Is A Durbar Square Visit Worth the US$8.50/1000 NPR?
Of the UNESCO World Heritage sites in the Kathmandu Valley, Kathmandu’s Durbar Square took the biggest hit. It is also the site where, three years after the Gorkha Earthquakes of 2015, the least progress has been made in reconstructing the seven temples which were totally destroyed and repairing the many buildings which suffered less serious structural damage.
That $10. U.S. ticket is the fee charged easy-to-identify “foreign nationals”. Interestingly, Chinese visitors also get dinged for the 1000 NPR entrance fee. At Bhaktapur’s Durbar Square, they pay at the SAARC rate, one third of “foreign nationals”. Locals pay nothing; other South East Asians (citizens of nations who belong to the SAARC) pay 150 NPR.
Over the past decade, the entry fee charged non-Nepalis to walk around the public square has risen substantially. Where the money actually goes to is an open question! Here is the record of the fee increase over the last decade:
- 2007 – 200 rupees
- 2009 – 350 rupees
- 2010 – 500 rupees
- 2012 – 750 rupees
- 2015 – 1000 rupees!
I took the photo below in 2006 – it shows the Trailokya Mohan Mandir; on the left side of the image are a couple of pillars of the neo-classical Gaddi Baithak.
The photo below was taken shortly after the Gorkha Earthquakes of April 2015; the Trailokya has collapsed, as has the larger Maju Dewal, and the nearby Narayan Temple. Still standing, but with some structural damage, is the Gaddi Baithak.
A drone image I sourced online can be seen below. I labeled the various buildings.
Finally, the image below from my April 2018 visit shows the columned facade of the Gaddi Baihak covered with a green tarpaulin. The plinths of the Trailokya Mohan, the Maju Dewal, and the Narayan Mandirs can be seen, as well as some rubble belonging to the Narayan Temple next to the Shiva Parvati Mandir, which survived the quake.
So – given all the damage, is spending 1000 NPR for an entrance ticket to the square worth it? As is often the case, it all depends!
Option A – Give In and Get the Ticket!
If you plan on wandering about the area for a couple of hours and occasionally sitting on temple steps and watching Kathmandu life go by, then – yes – get the ticket. The square is Kathmandu’s living room and a fascinating place to experience the present chaos and the past glories of Nepal’s capital city.
The 1000 NPR is a rip-off given that you get no sense that most or any of your “generous contribution” has made any difference in reviving the square to a semblence of its former glory. However, given all the money you spent just getting there from your home (my return airfare was $1600.), arguing about the difference between what you want to pay and what you have to pay seems a waste of time. Better to just swallow your disgust and accept that as a tourist who is visibly from a wealthy country you will be expected to cough up $$. The entrance fee isn’t going to be going anywhere but up, regardless of what we may think about it.
The more you read up about the area and its significance before you go, the more you will get out of it. A decent hardcopy guidebook like The Rough Guide To Nepal with its 6-page section on “The Old City” and accompanying map may be all you will need as you wander around, stopping occasionally to sit and read the relevant bits of the guidebook.
Option B – Visit During Off Hours!
Not everyone is into dilapidated four-hundred-year-old buildings or the history behind them. Certainly, if you are only going to spend a half-hour there or if you really object to the 1000 NRP on philosophical grounds – you can find something else to spend 1000 rupees on.
What you could do instead is visit the square before the ticket booth opens at 8:00 a.m. or after it closes at 5:00 p.m. – your dawn or dusk photos could turn out to be pretty neat! Note – earlier or later is better since you will be less likely to be chased by a uniformed ticket enforcer! You may save 1000 rupees but convenient it is not.
Option C – Get A Multi-Day Pass!
Even better, if you plan on spending a couple of days in Kathmandu before and/or after your trek, you can make your day pass a multi-visit pass for free. Chances are pretty good that you will be walking through the square on your way to somewhere else during your stay.
Take the ticket you just purchased at one of the ticket booths and walk over to the KMC Site Office on Basantapur Square (the row of buildings on the other side of the square from the Royal Palace). You’ll need to show your passport and have a passport photo so the clerk can create a card for you. It only took a couple of minutes the morning I got mine! Now you can experience the Square at different times and on different days and the 1000 NPR cost doesn’t seem so bad!
I approached the square from Ganga Path on the bottom right-hand side of the map above. The ticket booth is difficult to miss and if you do, someone will be chasing after you anyway. Now that you have your ticket, you walk down the large open space – Basantapur Square – pictured in the image below. Apparently, the area once housed the royal family’s elephant stables but those buildings are long gone. The space now serves as a venue for vendors to spread out their goods on blankets and low platforms. The office where you get your ticket extended for the duration of your stay in Nepal is in that row of buildings running down the south (left) side of the square in the image.
On the north side of the square is one side of the old Royal Palace. The monarchy in Nepal was abolished in 2008 and even before that the Royals had abandoned this palace complex for a newer and more private residence to the north. Still, this palace – the Persian word is Durbar – is the heart of the old city and has many of the oldest buildings.
The entire length of the palace complex on the north side of Basantapur Square suffered structural damage. The governments of China and of the USA have taken on the restoration of parts of the complex, with the Chinese focusing on the SE corner of the palace and Basantapur Tower while the Americans are sponsoring work on the Gaddi Baithak, an early 20th C. addition to the palace complex.
As you walk to the west end of the square – and corner of the Gaddi Baithak – you come to the home (the Nepali term is “ghar”) of the Kumari. Guarded by a couple of lion statues, the door to the house leads into a central courtyard. (All the fencing in the area meant I did not bother trying to frame a shot!) Visitors are allowed to enter the Kumari Chowk of the house but are forbidden from taking photos of the Kumari herself. She is believed to be the embodiment of the goddess Taleju. a favourite deity of the Malla and later dynasties which ruled the Kathmandu Valley.
From the moment of her selection until her first menstrual period she spends most of her life within the confines of the house. The tradition began in the late 1600’s and has survived the fall of the monarchy, The last Kathmandu Kumari, Matina Shakya, served as Kumari from 2008-2017 when she surrendered her role to the current Kumari, Trishna Shakya. (The search is confined to members of the Newari Shakya community.) In the time of kings, she served as a living talisman of the monarch’s legitimacy. See the following mini-essay for an in-depth look at the history and significance of the Kumari.
On the southwest corner of the Royal Palace complex is another open area. It is the one illustrated in the first few images of this post. It obviously took quite the hit in 2015.
Steps away from the ticket booth – one of six placed at the various entrances to the square – are the ruins of the Kasthmandap, completely collapsed in the Gorkha Earthquakes of 2015. For centuries the open pavilion served as a resthouse for traders and travelers on the route from the Ganges Valley to Tibet. Indeed, it is thought to be the source of the town’s name.
I recall staring through the fence at a pile of rubble and wondering whether I should bother taking a photo!
Remarkably little reconstruction has occurred in the three years since the Gorkha Earthquakes of 2015. Nearby flower sellers displayed their garlands on sheets of plastic.
I walked up five flights of stairs to a rooftop restaurant where I took the shots below; in both cases, I am looking south
A few minutes later as I walked by the Shiva Parvati Mandir – one of the temples still standing – preparations for a ceremony of some sort seemed to be in progress. I looked at the young girl dressed and looking like I imagined the Kumari in the house across the square might look.
From the Shiva Parvati Temple the route continues past the Taleju Bell on one side and some exquisite woodwork on the other.
As you walk into the third open area of the Durbar Square site, the Pratapa Malla Column comes into view and behind it the Jagannatha Mandir. In the image below you see them, as well as the Hanuman Dhoka at the right-hand side. What you don’t see is the unforgettable stone image of Bhairab. He is the six-armed and rather fearsome representation of Shiva, complete with human skulls in the crown on his head and a corpse on which he is dancing! He always seems to be the object of some devotion.
Pigeons are plentiful in this corner of the site with bird feed sellers stationed around the King Pratap Masll column providing just the encouragement the birds need to stick around!
The following photo was taken somewhere near Hanuman Dhoka. It looks like a small shrine built into a wall. It is one of the stranger collections of idols I have ever seen. If you know the story let me know in the comment section below.
In front of the Agam Mandir is the veiled statue of Hanuman, the monkey-god who was Ram’s faithful side-kick in the Hindu epic Ramayana. The statue – and the living god he represents – was placed there to prevent evil spirits from entering the palace compound through the gate (dhoka is the Nepali term). I’m not quite sure of the logic here but to protect humans from that deadly stare a veil was placed over the statue.
Walking through the Hanuman Dhoka, you enter Nasal Chowk, the courtyard used for coronation ceremonies during the period of the monarchy.
In the image below the coronation platform is on the bottom left; at the top is a five-storeyed temple Panch Mukhi Hanuman Mandir. it is one of three such in the Kathmandu valley, the others being the Kumbheswor Temple in Lalitpur and Nyatapola Temple in Bhaktapur.
Back through the Hunuman Dhoka and I continued my walk out of Durbar Square, past the ticket booth that marks the square entry and on to Indra Chowk. I was going up to the Thamel area, Kathmandu’s tourist ghetto.
I visited the Durbar Square area three times during my stay in Kathmandu. The multi-pass card was definitely worth the minimal effort to get it, especially since it doesn’t cost any extra than a one-day pass!
There are still things I missed seeing this time. If there is a next time, I wonder how much progress will have been made in the interim. Given how things seem to work in Nepal, my guess would be that it will take a decade or two for the restoration to be complete, during which time everything else will be that much older and worn out.
Below is the Kakeshwar temple; it was rebuilt after the 1934 earthquake with a shikhara-style top placed on a Newari-style ground floor. Behind it are the Taleju Mandir and a wing of the royal palace complex.
Not far from the Kotlingeshwar and Mahavishnu mandirs is another ticket booth. Walk past it and head north and you are on your way to Thamel, passing through the Indra Chowk pictured below. The streets pulsate with life and commerce and small street shrines to Shiva and Vishnu and other Hindu deities. Yes, it can be chaotic, especially with the honking motorcycles and automobiles, and the air pollution is bad but after a third visit to Durbar Square in twenty years, I can’t help but say – Wow, what an amazing place Kathmandu is! Is it worth 1000 NRP? Absolutely!
See here for a satellite view of Kathmandu’s Durbar Square and vicinity. The Google Earth web-based app provides an interesting perspective.