Nepal's Three Royal Cities: Restored and Resplendent
The hippies have decamped from Nepal’s Kathmandu Valley, and there’s a new buzz as some of the world’s most magnificent temples and palaces get a major face-lift.
A hush descended on the tiny stone courtyard, an expectant lull in which every footfall, every cough, the beating of a pigeon’s wings resounded like a thunderclap. Outside, Kathmandu’s diurnal jangling of rickshaw bells and motorbike horns seemed part of another world. At a nod from their guide, a group of Japanese tourists put away their cameras.
Without warning, a child appeared at the window. No more than eight or nine years old, she gazed sternly down on the assembled foreigners, pouting slightly, looking mildly inconvenienced. Her eyes were exaggerated with thick lines of kohl reaching all the way to her temples. She had bright-red lips and her hair was bound up tightly in a topknot. Dressed entirely in red, she had gold ornaments around her neck and bangles on her wrists. Her tiny hands, with red-painted fingernails, clasped a wooden rail across the bottom of the window, as if she were a captain at a ship’s helm.
Just as suddenly she was gone, leaving a flutter of red curtains.
I’d just caught a glimpse—or had darshan, as the Nepalese say—of the living goddess, or Kumari, of Kathmandu. The practice of worshipping Kumaris was once widespread in the Kathmandu Valley, a lush emerald-green region about twice the size of Martha’s Vineyard and ringed by the Himalayas. The tradition remains strongest in the valley’s three ancient royal cities—Kathmandu, Patan, and Bhaktapur. The Kumaris are chosen at around the age of three or four from the valley’s indigenous, relatively well-educated Newar community, after being put forward by their parents as candidates. Astrologers then select the girl with the most auspicious horoscope, after checking her for physical imperfections like scars or birthmarks. Life for the chosen girl becomes a rarefied existence governed by centuries-old codes of behavior; her friends and family can visit, but they must show her deference. The Kumari of Kathmandu is regarded as the guardian of the nation, and her reactions are scrutinized for presentiments of earthquakes and civil unrest. Every year, Nepal’s president kneels at her feet to receive her blessing. When the goddesses retire at puberty, they become mortal again, joining the swim of everyday life.
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The Kumaris remain a tender echo of a time when Kathmandu, Patan, and Bhaktapur were resplendent capitals of separate kingdoms just a few miles apart. From the late fifteenth century up until Nepal was unified in the eighteenth century, the so-called Malla kings of those cities would build palaces and splurge on temples and devotional sculptures honoring the region’s blend of Buddhist and Hindu deities. The most vivid reminders of these old kingdoms are the “Durbar Squares”—the open plazas in front of the palaces, which contain temples, devotional columns, dancing platforms, public bathing tanks, water fountains, and other striking architectural features. “As an ensemble,” wrote the English journalist Perceval Landon in the 1920s, “the Durbar Square in Patan probably remains the most picturesque collection of buildings that has ever been set up in so small a space by the piety and the pride of Oriental man.”
In 1934, however, the devastating Bihar earthquake—which killed more than ten thousand people in India and Nepal—severely damaged all three cities. In the aftermath, materials were scarce, leading to the hasty reconstruction of some structures and the abandonment of others—a courtyard of one temple in Patan, for example, was used for years as a latrine and garbage dump.
It took time for the West, and its dollars, to notice. In 1979 the Durbar Square of each city was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And recently, restoration projects, overseen by the Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust and other nonprofits, have been dusting off and illuminating the architectural and sculptural treasures that once defined the valley’s peak of power and beauty.
“The gods live with us in Kathmandu,” said Gyam Man Pati Vajracharya, a Buddhist priest I’d met several years earlier through a Nepalese filmmaker friend. He and I had just climbed the steps to the top of the Maju Deval Temple after seeing the Kumari in the window. “All these temples were made by people who were pure of heart, who followed the niyamas—religious laws and disciplines. They knew how to make places the gods wanted to live in. We have to preserve the conditions that allow the gods to stay here. But nowadays, that is not so easy.”
Gyam Man and I surveyed the crush of street vendors, marigold sellers, monks, sadhus, lottery touts, dark-skinned Indian boys wheeling bicycles loaded with fruit, clerks and office managers and civil servants rushing to work, and sherpas from the hills staggering full tilt, heads bowed, under some monstrous load such as an oven or a refrigerator. As we sat up there, with the temple’s red valance fluttering in the eaves above us and chimes tinkling in the breeze, it was easy to feel how history folds into myth in Kathmandu, the world of the imagination reaching its fingers into every crevice, and to understand why residents of the Kathmandu Valley consider themselves to be, quite literally, in the lap of the gods.
In the adjoining square of Basantpur—once the royal elephant stables, where the trinket sellers now lay out their mats like magic carpets on the pavement—I could see the entrance to Freak Street and the open shutters of the flat where my teenage friends and I had spent a hedonistic summer in the 1980s. Back then, the Kathmandu Valley was clinging to the hippie era. Throughout the 1960s and ’70s, the valley had become the end of the line for a stream of rainbow buses crossing the great continent of Asia from Europe. It was then that I first saw a Kumari—we used to enter her courtyard and, if we were lucky, catch sight of her when she appeared at her window.
But now the freaks have vanished—either grown up or gone to Goa—and there have been dramatic transformations on the political scene. Nepal is no longer a kingdom. King Birendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev, the avuncular figure we used to see taking part in festivals in his trademark shades and clipped mustache, was murdered by his own son, the crown prince, along with nine other members of his family—gunned down in their billiard room at a family soiree in 2001. The popular uprisings that followed heralded the peaceful conclusion to a decade-long conflict with Maoist insurgents in the hills and, eventually, the end of Nepal’s monarchy in 2008.
Today Nepal is looking to the future, and foreign investment is returning with confidence. Under the new democracy, archaeological finds that were once the preserve of kings and priests are being opened to the public.
“Kathmandu was founded by the great bodhisattva Manjushri, in the shape of his sword,” said Gyam Man. The crux of the sword, he explained, was in the heart of the city, where two mighty trade routes would one day connect—one running south to north, from India to Tibet and China, and the other east to west, from Bhutan and Sikkim to Mustang and Kashmir.
To Nepalese Buddhists like Gyam Man, Manjushri was an enlightened being associated with transcendent wisdom and a key figure in the origins of Nepal. The creation story they tell is that in ancient times, the Kathmandu Valley contained a lake—that much, at least, is corroborated by geological evidence. Manjushri is said to have drained away the waters by slicing through the mountains with his sword, at the place now known as Chobar Gorge, to make the valley habitable for the Newars.
The historical record is almost as lyrical. The early Licchavi kings—shadowy figures ruling between roughly the fourth and ninth centuries A.D.—seem to have built palaces here at the sacred confluence of the Vishnumati and Bagmati rivers. But Kathmandu took its present shape as a city in the time of the Malla kings.
That evening, as I sat cross-legged and barefoot on cushions in the Krishnarpan restaurant at Dwarika’s Hotel, on the outskirts of Kathmandu, a waitress wearing a traditional red-bordered, calf-length black sari showed me how to leave a sample pinch of every dish as an offering to the gods. To the Newars, eating is a pleasure laced with sacredness and ritual. I ate, as she instructed, with the fingers of my right hand, my left discreetly tucked away in my lap. The starter was samay baji, an assortment of lentil cakes, black-eyed peas, spiced shredded buffalo meat, duck egg, ginger, and puffed rice. I was too inept to drink Nepalese-style—pouring a stream of water from the spout of a vessel into one’s mouth without touching the lips—and opted instead for a hand-cast bronze goblet. Pan-fried river fish followed, then roasted quail and tender spiced lamb kebabs. (Most Buddhists and Hindus are meat eaters in Nepal—only sacred cows are exempt, and pigs, which are considered polluted.) Then came momos (steamed dumplings) and stuffed bottle gourd, followed by the Nepalese staple of dal bhat (steamed rice with lentil sauce), chicken curry with spicy tomato salsa, and piquant hog-plum pickle, served on a hammered-bronze dish. Dessert was the Five Nectars, an emulsion of substances honored for their purity: milk, ghee, yogurt, sugar, and honey. At the end of eighteen exquisite courses and feeling fat as a raja, I flicked water at my mouth and rinsed my fingers in a purifying oblation.
The taxi ride to Patan during rush hour the next morning took forty-five minutes, even though the city is only three and a half miles from the heart of Kathmandu. Bouncing about on spent shock absorbers over the Bagmati River, exhaust fumes chuffing through the driver’s open window, horns blaring, I wondered if it might not have been better to walk. But the pavements themselves were an obstacle course of potholes, balloon vendors, fornicating stray dogs, and the odd recumbent cow. I was heading to Patan to meet with Dr. Rohit Ranjitkar, program director of the Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust and a conservation architect. Upon my arrival, the chaos of the road gave way to the calm of the ancient city. With justification, predominantly Buddhist Patan still goes by the ancient name of Lalitpur—City of Beauty. Here, a gentler rhythm of life prevails. The streets were a riot of smells: turmeric, ginger, marigolds, cardamom, fresh meat, incense, fried onion, and cow dung. In sunken stone bathing tanks, women in clinging saris were washing their hair. Children chased one another around Buddhist chaityas, or miniature stone stupas. Courtyards echoed with the hiss of bellows and the tap of hammers from bronze casters making statues of gods and goddesses, Buddhas and bodhisattvas. Once, these skills were sought by Kublai Khan. Today, the “god makers” of Patan work on commission for devotees and collectors in Taiwan, Japan, Korea, and Tibet and for Buddhist sanghas (“communities”) in the United States. In shop windows down Patan’s labyrinthine backstreets, displays of golden deities attracted the eyes of tourists.
There is something of Maya, the demon architect of Hindu mythology, about Ranjitkar. We met in his office in a beautifully restored nineteenth-century merchant’s house with traditional wooden stair-ladders between floors. Amid maps and plans and ancient texts, he showed me before and after photographs portraying the phoenix-like rise of temples and towers from piles of rubble—buildings that had collapsed from earthquakes or simply from neglect.
“We’ve restored thirty major temples and monuments in the valley in the past twenty years,” Ranjitkar told me. “But there is so much to do. The job is endless.
“We don’t have a hugely romantic view of history here,” he added. “We are always dreaming of the new. The people are still very devout, but when they donate to a temple nowadays, it’s modern ‘improvements’ they’re after. That’s why you see old temples with shiny new bath tiles on the floor. The impetus for conservation has come from abroad. But I think the tide is slowly turning—Nepalis are beginning to appreciate their architectural heritage.”
Ranjitkar led me across Durbar Square, skirting temple plinths and stone columns bearing kneeling kings cast in bronze. Patan’s Durbar Square is arguably the most spectacular of all and is mercifully closed to traffic. A fantasia of temples line the left-hand side of the square, while the royal palace stretches more than three hundred feet down the right. In the distance, I could see the snow-covered peaks of the Himalayas.
Building here went into overdrive in the seventeenth century under one of the valley’s most illustrious kings, Siddhinarasimha Malla. Though Hindu by birth, he, like his cousin kings, subscribed to the valley’s unique blend of Hinduism and Buddhism, offering dedications to deities of both persuasions. His subjects considered him to be divine, a manifestation of Vishnu, the Hindu preserver of cosmic law and order.
Perhaps loveliest of all the structures he commissioned is the Vishwanath Temple at the far end of the square, dedicated by Siddhinarasimha to the god Shiva in 1627. The roof of the temple collapsed during heavy rains in 1986, Ranjitkar told me, and many of the roof struts carved with deities had to be replaced, though the ancient wooden pillars stood firm.
Across the way, on platforms on either side of the golden-gated entrance to the royal palace, sat a row of old Newar men in topi caps, waistcoats, and suruwal leggings, indulging in leisurely gossip as visitors passed between them through the imposing repoussé bronze doors. This part of the palace, restored in the 1980s under a joint venture between the Nepalese and Austrian governments, now houses the astonishing Patan Museum. On display in the brick-and-timber galleries, where cool breezes play through lattice windows, is a collection of beautiful sacred art dating back to the eleventh century—mostly cast bronzes of Hindu and Buddhist deities from the Kathmandu Valley. The exhibitions—ranging from the lost-wax process of bronze casting to the meditative mandala design of temple buildings and stupas and the esoteric practices of Nepalese Buddhist and Hindu Tantra—are intended to open one’s eyes to the living culture lying beyond the museum’s walls.
Ranjitkar and I entered the palace complex through a courtyard next door, where artisans were chiseling finishing touches to windows and roof struts featuring multi-armed goddesses carved out of sal wood. The pieces are slotted together in the traditional way with no nails, like a puzzle, and jammed into the walls. Past the shadowy porticos, ducking our heads through another tiny doorway, he led me into the Bhandarkhal, the former palace garden. There before us, full to the brim and as exquisite as the day it was created nearly four centuries ago, was the newly restored royal bathing tank—a sunken pond seventy two feet long and six and a half feet deep, stone lions standing guard at the corners. At the far end, freshwater gushed from the mouth of a snarling makara water-creature. Beside it, the king’s Kathmandu Valley pavilion—an elegant pagoda with carved wooden pillars—has been replicated based on a nineteenth-century painting by Henry Ambrose Oldfield, the surgeon at the British headquarters in Kathmandu.
It was hard to believe there was nothing but rubble and scrub here seven years ago. The garden had become a dumping ground for debris after the 1934 earthquake. A tidemark on a nearby wall, almost as tall as Ranjitkar himself, revealed the depth of the excavations undertaken to reach this buried treasure.
“Reconnecting the old water supply has been particularly challenging,” Ranjitkar said as we sidestepped a man carrying buckets suspended on a length of bamboo across his shoulders. In ancient times, water—a signature feature of Malla palaces, and meant not just for the king’s pleasure but also for spiritual inspiration—was ingeniously channeled into the valley through underground aqueducts flowing directly from snowmelt in the mountains. It is now a scarce commodity: The water for the royal bathing tank is brought in from a twenty-two-foot well more than a mile away.
Ranjitkar steered me to an adjoining part of the project, the mid-seventeenth-century Sundari Chowk (“Beautiful Courtyard”), which until recently served as the local police station. In the center of the courtyard is what many consider the crown jewel of Newar stone-carving: the Tusha Hiti, a recessed well accessed by steps and decorated with seventy-two images of gods and goddesses, the assembly encircled by the giant coils of a naga, an aquatic snake-god. Facing the well is a large stone platform used by King Siddhinarasimha.
“He was very religious,” said Ranjitkar. “We believe this stepwell represents a mandala—a kind of blueprint for the universe—that he used for meditation.” To increase the intensity of his devotions, the king would sit on the platform naked in midwinter and, in summer, surround himself with blazing fires. So great were his powers as a siddha, or enlightened being, that he is said to have been able to walk on water to pick lotuses for the goddess Taleju. Of all the deities in the valley—purported to number more than a million—the Malla kings regarded Taleju as the highest of all. It was she, the kings fervently believed, who guided their hand in everything, filled them with shakti (divine energy), defeated their enemies, and showered them with glory. They worshipped her in the body of a living child—the Kumari tradition that continues to this day.
Unlike the Kumaris of Kathmandu, the Kumaris of Patan and Bhaktapur receive visitors, who can simply drop in off the street at any time, although Saturday morning—that being the day of rest for Nepal—is the most popular time for offering. (The Nepalese government gives the Kumaris a modest pension that goes toward the cost of prayer materials and a private education; devotees provide the rest.) So the next day I walked to a modest traditional house, five minutes from Patan’s Durbar Square, that was marked with a small red sign indicating the residence of the Kumari. I was in luck. She had not yet begun her daily lessons, though her tutor would be there soon. Her mother led me up the dark, wooden stair-ladder. I waited while the eleven-year-old girl prepared to receive me. There were some faint whispers from inside her room, then her mother lifted back the door cloth, ushering me in. The Kumari was sitting bolt upright on her throne against a backrest of green and silver nagas, their heads conjoined in a protective canopy above her head. The whites of her eyes flicked up as she watched me enter. Her long black hair was combed tightly into a bun on top of her head and tied with red ribbon. Thick lines of kohl defined her eyes, elongating them like lotus petals. A clot of reddened rice from the morning’s prayer ceremony clung to the center of her forehead. Her bare feet, stained red and protruding beneath a scarlet skirt of satin brocade, rested in a bronze offering-tray. For reasons of ritual purity she can leave her house only on festival occasions. Outside the courtyard, she must be carried—either in the arms of her father or on a palanquin—so her feet don’t touch the ground. She was clutching the sides of her throne with regal authority.
As I entered, I couldn’t resist smiling at her endearingly serious face. Her gorgeous eyes returned an uncompromising glare. If the Kumari smiles back at you, Nepalis believe, it is an invitation to heaven and you will die. In the smoky gloom, the Kumari’s mother ushered me forward. I knelt down on a rice mat and, bowing toward the Kumari’s tiny feet, surrendered the gifts I had brought—a tin of felt-tip pens and a stuffed lion from England—and a small donation of rupees. I craned forward to receive her blessing, and the cold, wet touch of vermilion paste from her fingertips sent a tiny shock wave through my forehead.
A similar sensation returned to me later that evening. In my airy room at the Traditional Homes Swotha, a stone’s throw from Durbar Square, I was lying in shavasana—corpse pose—after a yoga session booked for me by the French manager of the hotel. Yogi Narendra Shrestha, who seems blessed with the perpetual smile of a Buddha, was kneeling by my head, gently stirring a singing bowl, generating a hum like a swarm of bees inside my brain. Its vibrations were running through me in waves. The singing bowl was composed of an amalgam of five sacred metals hammered into shape during the hours of twilight, an auspicious fragment of an older bowl added to the molten brew during the casting. The sound it emitted was from the DNA of history, since the first Newar Buddhist priest, instructed by the bodhisattva Manjushri, sent the first resounding om reverberating around the valley.
If Patan moves at a gentler pace than Kathmandu, Bhaktapur—City of Devotees—barely eight miles east of the capital, is in a slower gear still. Out here, where the rice fields have so far resisted the modern construction boom, the symbiotic flux between land and city remains an unbroken continuum. Freshly dyed yarn hangs from rickety wooden balconies, and unhindered by traffic, farmers leave rice out on mats in the brick-paved streets to dry in the sun.
Predominantly Hindu Bhaktapur is a city of potters, painters, and sculptors. As I wandered the backstreets, I heard chisels on stone and lathes on wood. It was the eve of the festival of Vishvakarman, presiding deity of artisans and architects, and paintings of the god were being hung in every workshop in the city. New tools, as yet unused, were waiting to be blessed.
Rabindra Puri, a German-trained Nepali architect whose renovation of a traditional house in Bhaktapur won him a UNESCO Asia-Pacific Award for Cultural Heritage Conservation, showed me one of his workshops, where a stonemason was chipping away at a statue of Vishnu, the god once believed to be incarnated by the kings of Nepal. The sculptor was wearing a T-shirt that read CLOSE YOUR MOUTH AND OPEN YOUR MIND.
“In Nepal we’re lucky,” Puri told me. “We still have the skills to work with. Young people are coming back to their traditions. It’s more than a job. There’s a spiritual connection.”
As we walked, the distant sound of people singing bhajans, or devotional songs, echoed against the redbrick walls. “This is what I miss when I’m away from home,” said Puri. “If I don’t hear it for a few weeks, I feel a hunger for it.”
In Bhaktapur’s Durbar Square, boys were launching bamboo-and-paper kites from the steps of Vatsala Durga Temple, then running down into the open square to tug them higher into the sky. The strengthening afternoon breeze was lifting the veil of pollution that had been hanging over the valley all day. At the far end of the square, the snowy peaks of the Himalayas, rising between golden roof finials like the upstanding petals of a bodhisattva’s crown, seemed almost within reach.
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