Article Published in PATRIOT

To a forgotten little town

Navtej Sarna

If you hire a bicycle near the National Stadium in Kathmandu and follow the only trolley bus line you would reach Bhaktapur, an ancient city crowning the fringes of the Kathmandu valley.

So taken up was I with the promised conveniences of the package trip that I forgot all about the adventure of following lonely trolley bus lines on a rickety hired bicycle. I opted for the conducted bus tour and on a sunny spring day found myself willy-nilly among the tourists with the hats and cameras and permanently astonished expressions. For us that day, Bhaktapur began with Durbar square.

The little beggar boys came crowding around and I prepared myself for the usual routine silently cursing myself for having ignored my deep rooted prejudices against conducted tours, guides and tourist literature. But before the ugly mood could take over, a timeless feeling about the place began to creep in. And as the sun glinted on the famed Golden Gate everything came to a rest.

The guide moved through his well practised sentences and a hundred questions began to crop up. A look around the brick paved square and the casually strewn pieces of exquisite sculpture and a few answers also floated by Bhaktapur or Bhadgaon dates back probably to the ninth century. The Newari people famed by many as the original builders of the pagoda lived and flourished here. Let me get through this part before I begin to sound like a secondary school history textbook.

The town lived on an ancient trade route between India and Tibet which ran through it. The Malla kings were good for Bhaktapur and it rivaled Kathmandu and Patan for supremacy in the valley. With the fall of the Malla dynasty in 1769, the glory began to decline. Bhaktapur lost its independence to Kathmandu and became gradually a brooding neglected beauty in whom the lines of attraction were barely discernible. Until ten years ago when a timely development project gave back the town its presentable look, its livable back streets and the people their crafts and culture.

From the palace of fifty-five windows ancient eyes seem to follow your strange footsteps as you move away. Down the narrow street which goes downhill stringing along little shops selling necklaces, bracelets, knives and coins. Past the bargaining tourists you step into Taumadi square and recognize it instantly from the many movie scenes which have been shot here. The 98 feet high Nyatapola temple, built as a pagoda, is unmistakable. On each of its five terraces, there are two figures, ten times stronger than the ones immediately below. Tiger and lion goddesses, griffins, lions, elephants and on the lowest terrace two wrestlers.

The guide talks and the cameras click feverishly collecting conversation pieces for faraway evenings while I watch a local Newari carving out a wooden dragon. The children stand around and watch the fall of hammer on chisel. A young boy runs up and enthusiastically points out the Kashi Biswanath temple dedicated to Bhairav, the fierce incarnation of Shiva. Impishly he asks for one rupee which he will ostensibly put at the God’s feet. Huge lumbering holy bulls and stray dogs complete the picture. Bound by the horrible discipline of the conducted tour I cannot sit aimlessly in the restaurant with the intricately carved windows. It would be charming to sit there with a large bowl of thuppa and half a dozen memos…

The Newaris are a gifted lot. In the potters’ quarter the wheels spin and the sun bakes a thousand pots. The ashtrays, the griffins, the candle stands flood the little shops. The Handicrafts Bazaar is in the Dattatraya square. The square, the oldest part of the town houses two ancient temples. As if to balance off things it also has the headquarters of the Bhaktapur Development project. This project among other things, implemented the formation of producer cooperatives thus bringing back the art of sculptor and the painter and the craftsman. The eye is caught by a unique colorful mask and a row of gently swinging dolls………

It’s a pity though that the bus has already begun to honk for us. The tourists cannot understand why anyone would want to spend an entire afternoon wandering around narrow lanes. So we all must go on to a shawl factory where a ten percent discount would no doubt be offered.