The best books on Kathmandu, Nepal

Why am I passionate about this?

Having spent two years living in Kathmandu over a half-dozen visits, I have had the wonderful opportunity to encounter, learn about, and be baffled by the many local cultures that intersect in Nepal’s capital and largest city. With a PhD in Religious Studies and expertise in the Sanskrit language of classical India, I turned to Nepal to examine religious life on the ground. Living in Kathmandu during the second People’s Movement of 2006 – and like everybody else then, under a “shoot to kill” curfew for three weeks – left an indelible mark on me and my scholarship on this magnificent place. 

I wrote...

The Festival of Indra: Innovation, Archaism, and Revival in a South Asian Performance

By Michael Baltutis,

Book cover of The Festival of Indra: Innovation, Archaism, and Revival in a South Asian Performance

What is my book about?

The Festival of Indra details the textual and performative history of an important South Asian festival and its role in the development of classical Hinduism. Drawing on various genres of Sanskrit textual sources—especially the epic Mahābhārata—the book highlights the innovative ways that this festival has supported royal power. More than just a textual project, the book devotes significant ethnographic attention to its contemporary performance in Kathmandu, Nepal. Here, Indra's tall pole remains the festival's focal point, though its addition of the royal blessing by Kumari, the "living goddess" of Nepal, and the regular presence of the fierce god Bhairav show several significant ways that ritual agents have re-constructed this festival over the past two thousand years.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Demoting Vishnu: Ritual, Politics, and the Unraveling of Nepal's Hindu Monarchy

Michael Baltutis Why did I love this book?

This is a fantastic book about a specific moment in Nepal’s history: the collapse of the 250-year-old Shah monarchy in 2008.

Mocko focuses on the three major Hindu festivals that regularly reinforced the monarchy: showing the vest of the Red God in May; receiving the blessing offered by the living goddess, Kumari, in September; and visiting the royal goddess, Taleju, in October. The removal of the king from prominent positions in all of these rituals has in no way impinged upon the celebrations of these festivals that have become even more popular in the intervening years.

By Anne T. Mocko,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Demoting Vishnu as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

At the turn of the millennium, Nepal was the world's last remaining Hindu kingdom: even the most skeptical of observers could hardly imagine that the institution of the monarchy could ever be in jeopardy. In 2001, however, Nepal's popular King Birendra was killed in the royal palace. The crown passed to his brother Gyanendra, but the monarchy would never fully recover. Nepal witnessed an anti-king uprising in April 2006, and over the course of two years, an interim
administration systematically took over all the king's duties and privileges. Most decisively, beginning in the summer of 2007, the government began blocking…

Book cover of Reciting the Goddess: Narratives of Place and the Making of Hinduism in Nepal

Michael Baltutis Why did I love this book?

This award-winning study combines accessible translations with local and global studies of the goddess Svasthani and her domestic devotees. A goddess little known outside of Nepal, Svasthani is embodied in the text itself and celebrated by families in the cold month of January.

Her only recent depiction as an icon in her own temple is a testament to the ever-changing forms of religion and culture in a corner of the world where living goddesses have long held significant power. 

By Jessica Vantine Birkenholtz,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Reciting the Goddess as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Reciting the Goddess is the first book-length study of Nepal's goddess Svasthani and the popular Svasthanivratakatha textual tradition. In the centuries following its origin as a simple local legend in the sixteenth century, the Svasthanivratakatha developed into a comprehensive Purana text that is still widely celebrated today among Nepal's Hindus with an annual month-long recitation. Jessica Birkenholtz uses the Svasthanivratakatha as a medium through
which to view the ways in which political and cultural shifts among Nepal's ruling elite were taken up by the general public.

Drawing on both archival and ethnographic research, the book examines Svasthani and the Svasthanivratakatha…

Book cover of Far Out: Countercultural Seekers and the Tourist Encounter in Nepal

Michael Baltutis Why did I love this book?

Far Out traces the history of tourism in Kathmandu, the capital of the country of Nepal which had been effectively closed to Westerners from 1847-1951.

Resembling travel literature based in South Asia and the Himalaya, its research conducted by a trained social anthropologist draws upon artistic, literary, and historical records that go well beyond typical sources and stories. The takeaway here is “the West” – especially after the Chinese closure of Tibet and the exile of the Dalai Lama – searching for lost exotic and spiritual worlds in the newly re-opened Nepal, a search that effectively lasted until Nixon’s war on drugs. 

By Mark Liechty,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Far Out as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Westerners have long imagined the Himalayas as the world's last untouched place and repository of redemptive power and wisdom. Beatniks, hippie seekers, spiritual tourists, mountain climbers diverse groups of people have traveled there over the years, searching for their own personal Shangri-La. In Far Out, Mark Liechty traces the Western fantasies that captured the imagination of tourists in the decades after World War II, asking how the idea of Nepal shaped the everyday cross-cultural interactions that it made possible. Emerging from centuries of political isolation but eager to engage the world, Nepalis struggled to make sense of the hordes of…

Book cover of The Royal Ghosts: Stories

Michael Baltutis Why did I love this book?

Samrat Upadhyay’s English-language novels and short stories often read like anthropological work on Nepal’s middle class.
The Royal Ghosts fictionalizes the sluggish economy in and urban migration to contemporary Kathmandu, the decade-long civil war that ended along with the collapse of the Hindu monarchy in 2006, and the political tensions that defined Nepal in the first decade of the current millennium. His attention to the previous king’s grasp at power using political propaganda in the form of monumental billboards in 1990 (in “Supreme Pronouncements”) reflects my own interest in similar rhetoric fifteen years later.

I also like the use of the popular religious imagery when in “Chintamani’s Women”, the main character pauses briefly at the picture of the elephant-headed Ganesh on his kitchen wall as he offers a quick prayer for his deceased mother and sick father (RG 130). 

By Samrat Upadhyay,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Royal Ghosts as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

With emotional precision and narrative subtlety, The Royal Ghosts features characters trying to reconcile their true desires with the forces at work in Nepali society. Against the backdrop of the violent Maoist insurgencies that have claimed thousands of lives, these characters struggle with their duties to their aging parents, an oppressive caste system, and the complexities of arranged marriage. In the end, they manage to find peace and connection, often where they least expect it— with the people directly in front of them. These stories brilliantly examine not only Kathmandu during a time of political crisis and cultural transformation but…

Book cover of The Country is Yours: Contemporary Nepali Literature

Michael Baltutis Why did I love this book?

Collected, translated, and introduced by the prolific author Manjushree Thapa, this volume contains poetry and short stories of various lengths and from a variety of Nepalese languages.

Categorized by perplexity, desire, liberation, and vision, these otherwise unrelated works use themes of food, death, work, migration, and marriage to convey the humanity at the core of a landlocked country’s transition to democracy and a new global economy after the first People’s Movement of 1990. 

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Book cover of Benghazi! A New History of the Fiasco that Pushed America and its World to the Brink

Ethan Chorin Author Of Benghazi! A New History of the Fiasco that Pushed America and its World to the Brink

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Story-lover Middle East expert Curious Iconoclast Optimist

Ethan's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

Benghazi: A New History is a look back at the enigmatic 2012 attack on the US mission in Benghazi, Libya, its long-tail causes, and devastating (and largely unexamined) consequences for US domestic politics and foreign policy. It contains information not found elsewhere, and is backed up by 40 pages of citations and interviews with more than 250 key protagonists, experts, and witnesses.

So far, the book is the main -- and only -- antidote to a slew of early partisan “Benghazi” polemics, and the first to put the attack in its longer term historical, political, and social context. If you want to understand some of the events that have shaped present-day America, from political polarization and the election of Donald Trump, to January 6, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, Russian expansionism, and the current Israel-Hamas war, I argue, you need to understand some of the twists and turns of America's most infamous "non-scandal, scandal.”

I was in Benghazi well before, during, and after the attack as a US diplomat and co-director of a medical NGO. I have written three books, and have been a contributor to The NYT, Foreign Affairs, Forbes, Salon, The Financial Times, Newsweek, and others.

By Ethan Chorin,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Benghazi! A New History of the Fiasco that Pushed America and its World to the Brink as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

On September 11, 2012, Al Qaeda proxies attacked and set fire to the US mission in Benghazi, Libya, killing a US Ambassador and three other Americans.  The attack launched one of the longest and most consequential 'scandals' in US history, only to disappear from public view once its political value was spent. 

Written in a highly engaging narrative style by one of a few Western experts on Libya, and decidely non-partisan, Benghazi!: A New History is the first to provide the full context for an event that divided, incited, and baffled most of America for more than three years, while silently reshaping…

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