Nepal’s Kathmandu Valley: The Temples of Bhaktapur

Related Post: The Kathmandu Valley & its UNESCO Cultural Heritage Sites

Of the three major towns in the Kathmandu Valley – Kathmandu, Lalitpur, and Bhaktapur –  it is the last one, with a name which translates as the city (pur) of devotees (bhakti) –  which is said to have fared the best in hanging on to its culture and traditions since the country opened its borders in 1951 and was swamped by the tidal wave of modern ways.

Bhaktapur is located on the east side of a fertile 240 sq. km.valley which was Nepal until the miltary conquests of the Gorkha ruler Prithvi Narayan Khan in the late 1700’s created the larger political space we know today as Nepal.

Both geology and local myth tell that the valley was once a lake bed.  Some 10 kilometers to the west of Bhaktapur is Lalitpur (aka Patan) and then it is another 3 to Kathmandu. Five hundred years ago each of these cities was the capital of a kingdom based on its share of  the agricultural wealth of this valley.

Bhaktapur was also a stop on the major trading route from the Ganges River valley to the Tibetan plateau beyond the mountains.  These two factors helped create the most impressive of Himalayan kingdoms, rich in architecture and crafts and artistic expression of all sorts.

Bhaktapur’s brick and wood temple architecture and the sculptural works scattered around the old town wowed my wife Laila and  on our first visit in 1996; we overnighted at the Shiva Guesthouse at the end of a morning’s walk from Nagarkot on the valley’s eastern rim and enjoyed the almost-tourist-free hours in the evening and morning as we wandered down the narrow alleys and across the squares of the city.

The Shiva Guesthouse at the east end of Durbar Square with the Pashupati Mandir in the foreground

In 2006 I returned again to experience the traffic-free old town.  And soon –  in April of 2018 – another visit  to Nepal!   While the main event will be the 21 days spent on the Manaslu Circuit and the side trip up the Tsum Valley to the Tibetan border,  I will leave a week to revisit the various UNESCO World Heritage sites in the Kathmandu valley with at least one night at the Shiva Guesthouse!

from the 2012 (7th Ed.) of The Rough Guide To Nepal – already on order is the Feb. 2018 edition!

Yesterday in a nostalgic moment I thought I’d take a look at some of the images I took in 2006 – and then dumped on to the hard drive of the computer I had at the time while I moved on to other trips and then stored yet more images.  Unfortunately, three newer computers and the occasional hard drive crash  have taken their toll!  I found few of those pictures that I thought were there somewhere – and barely enough to recreate some of what we saw on our previous visits.

In the meanwhile, the Gorkha Earthquake of April 2015 also had a big impact on the Kathmandu Valley, destroying thousands of  homes as well as a signficant number of temples.  It left me wondering which of my images were still an accurate depiction of what I would find in Bhaktapur in a few months from now.

Most of the images I did find on my hard drive were of two main city squares on the Bhaktapur tourist trail – Durbar Square and Taumadhi Square;  both are inside the center square on the above map!

1. Durbar Square: 

Most visitors coming from Kathmandu will come into the city from the west end of Durbar Square.  A quick stop at the ticket booth for a tourist entry ticket ($15. U.S.) and the walk begins.  What you see  will not be a total surprise since you will have already visited Kathmandu’s Durbar Square. But as the vendors in the streets of Thamel say – “Same, same…but different!” .  Quieter, less chaotic, fewer signs in English – somehow more authentic.

an unidentified temple which (I think) was at the entrance to Durbar Square

It also has helped Bhaktapur that a German-government-funded Development Project has since the mid-1970’s invested heavily in infrastructure (roads and sewage) and urban renewal projects as well as temple rebuilding and maintenance.  Like the rest of the valley, the city has been rattled  by major earthquakes, most recently in 1634, 1833, and 1934.  The Gorhka-centred 7.8 earthquake of April 2015 was jut the latest natural disaster endured by the people of the valley. (See this article for a list of some of the effects.)

Durbar Square was in what was the royal district on the western edge of old Bhaktapur. It was not always as free of buildings as it is today. After some of the earthquakes, the rulers decided not to rebuild the destroyed temples or pavilions.

the east end of Durbar Square after the 1934 Quake

And now, after the 2015 quake, town administrators are left with the same question – let go or rebuild?

the east end of Bhaktapur’s Durbar Square

The above photo (source of photo – here) provides an example.  On the left is the Golden Gate, the entrance to the Royal Palace compound. To its right is the Palace of the Fifty-Five Windows.  They survived the earthquake with only minor damage.  In the middle stand the Bhupatindra Malla column and the Taleju Bell – they also survived.  On the right is the Vastala Durga mandir (temple). It did not survive.

What to do? Focus on rebuilding a million homes for those Nepalis who lost theirs or rebuild the temples so that tourists will want to return and see the wonderous Bhaktapur that they’ve read about.

The Golden Gate – Bhaktapur Royal Palace Durbar Square

The Golden Gate – also known as The Sun Dhoka and dating to the 1750’s –  is actually made of brass or gilded copper.  Considered to be the finest single piece of artwork in the Kathmandu valley, the richly decorated doorway has panels of various gods on either side;. (Below are images of a couple that caught my eye thanks to the devotees who left daubs of colour and flower offerings.)

Ganesha, the elephant-headed son of Shiva

an image of Durga with string of skulls dangling from her waist

Above the lintel is an elaborate tilted torana.  The ten-armed, four-headed goddess Taleju Bhawani is the focal point; above her a garuda figure looks down from the top center and is flanked by coiled nagas or snakes and other figures.

the torana above the Sun Dhoka’s lintel

Taleju brass figure above Bhaktapur’s Golden Gate

Looking across from the Royal Palace and the Golden Gate, I can see the Shiva  Guesthouse and on the ground floor the shop where I bought the mandala painting. The three-storeyed Pashupati Temple (also named Yaksheshvara Mandir) sits in front of the Shiva Guest house and to the left is the corner of the Vastala Durga Mandir, the slender elevated white temple pictured above to the right of the Golden Gate. Note: the temple was a favourite location of the Little Buddha film crew for those scenes depicting the young Siddhartha (played by Keanu Reeves!) in his father’s capital of Kapilavastu.

the Pashupati temple – Bhaktapur Durbar Square

The Buddha teaches us that there is no thing that is permanent!  The Vastala Durga temple collapsed in the 2015 Earthquake. The young men in the image below contemplate the Bhupatindra Malla column and the Taleju bell – both of steel reinforced concrete  which replace the previous brick and wood construction.   Behind the Teluju Bell is the Chyaslin Pavilion, a two-storey wooden structure which had been destroyed in the 1934 quake.

The octogonal building was  then rebuilt by German engineers in the 1980’s as a gift to the people of Nepal.  They somewhat controversially made use of steel for additional support and some traditionalists were not pleased. It survived the 2015 quake with no damage.  (See here for a very readable article by the two German architects involved in the recreation of the pre-1934 Chyaslin Pavilion.)

the ruins of the Vastala Temple – Durbar Square 2015

Below is another image of the foundation of the Vastala temple before the 2015 earthquake.

From Durbar Square it is a short walk to Taumadhi Square. As you exit the square you pass by the already-mentioned Chyasin Mandap and to the left the Siddhi Lakshmi Mandir and Fasidega Mandir – as shown in the image below.

Siddhi Lakshmi Mandir and Fasidega Mandir in the background

Just as in ancient Athens, temples in Hindu world are essentially houses for the representation of the deity being honoured – with maybe some extra space to store gifts!   Here both temples sit on elevated platforms and have figures lining the steps on the way up.  On the Siddhi Lakshmi temple the steps are flanked – from bottom to top – by human figures with dogs at their side, horses, rhinoceros, lion/humans and camels.  They lead up to the inner sanctum.

Siddhi Lakshmi Mandir (Lohan Dega) suffered minor damage in 2015

In the photos above the white top of the Fasidega Mandir (aka Silu Mahadev or Fasi Dega is visible on the right hand side.  The net-sourced image below captures it in full from the south side.The temple had been rebuilt after the 1934 earthquake and given a neo-classical look. To be honest, it was an unremarkable structure which should not be difficult to replace with something more expressive.

Now, seventy years later, it has collapsed again! Nothing remains except for the mandir’s five-stepped plinth. In the internet-sourced image below it looks like the cleanup has been done.

Fasidega Mandir after the 2015 earthquake – the clean up has begun

Down a narrow street, passing by some shops selling items that either locals or tourists might be wanting, visitors soon find their way to Taumadhi Square.

2. Taumadhi Square:

After my tour of Durbar Square, I headed for the south end of Taumadhi Square for some lunch.  I picked the rooftop café for its great views of the square and for the view it would allow me to frame with my  very first digital camera, the Sony H2 with its 6 mp images!

the view from a rooftop Café at the south end of Taumadhi Square

I am always relieved when I arrive at a spot recommended by Lonely Planet and do not find a half-dozen other tourists sitting there, also with their copies of the guide-book sitting on their table!  While the LP series of guide-books has certainly encouraged hesitant travellers to boldly follow in its footsteps, it can unfortunately become a crutch and a limiting factor in your experience of new places. The thought is –  If it isn’t in the book it can’t be any good!

a view of Taumadhi Square and the Nyatapola Mandir and Bairabnath mandir

Taumadhi Square is notable for the two temples seen in the shot above –

  • on the left, the five-storeyed Nyatapola Temple
  • on the right, the three-storeyed Bairabnath Temple









[Watercolour paintings by Henry Ambrose Oldfield from 1852. See here for the source.]

Bhaktapur – Taumadhi Tole – street venders

I would go down into the square and make my way through the day market and past the vendors with their  sundry items – clothing, shoes, plastic household goods.

another view of Taumadhi Square’s two main temples

The Nyatapola (built in the early 1700’s and still standing after the various earthquakes)  is the tallest temple in the Kathmandu valley, given a good head start by the  five levels of brick foundation that it sits on.

Again, as in Durbar Square, the steps up to the top are flanked by parallel figures, beginning with two human male figures.  Each successive set of figures supposedly represents a tenfold increase in strength.  The Lonely Planet write-up identifies the figures this way –

At the bottom are the legendary Rajput wrestlers Jayamel and Phattu, depicted kneeling with hefty maces. Subsequent levels are guarded by elephants with floral saddles, lions adorned with bells, beaked griffons with rams’ horns and finally two goddesses – Baghini and Singhini. Lonely Planet. “Nepal Travel Guide.”

Bhaktapur – top of Nyatapola Temple

The door to the inner chamber (it contains a statue of Siddhi Laxmi) was closed when I got there. Not that I could have entered anyway – it is reserved for priests and and perhaps practising locals.  Above the door is a torana which shares the same arrangement as the one at the Golden Gate. On both the Garuda figure hovers over the central image of the goddess.

the door to the inner sanctum of the Nyatapola Temple

I looked down from the vantage point on the Nyatapola’s top platform and surveyed the Square. It is this square, and not Durbar Square,  is considered the real heart of old Bhaktapur.

3.  Dattatreya Square  (Tachupal Tol) 

An-aerialview of Tachupal Tol with Dattatraya Temple in the center

A 1970’s -aerial view of Tachupal Tol with Dattatraya Temple in the center -photo found at the Digital Archaeology Foundation website – see below for link

On previous visits we did not get up to Tachupol Square, the city’s original main square,  with Dattatreya Temple found at its east end and the Bhimsen Temple on the east. As well, there are now a couple of museums, one highlighting woodcarving  and the other brass and bronze metalwork.  This time I will take the time – and perhaps even find a guesthouse on the square to overnight.  Check back in a few months for some images!

4. Potters’ Square

The last of the major squares of Bhaktapur that tourists wander through is Potters’ Square. Other than the clay pots drying in the sun in the middle of the square, there are many handicrafts stores and a few cafés.  Time to sit down and take a break from the multi-storeyed temples and  stone sculptures of Hindu gods and goddesses!

In fact, Bhaktapur has dozens of smaller squares with a more workaday feel to them. Come to think of it, maybe two nights in Bhaktapur would give me more time to wander around and decompress after the manic activity of the Thamel district in Kathmandu.

The Impact of the 2015 Earthquakes:

Bhaktapur was severely rattled in April 2015 and then again a few days later.  Thousands of inhabitants lost their homes since they either collapsed completely or were rendered unsafe to live in because of damage to the foundation or walls. Often the damage is not visible from the street – you could be looking at an intact and untouched front facade of a house but the interior may well have collapsed. It makes the loss of a couple of temples on Durbar Square inconsequential in comparison.

I was moved by Amrit Sharma’s post on the situation in Bhaktapur written a couple of weeks after the first major quake. He includes bits of the conversation he had with a number of the locals. Click on the title to access – Exclusive, In-depth look at Bhaktapur — the town that everyone loves.

The Atlantic ‘s website has a photo essay looks at the situation a year after the earthquake.

When I visit in April of 2018 it will have been three years since the quakes.  I am expecting the worst after reading articles like this one from April of 2017 – Nepal’s earthquake disaster: Two years and $4.1bn later.   In fact,  I still wonder if I should be visiting Nepal at all.

Sources to check out:

Dave Ways’ Longest Way Home website has tons of well-researched and up-to-date information.  Even better, he has packaged his Kathmandu Valley material into one ebook bargain. It is also one of the most thorough guides to all that the various UNESCO World Heritage sites, including Bhaktapur, have to offer.  It is in the obvious and essential category of things to check out and bring along.   See here for more info.

If you’re going to Nepal the best deal would be to buy the entire Nepal ebook instead of just the Kathmandu Valley one that I did!

An interesting collection of historical images of Bhaktapur can be found at the Digital Archaeology Foundation website.  I have learned that it is a yet another project of Dave Ways whose Kathmandu Valley ebook I downloaded!

 Related Posts:

Bodhnath Stupa from Stupa View Terrace and Restaurant

Swayambhunath – Dorje with Stupa in background









Related Posts: 

The Kathmandu Valley And Its UNESCO Cultural Heritage Sites

 Swayambhunath: Buddha Eyes Over The Kathmandu Valley

The Boudhanath Stupa – The Heart Of Nepal’s Tibetan Community


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6 Responses to Nepal’s Kathmandu Valley: The Temples of Bhaktapur

  1. Garry Paget says:

    Ramblin’ Boy…U sure do get around…beautiful photography, as always. Thank you!! Garry

    • true_north says:

      Garry, I’m planning to go back to Kathmandu and the Nepalese Himalayas next April one last time. Got a great hike around Manaslu in mind with a side trip up a recently opened Tsum Valley rich in Tibetan culture. Interested?

  2. Hello and Namaste,
    I´ve found your nice and expressive informations and pictures in the web googling for informations about the Kathmandu Valley.
    My name is Friedhelm Nunnemann, a German retired automotive engineer, who visited Nepal since 1998 many times.
    Apart from hiking and trekking I´m very interested in the religious and cultural art and architecture of the people of the Kathmandu Valley.
    At the moment I´m constructing a website and I´m looking for pictures of temples, shrines, chaityas and sculptures of the valley to complete the database of this page.
    It would be nice and helpful if you could allow me to reproduce some of your fotos. I assure that my website is absolute non-commercial and I will quote your name as the source and owner of the pictures.
    It would be nice to get a positive answer on my request.
    With best regards and greetings from Germany
    Friedhelm Nunnemann
    PS My next trip is 2018 Around Rural Kathmandu Valley

    • true_north says:

      Friedhelm – greetings from Toronto! We clearly share the same interests!

      Feel free to use any of the images that suit your purpose. Do note that I also made use of some images to show the effects of the 2015 earthquakes. If you let me know which photos you want to use I can send you the larger files instead of the lower quality website ones.

      I have not been in Kathmandu since 2006! I will be returning in April 2018 to do a trek in the Mustang/Phu Valley region. I will be in Kathmandu May 5 to 7 – hopefully enough time to revisit some of the sites. This time I think I will find a room near the Boudnath stupa for a couple of nights.


      • Garry Paget says:

        Ramblin’ Boy, interesting comment! I’ll have to followup with Friedhelm’s website and watch its growth. Yes…I’m still interested…I do have have a necessary expense in June 2018 which may deplete my travel account and not allow for it but I shall work on the funding. This is one of those “once-in-a-lifetime” things I don’t want to pass up. News @ 11…!! Garry

      • true_north says:

        Garry – I’ve decided to do an oragnized camping trek in the Mustang region. After a week in the Kali Ganddaki valley we head east from Tsarang to the Damodar Himal region and traverse over glaciers to the Phu Valley. Should be an epic trip – I am a bit concerned about the altitude. We cross a 6050-meter pass after sleeping at a high camp at 5500 — in the past I have done okay. See the details here:

        So far there are five people signed up for the April trip. I am assuming it will be a go and am going to book my flight this week.

Your comments and questions are always appreciated, as are any suggestions on how to make this post more useful to future travellers. Just drop me a line or two!

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