Kathmandu has many religious sites, temples, shrines, and monasteries. The most famous are undoubtedly impressive and beautiful, but there are also smaller religious sites and rural neighborhoods that show a different side of Kathmandu–usually more different than one would expect.
Gokarna, just five kilometres north of Kathmandu, is a relaxing place to explore. The municipality was created from the merging of several smaller villages in the region. Amid the backdrop of the majestic Himalaya, Gokarna has a vast 470-acre forest – a reserve that was once protected as the hunting place for the Nepali royal family. Nowadays, here you can find trees up to 200 years old as well as a variety of birds and animals, such as spotted deer and monkeys.
To get to Gokarna, I took a local bus from Ratna Park (a walkable distance from Thamel), then transferred to a minibus when I reached the banks of the Bagmati River. From the local bus park in Gokarna, I visited one of the oldest temple compounds in the north of the Kathmandu Valley, the Gokarna Mahadev Temple. Nepalis come especially during the festival of Gokarna Aunsi in late August or early September. On this occasion, they make offerings and pray to Lord Shiva in honor of their dead (or living) fathers.
The legend says that the Gokarna Mahadev Temple was built on the place where the broken pieces of Shiva’s horns (disguised as a deer) were buried. Set in a quiet forested area, the temple has become one of the most revered shrines of Lord Shiva in the region. Built in 1582, the Hindu three-tiered pagoda is dedicated to Lord Shiva as Mahadeva form (Shiva’s “great God” form) and is a fine example of Newari architecture.
The temple compound also features fine woodcarving on the temple struts, and an exquisite collection of stone carvings in the courtyard. Some of these statues are more than 1000 years old, and represent a variety of Hindu deities. But what is intriguing at the Gokarna Temple is the tree shrine: a shrine almost consumed by a fig tree, whose seeds landed in the temple and then its roots took hold.
Not far away, there are old and new funeral ghats, where cremations take place on the banks of the Bagmati River. The compound also comprises several other shrines dedicated to various deities, among which is a pavilion with a metal plate representing Vishnu’s footprint.
After exploring the temple and its surroundings, I had to decide how to get back to Kathmandu. Even though Gokarna is just a 10-minute drive from Boudhanath Stupa (and flagging down a taxi was very tempting), I studied the routes that my GPS suggested and decided to continue on foot. This was a great chance to explore trails through verdant hills and vegetable gardens surrounding the city. En route were lesser-known local shrines and temples (some without names), and are proof of valuable cultural heritage in the Nepali countryside.
The route to Boudhanath is an easy five-kilometre hike through the back gardens of the green, hilly neighborhoods of the Kathmandu Valley. If you go this way, you’ll see how Nepalis live on the outskirts of the city, growing vegetables and fruit trees. And, of course, you can admire the tidy rice paddies, and Nepali villas with vast gardens and impressive architecture with European influences.
The route is not marked but it’s easy to follow if you always keep in mind the direction to Boudhanath Stupa (a GPS app will help with this a lot). The local people will also point you in the right direction, and as this is not a touristy area at all, those who speak English will undoubtedly talk to you. A Nepali man watering the flowers in front of his house started a conversation with me, and confirmed I was going in the right direction. I wasn’t lost, but interacting with the locals was a rewarding experience. When you reach the Sundarijal Road, you’re almost at Boudhanath. You’ll soon start to see the famous Buddhist monasteries in the neighborhood (and the crowds of tourists too).
Gokarna is a good choice for a half-day trip from Kathmandu city. Hill-walkers have plenty to enjoy in the surrounding area and many options to choose from. You can combine a visit to Gokarna with a hike to Kopan Monastery. If you want to walk more, you can extend the hike to the temple housing the reclined Vishnu in Budhanilkantha, and then go back to Boudhanath or Thamel.