Exploring Nepalese Life With a Homestay in Panauti
Elation like you have never felt before!
Semi-rural setup, verdant green fields, time-honoured homes, ancient temples, Newari heritage and heart-felt hospitality elucidates Panauti in Nepal. Only 32 km from Kathmandu, this traditional town welcomes visitors with open arms and puts them face to face with a quaint yet fascinating side of Nepal. While the history and architecture of Panauti is a big draw, its inhabitants are the real charmers.
I was skeptical to spend a night in a village homestay but the warmth of my hostess and her gregarious daughter dispelled my fears the moment I met the duo at the bus stand. While they received me well with a garland, vermillion and bells, the excitement in their eyes spoke more than their actions. I liked their impatience to put me at ease. After a small walk through sporadically placed buildings and a lot of farmlands, they directed me into a vintage structure. A narrow staircase opened up to two rooms, kitchen and washroom. The next level housed a guest room where I was supposed to spend the night. It was a basic but clean room equipped with essentials. I was pleased to see their awareness as well as inclination towards providing me a hygienic as well as an authentic experience.
While she offered me a plate of fresh fruits, my hostess Shrestha quickly took me through the itinerary. A guided walk in the village, a saree draping lesson, a mehndi (henna) session, tete-a-tete with the locals and cooking classes sounded like a perfect plan.
Panauti – then and now
“It is regarded as one of the oldest region in the Kathmandu valley. Nestled for years at the confluence of the Roshi Khola, Pungamati Khola and a mystical third river, Panauti is no more a lively village that thrived on business and trade in the yesteryears. Today it makes its presence felt as a semi-rural village that has held on to its medieval sites and cultural character, passionately,” explained my hostess as I asked her about the history and changing times of Panauti.
Her daughter Sainju, added some historical facts for my benefit. Panauti was founded during the reign of Ananda Malla in the 12th century. In its heyday, it was part of historical town of Bhaktapur but finally it was declared free when Nepal flourished under King Prithvi Narayan Shah in the 18th century.
Activities for the day
I had begun to enjoy the conversation when another young girl walked into my room. She was carrying mehndi cones and had come visiting to make designs on my palms. While the two girls engaged me in the creative activities, my hostess excused herself to prepare lunch for me. After the mehndi had dried up, a swift saree draping session followed. Though the Nepali style of tucking and pleating the garment was quite similar to the Indian way, I thoroughly enjoyed the local accessorising.
Authentic homely dishes and interesting conversations can do wonders in a foreign land and I definitely felt lucky. Just like in India, a hearty and powerful meal in Nepal meant dal-bhaat (pulses and rice) and vegetables. While I ate, I was also told that no visit to Panauti is complete without eating the Laakhamari. She offered me a big and round sweet dish made from wheat flour dough and pure ghee. The intricate patterns looked very interesting and the heavy coating of thick sugar on the top made it delightfully relishing. No doubt, it made for a specialty in Newari kitchens.
Heritage walk – village insights
Every place tells its own story and I was keen to know what Panauti had to offer. The village walk turned out to be the steal of the day. A few steps down the lane, this medieval town began to awe me with its simplicity, traditional style of living and Newari craftsmanship. The ornately carved wooden doorways and windows on almost every house looked fetching. Despite being old and unkempt, everything had a charm about itself. No doubt, the photo opportunities were aplenty.
After the architecture, the people here caught my eye. And I really love villages for its people because they are a living proof that happiness is not about materialistic possessions. Most of the people were whiling away lazily. The ladies could be seen working in the fields, peeling garlic, rolling dough while some men were busy in their small shops. The elderly were seated in elevated platforms amidst engrossing conversations. I found some children chasing pigeons out of the house while those who were wearing uniforms could be assumed to be returning from school.
Pagoda-styled Newari temples
In no time, I was standing in front of the most sought after attraction of Panauti, the Indreshwar Temple. It is the largest pagoda-style temple (Newari) and supposedly the oldest surviving temple of Nepal, standing there since 1294. A small Nandi bull sits right there in the premises of the temple. A multi-tiered temple, gilded roof, wide courtyard and uniquely engineered wooden columns are some of the unique and intricate detailing of Newari architecture. It is known to be an indigenous style of construction made with wood and bricks made of the clay soil from Kathmandu valley. While the Indreshwar temple claims its name to fame, Krishna Temple, Unmata Bhairav Temple and Ahilya Temple are also situated in the same courtyard.
Next, the girls helped me in identifying Roshi Khola and Pungamati Khola rivers. A small but sketchy pedestrian bridge took us to the other side of the river. We hiked uphill till we could see a panorama of vivid green that lay around the village. The mountains that flanked the community enhanced the beauty of the village.
I also learned that Panauti was named for it looked like a fish in shape when looked from higher ranges. There are about 40 temples in the circumference of a kilometre. While Newaris have been dominant in this area, the other communities that live in Panauti are Brahmins, Chettris, and Tamangs.
Everywhere there is a reference to some or the other God and most of the temples in Panauti are dedicated to Lord Shiva. As we approached the confluence of the river, we saw a number of lingams spread around and on the banks stood the Brahmyani temple. The ghats on the sides of the temple are known as Tribeni ghats. This is also the place where cremations take place. The allocated area is divided into two sections. On one side Hindus are cremated while Newaris on the other. The nearby Krishna temple tells many tales of Lord Krishna.
While we walked, the girls told me that a religious importance presides over the old town and ever since it has remained unaffected from the massive earthquake of 2015, the belief has strengthened. I wasn’t convinced but scientifically, Panauti is less susceptible to seismic calamity because it stands on a single rock.
Next, I visited Unnamata Bhairab Temple, Pilgrims’s rest house, Panauti Museum, small temples and many interesting houses.
A total of 28 festivals are celebrated in Panuati round the year and some are unique to the village. Here, food is always an important part of celebrations. Some dishes and desserts are specially associated with festivals. Before we called it a day, I was taken through a cooking class. My hostess had decided to teach me how to cook Nepali momos (dumplings). Right from kneading the dough, preparing a filling, filling the wraps to finally steaming them, every step kept me on my toes. But it was worth it as I ate well and slept well.
Community Homestay Project
Of all my stays in the Himalayan Kingdom, the stay at Panauti stands distinct. I genuinely felt joyful after indulging in local life. Moreover, it was heartening to see women adopt safe and hygienic practices to promote tourism in their region. This is a progressive step for the entire neighbourhood.
The CommunityHomestay.com programme was started in Panauti and now has become a model for nine other villages in Nepal. It is a great step forward to help the landscape retain its authentic culture and architecture