Tales from Bhaktapur
Arriving in a taxi, the first thing that caught my eye about Bhaktapur was the warm, rust-red brick that seemed to glow in the fading afternoon light. It was our first day in Nepal, and Bama and I had come straight from Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan airport, where we navigated a melee at baggage claim to get our well-worn backpacks off the conveyor belt. Fellow blogger Lex had likened her own experience at Tribhuvan to a wrestling match, and we could see why: no one knew exactly which of the two belts inside the overcrowded hall would spit out their luggage. In the confusion that followed, it took a certain amount of stoicism and readiness not to be shoved aside by aggressive Indian matriarchs.
Thankfully, the pulsing crowds did not follow us on the half-hour drive east to Bhaktapur. The nondescript multi-story houses on either side of the Araniko Highway gradually gave way to empty farmland and the smokestacks of brick kilns dispersed among the fields. On the edge of town, we stopped momentarily to pay the entrance fee and pick up three-day visitor passes that seemed almost as old as the red-brick buildings themselves. While more than half of Bhaktapur’s 100,000-odd residents make their livelihood from farming, the place also harbors its share of craftsmen, and is well known for its woodcarvings and pottery. Even the visitor passes here come with an artisanal touch: each one depicts the temples and palaces of Durbar Square on fibrous lokta paper, handmade from the bark of a high-elevation shrub.
The taxi driver deftly took us through a warren of herringbone brick-paved streets before coming to a halt on the well-worn flagstones of Taumadhi Square. Stepping out of the cab, we saw how our hotel was just two doors down from Nyatapola, an early 18th-century pagoda and a beloved local icon. It was a photo of this exquisite temple, this noble landmark dominating the square from its tiered pyramidal plinth, which had stirred in me a deep desire to pay Bhaktapur a visit.
Most come to Bhaktapur on a day trip from nearby Kathmandu, but Bama and I had given ourselves several days to wander its winding, medieval-era arteries, and marvel at the sculptural details and the continuity of time-honored traditions. We left our hotel first thing in the morning to see artisans molding pottery into shape from wads of wet clay, before placing them in neat rows on the paving stones to dry in the sun. At every turn, in the bronze lions marking the entrance to an important building, the fabled Peacock Window just off Dattatraya Square, and the erotic woodcarvings on the 15th-century Pashuputinath (or Yachheswor Mahadev) Temple, we saw evidence of the artistic prowess of the Kathmandu Valley’s indigenous residents – the Newar people.
No historical period has shaped the city more than the Malla Dynasty, which lasted for five and a half centuries. Its first king, Ari Deva, came to power around 1200, and as news of his son’s birth came while he was engaged in a wrestling match, the monarch decided that the names of his descendants would include the suffix “Malla”, the Sanskrit for “wrestler”. Though it’s likely that Bhaktapur existed in some form as early as the ninth century, records credit Ari Deva’s grandson Ananda Malla for founding the city and growing the population to 12,000 households. A devastating invasion by Sultan Shamshuddin Ilyas of Bengal in 1349 left the Kathmandu Valley in ruins, with plundered Hindu and Buddhist temples in its wake. But Bhaktapur would emerge from the chaos in a matter of decades as the heart of Nepalese culture and civilization.
Through a combination of marriage and military might, Jayasthiti Malla subdued rival rulers, quelled the restive nobility, and unified the patchwork of bickering kingdoms that surrounded his realm. Bhaktapur was now the royal capital of Nepal Mandala, an ancient confederation encompassing the fertile Kathmandu Valley and much of the Himalayan foothills beyond. 17 generations of Malla kings would rule over the valley from their seat in Bhaktapur, climaxing in the 53-year reign of Yaksha Malla – Jayasthiti Malla’s grandson – from 1428-1482. His military expansionism saw the Malla domain stretch from high Himalayan passes like Kyirong in modern-day Tibet to the dense malarial jungles of the southern lowlands, covering an area of roughly 20,000 square kilometers (more than 7,700 square miles). The oldest section of Bhaktapur’s royal palace, the Mul Chowk (1455), dates to this period, as does Dattatraya Temple on its namesake square.
Then in 1482, with the passing of Yaksha Malla, the kingdom was divided among his sons, becoming a trio of rival principalities: Bhaktapur, Kantipur (Kathmandu), and Lalitpur (Patan). Although this arrangement created never-ending squabbles over the ensuing three centuries, the Mallas were equally fond of making art as they were of war. What transpired was a cultural blossoming throughout the Valley, with the ruler of each kingdom vying to outdo the other two in the scale and beauty of the temples and palaces adorning their respective capitals.
That royal rivalry ushered in a golden age of Newari architecture. Bhaktapur at its peak was a magnificent sight, with no less than 172 temples and monasteries, along with 77 man-made pools and 152 wells to meet the needs of its denizens. Many of its grandest surviving monuments – not least the soaring Nyatapola pagoda – were commissioned by Bhaktapur’s penultimate king, Bhupatindra Malla (who reigned from 1696–1722). Perched atop a stone column in the act of worship, his gilded likeness on Durbar Square faces the ornate Palace of 55 Windows, a project first undertaken by his father but completed under his reign. Bhupatindra Malla is said to have expanded his palace to 99 courtyards, and at its entrance, craftsmen began work on the Golden Gate, richly molded with mythical creatures and nymphs in gleaming metalwork (it was only finished by his successor Ranjit Malla in 1754).
Ever the architecture enthusiast, Bhupatindra Malla was also responsible for Chyasilin Mandap, the wondrous eight-cornered pavilion whose complete reconstruction I detailed in an earlier post, built to protect his palace by deflecting the negative energy radiating from the yoni (female fertility symbol) inside the adjacent Shiva temple.
These lavish building projects were largely financed by the lucrative trade with Tibet, Nepal’s northerly neighbor. Situated at the head of two separate overland routes into Tibet, the Kathmandu Valley was an important place of transit for caravans transporting musk, wool, salt, and Chinese silk down from the Himalayan passes, and traders who brought all manner of goods from the lowlands of northern India. For well over a hundred years from the mid-17th century, the Malla kingdoms were also granted the exclusive privilege to mint Tibet’s coins, a task for which they were handsomely rewarded in silver and gold.
The prosperity of the Kathmandu Valley drew the attention of Gorkha, a tiny hill-state (and the ancestral homeland of the famed Gurkhas) to the west. Its ambitious king, Prithvi Narayan Shah, had spent three years as an honored guest at Ranjit Malla’s court in Bhaktapur, and desired the wealth and prestige of the valley’s three principalities. Thirty years later, he achieved what his father Nara Bhupal Shah could not: his modernized army marched out of its mountain stronghold and proceeded to conquer them one by one. Though the Gorkhali forces were beaten back twice, thanks to stiff resistance at the hilltop town of Kirtipur, a breakthrough came during a vicious battle in 1767, when scheming local noblemen switched sides to aid the enemy. Kathmandu and Patan capitulated two years later, and Bhaktapur fell in the winter of 1769 with the help of two defectors from the court and the ruler’s own illegitimate sons. Remembering the kindness bestowed upon him as a palace guest in his youth, Prithvi Narayan Shah allowed Bhaktapur’s last king, the elderly Ranjit Malla, to go into exile in Varanasi.
Kathmandu became the capital of the Shah Dynasty, and Bhaktapur was relegated to being an ordinary market town. But obscurity is a double-edged sword, and while modern-day Kathmandu chokes on incessant traffic and sprawls haphazardly in concrete and brick, Bhaktapur is much smaller and far more manageable. A long-term restoration and sanitation program has brought back some of its original luster, much of the old city is pedestrianized, and all new buildings in Bhaktapur must adhere to traditional styles. Temples and other monuments that toppled in the 2015 earthquake are also being rebuilt.
Aside from its rich history and architecture, the food, too, left a deep impression. Dining at the hotel on our first night in Bhaktapur, Bama and I agreed that the momos were the best ones either of us had ever tasted (and they still are). Served with a piquant chili-and-tomato dipping sauce, the juicy dumplings yielded toothsome fillings of spiced buffalo meat. We also tried the traditional Newari specialty of samay baji, a colorful platter of beaten rice with no less than seven side dishes: black soybeans, sautéed strips of garlic and ginger, chicken chhoyala, a fried egg, chunks of spicy potato, peanut masala, and a small heap of sautéed beans.
I am admittedly not much of a morning person, but I gladly rose early for a hearty breakfast and cups of hot masala chai on the upper floor of Café Nyatapola, which offers some of the best views of its namesake pagoda from a pavilion on Taumadhi Square. Another culinary highlight was the yogurt called juju dhau, literally “royal curd”, so wondrously smooth and addictive that during a subsequent stay in Kathmandu, I openly pondered making the schlep back to Bhaktapur so we could taste it one more time. We didn’t, of course, thanks to Bama’s level-headedness, but I am certain that we will someday return. ◊