It’s a little past six on a crisp October morning. The
vegetable sellers and worshippers have already assumed their positions at
Taumadhi Square, in front of the Kashinath and Bhairav temples. Just around the
corner, two sickly peepul trees are being smothered in attention: touched,
stroked, smeared with powders, smoked with incense, with sticky grains of rice
stubbornly clinging to their yellowish leaves. The individual rocks and statues
on squares and in the side streets, on thresholds and in shrines, receive the
“What is god/ and what is stone/ the dividing line/ if it exists/ is very thin.../ and every other stone/ is god or his cousin,” composed the Maharashtra poet Arun Kolatkar after he had visited the pilgrimage town of Jejuri. He could have been talking about Bhaktapur.
Branching off from Taumadhi, one of the streets lined with arts and crafts shops—still closed—takes us to Durbar Square, the focal point of this city that was, from the end of the 15th to the second half of the 18th century, a kingdom unto itself. Along with the two competitive kingdoms, Kathmandu and Patan, it thrived under the Malla rulers, trading with both India and Tibet, and remains one of the architectural and cultural phenomena in the Valley.
The early birds have by now flocked to the Shiva Guest House for another kind of ritual—morning coffee served with the view of some of Durbar’s wonders: the 55 Window Palace, the famous Golden Gate or Sun Dhoka that leads into the jealously guarded Taleju temple, the Chyasilin Mandap or the Pavilion of the Eight Corners, the sandstone shikhara of the Batsala Devi temple, and, right in front of your face as you sip your first espresso of the day, the erotic wood carvings of the Pashupatinath temple.
A winged humanoid goat with phallus in erection, fixed on the wooden struts on all four corners of the temple, is hard to miss. He bears a striking resemblance to the Greek god Pan: the oversexed, ithyphallic deity of herds and shepherds, who spends his music-and-pleasure-filled days in the bucolic idyll of Arcadia, chasing nymphs.
The Christian devil or the pagan Christ of the more modern interpretations, his appetite for life, uninhibited sensuality, and decadence inspired artists and writers such as E. M. Forster, D. H. Lawrence (think of his novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover), or Picasso (who saw in him the embodiment of the triumphant Parisian spirit that defied the Nazi invasion in the summer of 1944).
Could the two be related?
Observing from a high vantage point, you’ll notice that most of the city’s
gardens have taken to the air: nimble cats saunter and skip over tin hot roofs
framed with pots of flowers and herbs which are regularly watered by equally
non-acrophobic women. It seems somewhat of an indispensable indulgence in a
city so chronically plagued by water shortage. Down below—at squares and in
courtyards—the old Newari tanks, imaginative zoomorphic waterspouts, and
stepwells are still in place, though a lot of them a bit muddied and not well
maintained. Each was traditionally a responsibility of a specific community
or guthi, but, as architect Jonathan C. Spodek warns, the strict
social ties are nowadays slowly disentangling, leaving the water sources often
unattended. Still, stacks of plastic containers can be seen waiting around them
at all hours, ready to be filled and taken home. But underground, the precious
water is slipping through the cavernous pipes and seeping into the soil while
the city thirsts.
Circumventing these squares and rectangles of open space, the labyrinthine streets of Bhaktapur crisscross for a while and then abruptly stop before the green and brown fields extending toward the jagged peaks of the Himalaya in the north, and Kathmandu suburbia in the west. The city, with a more or less defined perimeter, is penetrable at several points and at the main gates, tourists are charged a fee.
Robert I. Levy, an anthropologist and psychiatrist who spent time here in the 1970s, concluded that Bhaktapur is an “archaic”, traditional city, a “mesocosm out of time.” What he meant is that it’s a highly caste-based universe in which symbolic and ritual gestures—along with the year-round religious festivals—govern the psychology of its inhabitants. Just the kind of city, he adds, that might have been prevalent in premodern times, before chaos, reason, and pragmatism took over.
Building on Levy’s findings, scholar Michael H. Jameson suggests that there are noticeable parallels between Bhaktapur and the classical Greek city-state or polis, and lists a few to prop his claim: the fierce female Tantric goddesses, the protectresses of Bhaktapur, find their counterparts in the Greek chthonian ones; the city as an entity is—in both cases—punctuated by sacred markers such as shrines, rocks, springs, or trees, whose power, Jameson reveals, is “activated” by religious processions. Or take for example both the Greeks’ and Bhaktapurians’ underlying fear of pollution and anarchy.
But what also makes the South Asian cities different from
the Greek ones is their mandalic, yantric structure, explains Jameson. Besides
being an architectural layout, the mandala is also a scheme for organising
caste – low castes occupy its margins or the outer domains, while the more
privileged gravitate towards its centre.
And just as Levy has left us with this compelling image of a city frozen in time and ritual, his student, Steven M. Parish—who also spent a significant amount of time in Bhaktapur, talking mostly to the same people and witnessing the same events—takes it one step further. There are as many Bhaktapurs as there are Bhaktapurians, he argues. Bhaktapur is not one but “a plurality of imagined cities within a single urban space”.
Adding to this, scholar Gregory Price Grieve illustrates how this city, and especially its marginalised communities, perpetually remake and symbolically reposition themselves through impromptu religious festivals. In doing so—to borrow his words—they forge ever new mandalic spaces.
There is a palpable no-nonsense air about the renowned Vienna-born architect
Götz Hagmüller as he is sitting in his tastefully renovated, old Bhaktapur math
(a slice of paradise as he calls it), smoking a cigar, with piles of papers,
notes, and sketches scattered on the kitchen table in front of him. The gallery
is overlooking the light-flooded atrium, with a more than 30-year-old sinewy
bougainvillaea curling all the way up in fragrant purple bouquets.
Hagmüller came to Bhaktapur 36 years ago to manage the German Bhaktapur Development Project, with the aim to restore some of the city’s progressively decaying signature buildings, as well as shabby infrastructure. The venture continued until 1986, manoeuvring the daunting red tape and juggling the demands of the local community (who were worried that the city—and themselves in the process—will turn into a prettified scenography for tourists, and therefore insisted on more pressing concerns, like sewage and water supply).
After that, the Bhaktapur Municipality took charge, and Hagmüller has stayed on ever since in the city, with his wife Ludmilla Hungerhuber, who runs a theatre in Kathmandu.
“New projects were constantly cropping up around the Valley, so there were good reasons to remain here,” says Hagmüller who then went on to renovate the Royal Palace in Patan and convert parts of it into the Patan Museum (one of South Asia’s finest), as well as the Garden of Dreams at Kaiser Mahal in Kathmandu. Along with the well-known German architect Niels Gutschow, he also worked on the master plan for the facelift of the Swayambhunath Stupa.
Between 1987 and 1990, Hagmüller and Gutschow took on an ambitious and unusual project: the reconstruction of the elegant 18th century Chyasilin Mandap or the Eight Cornered Pavilion at Durbar Square, which was destroyed in the earthquake that shook the Valley in 1934. The Pavilion was a perfect spot for functions and welcomes, for observing religious festivals from an elevated and secure position, and, a stele in front of it reveals, royal poetry competitions.
“We got the exact measurements from old photographs and etchings, and found some of the Mandap’s original pillars reused after the earthquake in other structures around Bhaktapur. The old was then blended with the new. But a lot of detail design and execution was left to the skilful local artisans, since we had no existing records of what they originally looked like,” says Hagmüller. The Mandap is now earthquake-proof, thanks to a sophisticated internal steel structure.
The two architects have even made a documentary about the project. It shows how the bricks for the Pavilion were baked in the family factories around the city, each one of them hand-caressed into shape, with undivided attention paid to every line and curve. A moving record of many Bhaktapurians’ engagement with the project on daily basis, the film closes with a religious festivity jostling around the new Mandap now crammed to bursting with spectators. “The festivals here are truly spectacular,” says Hagmüller when I ask him about his favourite things when it comes to living in Bhaktapur.
Several weeks later I return to the city to meet with Rabindra Puri, an
awarded architectural conservationist and builder of an indefatigable cheer and
drive. Puri is committed to restore the traditional Newa architecture of
Bhaktapur, and the rest of Nepal, to its former glory.
While I wait for him in the shaded courtyard of his first restoration project, the famous Namuna Ghar—a more than a century-old crumbling farmhouse transformed into a traditional Newa-style villa—I’m looking at his ongoing projects, future projections, and self-imposed timeframes displayed on a poster board. One of them is the Museum of Stolen Art, to be located in the picturesque town of Panauti.
“Around 80 per cent of Nepal’s art has been stolen or sold under the counter, mostly during the 1980s, and now lies in private collections or museums around the world,” Puri explains. “This museum is simply a private effort institutionalised.”
He says it all started with a friend’s phone call several years ago, telling him that four Nepali stolen artefacts were being auctioned at Christie’s in New York (some wooden covers of religious manuscripts that had once mysteriously disappeared from the archives in Nepal, but a police report has never been filed). There was not much anyone could do. Except Puri.
He gathered the evidence retroactively, contacting professors and art experts before sending a detailed report to Interpol’s US headquarters. In six months, the artefacts were safely flown back to Nepal. “The Museum will function as a form of public pressure to return Nepal’s stolen art, by exhibiting the replicas of the same,” he adds.
The inside of Namuna Ghar is cosy and warm for the ample use of wood, with a lot of soft light diffused through the windows, terrace spaces, and the tree tops outside. Puri combined the conventional Newa architecture and interior design with the modern extravaganza of shower cabins and round copper tubs and sinks. There are fireplaces, cushions by the windows, bookshelves with Goethe’s and Hesse’s works, Spanish dictionaries, and studies of Nepali heritage. It’s clear now why he insists on these traditional houses with such conviction.
We climb all the way up to the final, fourth floor where the kitchen always is. He orders tea and excuses himself for five minutes to give a live radio interview in Nepali, answering probably some of the same questions I’m about to ask him, with the same effortless ebullience. “I’m quite sought after these days,” he says with a smile after he’s hung up, adding that he has to deliver a lecture at the Association of Engineers in Kathmandu later in the afternoon.
Erudite in a variety of subjects, from law to sculpture, he worked under Hagmüller on the restoration of the Royal Palace in Patan and the setting up of the Patan Museum. “In 1990 I went there as a sculptor, and three years later emerged as an architect,” says Puri. “But it was after one long walk around Patan and a sleepless night over all those exquisite buildings falling into disrepair, that my life took a definite U-turn. I devoted myself to restoration. These days I have to reject commissions for the lack of workforce. At the moment I train around 250 artisans to help me renovate or build all the houses that clients order. I would need at least double that number. But the Nepalis are fleeing abroad.”
From Namuna Ghar’s courtyard, he takes me on a walking tour of Bhaktapur, and I try to keep up with his jaunty pace, notebook in hand.
Not far is the Toni Hagen House, said to have been one of the first cement buildings in Nepal. When the Swiss geologist Toni Hagen came here in the 1960s, he denounced it as an eyesore in this exquisite city. Well, not anymore. Puri converted this one as well into a beautiful example of Nepal’s signature architecture, and named it after the geologist. Today it also houses a gallery that sells art replicas to support the future Museum of Stolen Art.
We walk further. Next to the rectangular Nag Pokhari (literally, Snake Pond), Puri points toward the unfinished ground floor of a house in progress. Snakes crowd the newly added tympanum, and ripple along the façade like an extended lintel. “I want this square to represent the Nag Lok,” he says, “one of the three mythological worlds, the underworld.”
As I look around the yellowish pond, I see a mélange of concrete buildings (with a few traditional ones in between) which are not too aesthetically pleasing. “It would be great to redo all of them as well,” Puri says, swerving into a shack next to the snake-tympanum house. It turns out to be a workshop in which several stone cutters and craftsmen are absorbed in manufacturing the replicas for the Museum of Stolen Art.
Leaving them in a whirlwind of dust and chisel blows, we enter the entangled network of alleyways leading away from the pond. Their grid is defined by a number of mutually connected courtyards of Buddhist monasteries or bahas, some with beautiful, old chaityas in the middle. Restoring as many of these atriums is yet another one of Puri’s projects.
“I’m a dreamer, as you can see,” he says, never stopping to linger. Briskly, we pass some kids moving pieces over a carrom board, then skim past the Navadurga Temple where a scruffy, barking dog is tied to the fang of a stone lion guarding the entrance, futilely trying to tear himself away. “For her annual festival,” Puri explains, still pushing forward, “men enter the temple, dress as the Goddess Durga, and come out as her.”
At around 6.30 p.m., the load-shedding is right on
schedule. In semidarkness, the city’s pagodas, shikaras, stone
elephants, Garudas, and lions appear as if made of papier-mâché.
I’m again at Taumadhi Square, where groups of mostly older men (with exception
of a girl) have started to gather on the patio in front of the Kashinath and
Bhairav Temples to sing bhajans and beat their cymbals and damarus.
Above them, the narrow undulating strip of red, gold-rimmed fabric—which lines the pagoda roofs—seems to be slithering in the breeze in an endless linear progression. One of the men attempts a melody, but bursts into violent cough and spitting. Then another one picks up and slowly the drummers join in.
By now, the only lights erratically zigzagging through the deepening dark are the blinding front lights of motorcycles—a persistent complaint of many Bhaktapurians. If not for them, the atmosphere would be almost entirely medieval.
A couple of days later I read in The Kathmandu Post that solar lights are being installed around Bhaktapur’s famous attractions. “The lights will glow the brightest between 6 p.m. and midnight,” the article quotes Nuttan Dev Bhattarai, the deputy manager at Nepal Electricity Authority. “After midnight, they will dim gradually before going off in the morning.”