My next few weeks are crazy, so I figured I should get this post out before it gets lost in the shuffle! This upcoming weekend, we have a holiday on Friday, so Adil and I are going to head to Lumbini, the birthplace of Buddha. The following weekend, we’re hosting our international gender conference, and the weekend after that is the SAARCLAW Conference, and then the Monday following that conference I am off to the mountains for two weeks! …and it will be March already. Time really does keep on slipping into the future. Steve Miller, what a wise soul.
Anyways! This past weekend was excellent – we are officially into spring here (sorry friends getting -40 weather…) which means I was in the sun as much as possible, hitting that mid 20 degrees. Friday night some friends hosted a small social gathering where I reaffirmed my status as a champion beer pong player (that’s a resume skill, or at least the pro circuit is a backup career, right?). Saturday was spent mainly on a rooftop patio, and Sunday, Adil and I headed to Bhaktapur, the third largest city in the Kathmandu Valley.
Historically, there were three Malla kingdoms in the Valley, of which Bhaktapur was the largest. The other two kingdoms were Kathmandu and Patan. Patan is essentially contained within Kathmandu now, separated just by the Bagmati River, so the two are quite similar in appearances. Bhaktapur has a different feel – for one, there is way less traffic so the air felt so fresh, and it generally has the vibe of a medieval city.
The ancient name of Bhaktapur is Khwopa, and it is still referred to as such by some. Alternatively (because most things in Nepal are just generally confusing for newcomers like me), it is also known as Bhadgaon. Colloquially, it is also known as the City of Devotees.
Bhaktapur had, for a very long time, been described as the best preserved medieval city-states, but was hit pretty hard by last April’s quake.
The city was likely founded around the ninth century, and by 1200 was the ruling city of Nepal. As Nepali history is told, the king at that time, King Aridev, was called out of a wrestling match to hear of the birth of a son. The king gave this son the hereditary title Malla, meaning wrestler, and carvings around the temples still feature wrestlers prominently.
It was the capital of Nepal until the late 1400s, when the then-king divided the kingdom to the three states for his three sons. The Royal Palace in Bhaktapur’s Durbar Square was the principal seat of power in the Valley until the city was conquered by the Shahs in the mid 1700s. It was the last of the three capitals to surrender, and was then relegated to being a secondary market town. To this day, it supports many artisans: cloth weavers, potters, and woodworkers, among them.
Bhaktapur is definitely proud of its carvings, for good reason. The wood carvings are so intricate and beautiful, and appear all over the city – in random alleys, doorways, and all over the temples.
But, these aren’t the only notable carvings in the city. In 1701, one of the Malla kings commissioned a sculptor to create two pieces to guard a courtyard off Durbar Square (it was destroyed in a 1934 earthquake, and now the sculptures flank the entrance to a school). On either side of the gate are Bhairab, probably the most intimidating incarnation of Shiva, and his consort, Ugrachandi. After completing the sculptures, the king had the sculptor’s hands cut off to ensure he wouldn’t duplicate the works in any of the other cities in the Valley.
Despite the earthquake damage, there are still some pretty impressive sights in Bhaktapur that survived. At the entrance to the palace in Durbar Square is a golden gate (which is actually gilt copper). Its construction began in the early 1700s and was completed in 1754.
In through the gate into the palace complex is a temple that looks extremely impressive – I would not know because it’s another one of those no blondes allowed situations aka only Hindus can enter. But! I was allowed to check out a very cool water tank.
If my internet allowed me to, I would insert a gif here of Nala saying, “The water hole? What’s so great about the water hole?” Buuuuut, my internet cannot come close to handling that (see previous post re: loading gmail) so… imagine that.
It’s called Naga Pokhari, and dates back to the 17th century. It was historically used for bathing rituals of the idol from the temple I wasn’t allowed in. The pool is encircled by cobras, with another cobra rising from its centre.
There are several tanks throughout Bhaktapur, many with snake-motifs, and there is in fact a festival during which rice offerings are made to the nagas. Nagas are snake spirits that control the rain, and some of them are evil. According to the legend, a holy man once tried killing an evil naga by transforming himself into a snake, and told his attendant to wait beside the lake with a bowl of magical rice, which would turn him into a human again. The man was successful in killing the naga, but when he came from the water, his attendant was scared and ran away, leaving the holy man trapped in snake form. So, during Naga Panchami, locals leave rice out in case the holy man decides to return.
Outside the palace complex in the square, there are several temples and buildings that suffered a lot of damage, but again, a lot worth seeing.
Within literally a five minute walk is another main Bhaktapur square, called Taumadhi Tole. Taumadhi Tole is home to Nyatapola Temple, which is the tallest temple in all of Nepal. Despite being dedicated to a goddess, Siddhi Lakshmi, the temple is named for its architectural dimensions – nyata, meaning five-stepped, and pola, meaning roof.
Not that that means you should take ol Siddhi Lakshmi lightly. She may be obscure, but she is one of the most bloodthirsty incarnations of Parvati. Her idol is apparently so terrifying that only priests are allowed inside the temple.
You can go up the steps to the temple, however. Up the levels, on either side of the staircase are pairs of sculptures – at the bottom, the famous wrestlers Jayamel and Phattu, then elephants, lions, griffons, and two goddesses. Each figure is apparently ten times stronger than the figure on the level below it.
And, we are not even done with Bhaktapur’s squares yet! There’s more! Will it ever end? I don’t know!
Obviously after wandering so much, we had to get some street food from the most obvious of places.
And had to eat some more! Bhaktapur is known for producing juju dhau, or ‘the king of the curds’. It’s a yogurt/custard treat, and it is so amazing. The best way to get it is from a random hole in the wall, which is obviously what I did, to no ill effect. I actually love the yogurt in Nepal generally, which may be polarizing for some Westerners because it has a stronger flavour than plain Greek yogurt, but I’m into it.
And with that, I will leave you with the less touristy photos of Bhaktapur I have – other than, obviously, the official Lonely Planet recommended shop!
Good night, good afternoon, good morning and good luck friends!