Top 5 Temples in the Kathmandu Valley

The sheer number of temples located in Kathmandu and the surrounding valley has given it the nickname “City of Temples.” You could easily spend your entire trip hopping from one temple to the next, but here are five you definitely shouldn’t miss.

1. Bodhnath Stupa

Bodhnath Stupa, besides being one of the largest stupas in the world, is the most important and holiest Tibetan Buddhist site outside of Tibet. The white 14th century structure is said to house a bone once carried by the Buddha. Worshippers come here to circumambulate the stupa while spinning prayer wheels and praying to the 108 small images of the Buddha surrounding the structure.

2. Swayambhunath

Even if you’re not big on temple visits, making your way southwest of Kathmandu to Swayambhunath Temple is worth it for the stunning views of the city below. This Buddhist temple, nicknamed Monkey Temple by locals due to the large population of monkeys that call the complex home, is instantly recognizable by its golden spires with ominous-looking eyes painted on them.

3. Pashupatinath

Located just east of Kathmandu on the banks of the Bagmati River, the Pashupatinath temple is dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva and is best known for its magnificent architecture. The two-story pagoda structure houses a sacred phallic symbol, or linga, of Shiva, making it one of the most important Hindu temples in Nepal and the most important Shaivite temple in the subcontinent. Pashupatinath is also the site of the most-used cremation spot in the Kathmandu Valley.

Pashupatinath Temple during Shivaratri
Pashupatinath during Shivaratri

They arrive here to find shelter for the last several weeks of their lives, to meet death, be cremated on the banks of the river and travel their last journey with the waters of the sacred river Bagmati, which later meets the holy river Ganges. Hinduists from every corner of Nepal and India are arriving here to die.

It is believed that those who die in Pashupatinath Temple are reborn as a human, regardless of any misconduct that could worsen their karma. The exact day of their death is predicted by astrologers of the temple. If you are attracted to the places where the spirit of death can be felt, then consider Pashupatinath as your first destination. It is a temple with special atmosphere of death; death is present in almost every ritual and every corner of it.

Pashupatinath Temple complex view
Pashupatinath Temple complex © Ananta

The main temple of Pashupatinath is a building with a bunk roof and a golden spire.

It is located on the Western bank of Bagmati and is considered a masterpiece of Hindu architecture.

It is a cubic construction with four main doors, all covered with silver sheets.

The two-storied roof is made from copper and is covered with gold. This richly decorated temple with wooden sculptures is believed to make wishes come true. One of the most astonishing decorations of the temple is the huge golden statue of Nandi – Shiva’s bull.

Only followers of Hinduism can enter the main temple, but all the other buildings are available for foreigners to visit. From the Eastern bank of the river the main temple can be seen in its whole beauty. The western bank of Bagmati also hosts the so called Panch Deval (Five temples) complex, which once was a holy shrine but now serves a shelter for destitute old people.

Numerous religious buildings are also located on the eastern bank of Bagmati, most of them are devoted to Shiva. The majority of these buildings are small single storey constructions made from stone. From the outside these buildings are reminding crypts, but in reality these are sacral buildings, created for holding the symbol of the deity Shiva – lingam (erect phallus). Lingams can be found all over the complex.

Cremation, Pashupatinath Temple
Funeral Pyres at Pashupatinath 

Along the right bank of Bagmati numerous platforms for funeral pyres are built. The cremations on these platforms are a common activity.

Usually tourists have the chance to see at least one open-air cremation.

The majority of religious rituals are culturally unusual and even mind-blowing for Westerners, but probably the most culturally unusual thing in Pashupatinath is the specific smell of cremated bodies. Unlike any expectation the smell has nothing in common with the smell of decaying flesh, but rather reminds the smell of clabber mixed with different spices.

Another culturally shocking thing in Pashupatinath is the image of local women washing clothes downstream the river. The waters of Bagmati contain animal fat because of the ashes of cremated Shiva followers and easily wash the dirt from linen. It is believed that this is how the soap was invented.

As far as Shiva is considered the patron of animals and all living organisms, monkeys and deers are wandering all around the temple complex on both banks of Bagmati. Monkeys are very often unfriendly, they beg for food, snatch things from careless tourists and may even be dangerous.

 Sadhus, Pashupatinath Temple
Sadhus at Pashupatinath Temple

It is also very common to meet sadhus in Pahsupathinath.

Sadhus are wandering ascetic yogis, who are trying to acquire liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth by meditating.

They have very unique appearance with specific yellow paintings on their bodies.

4. Changu Narayan

Changu Narayan, perhaps the oldest temple in the Kathmandu Valley, is a feast for the eyes. The ancient structure has origins reaching back as far as the fourth century and houses one of the best collections of ancient stone sculptures in Nepal in its surrounding gardens. The carved wooden roof struts of this temple dedicated to Vishnu depict many important and lesser-known tantric deities.

5. Dakshinkali

For a truly unique cultural experience, those with a strong stomach should visit Dakshinkali Temple on a Tuesday or Saturday, when Nepalese Hindus come to sacrifice animals to the bloodthirsty goddess Kali. You can’t enter the temple proper if you’re not Hindu, but you can enjoy the market stalls along the path leading to the temple or take in the festive atmosphere as families picnic on the grounds surrounding the temple.