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Kathmandu: How Religion and Trade Flowed into an Ancient Water-Filled Valley

Kathmandu: How Religion and Trade Flowed into an Ancient Water-Filled Valley


The city of Kathmandu is today the capital of Nepal. This status, however, was only conferred on it during the 18th century. 1769 is traditionally regarded as the year that Nepal was unified by Prithvi Narayan Shah, who then chose Kathmandu as the capital of his kingdom.  Nevertheless, the history of Kathmandu stretches much further back in time, and many of its sacred sites were established and built centuries before the unification of Nepal.

A Legendary Valley Filled with Water

The city of Kathmandu is situated within the Kathmandu Valley, which is surrounded by four different mountain ranges. According to local legend, the valley was not always like this, and at some point in the distant past, it was filled with water.

One day, a Tibetan Bodhisattva by the name of Manjushree came down from the north, and cleaved the rim of the valley with his sword. The place where this happened is said to be Chobhar, which lies to the southwest of Kathmandu. As the water from the lake was drained, the valley became habitable, and Buddhism was propagated in the area.

Manjushree, with Chandrahrasa, the Buddhist deity said to have created the valley.

Manjushree, with Chandrahrasa, the Buddhist deity said to have created the valley. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

This legend finds correspondence in the geological record. The lake was formed over a million years ago, when the southern edge of the valley was lifted up due to tectonic movement. This resulted in the damming up of the proto-Bagmati River, and forming the lake.

Following the last Ice Age, the lake started to shrink, a process which is thought to have begun 30 000 years ago. The main body of water apparently carved its way through the soft limestone at Chobhar, thus draining the lake. The valley eventually was drained of water, and was settled by humans.

The Bagmati River.

The Bagmati River. (CC BY 2.0)

Early Civilization

The first signs of human settlement in Kathmandu come from the 2nd century BC. The rapid growth of the city around this time was due to the influence of religion. For Buddhists, the Swayambhunath stupa was regarded as a major pilgrimage site, whilst Hindus believed that the Bagmati River was a sacred river. Thus, both Buddhists and Hindus were drawn to Kathmandu even during its early years.

Swayambhunath Stupa and Boudhanath stupa, Kathmandu, Nepal.

Swayambhunath Stupa (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) and Boudhanath stupa (CC BY SA 3.0) Kathmandu, Nepal.

Kathmandu During the Lichavi Dynasty

Kathmandu developed into more than just a religious site during the 4th century AD. During this period, the Lichavi Dynasty was founded. The kings of this dynasty were originally from northern India, and migrated into Kathmandu around the middle of the 3rd century AD.

One of the achievements of the Lichavi Dynasty was the opening of trade routes to Tibet by King Anshuverma. Additionally, it has been stated that Bhrikuti, a daughter of this king, was wedded to the Tibetan ruler, Tsrong-tsong Gompo, who is credited with the introduction of Buddhism into Tibet. Subsequent Lichavi kings formed good relations with China and India, and this dynasty is recorded to have reigned for about six centuries.

From left to right: Bhrikuti Devi, Songtsän Gampo, and Wen Cheng, Gyantse.

From left to right: Bhrikuti Devi, Songtsän Gampo, and Wen Cheng, Gyantse. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Malla Dynasty to Modern History

Whilst the Lichavi Dynasty played an important role in the early history of Kathmandu, credit should be given to the Malla Dynasty for developing the city’s constructed environment. This dynasty was a successor of the Lichavis, and reigned from the 13th to the 18th centuries AD. Many of the city’s ancient temples and historical monuments are dated to this period. One of the distinctive architectural forms achieved during this time is the pagoda.

Maju Deval and Narayan Pagodas.

Maju Deval and Narayan Pagodas. (CC BY SA 3.0)

The Malla Dynasty extended its borders and became a powerful empire. Later on, however, it disintegrated into smaller principalities which constantly fought with each other for supremacy. This situation continued for several centuries, which severely weakened the power of the Malla Dynasty.

During the 18th century AD, the last rulers of the Malla Dynasty were defeated by Prithvi Narayan Shah, who had been the ruler of a small Nepalese kingdom called the Gorkha Kingdom.

Portrait of king Prithvi Narayan Shah of Nepal.

Portrait of king Prithvi Narayan Shah of Nepal. (Public Domain)

The unification of Nepal by this leader is commonly regarded as the beginning of Nepal’s modern history.

Swayambhunath at night in modern Kathmandu.

Swayambhunath at night in modern Kathmandu. (CC BY SA 4.0)

Featured image: Watercolor of Kathmandu Durbar Square, the royal palace complex, in 1852, painted by Henry Ambrose Oldfield (1822-1871). Photo source: Public Domain

By Wu Mingren


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Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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