The ambiance of the ancient Newari trading center of Bhaktapur in the Kathmandu Valley of Nepal creeps up on you slowly, like the satisfaction of a rich, unfamiliar yet luscious multi-course meal eaten with the fingers.
The Newars were the original residents of the Kathmandu Valley and the majority ethnic group until the Gorkha conquest of the valley in 1769. Bhaktapur, a center of Newari religion, art and culture, was actually the capital city of Nepal until the second half of the 15th century. Its founding dates back well before written history, when the town sprang up on one of the main caravan routes between Tibet and India. Since then, as with so many parts of the world, successive kings and conquerors added elaborate monuments to themselves and their chosen deities, intermingled with the palaces, temples and monuments of those who held sway before, and surrounded by a thriving town of 75,000 people.
Our approach to the town was like most of our driving experiences around Kathmandu – a hellish maelstrom of honking cars, darting motorcycles, trash and rank fumes, along narrow streets and decaying infrastructure. We had learned to cover our faces with a bandana and focus our eyes anywhere other than on the traffic as our driver darted around cows, dogs and pedestrians, narrowly dodging speeding motorcycles coming the other way, inching past yet another vehicle to get through a narrow street, hand constantly on the horn. Finally we found a spot in a crowded lot of tourist buses and vans, and set out on foot up a side street toward the southwest gate opening into the main “Durbar square” or temple plaza of Bhaktapur.
Along the entry street we got our first sense of the flavor of the town, a thorough and relaxed intermixing of everyday rural life with exceptional ancient art and history. Every open patch of stone and concrete along the entry road was taken up with rice and wheat grains spread out and drying, brightly dressed women raking the grain or throwing it in the air to release the chaff, the associated bundles of straw tied up nearby or in various stages of weaving into mats or baskets that were themselves in active practical use.
Then, as we passed through the gate into the main temple square, we found ourselves surrounded by an incredible richness of ancient architecture, stonework and woodcarving, as well as the vivid and unapologetic mixture of Hindu and Buddhist religious traditions that characterizes Nepal in general. The square had a spacious, open feel, in part because of a major earthquake in 1934 which culled out some of the buildings and monuments, and in part because of the blissful absence of auto and motorcycle traffic.
Our group leader paid our entrance fees and began gamely to lead us around the square, reading descriptions of the various buildings and artifacts from his trusty guidebook (ignoring the insistent pleas of several would-be guides: “We be speaking English! Give you the very best tour! Very good price!!”) The façade of the Palace of the Fifty-Five Windows, dating back to the 15th century, dominated the north side of the square with its elaborately carved, still immaculate Newari woodwork windows. The ornate Lu Dhowka or Golden Gate surrounded a main entry to the Palace, with an extravagant golden lintel that the guidebook claimed to be” the most beautiful and intricate of its kind in the world”. Inside the palace, algae-lined square concrete pools featured no longer functional but beautifully carved stone spigots with alligators (elephants?) swallowing various terrified prey.
A little further on, the five-storied, pagoda-style Nyatapola Temple, built in 1702 AD by King Bhupatindra Malla (obviously a particularly devoted patron of the arts), stood on five terraces, its stone steps flanked by successive pairs of carved marble figures: wrestlers, elephants, lions, griffins, and Baghini and Singhini — the tiger and the lion goddesses. The guidebook informed us, surprisingly, that the pagoda, such a seemingly archetypal form of architecture in other parts of Asia, was actually derived from the Stupa, a mound-like Buddhist religious structure originated first in the third century BC and eventually recognized as a contribution of Newari architecture to the rest of Asia.
As we had seen before in Kathmandu, seemingly every wall around the square carried a small alcove or pedestal featuring stone carvings of Buddha or one of the Hindu deities, all lovingly sprinkled with marigold petals and smeared with bright tikka powder, and many with small piles of petals, tiny yak butter lamps or small incense burners smoking gently.
Our group moved on around the square, increasingly sated by the scale, artistry and sheer age of the structures seemingly haphazardly scattered around us. The spirelike stone Batsala Temple, also atop steps guarded by formidable carved creatures, featured a large bronze bell (apparently known locally as “the bell-of barking dogs,” because when it is rung every morning for worship, it sets all the dogs in the vicinity into a chorus of howling). Further into the town, winding through increasingly dark and narrow streets, we came upon the oldest temple in Bhaktapur, the three-storied Dattatraya Temple, supposedly built from a single tree in 1427. Two stocky, somewhat surprised looking wrestlers guarded the temple, and just behind the temple was a monastery with exquisitely carved and famous wooden peacock windows.
Amidst and around this staggering ancient historical and architectural legacy, ordinary life took its course. A mother cuddled her toddler between the stout legs of one of the elephants on the temple steps. Scrubbed schoolkids in their neat white and navy uniforms walked to school through the square chattering away in pairs and small groups, or toured the various monuments with their teachers in (nominally) orderly rows. As we moved across the square and into the streets of Bhaktapur town, multi-storied brick and wood structures closed in on both sides, some leaning dangerously over the cobbled streets on crumbling foundations and decaying (but still intricately carved) wooden beams. The residents of the town occupied every nook and cranny of the buildings and spilled out colorfully onto the streets to sell their wares. An electronics vendor peddled cell phones and televisions in an alcove surrounded by elaborately carved Newari pillars. Brightly arrayed vegetables and flowers, baskets of beans and grains, bleeding shanks of goat and baskets of live chickens, buckets of slowly swimming catfish, were laid out and overseen by vendors sitting quietly in the shadows of a carved wood or stone entryway. The people lived their lives surrounded by, indeed sometimes perched upon, artifacts and architecture that most cultures of the world would have tucked away into a museum. That, more than any single feature, encapsulated for me the incredible uniqueness of this place. Life in all its grit and practicality surrounded and integrated itself un-selfconsciously with the history, the craftsmanship and the religious symbolism, making both the daily human tasks and rituals and the artifacts richer and more dramatic in the process.
The people of Bhaktapur also clearly embraced their unique culture and artistic legacy, obviously in part to capture tourist dollars but also clearly out of a pride of place and skill. Older expert artisans taught young apprentice woodworkers the art of Newari carving in a woodcarvers’ cooperative inside a dark courtyard opening from a small doorway off the square.
In a falling-down old building down a side alley opposite the peacock window, a factory dedicated to papermaking by hand using fibers from the Daphne bush, shared space with a potter hand-glazing and drying clay vessels in the sun.
Climbing the stairs through the four levels of the paper factory, a jumble of broken stones surrounded an ornately carved pillar, which itself stood in front of the doorway to a small sleeping room with a jumble of recently-occupied mats, blankets and pillows.
From the rooftop, the Langtang Himalaya in the distance, the essence of Bhakatapur and indeed so much of Nepali life stretched in every direction. This way, a cat on a rooftop stared intently at a goat who chewed the fibers of a blanket in a third story window ten feet below.
In another direction, patches of tan-gold rice or wheat kernels were spread to dry in foot-deep piles on small sections of rooftop, people slowly raking the grains with long-handled hoes. More sleeping mats were spread out on other rooftops to catch the cool evening breezes, colorful laundry flapping on lines stretched across above them. Some rooftops had been put to use to grow the ubiquitous cabbages, bok choy and mustard greens we’d seen in so many fields around the country. And interspersed between the ramshackle buildings were the collapsed shells of old temples and monuments, the fragments of pillars and carvings sometimes still recognizable in the rubble. The population of the town occupied every level and corner of every structure, multi-storied, multi-colored, tilting and angled every which way like the London rooftop scene from Mary Poppins (but without the chimneys).
Our group finished our Bhaktapur visit with a stop in a rooftop café in the center of the square, savoring a bowl of the justifably famous Royal Yoghurt (or Curd as it’s called in Nepal) and big bottles of Everest beer. Spread below us, the artisans and hawkers of Bhaktapur sat in their ancient, ornate, crumbling doorways, tourists milling around their scatter of wares and passing their rupees into the local economy. On our way out of town, a line of young uniformed schoolkids screeched “Namaste” and hammed it up for the tall blonde tourist with the camera, laughing and pushing each other like schoolkids will do most anywhere in the world. We had come to see yet another tourist site, and left having been changed and enriched by a people and a place that, in a simple and unpretentious way, wove the ancient and the modern together into a very special and rich multi-course meal with flavors that left these passers-by licking our fingers and cherishing the memory.