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.
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.
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.
And there again, at another temple, children were laughing and playing chase around the old stones. They also played up to my camera!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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
Reading your post was like a walk down memory lane as Steven and I also spent a day in the former Nepali capital but without the benefit of a guide. The squares were indeed spectacular but we loved traipsing down the side streets and back alleys. We bought some lovely paintings there that still give us joy every day.
Oh, I so wanted to buy a painting but Chris convinced me there was no more room on our walls (I still reckon there is!) so the carving was a compromise 😆
This walk impresses me on so many levels, Sarah. The pictures of people relaxing or working in the midst of ongoing activity, I find intriguing. Unlike us, they seem to do their work, not in the privacy of buildings, but alone in the middle of bustling activities. The stone masons also seemed so involved in such small pieces of stone work, just sitting there scraping, not standing hunched over bricks or stones, gluing them together with mortar, or leaning against their shovel while someone else worked. The intricacy of their work attracted my attention. I love the colors, and all the public art, of course. There is so much of it. They work at this seemingly slow pace, but thousands of statues have been carved, windows adorned with metal work. Painstaking work. The sheer volume of stuff overwhelms me and would make me unable to start anything – except taking pictures, of course. You always present so much beauty and interest in all your posts, Sarah. They are worth close examination. 🙂 Thanks for taking the time to write them.
Thank you so much Marsha 😊 I am so grateful, as always, for your considered and detailed feedback. It’s easy to see that you do really engage with my posts and that is so rewarding for me! You’re right about the volume of stuff. I started trying to take a photo of every beautiful window / carving detail / ornate door / temple roof / shrine statue etc. etc. etc. Then I realised that was impossible to sustain, even for me, but it became so hard to know what to photograph and what to ‘leave behind’. Plus I wanted to leave time just to soak up the atmosphere and not be continually looking at everything through a viewfinder! I’m very glad that my efforts please you so much 😘
You do an amazing service. You should write text books for college students!
Hmm, I don’t think I have the discipline for a text-book style – and I’m enjoying my ‘almost retired’ status too much to take on anything new! But thank you again for the compliments 😀
I did mean it as a compliment rather than a project. LOL Although I have no doubt that you could achieve success in the field of history and geography education if you so desired.
It’s amazing what talent has never been exposed or utilized. That’s one reason blogging is so fun. The talent on the blogs is unrivaled often times by professionals who are paid for their work. Of course, many bloggers are professionals, so I don’t want to discount their work. But discovering talent through any means, I think is the reason shows like American Idol or Britain’s equilivant became such a popular groundbreaker over 20 years ago. There’s nothing to separate the chaff and the rice (talent) like exposure to the public! LOL
I should have said, that in Nepal several factors make outside work more appealing. Their homes are probably small and dark; outside the climate is mostly pleasant; in these old town squares there is no traffic; there’s a tradition of not doing anything inside that is dirty or smelly. The rural home we visited had an outdoor kitchen even though the house was new, big and quite modern. The woman who lived there almost shuddered at the idea she might cook inside and make the home smelly or smoky 🙂
When friends of mine lived in Italy, she had an outdoor kitchen in their nice home. The home did not even come with indoor cabinets. They used something like armoirs for the dishes, but they were removable. My Italian (not born there) sister-in-law said her mother would never want someone to come over after she had been cooking. I thought that was funny because cooking smells so good. But it is a matter of culture. I thought winnowing the rice in the streets was an odd place to do that. I guess they wouldn’t do it in the rice paddies. A little wet for that! 🙂
Yes, the streets are nice and dry. Maybe also it’s convenient to do it near your home so you can keep an eye on it as it dries and rake it from time to time? I thought the electric fan was a clever and amusing innovation!
Very clever and labor saving. The rice just drops to the floor and the chaff blows away, I imagine. It’s hard to imagine that rice is that heavy.
Yes, that’s exactly the principle – the traditional method is to rely on a breeze but this way they can do it in any weather I guess!
I just have to say this: How on earth do the women manage to sit so effortlessly flat on their haunches (is that the right word)? It must be one thing to sit like that, but how would you get up again … anyway, just a thought 😉. There’s so much detail on the buildings, it’s quite amazing. And the locals just carrying on with their everyday life … I always like these kind of photos you take. It must have been a wonderful stroll through Bhaktapur’s streets.
I’d struggle to get up too but I think because they always sit like that, they stay more supple. Many of the men in particular squat effortlessly even when fairly old, something I haven’t been able to do for decades! Glad you like the details on the buildings, as I was blown away by them!
I really love the pictures of the people and the daily life that you have captured here 🙂
Thanks so much 🙂 As so often, I found myself as interested in the scenes of ordinary life as I was in the more obvious sights – and here the two are so much bound together.
A beautiful set of images and glimpse into a place so different from the scenes I am used to! Love the shot of the two young girls in purple. They look deep in conversation, but it seems good natured. I wonder what they were chatting about?
Thank you 😊 I assumed those girls were best friends – they seem at that age when one particular friend is everything to you (until you fall out!)
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
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.
How fabulous to enter somewhere of such different culture, everything looks and sounds so stimulating and interesting.
Stimulating is exactly the word 😀
Anabel @ The Glasgow Gallivanter
We visited in 2000, long before blogging. This brought back some memories. Beautiful photos.
Thank you Anabel, glad to bring back good memories for you 🙂
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.
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.
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!
Fantastic photos Sarah! Thanks for showing me somewhere new! X
Thank you Anna, glad you enjoyed it!
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.
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!
What a wonderful experience this must have been, Sarah. And you’ve captured it all beautifully of course…
Thank you Marie 😊 Yes, this was one of several favourite days on our Nepal trip for me!
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.
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 🙂
Incredible Sarah. Nothing more to say really.
Thank you Malcolm – it’s not often that you are almost speechless 😆
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!
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.
Mike and Kellye Hefner
Ah, thank you for clearing that up for me! As you can tell, I was confused about them having to take a lifetime vow. And it makes sense for the poorer families.
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.
Thanks Amy 🙂 I loved seeing how casually the local people accepted this amazing background to their lives!
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.
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.
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
Thanks so much Becky 😊 I’m glad you enjoyed all the squares – these carving in particular often work well when squared!
Robert brought back a few pieces from his years in Nepal, they are so intricate
Yes, the carvings are so beautiful 🙂 I would have bought more but my husband restrained me!
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,”.
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 🙂
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.
Yes, there were some signs about the German financial support but I forgot to mention it – thanks for the reminder!
What an amazing experience.
Thank you for sharing it and your superb photographs. 😊
Thank you Margaret 😊 I’m glad you enjoyed the photos – I’m aware there are rather a lot of them in this post!