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Published: June 27th 2005
Bhaktapur's Dattatraya Mandir
Full view of the temple dominating the Dattatraya Square with the Garuda statue
The second day trip which we undertook from Kathmandu brought us to Bhaktapur
, the smallest of Kathmandu Valley's three cities, lying some 10km east of Nepal's capital. The city retains a simplicity far removed from the trappings of 21st century life and gives the impression that little has changed there for centuries, that little is set to change and, happily, that it is a city at ease with itself. With its three main squares, Bhaktapur has arguably the Kathmandu Valley's finest panoply of the regional temple architecture. Either side of the squares is a network of narrow lanes, earthy red colours dominate the cityscape and the architecture is still very traditional: typically, two or three storey wooden or brick houses with protruding upper floors or roofs, decorative window frames and a low entrance. Although Bhaktapur has a predominantly Hindu tradition, a Buddhist presence is maintained in the city's shrines and monasteries. Unfortunately, many show the sign of neglect, many have been converted and others have fallen into disuse.
The early history
of Bhaktapur is vague, credit for its founding is widely attributed to a king in the late 9th century. The peak of the city's influence was between the 14th
Well guarded entrance to Dattatraya Mandir
Bhakatpur's two famous wrestlers, said to be ten times stronger than any other men
and the 16th centuries when it became Kathmandu Valley's de facto capital. It was fortified in the 15th century. Many of the temples and monuments adorning the three squares date from the late 17th and early 18th centuries. With the unification of Nepal and the selection of Kathmandu as the national capital in 1768, Bhaktapur's influence declined dramatically and the city's development continued largely independently from then.
With Durbar Square less unequivocally a nucleus than its namesakes in either of Kathmandu Valley’s two other cities, we wanted to start with the easternmost of Bhaktapur’s three main squares, also because Dattatraya Square
is the oldest. The taxi driver we engaged in Kathmandu did not know the area well and had to stop to ask his way several times, we almost gave in to being dropped at Durbar Square, but in the end we did reach our destination. To get a first impression of the square, we sat down on the open ground floor of the 17th century Bhimsen Mandir at its western end. We had hardly taken seats, when we were approached by several ladies who started a conversation with us. Of course they wanted to sell something and were
It served as a semi-monastic residence for local priests
rather obnoxious, but they at least did it in a charming way. Nevertheless it was not easy to get rid of them. Although we had already spent some time in Nepal and seen outstanding examples of woodcarving in both Kathmandu and Patan, we were once again surprised that it all could be topped. But that’s exactly what the magnificent buildings opposite of us on Dattatraya Square did! Our looks were unavoidably drawn to the Dattatraya Mandir
dominating the square from the western side, also giving it its name, being the oldest building there, constructed between 1427 and 1458. This temple is dedicated to Dattatraya (who would have guessed that?), a syncretistic deity believed to be either an incarnation of Vishnu, a teacher of Shiva or a cousin of the Buddha. The presence of Garuda standing on a tall pillar opposite the main entrance and, beside it, of a conch shell atop a smaller column, indicate that in this case the deity is primarily worshipped as Vishnu. NB:
Garuda, the mythical eagle, is Vishnu’s vehicle, whereas no representation of Vishnu is complete without one of his hands holding a conch. The Dattatraya Mandir is said to have been built from the
Window opposite the famous Peacock Window
Pictures of the wonderfully carved window, of course...
wood of a single tree, its original purpose is unclear but it is argued that it was built as a pilgrims’ resthouse and was only later developed into a temple by the addition of the second and third floors. What particularly attracted us from the carved wooden structure, were the huge painted statues of Bhaktapur’s two legendary wrestlers, who were reputed ten times stronger than any other men, standing guard at the main entrance. What a unique feature for a temple indeed!
The Square’s southeast corner is formed by the Pujari Math
, a math
being a religious house where prayers and other religious activities take place, this one served as a semi-monastic residence for local priests (puja=worship). The original math
dates from the 15th century, it was renovated and further buildings were added in 1763. Of the many examples of woodcarving, the peacock window
is the most famous. The small window depicts a peacock displaying its fan of 19 feathers in a circular arrangement, a wooden ornament we had already seen in Kathmandu several times, but never before executed with such inimitable artistry. The narrow lane where it is situated is understandably crammed with souvenir shops, some of which
Here it is in all its splendour
offer surprisingly good replicas of the prestigious window. The shop directly opposite the peacock window lets tourists climb to the first floor for a better view for free, what we logically did and we felt also obliged to buy a little something from the shop. Nothing in life is for free, after all.
As we were really crazy about woodcarvings, we bought tickets for the Woodcarving Museum
inside the Pujari Math complex. The small courtyard through which you enter the museum is enclosed by fabulously carved windows which we took a long time to explore, and which in our opinion were as interesting as the exhibits. These include arched windows, roof struts, statues and ornamental carvings most of which date from the 17th century onwards. Two statues of the legendary wrestlers differed from the rest of the museum’s pieces, they dated from the 19th century and were not as finely carved as all the other exhibits, they rather reminded us of statues from the Easter Island. The recently renovated main staircase faces north in accordance with local geomantic practices which prescribe that a staircase must never face south. This small detail in particular interested Peter the architect!
Peacock in the Peacock Window
Doesn't it almost look more beautiful than in nature?
Dattatraya Square we headed southwest to Taumadhi Square
. Although it is quite small and is regarded as an extension of Durbar Square, it contains Bhaktapur’s finest and most impressive temple, the Nyatapola Mandir
, unquestionably the city’s most superb example of temple architecture. With a height of 30m, this is the tallest free-standing pagoda temple in Nepal and therefore completely dominates the square. The five-storeyed temple was constructed in 1708 and, remarkably, emerged almost unscathed from the 1934 earthquake. The successive tiled roofs are supported by fabulously carved and painted beams and struts, with equally decorative windows. On each of the five tiers of the temple's base stand pairs of stone statues that flank the stairs leading to the temple door. These statues have a curious legend associated with them. The two lowermost statues, are of a pair of famous wrestlers who were each supposed to have the strength of 10 men. On the tier above them stand two elephants, which are said to be 10 times stronger than the wrestlers. Above the elephants are two lions, which are believed to be 10 times as strong as elephants. Above the lions are two griffins that are 10 times stronger than lions.
Beside the peacock window...
... a lot of crowing was going on
Above these stand two goddesses, Baghini and Singhini, who are part tiger and part lion, respectively. They are said to be 10 times stronger than the griffins. This progression would indicate that the deity within the temple must be very powerful indeed. Although the interior is accessible only to priests, the temple’s stunning exterior is such a feast for the eyes that we could not get enough of it despite the stiff necks we developed by staring up the steep stairs and the five beautiful roofs, whereby the size of each roof is smaller than the one beneath by a constant proportion. This is according to a well planned geometry whose principles are also followed when extrapolation of lines drawn to connect the corners of the supporting plinths will meet at the top of the entrance door on each side. Not being fully aware of these mathematical details, Peter’s eyes still quickly caught the astonishing symmetry of the temple. For us, the Nyatapola Mandir was by far the most beautiful and fascinating temple we had seen so far in Nepal and we doubted that it could be topped.
To the southeast of the Nyatapola Mandir, the Bhairabnath Mandir
Courtyard in the Woodcarving Museum
The garlic was artistically draped, another attraction beside the woodcarvings
situated, contrasting markedly with the former. The three-storeyed temple owes its rather stocky appearance to its unusual rectangular base and to its originally intended design as a single-storeyed place of worship. The image of Bhairab (=fearful tantric aspect of Shiva) close to the large bell suspended in front of the main entrance is surprisingly small, standing just 30cm high, and we only discovered it when we saw devotees making offerings there. There is a raised platform in front of the temple covering most of the southern part of the square which was used for performances of dance and drama.
Although we were sure to have seen Bhaktapur's highlight, we did not intend to leave without having seen the Durbar Square
area. First we passed a 15th century monastery, the only Buddhist building there, of which parts are occupied by a line of shops nowadays. Then we came by the Fasidega Shiva Mandir
standing prominently on a six stage plinth. Steps leading up to the main entrance were once again flanked by elephants and other animals. To its left, on the eastern side of the Royal Palace complex, we saw the Vatsala Mandir and beside it the Siddhi Lakschmi Mandir
Woodcarvings on all the floors, wherever you looked
with statues of various animals as well as of men, women and children on either side of the steps leading up to the entrance. Unfortunately, it was being repaired and so we could only cast a quick glance at it. By now we had approached the Royal Palace
which occupies a large part of the southern side of Durbar Square. We were quite naturally attracted by the Golden Gate
, widely regarded as one of the most important artefacts in the Kathmandu Valley's heritage. This stunning portal, actually of brass, is set into and contrasts attractively with the main brick edifice. A pair of small gilded lions stand on their own miniature plinth on either side of the remarkably small door, which is surrounded by images of six deities engraved in each side of the vertical brasswork. The door may be small and only of brass, not gold, but we admired it nevertheless, maybe also because it offered a nice distraction from the huge number of temples around. Next we entered the Royal Palace complex, but again we could not enter the famous Palace of Fifty-Five Windows, currently being restored. Due to this, we saw pretty little of the windows which
Who is comimg to see us? Klaudia seems pleased but Peter looks quite sceptical
are considered to be the finest example of decorative woodcarving, but what we saw made us agree with this widely stated opinion. Our way led us to the westernmost courtyard of the Royal Palace complex, the Sundari Chowk
(=beautiful courtyard). It contains a bathing tank used by the ruling family, nowadays the water is completely covered by plants, giving it an incredible colour. The bright green of the water stands in stark contrast to the upright brass naga
(=serpent deity) and another fixed to the base of the tank. Klaudia was very fond of the beautiful snakes and immediately went to embrace them. On our way out we came to another courtyard housing the beautiful Taleju Mandir dedicated to the former rulers' patron deity, having its origin in the early 14th century. The temple is not open for visitors, but we caught a glimpse of it through the entrance, discovering once again a lavishly decorated temple and courtyard. On the Durbar Square again, opposite the Golden Gate, our looks were attracted by King Bhupatindra Malla's Column
, dedicated to the mastermind behind the major development and beautificatiion of Durbar Square. Reverentially seated in a bushel atop a stone pillar, the life-size
Detail of carved window
Example of astonishing craftsmanship inside the Woodcarving Museum
statue of the king wears a turban-like headpiece, while a shield and sword lie by his side. A little further east of the column hangs the large Taleju Bell, used during temple worship and it could double as an alarm. It is also known as the 'Barking Dogs Bell' because is timbre seemingly incites the local canine population to collective bellowing. We did not hear it ring, so we can neither acknowledge nor negate this story, anyway there were no dogs around, only a goat that was proudly presented by its new owner in front of the beautiful entrance to the National Art Gallery. We had another look around Durbar Square, spotting more temples like: the Vatsala Durga Mandir, displaying a curved temple tower and steps flanked on either side by five stone animals leading to the shrine which is attractively surrounded by a pillared porch; the Chayasilin Mandir, Durbar Square's only octagonal structure, which was completely destroyed in the 1934 earthquake. The present pavilion, an attractive double-storeyed pagoda, was modelled from a 19th century photograph and is an exact replica of the original; the Pashupatinath Mandir, its design based on the famous namesake temple on the banks of the
Garuda in the Woodcarving Museum
The statue of the mythical eagle is a strange mixture of male and female
Bagmati River in Kathmandu. The roof struts have carvings depicting scenes from the Ramayana
(=epic of the adventures of Rama, 7th incarnation of Vishnu) as well a some erotic themes.
Durbar Square was also an impressive architectural ensemble, but we absolutely had to go back to the Taumadhi Square, it had left a much deeper impression on us. We climbed to the roof of a beautiful hotel, had some sweets there and stayed for another hour to admire the medieval atmosphere below and the stunning Nyatapola Mandir in the background. This was also when parts of the snow-clad Himalayan Range showed themselves quite clearly. What a wonderful sight and furthermore one to bring us into the mood for our next trip through the Himalayas, from Kathmandu to Lhasa.
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