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Published: June 23rd 2005
Patan's Durbar SquarePatan
More compact, more concentrated and more the city's focal point than its namesake in Kathmandu
has a unique atmosphere which is due to its compact scale and the remarkable vivacity of its temple architecture, with a Durbar Square more densely packed with Hindu temples than Kathmandu, and a total of 55 major temples and 136 monasteries. Also known as Lalitpur ('beautiful town'), Patan is officially the Kathmandu Valley's second largest city, although it has now been effectively absorbed into Kathmandu. It is said that the city was designed and built after the Buddhist wheel of righteousness. Patan is surrounded by four big stupas - one at each corner of the cardinal points; all but the Northern stupa are now mostly grassed over. These monuments are said to have been built by the Indian Emperor Ashoka when he came to Kathmandu Valley on his pilgrimage tour during the 3rd century B.C. Regardless of its veracity it has been convenient to believe that such a pilgrimage did indeed take place and this has served to promote the city's worthiness as an historic Buddhist centre.
A taxi took us directly to the southern side of Patan's Durbar Square
, this way our first impression was already one of ancient monuments noted for their exquisite craftsmanship and architectural beauty.
A truly outstanding example of Nepal's craftsmanship in wood carving
Already upon our arrival around 9 a.m. it had started to rain lightly and the towering dark clouds did not promise good weather, so we decided to visit the Royal Palace
first. Its exact origins are unclear but date back as far as the 14th century, but the bulk of its construction occurred during the 17th century. The complex was badly damaged twice in its long history, for the first time in 1768 during the Kathmandu Valley's conquest and again in the 1934 earthquake, so that of the original seven chowks
(courtyards) only three remain, each enclosed by a palace building. The first courtyard was closed due to repair works but the doors to the second courtyard (Mul Chowk)
were open (we were a little early, it officially opened at 10 a.m.). We were highly impressed by the many examples of fine craftsmanship, including statues of various deities, metalwork and finely carved roof struts. Unfortunately, the main entrance to the palace building was closed but we could admire two beautiful brass statues which flank it. These represent the shakti
, a female divinity of creative energy, often associated with Shiva. One of them is Ganga standing on a tortoise, the other
Friendly Nepalese men
Many Nepali men wear this special kind of hat. The pattern is said to indicate the region they come from
is Yamuna standing on a mythical crocodile, which by the way is a very common image to be found practically on every temple. Apart from the metal statues we mostly cherished the delicately carved roof struts, all of them depicting Bhairab, the fearful tantric aspect of Shiva. The fact that remains of colour, mostly blue, was visible on them led us to the assumption that in former times all of the wood work had been painted. What splendid impression it must have given! As mentioned before, we were the first visitors, and a guard asked us whether we were interested in seeing the Royal Bath to the east of the chowk, normally not open to visitors. Of course we eagerly agreed, not shunning the bhakschisch he logically expected. On our way there, we came across excavation works, where we encountered the curious and friendly looks of the labourers. The Royal Bath, now dried out, is set in the Bhandarkhal Gardens, and comparable to a modern swimming pool, but adorned with nice stone statues of wrestlers and lions and with the exquisitely carved dressing room. We took our leisure to walk around in the pool and admire the stone work, the
Entrance to the Royal Palace
The Royal Palace occupies the entire area to the east of the thoroughfare of Durbar Square
guard definitely merited all the money we gave him.
In the meantime the sun had come out again and we hoped for better weather to be able to continue our visit in peace. We strolled to the first temple at the southern corner of the thoroughfare, the Krishna Mandir or Chyasim Deval
. Built in 1723, the only octagonal temple in Durbar Square is completely made of stone with some fine sculpting. It may well be artistically and religiously less important than the other Krishna Mandir in the centre of Durbar Square but nevertheless its appearance struck us, as we were reminded of a Renaissance Italian building. We did not have much time to explore it, as it started raining again and we had to look for appropriate shelter. We quickly chose Durbar Square's most famous and most spectacular temple, the Krishna Mandir, not due to its outstanding artistic features but because of its open colonnaded sides which promised decent protection. We stayed there for more than an hour, as an initial trickle turned into a downpour. We were officially still in the pre-monsoon season, monsoon was said to start only in the second week of June, but we had
Second courtyard of the Royal Palace
It is filled with beautifully carved doors and roof struts
obviously encountered its precursors. The weird fact is that the start of the monsoon season is officially laid down (by the king or his chief meteorologist, we ignore), this is proclaimed in every newspaper and the people also put a religious faith in it. But will the monsoon really stick to this official date? We doubt it. Anyway, we had a nice strategic position and there was a lot to watch. Mostly, people were not in a hurry despite the heavy rain, they walked on calmly with their umbrellas which usually protect them against the burning sun but also come in handy in case of rain. We had smirked at people's plastic slippers but now we understood it better, leather shoes would immediately be soaked and would take a long time to dry. We saw a man with a huge multi-coloured umbrella carrying glasses of chai to somebody who could not do without the hot and stimulatory drink. The thoroughfare quickly turned into a stream, obviously the sewage system could not cope with the huge amounts of water. As there was no continuous sidewalk, people either had to jump from one part of it to the next but since this
Roof strut in the second courtyard
This is Bhairab, a fearful representation of Shiva
was not possible everywhere, they simply waded in the water (only men, women were not in a hurry and preferred not to soil their saris). And with a bicycle they had to follow the course of the flooded street anyway. When the rain finally stopped, the sewage system took over and had soon absorbed all the water. The dirt and garbage that was left over on the thoroughfare was quickly and efficiently cleaned up by several troupes of street cleaners. We have to admit that we were really impressed by the Nepalese efficiency and were once again reminded of the country's cleanliness, especially in comparison to India's filth. We had a quick lunch in one of the restaurants on the western side of Durbar Square, then we went to several temples out of Durbar Square.
First we headed north, some 300m from Durbar Square we reached the Kumbheshwar Mandir
, an imposing five-storeyed temple (one of only two examples in Nepal) dedicated to Shiva. It is the oldest existing temple in the city, construction of the original temple on this site dating back to 1392. The whole structure is acclaimed for its dimensional equivalence, an asset which doubtless helped survive
Nepali guard observing the first tourists
Don't the colours of his clothes perfectly blend with the ancient wood?
the destructive earthquake of 1934. What struck us apart from the impressive structure with five roofs, was the presence of a high number of goats on the temple's premises. They were all well fed and roamed around freely, but we wondered whether they were meant for sacrifices, as this was a special day on which in another place many animals were sacrificed. Our questions concerning this issue were politely but firmly negated and we learnt that these animals lived there in honour of Lord Shiva. We again had the opportunity to watch scenes of true religious life, a group of men was making music and a never ceasing line of devotees queued to offer gifts and to get blessings in return. The Hindu and Buddhist religions still form a very strong part of people's daily life, something that unfortunately is no longer true of Christian religions.
We went further north to the Northern Ashokan Stupa
, the best preserved of the temples assigned to the Indian Emperor Ashoka (3rd century B.C.), all of them the evidence of the city's ancient religious importance. Its exterior has recently been renovated and it was a pleasure discovering the group of chaityas
Amazing wooden structure above a door
The second courtyard of the Royal Palace teems with such wooden structures, which are made of several panels
part of the circumference wall at the base of the stupa. After this visit we again went back towards Durbar Square, our next destination, the Golden Temple
being one of Patan's Buddhist temples not to be missed in any case. The three-storeyed pagoda does not unjustly bear this name, its lavish decoration, the proof of fabulous craftsmanship, is truly overwhelming. First you enter the central courtyard guarded by a pair of decorative stone lions. It is surrounded on three sides by lines of prayer wheels which form the inner enclosure of a continuous veranda. A large bell hangs beneath a gilded canopy near the entrance to the main temple, while above the entrance is a series of 12 carved images of the Buddha. On either side, the eyes of the Buddha are engraved into the bronze border and two richly decorated elephants stand guard. We were standing dumbfounded in the small courtyard, all the decoration in gilded copper was almost too much for our eyes. Apart from the metal components, there are beautiful carvings on the walls and paintings depicting a complete life history of the Buddha to be found.
We still did not have enough of temples, Hindu
The first tourists
Peter is fascinated, while Stephan tries to find out what he sees
or Buddhist, and passed by Durbar Square to some monuments to its south. The first being the Rato Macchendranath
temple, another major religious site revered by both Hindus and Buddhists. It is venerated as an abode of Macchendra(nath), the guardian deity of the Kathmandu Valley, guarantor of rain and plenty. A number of pillars supporting statues of various creatures related to the Tibetan calendar stand in front of the elaborately decorated main entrance, and a large bell hanging from a Tibetan style shaft is to the left. The courtyard is filled with sculptures of animals including horses, lions and bulls. The lower roof of the temple is tiled, while the upper two are overlaid with copper. Carvings on the struts of each roof depict various deities with lesser beings deferentially at their feet. We moved a little further and hit upon giant chariots provided with very high masts filled over and over with prayer flags. We were wondering how they would be moved through the streets with the electric wires hanging extremely low. We later learnt that these chariots are part of a chariot race related to Macchendranath. The deity is repainted in red (rato=red) each year before the race
Statue in the second courtyard
The main entrance is flanked by two brass images of the Shakti, Shiva's female form
and trundled through the streets of Patan. The culmination point is a festival, strategically timed prior to the onset of monsoon.
The next temple on our list was the Oku Bahal Mandir
, one of the oldest temples in Patan. The tiled lower roof of the two-storeyed pagoda temple is topped by five decorative stupas and small statues of peacocks. Above the highly adorned entrance are bronze friezes with various Buddhist representations. Inside the rectangular complex are courtyards alive with statues of elephants, peacocks, Garudas and (remarkably many) lions, as well as mirrors, woodcarvings, bells and a statue of the prime minister responsible for rebuilding much of Kathmandu after the earthquake. While the two photographers tried to make photos with not too many details on them (almost impossible), Klaudia tried to have a little rest, for her the numerous richly decorated temples were almost too much to bear.
Moving closer to Durbar Square again, the last temple of that day situated to its southeast, was the Mahabouddha Mandir
or temple of one thousand buddhas. The temple tightly hemmed by the surrounding buildings is a masterpiece of terracotta (reminiscent of an Indian-styled temple with a curved temple tower) and each
Situated within the Bhandarkhal Garden it is currently being restored
of the 9,000 or so bricks is said to carry an image of the Buddha. Unfortunately we have to believe this to the letter, we did not have the energy to check it! Surrounding the shrine are numerous friezes depicting scenes the Buddha's life and a small shrine is dedicated to Maya Devi, Buddha's mother.
We left Patan exhausted but extremely happy to have seen so many incredible and beautiful buildings in a relatively small area. Once again we noticed that Nepal's tourism industry was hit hard, we had met so few foreign tourists in such a magical place!
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