Just 20 km from the hubbub of Kathmandu is Bhaktapur, a UNESCO World Heritage site that is a repository of architecture in stone, wood and metal.
It’s monsoon time in Nepal. The rains crash onto our car windows throughout the 20 km drive from Kathmandu to Bhaktapur, once Nepal’s capital.
Fortunately, by the time we spill out of the car at Bhaktapur, there’s only a drizzle. Declared a UNESCO site in 1979, the ancient city was built by King Ananda of Nepal’s Malla dynasty in the 12th century. Bhaktapur takes us back in time. The city’s architecture is replete with pagoda and shikhara-styled temples, monasteries, private houses and a royal palace. Ornate doorways and windows, the wall crafts, the sculptures in them — of gods, people and animals — hold us spellbound.
Bhaktapur, also called Bhadgaon or Khowpa in local Newari tongue, is a splendid example of a medley of the three forms of art that ancient Nepal excelled in — stone, wood and metal. Terracotta tiles roof most of the structures and also make up the floors and walls; colouring the city in various shades of red. Structures of brown stone and wood are not uncommon either.
According to records, the royal palace here once had 99 courtyards. Now there are only four, after a massive earthquake in 1934, which is said to have damaged 4000 houses. The palace, built by King Yakshay Malla in 1427 AD, is believed to have been remodelled by King Bhupatindra Malla in the late 17th century. He also built the famed Panchapanna Jhyale Durbar (Palace of 55 windows), considered a masterpiece of wood carving. Made of ornate jaali work, the windows are opened once a week, says our guide.
King Ranjit Malla made a golden gate called Sun Dhoka at the entrance of the Palace, often said to be one of the world’s most beautiful richly moulded gild copper repousses — where metal is shaped by hammering from the reverse side. The royal bath or Naga Pokhri in a palace courtyard is an equally stunning sight with a golden faucet and a hooded serpent in stone standing in the middle of the bath. The snake is a common motif across Bhaktapur, as is Garuda, the eagle. The Palace, a part of which now houses the National Art Museum, was home to royalty till 1769.
Ancient Bhaktapur was at the centre of the trade route between ancient Tibet and India. Spread across an area of 6.88 sqkm and was Nepal’s first capital before Patan and Kathmandu came up.
Our next stop is Bhaktapur’s Pashupatinath temple. Built in the 15th century, the Shiva temple is embellished with panels of erotic wood carvings. Though much grander, the Pashupatinath temple in Kathmandu is said to be a copy of this pagoda-style wooden structure. Nearby is the shikhara-style stone Vatsala Durga built by King Jagat Prakash Malla in 1672. Adjacent is the wooden structure, pavilion of eight corners.
Bhaktapur today has three city bustling squares — Durbar square, Taumadhi square and Dattatreya square. The most popular one is, however, the Durbar square, which was featured in the Keenu Reaves-starrer Buddha Bar. Durbar square has the famous big bell and the crowded Tajelu temple, apart from some mandaps, more temples and shrines. The Taumadhi square houses the tallest Pagoda-style temple, a five-storey Nyatpol temple.
The Dattatreya temple, in the square of the same name, is said to have been made from a single piece of wood. Windows of private homes are decorated with ornate dancing peacocks made of wood. Shops around Bhaktapur sell replicas of such windows. Adjacent to Dattatreya is the potter’s square. Potters at their wheels with their wares stacked up for sale is a common sight. Also a tankha training school nearby makes the square an interesting creative corner of the city. The Dattatreya square also has a woodcarving museum, a former pujari mutt dating back to early 15th century.
Being a protected city, no vehicle is allowed within the city limits. We walk through winding paths with the sacred Tibetan Buddhist chant Om Mani Padme Hum resounding from the shops selling local music. There are a clutch of restaurants housed in old structures for those who want to pause and take in history. We chat up with a Newari woman who weaves colourful rani potheys (beaded necklaces typically worn by married women) for us.
Done with Bhaktapur, we hurry into the car. Hoping to cover as much of the picturesque highland as we can on a rainy day, we drive up 20 km to reach Nagarkot, the second highest point of Kathmandu valley. On a clear day, you can see Mount Everest from Nagarkot. No such luck! The highlight of the trip is a sumptuous Newari meal at a local restaurant, complete with rai saag, gundruk and fish curry. We promise ourselves to also taste juju dhau, a speciality yoghurt from Bhaktapur, on our way back. Alas, the rain plays spoilsport. Maybe another day. It will give us an excuse to go to Bhaktapur.