You could well be in another era here — in time when Nepal was made of three Hindu kingdoms. And then suddenly you are shaken out of your reverie by bright signboards telling you that here is an ATM machine and there a tour operator — both very typical of a tourist town well preserved for its day and age. This is how Bhaktapur, an ancient Newar town in the east corner of the Kathmandu Valley, Nepal, is as it stands today. Temples in wood, metal and stone, cobbled pathways and tight alleys leading to old brick houses, it has all the makings of a well preserved heritage that the UNESCO has declared it to be.
We drove down about 15 kilometres from where we were staying near Swayambhu to this third largest city in the Kathmandu Valley. Once upon a time, Bhaktapur was the largest of the three Newar kingdoms of the valley — the other two being the kingdoms of Kathmandu and Patan. It was also the capital of Nepal during the great Malla Kingdom until the second half of the 15th century.
Even today, the locals refer to it by its old name, Bhadgaon or even Khwopa, a Newari name which means the City of Devotees. A city of devotees it is, given that it houses three major squares full of towering temples comprising of some of the finest religious architecture in the entire country. It is also as rich culturally. As I walked down the cobbled lanes, I spotted many art galleries, weavers and potters shops and even those selling traditional Newari jewellery — all sold at prices much lower than the more commercial Kathmandu.
Shopping is pretty much incidental when you visit this ancient town. But it is how it welcomes you into its fold that leaves a more lasting impression. I walked past the two stone guardians that looked like lions dating back to 1696 AD and into the main Durbar Square.
The square itself houses a grand collection of pagoda and shikhara-style temples grouped around a 55-window palace of brick with exquisitely carved windows in wood dating back to the 15th century. Golden effigies of the kings perched on top of stone monoliths, guardian deities, cut stone structures and intricate wood carvings in every place — lintels, uprights, gateways and windows held me spell bound by the mere thought of how majestic and rich the kingdom would have been in those times.
The Malla kings, who ruled this area from the 12th to the 18th century are said to have their roots in India. It is said that they were forced out of India at some point. References to their Kshatriya lineage can be found in the Mahabharata and even Buddhist scriptures. In Nepal, the Malla dynasty came into power in 1200 AD. Their period is said to be the golden era for the Himalayan Kingdom, one that lasted nearly 550 years.
You walk inside the Lion Gate and into the main square that houses several architectural marvels. The most notable among these is the Golden Gate (Lu Dhowka). A door in gold surmounted by a figure of the goddess Kali and Garuda (mythical griffin) and attended by two heavenly nymphs leads you inside a campus that houses the ancient temple of Taleju Devi.
Traditionally, this temple was only open to the reigning kings, but is now open to only Hindus. Beautifully sculpted archways and window frames showing mythical creatures are a specimen of marvellous intricacy.
This temple is a part of a much larger building, called the Palace of Fifty-five Windows. Built during the reign of King Yaksha Malla in 1427 AD, this palace was remodeled by King Bhupatindra Malla in the 17th century.
Outside, on a column stands the statue of King Bhupatindra Malla, with his hands folded, facing the palace. Alongside at an equal but separate platform is the bronze town square bell, which trolled during those days to announce prayers and special announcements. There are two other notable temples at the square at Batsala Temple, dedicated to the deity by the same name and the Pashupati Temple, which is a replica of the famous temple at Kathmandu.
This is one sturdy structure that towers over the tallest of any building in the whole of Kathmandu Valley. The Nyatapola Temple comprises of five storeys and is said to be the tallest temple in all of Nepal. Built in 1702 during the reign of King Bhupatindra Malla, it is said to have withstood the test of nature’s fury when the 1934 earthquake hit Nepal, leaving only minor damages to the structure.
Temple guardians flank the stepcase as one walks the steep stone steps up to the temple. 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. Each figure is said to be 10 times as strong as the figure on the level below.
The temple is dedicated to Siddhi Lakshmi, a bloodthirsty incarnation of the goddess Durga. It is said that the idol of the goddess is so fearsome that only the temple’s priests are allowed to enter the inner sanctum. The visitors can, however, see less fierce incarnations of the goddess carved on the torana above the door and roof struts.
Life in the modern times
Other than the ancients marvels, it is interesting to note that Bhaktapur is still caught in a time warp. Temples deck the nooks and corners with local priests performing puja irrespective of whether they draw devotees or not. Local bazaars with women selling vegetables and other grocery are a common sight.
I stopped by a local shop selling Nepali pashmina at highly competitive prices. But not before my eye caught a local artist sketching a local boy holding his bag against the Nyatapola temple. His lines were so decisive and fluid, I was instantly in love. Little wonder the charm of the era gone by still holds.