Large square with historic buildings and tourists
Architecture,  Monday walks,  Nepal,  Squares,  Street photography

In ancient Bhaktapur, a royal capital

Bhaktapur lies a little to the east of Kathmandu. At its heart is a series of lanes and squares that seem little changed for centuries. Here more than anywhere in the country I felt immersed in the ageless atmosphere of Nepal.

This was once the country’s capital, but in the late 15th century the kingdom was divided between three royal sons. The following years saw intense rivalry between the three kingdoms of Kantipur (now Kathmandu), Lalitpur (today often known as Patan) and Bhaktapur, resulting in an explosion in the arts and architecture in all three. And while Kathmandu and Patan suffered badly in the 2015 earthquake and many of their historic buildings are still undergoing (or even awaiting) restoration, Bhaktapur’s are in much better condition. They escaped much of the destruction felt elsewhere in the area because a previous earthquake, in 1934, affected this city worse than most and consequently its historic buildings were restored and, crucially, reinforced at that time.

Exploring Bhaktapur

We drove here one morning with our Kathmandu guide Pritik. The first treat came as we parked, before even entering the old city. A group of Buddhist monks were coming along the street collecting alms. In the bright sunshine they were far easier to photograph than those we had seen before dawn in Luang Prabang a few years ago.

Young boys in yellow robes with metal bowls
Young monks
Young boys in yellow robes
Young monks

We then spent a morning strolling Bhaktapur’s streets, soaking up the atmosphere of this beautiful city. I especially enjoyed observing how the locals lived effortlessly among the ancient temples and historic buildings.

Join me for a (rather long) Monday Walk with Jo, and I’ll throw in some squared photos for Becky’s Walking Squares too.

Into the ancient city

Pritik led the way past several small temples, patiently waiting as we took lots of photos everywhere. Here was a couple winnowing rice, using a small electric fan to create a breeze. And here was a lady lighting butter lamps at a temple, and nearby another tidying a small shrine.

Couple with trays and lots of grain on the ground
Winnowing rice
Woman lighting small lamps
Lighting butter lamps
Woman photographed from behind looking into an opening
Tidying a shrine

And there again, at another temple, children were laughing and playing chase around the old stones. They also played up to my camera!

Girl peering from a doorway
Temple play
Girl peering from a doorway
Temple play

Of particular interest here were some of the smaller wood carvings on the temple; erotic, as they often are, but unusually here also involving animals!

Durbar Square

We arrived at last in the town’s Durbar Square, shown in my featured photo. This is an irregularly shaped space packed with interest. Pritik explained how King Bhupatindra Malla, a sculpture of whom looks over the square from a tall column, had replicas built here of many holy sites so his people didn’t have to travel to see them. They include several Hindu stupas and a copy of Pashupatinath Temple. As in Kathmandu’s Durbar Square there was clear damage remaining from the 2015 earthquake, although many structures have already been restored. And as in that square, I didn’t manage to take in all the details of which temple was which, there were so many!

On one side of the square, next to the ancient Palace of 55 Windows, a golden gate leads to a temple complex with a large well known as the Snake Pond (for its sculptures, not its inhabitants!) and a temple where all photography was unfortunately banned, even outside.

Golden lion and elephant
Above the golden gate
Relief figure of Hindu god in gold
Detail of the golden gate
Relief figure of Hindu god in gold
Detail of the golden gate
Sunken square pond with stone carved into snakes around it
The Snake Pond

Here are some more details from the square, this time squared for Becky!

Talako and Taumadhi Squares

When we had seen, and photographed, everything we possibly could here, we followed a lane lined with tourists oriented shops selling a variety of what looked like good quality crafts and souvenirs,  though we didn’t stop to buy. This brought us to our next square, called Talako or Pottery Square for obvious reasons. Loads of pots were lined up on the ground here, drying out I assumed. There were also mats of rice drying, as we’d seen elsewhere in the city, it being rice-harvest season.

Square with clay pots on the ground
Talako Square
Square with clay pots and grain on the ground
Talako Square
Mural of a potter on brick wall
In Talako Square

We spent less time here, moving on quite soon to our third square of the morning, Taumadhi. Here we stopped for a cold drink in a cafe recommended by Pritik, with an upper terrace that gave us a great view of the activity below. Some stonemasons were working on small columns, presumably part of the on-going restorations following the devastating 2015 earthquake.

Man chiselling block of stone
Stonemason at work

Man chiselling stone column
Stonemason at work

The tallest temple in the town stands here, Nyatapol, five storeys high. Its steps are flanked by guardians in ascending order of strength. Chris climbed up to check out the views while I concentrated on taking photos at ground level. We saw the dismantled sections of the chariot used in festival parades, next to Bhairavnath, a temple with a striking ‘ribbon’ of gold hanging down from the roof dedicated to an incarnation of Lord Shiva.

Tall brick temple with flight of stone steps
Nyatapol Temple
Tall brick temple
Bhairavnath Temple

Around Dattatraya Square

Leaving this square we passed a shop selling hand-carved miniature windows in the traditional Newari style we’d seen all over the town. I was tempted and suggested we take a look. They were rather too large and heavy however, and in any case Chris preferred the more representative pieces such as goddesses and the dragon we eventually settled on. The rest of this street however seemed less focused on tourists, although there were still plenty of us around. Most of the shops were aimed at locals, selling foodstuffs, household items and clothes, the latter displayed on some rather surprising-looking mannequins!

This street brought us to our final square, Dattatraya, again with several temples.

Pritik led us down a narrow side street to one of the town’s best-known windows, called the Peacock Window for obvious reasons. The owner of the shop opposite urged us to climb to his first floor to get a better photo – and to prevent us from blocking his entrance!

Wooden carving of a peacock forming a window frame
The Peacock Window

Paper museum

On the same street was a paper museum. I wasn’t sure I especially wanted to visit but Pritik seemed keen that we see it and he was right to persuade me. The paper-making was mildly interesting because they use a particular bark from the Himalayas. But of much more interest was the house itself, which the owner has packed with beautifully carved details on every wooden surface – pillars, balustrades, window frames etc (one of which I shared in my previous post, albeit in monochrome). And from the roof several (steep) floors up, we had great views over the houses of the town, although the weather was too hazy for us to see the surrounding mountains.

Meet the locals

I’ll finish with a few more photos of the local people of Bhaktapur, these too squared for Becky.

I visited Bhaktapur in October 2022

38 Comments

  • Monkey's Tale

    You captured Bhaktapur perfectly. I felt as I were walking the streets with you enjoying life on the streets. We were in Nepal a few years before and a couple after the earthquake and it was so sad to compare the before and after pictures. Maggie

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks so much Maggie 😀 Oh yes, it must have been so sad seeing these beautiful cities soon after the earthquake. They are doing a good job with the restoration programme but it’s slow painstaking work. Pritik told us a bit about his experiences of the earthquake. Luckily all his family were OK but it was a scary time.

  • margaret21

    A wonderful tour. I’m interested that this part of the world seems to integrate religious and day-to-day life so effortlessly. As ever, your People Pictures add so much to your tour.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Margaret 😊 I think it’s something about Hinduism – they don’t have services at set times, I believe, but instead go to pray whenever in the day it suits them and/or they feel the need. So it’s an integral part of their daily routine.

      • margaret21

        I remember one particular snippet from my time in Thanjavur. Families would fetch up in the temple grounds with their picnic and have a Grand Day Out. Imagine that in a churchyard!

  • maristravels

    There can never be enough of our photos, Sarah, so don’t hold back! I’m glad I caught up with this one. As I’ve said to one or two other people whose blogs I’ve just found, I’m no longer receiving emails from WP when they are published, so I had to go into the Reader tonight to find all that I’d missed, and that takes a long time to wade through. I’ve missed a lot over the past few weeks and hope to maybe catch up another time, but at the moment, this one will have to suffice. I loved all the pix and almost didn’t need the text as they were so explanatory, but my favourite was the Tidying up the Shrine. Thank you for sharing such excellent images.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you for the lovely comment Mari, I’m so glad you didn’t find this overkill in terms of photos 🙂 Believe me, I left a lot out! I wonder why you’re not getting the emails any more? I’ve had that happen occasionally with just one or two blogs, but not all at once – it must be maddening!

  • restlessjo

    Love the little girls in the temple, the peacock window and the creatures on the Golden Gate. On the roof tops there are blue and green barrels, Sarah. Are these some form of heating? And what kind of temperatures did you experience? So very many carvings! You’d never be short of a job as a skilled craftsman. It must be quite an undertaking to keep track of all the temples you saw. Better in some ways to let it all wash over you and just absorb the atmosphere. Thanks so much for sharing.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you for your interest in all of this Jo. I confess I don’t know for sure about the barrels but my assumption was that they were for water – I could be wrong! The temperatures across the country varied a bit but here in the Kathmandu Valley they were quite temperate – hot enough during the day to need sunscreen and a hat but not too hot to want to explore, and just about warm enough to eat outside in the evening if in a sheltered spot and with a warm top 🙂 In Pokhara it was warmer – I only needed a light shawl in the evening. And in the national parks to the south the days were quite hot but at night there was very low, damp cloud which meant it got chilly enough to be glad of the hot water bottle one camp provided 🙂

  • Mike and Kellye Hefner

    After reading your post and seeing your photos, I feel like I was right there with you! I am so curious about the young monks. Surely these little boys are not old enough to make their own decision to become monks at such an early age. I realize their culture is vastly different than ours, but I’m going to have to do a little research – like I did with the goddess. Thank you for sharing your wonderful photography and the culture of Nepal with us!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Becoming a Buddhist monk isn’t necessarily a permanent thing as it is with Christian ones. They don’t take lifetime vows. Instead a lot of parents send their sons to be monks (and their daughters to be nuns) for a few years as they know they will get a good free education and a grounding in the beliefs and traditions, as well as learning discipline. Many of the boys will come from poor families, and by sending them to the monastery the parents know they’ll live more comfortably, plus it will be one less mouth for them to feed. Some will go on to become ordained monks as adults, but most will leave after a few years and return to a more secular way of life.

  • Amy

    Enjoy this special tour through you fabulous photos. The carvings ad temples are facinating. You took great photos of people, especial kids. Love how you captured their expressions.

  • Anne Sandler

    What a great tour Sarah. Thanks. I’m so impressed by the detailed work in all the squares. The carvings and statues, the restorations are a big undertaking. I’m assuming that most of the restoration is being done by hand.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Glad you enjoyed seeing this Anne. Yes, much of the restoration is done by hand, using traditional methods and crafts. We saw a poster in Kathmandu celebrating some of the craftspeople working on these buildings.

  • BeckyB

    what a fabulous experience, and your photos are superb. Loving the definition and light in so many of them. Thank you so much for squaring so many, a real treat

  • Yvonne Dumsday

    What an absolutely amazing experience for you both – and, even second-hand – for we readers too (though I had to smile at the typo in “Here was a couple windowing rice,”.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Agh, thanks for spotting that Yvonne! You wouldn’t believe how many times I’d read through this, but it’s too easy to read what you think you know it says 😀 Blasted autocorrect! Now changed – thank you again 🙂

  • mtncorg

    One of my more memorable eye clinics occurred here in Durbar Square. It was like a scene right out of the pages of the old National Geographic. German money helped with the original restorations of the temples and grounds.

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