimes it’s hard not to.

  • Mike and Kellye Hefner

    The photos are incredible, Sarah. I am so intrigued by the Kumari. I read the article linked to your post, and I have to wonder if the child and her family are truly happy. I probably wouldn’t have learned about this “living diety” if it hadn’t been for your post. Thanks so much for introducing me to the fascinating country of Nepal.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Kellye 😊 We were told that the family of the Kumari is always very proud that she is chosen, and I think it must raise their status in the community for sure. How she feels is less clear. We were told that she can have visitors, including other children to play with, and that she gets an education. But I still think it must be a lonely life for a small girl as those play visits are probably quite rare.

  • Easymalc

    This must have been paradise for your camera here Sarah. Some fabulous pics as always, but I’m not sure whether it would be a place for Ken Livingstone to go with all those pigeons around.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Haha yes, I see what you mean about Livingstone! It was interesting watching everyone feed the pigeons – it took me back to my childhood (and later into my teens, I’m sure) when you could buy seed at Trafalgar Square to feed them 🙂 Thanks for the kind words about the photos 🙂

Do share your thoughts, I'd love to hear from you!

%d bloggers like this: