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Panauti: Trip to the kingdom of yore

Although many head to Nepal to scour for the tallest peak to climb, Nepal’s model for rural tourism, Panauti, at an hour’s drive away from the nearest airport in Kathmandu will win your heart, writes Snigdha Bhowmick

Today's modern lifestyle is sucking the lifeblood out of us. This is where taking a break and travelling slowly lets you rejuvenate your soul and health. The fresh green countryside of Nepal's hinterlands is one of the perfect settings to do so. Although many head to Nepal to scour for the tallest peak to climb, I am in search of Nepal's model for rural tourism, Panauti. Not only is Panauti surpassing records in hospitality in recent times, but also empowering women of the local community like never before. Panauti is at an hour's drive away from the nearest International Airport at Kathmandu. The best time to visit is from September to March.
Panauti is considered to be one of the oldest architectural heritages in Nepal. Along with Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur, it was one of the strongholds of the Malla kings. The kingdoms of yore are still preserved in the remnants of the pagoda-styled temples. The slow pace of life at Panauti allows you to pause back and reflect. But one thing that did not allow this beautiful village to become a tourism hotspot was the rampant poverty.
Mission
All changed at the turn of the millennia, starting from the year 2002, the quaint village of Panauti has been turned into a series of community home stays which allows you to immerse yourself in the culture of Nepal totally. Meeting with the force behind this project I took a tour around the village under his guidance. "As everyone from the village was looking for jobs, I started working as a guide for foreign tourists. One day, it struck me that I should come back, educate the women of my village and let them do the talking."
Vision
That is where the ladies of Panauti took it upon themselves to enrich themselves. Not only did they educate themselves to converse in English, they also opened up their homes and converted them into home stays. The Panauti Community homestay is a project run by the housewives and women of the community. What started as a single homestay has now evolved into a complex of fifteen. These small houses are built in a typical Newari style with small doors and beautiful thatched roofs, and exquisite wood carvings on the upper walls. There are many essences of Nepali culture within these walls, complete from the traditional Thangki art to an authentic Nepali meal.
Homestay
We are welcomed with a traditional Tharo dance which encompasses twirling movements which enthralled us throughout. These homestays have been built by the people from the local community. The rooms are traditionally designed and services are in accordance with the local culture. The best part of these homestays is that guests can live with the villagers as family members, sharing food and other cultural interactions. It indeed gives a feeling of home away from home. The food served to guests is fresh and organic, usually sourced from their backyard gardens.
Festivals at Panauti
Panauti is also known for its festivals which celebrate the Newari culture. The month-long Makar Mela is held once every twelve years at the sacred confluence of three rivers: Rishi, Punyamati and Lilawati. But it's the next festival that fascinates me the most, Achchya Triyitya. Newari girls aged seven to thirteen are symbolically married off to a Wood Apple(Bel). The Bel Vivah render the women immune to becoming a widow ever as they will always be married to the fruit which is Lord Shiva's reincarnation. "I was married off to the Bel at the age of eight years" my host Amy tells me as we both sit down for some girl gossip over cooking a delectable chicken curry and some Aloo Paranthas (potato stuffed bread).
Activities in and around the homestay
Mornings are the best time to take a stroll around the village and enjoy the sun rising in the Kathmandu valley while listening to the chirping of endangered birds. Not only that, you can also engage with the locals in daily activities like cow milking, cattle grazing, firewood and grass collection from the woods or learn the traditional farming methods. If you wish to prolong your stay a little longer, you can volunteer to teach in one of the local schools or assist the women with ideas on health and education.
The economic and the social significance of these home-stays goes way beyond just the 20-25 dollars they charge per night. It also allows the females to build up other areas of income for the visiting tourists. One of the primary ways they do that is by becoming a tour guide and taking you around the broken down Terracotta temples which are so characteristic of Nepal. There are also these small bakeries where the ladies of this community churn out some wonderful little doughnuts. I sit down at one of these bakeries and bite into the sweet deep-fried dough as I watch the Sun go down on the horizon. When you're visiting Nepal, do plan on visiting Panauti instead of the common hotspots of Kathmandu and Pokhara. I had come here looking for a destination, I am leaving with a lesson in woman empowerment.
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