Five hundred years ago the Kathmandu Valley had three major towns, each the capital of a kingdom:
- Kantipur (aka today’s Kathmandu)
- Lalitpur (aka Patan)
- Bhaktapur (aka Bhadgaon)
When Nepal opened its borders in 1951, the tidal wave of modern ways swamped the traditional culture of the Valley. The city (pur) of devotees (bhakti) has fared the best in hanging on to its traditions.
Bhaktapur is located on the east side of the fertile 240 sq. km. Valley, which was Nepal until the military conquests of the Gorkha ruler Prithvi Narayan Khan in the late 1700s 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 Kantipur. 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 Himalayan kingdoms, rich in architecture and crafts and artistic expression.
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.
In 2006 I returned again to experience the traffic-free old town. And soon – in April of 2018 – another visit to Nepal! After 21 days spent in Upper Mustang and a traverse via the high pass of Saribung La to the Phu Valley, I will spend a week revisiting the various cultural sites in the Kathmandu valley.
I plan to spend two nights at a guesthouse in Bhaktapur.
Yesterday in a nostalgic moment, I thought I’d take a look at some of the images I took in 1996 and 2006 – and then dumped onto 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 very few pictures that I figured were there somewhere – and barely enough to recreate some of what we saw on our previous visits.
Meanwhile, the Gorkha Earthquake of April 2015 also had a significant impact on the Kathmandu Valley, destroying thousands of homes and a significant number of temples. It left me wondering which of my images were still an accurate depiction of what I would find in Bhaktapur 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 go 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 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.
It also has helped Bhaktapur that a German-government-funded Development Project has, since the mid-1970s, invested heavily in infrastructure (roads and sewage) and urban renewal projects as well as temple rebuilding and maintenance.
Like the rest of the valley, major earthquakes have rattled the city, most recently in 1634, 1833, and 1934. The Gorkha-centred 7.8 earthquake of April 2015 was just the latest natural disaster endured by the people of the valley. (See this article for a list of some of the effects.)
Durbar Square is 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 previous earthquakes, the rulers decided not to rebuild the destroyed temples or pavilions.
And now, after the 2015 quake, town administrators are left with the same question – let go or rebuild?
The above photo (source of the image – 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 rebuilding the temples so that tourists will want to return and see the wonderful Bhaktapur that they’ve read about.
The Golden Gate – also known as The Sun Dhoka and dating to the 1750s – is actually made of brass or gilded copper. Considered 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.)
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.
Looking across from the Royal Palace and the Golden Gate, I can see the Shiva Guesthouse and the shop where I bought the mandala painting on the ground floor.
The three-storeyed Pashupati Temple (also named Yaksheshvara Mandir) sits in front of the Shiva Guesthouse.
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 Buddha teaches us that nothing that is 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 Taleju Bell is the Chyaslin Pavilion, a two-storey wooden structure which had been destroyed in the 1934 quake.
The octagonal building was then rebuilt by German engineers in the 1980s as a gift to the people of Nepal. They somewhat controversially used 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.)
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.
Just as in ancient Athens, temples in the Hindu world essentially house the representation of the deity being honoured. 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.
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. It was an unremarkable structure that 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. From the internet-sourced image below, it looks like the cleanup has been done.
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 I toured Durbar Square, I headed for the south end of Taumadhi Square for some lunch. I picked the rooftop café for its incredible views of the 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, with their copies of the guidebook sitting on their table! While the LP series of guidebooks has encouraged hesitant travellers to boldly follow in its footsteps, unfortunately, it can become a crutch and a limiting factor in your experience of new places. The thought was – If it doesn’t get a Lonely Planet mention, it can’t be any good! However, it may be that in the past decade, we’ve moved on to trip advisor and other web-based apps to tell us where to eat and sleep and what to see.
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.]
I would go down into the square, make my way through the day market, and past the vendors with their sundry items – clothing, shoes, and plastic household goods.
The Nyatapola (built in the early 1700s 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 the 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.”
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 perhaps practising locals. Above the door is a torana with the same arrangement as the one at the Golden Gate. On both, the Garuda figure hovers over the central image of the goddess.
I looked down from the vantage point on the Nyatapola’s top platform and surveyed the Square. This square, not Durbar Square, is considered the real heart of old Bhaktapur.
3. Dattatreya Square (Tachupal Tol)
On previous visits, we did not get up to Tachupal Square, the city’s original main square, with the Dattatreya and the Bhimsen Temples. There are now a couple of museums, one highlighting woodcarving and the other brass and bronze metalwork. I will take the time – and perhaps even find a guesthouse on the square to stay overnight. The Peacock Guesthouse gets excellent reviews and might be my choice. 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. Besides the clay pots drying in the sun in the middle of the square, there are many handicraft 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 collapsed entirely or were 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 seem inconsequential.
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 that 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 expect the worst after reading articles like this 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 well-researched and up-to-date information. 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 I did!
An interesting collection of historical images of Bhaktapur can be found on the Digital Archaeology Foundation website. I have learned that it is another Dave Ways project, whose Kathmandu Valley ebook I downloaded!
The above author Dave Ways has also written the best summary of the state of the three Durbar Squares in the Kathmandu Valley post-2015 Earthquake and its aftershocks. What he writes makes me feel that Bhaktapur is the right choice for my last couple of nights in Nepal before I head for Tribhuvan International Airport and the flight back home to YYZ (Toronto). Check out this Dave Ways’ blog post from September 14th, 2017 –
I found a Government of Nepal (Archaeology Department) report from February 2017 at the UNESCO World Heritage site. (See here for the UNESCO web page where I found it under the heading SOC Report by the State Party. It is labelled 2017).
The report has a few pages (pp. 24-31) on the state of various temples in Bhaktapur. You can also download the entire 1.4 Mb pdf file from my website here. I am hoping to see visible progress from last February when I visit.
I’ve already booked two nights at the positively reviewed Peacock Guest House in Dhattatreya Tol. After almost three weeks in a tent, a bit of luxury will be my reward!
The Peacock (reviews here!) will be my base camp as I spend two days wandering the streets and alleys of my favourite urban corner of the Kathmandu valley with my cameras. The classic Newari house dates back 700 years and was initially used as a pilgrims’ rest house. It will be a photo op in itself!