What is now known as Kathmandu was historically Nepa Mandala, a Malla Kingdom with predominantly Newari communities, and which subsequently got divided into the three Buddhist kingdoms of Kantipur, Lalitpur (Patan) and Bhaktapur.
In Buddhist mythology the valley was the most important charnel ground known as Lhuendrup Tse, visited by Guru Padmasambhava many times over.
The valley was considered as an altar of offering for the higher Himalayan peaks that are believed to be the abodes of the gods – or gods themselves. Kathmandu is, therefore, a very sacred valley.
Here are the Top Ten Must-visit sacred sites and temples.
1. Asura Cave, Pharping. Known in Bhutanese as Yanglesho, it is where Guru attained enlightenment after practicing Yangdak Heruka and Vajrakilaya. The area also has a temple with Self-Arisen Tara and Self-Arisen Ganesh. There are two caves – one besides the main road, which is the lower Yanglesho cave, and the other is the upper Asura cave – above the Tara-Ganesh-Saraswati temple.
If time allows, you can visit the Kudrung Chorten of the Late Jadrel Rimpoche in Pharping.
2. Boudhanath Stupa, Boudha. The Wish-fulfilling Jarong Khashor is impressive, powerful and beautiful. It is perhaps one of the few monuments that has continuously been revered without going into decay, at any point of time in its history. So, billions of moelam prayers must have been uttered here making it the most sacred monument in Buddhism.
I suggest you do three things: First do 12 rounds (108 rounds is the best), and then light 108 butter lamps. Third, make a wish – any wish. It will be fulfilled.
3. Swayambhunath Stupa, Swayambhu. Back in time, Kathmandu valley was a huge lake and a butter lamp was seen flickering in the middle of it. Manjushri came over and struck one end of the valley and drained out the lake. And then rose the Swayambu hill over which a stupa was built to hold the eternal flickering butter lamp. Known as Phagpa Shingkun (Sublime Trees) in Bhutanese, it is believed to be one of the most sacred sites in Buddhism. A prayer here is believed to gather thirteen billion times more merit than other sacred places.
Don’t miss the Shantipur building, from where Nagarjuna retrieved the sacred Prajanaparamita.
4. Vajrayogini Temple, Pharping. The Newari-style temple has a “Talking” Vajrayogini statue called the Phamting Dorje Neljorma. The temple is associated to the Phamthingpa, a heart-son of Naropa (1016-1100) who engaged in Vajrayogini practices. Some sources attribute the red-faced Vajrayogini to have been placed there by Marpa Lhotsawa (10th Century). Whatever. It is a wish-fulfilling one.
5. Chumik Jangchub, Rikeshwor. Translated as the “spring water of enlightenment” it is where Guru manifested as Kheychok Tsulzang, and appears in Barchel Lamsel mantras.
The area was partly discovered, and popularised, by a Bhutanese wandering yogi, whose children continue to hold the place. Look out for them and make generous donations if you can.
6. Tham Bahil, Thamel. One of the oldest viharas in Kathmandu valley, believed to have been established in First Century BC, it played host to several great figures such as Nargarjuna, Atisha Dipankar and Tshongpon Norbu Zangpo (Manidhara in Sanskrit).
The temple’s priced possession is the most sacred Prajanaparamita, known as Ser Bum, which was written by Manjushri and kept in custody with the subterranean naga king. It was retrieved from the nagas by Nagarjuna in the First Century CE.
You need a prior appointment to see the Ser Bum. As a Mahayana Buddhist, you must get a glimpse of it.
7. Jana Bahil, Thamel. The temple is a popular temple as the sacred Self-arisen Chenrizig, known as Seto Machidranath, sits there. It is considered as the protector deity of Kathmandu with its annual public festival . The statue was blessed by Guru Padmasambhava, and thus makes it more special for Vajrayana Buddhists.
8. Itum Bahil, Thamel. The family-owned temple has a Talking White Tara that is believed to have flown down from Lhasa Potala. This is the centre piece, and she is flanked by the Green Tara and the Yellow Prajanaparamita Devi. With the blessings from the three Taras, your peace, prosperity and enlightenment are guaranteed.
For me it was one of the most powerful statues in the whole of Kathmandu.
9. Namo Buddha. At the south-east end of Kathmandu, some 40 kilometers away, is Tagmo Lue-jin (meaning ‘Body sacrifice to Tigress’) and it is where Buddha in his previous life sacrificed himself to a starving tigress and her cubs. A stupa stands on the same spot, and is considered the three most sacred stupas in Kathmandu – along with Boudhanath and Swayambunath.
A trip to Namo Buddha should also give your lungs and nose a respite from the polluted air of Kathmandu.
10. Flying Vajrayogini, Patan. Located inside the Mahabuddha Statue complex this Akasha Vajrayogini is over 500 years old and was commissioned after an old lady visiting the Mahabuddha statue mentioned that the house was also an abode of Vajrayogini.
Of course, don’t miss the 700-years plus Mahabuddha statue with thousand Buddha statues adorning it.
I am a Vajrayana Buddhist from the Kagyu-Nyingma traditions, and a fan of Guru and Vajrayogini. Choices here may reflect my beliefs.