A Pleasant Day in Bhaktapur

A friend was visiting Kathmandu after many, many years, and we decided to take a tour of Bhaktapur. I myself hadn’t been there for quite some time, so the trip was one that I welcomed.  Our taxi took us not through the main entry to this ancient city, as was usually the case during my previous visits, but carried on the Nagarkot road for a while. We stopped in front of the new-looking municipality office, which had underground parking.  From there, we walked through a gateway on a brick-paved road for some time before arriving at a stone stairway that led to the famed Bhaktapur Durbar Square, a world heritage site monument zone.

Near the foot of the stairway were a temple, a pati (public logia), and a sattal (community center) around an ancient-looking tree, the trunk of which was massive. Much of its branches had been sawn off, but it was still an imposing sight. Opposite to it was an equally ancient-looking hiti (public watering place) that was being given a much needed scrubbing by some workers. The pati looked so inviting that I simply couldn’t resist taking a rest there.

It was pleasant sitting there, swinging my legs, and watching groups of tourists, many of them from Asian countries (probably China), walking up the brick-paved road, their cameras out and at the ready. In fact, i do believe that each and every sight even before reaching the Durbar Square itself presented fantastic photo opportunities, and I must say, heightened expectations to what lay ahead. It was a good beginning of a tour of the most ancient city of  the valley of the gods.

On climbing the stairway, the lane ahead was lined with some souvenir shops, and as we neared the main gate of the square, I saw a couple of eateries in front with signs proclaiming that they sold Juju Dhau. It is, of course, the premium product of the city, a yogurt famed for its absolutely delicious taste, and heads and shoulders above all other yogurts. And, that’s why the name translates into “King Curd”.

Tasting a cup or two was of course on our agenda, but not just yet, the sight before us was beckoning like a magnet. As you go through the massive gateway, the first thing you notice is that there’s a school on the premises, and beside its gates, two mammoth stone lions. The other thing you immediately notice is that there are some restoration works being done on some of the monuments in the square. As a result, not everything looks aged, as was the case before the earthquake of 2015 brought many structures down and damaged others. In fact, in a corner stood a shikara-style temple that looked like it was just made.

The scene, otherwise, looked somewhat like this: hordes of visitors, local and international, swarmed all over the square, with many taking turns at picturesquely historical sites to have their photos taken. One thing I must mention here is that, domestic tourism has taken off in a pretty big way in the country, and so there were many folks from and outside the capital, all as animated the tourists from across the seven seas. Talking about the latter, it’s a fact that Chinese tourists are on an ever growing path, and I saw plenty of them around this historic square. They like wearing floppy hats.

There a museum in the square and I did have a mind to look inside, but at the moment, our priority was the centuries-old 55-window palace, which some would say is the centerpiece of this monument zone. Even its doors are considered to be objects de art. Known famously as the Golden Gate, this entrance to the inner courtyard of the palace is built out of copper gilding and surmounted by exquisite repousse figures of the goddess, Kali, along with that of Garuda, the half man-half bird vehicle of Lord Vishnu. It was built in 1753 by King Ranjit Malla, while the palace itself was constructed by King Yakshay Malla in 1427. Pretty ancient stuff, wouldn’t you say? And, further validating the rich age-old civilization of the valley. 

There’s a guard at the gate, and another inside, and right now, one will see some ancient relics piled up in a corner. I assumed that these were what had been saved from fallen monuments, and would be used when restoring. Thus, the guards, I thought; after all, all this constitutes a valuable collection. There’s a temple in the courtyard, the Taleju Temple, and like most things in the valley (world heritage site or otherwise) it’s all a part of a very much alive culture, a part of the daily lives of people, so entrance is for Hindus only.

And no, you cannot take photograph in or outside the temple. I visited the temple (really, really old) and walked around its courtyard, peeking through narrow low-height doors of various dark rooms, some of which had images of gods and goddesses. In one room, there was half a dozen or so people partaking of a feast of sorts, sitting down on suukuls (straw mats). They were most probably celebrating some event, or observing some ritual.

Like I said, everything is part and parcel of a vibrant culture around here, and that’s why places like this, world heritage sites, ancient temples and mahavihars (monasteries), sattals and patis, all are first and foremost places that locals visit frequently for worship and rituals and celebrations, as well as for more mundane activities like meeting with fiends, enjoying the sun, passing the time of day, and such. A ‘living museum’, that’s a description much bandied about when talking about the valley.

There’s a large hiti nearby, it has intricately decorated dhunge-dharas (stone spouts), as well as some made of metal, and here one could click away, with the result that everybody, but everybody, wants to have a photo taken in front of the main spout. This hiti was perhaps a royal bath, and I could well imagine queens and princesses and their companions sunning themselves on the stone patio before stepping down gingerly into the cool waters of the bath. Must have been a lovely sight!

Next, we sauntered around the square, looking at the lovely temples (mostly pagoda-styled), a few were being given the needed restoration works. No such efforts yet, however, on what was clearly a really big temple on top of a pretty high series of plinths at the far end of a spacious courtyard around the corner ahead. There was only space where the temple once stood, and it contained plenty of people who had climbed the many stairs to reach the top. In the same courtyard, in the middle, were two magnificent stone lions, probably a remnant of a fallen monument, and they, too, seemed to be a favorite for a photo shoot with many, although the chances of getting a clear shot were dim because the light was against it, However, a temple that looked relatively new, and was quite pretty, what with handsome guardian animals lining the stairs leading to the sanctum sanctorum, seemed a better prospect for getting clicked, and so it was with many visitors.

Crossing the courtyard, a lane leads to one among the most famous of the valley’s shrines, Nyatapole Temple. Beside other attributes, its fame is also due to the fact that it is the tallest temple in the country. Its steep stairs has massive statues of various animals alongside, and the temple itself is pagoda-styled, five-storied, and with five roofs. It was built by King Bhupatindra Malla in 1703, and dedicated to the tantric goddess Siddhi Laxmi. It stands in the Taumadi Square, which is from where mammoth raths (chariots) begin their procession through the city in and around the Nepali New Year (mid-April/May) during Bhaktapur’s biggest annual festival, the Bisket Jatra.

This square was full of people, with the stairs and the animals very popular for capturing the moment in tourists’ mobiles and cameras, with the famous temple standing tall and proud above. Most visitors climb to the top, as I did, and the scene from there was pretty good, I must say. Looking down, I saw another large temple close by, but it is more rooted to the ground, and at the moment there was bamboo scaffolding around it. Seeing this, and all that I saw before, the strength and solidity of the Nyatapole Temple really struck me, for there was nary a scratch or even a hairline crack on its age-weathered columns of mahogany timber. Jai Siddhi Laxmi!

Here, I must mention that, before arriving at this impressive shrine, we stopped at a very small eatery in the preceding lane. A robust lady was busy turning and tossing badas (pancake-like dish made of lentil paste and topped with either egg or meat, or both as per your preference) on a heavy iron wok over high heat. We had one each, along with a spicy potato dish, and both tasted pretty good. There were two framed cutouts from some magazines that featured the eatery, known popularly as Ama’s Bada (Mother’s Bada). So, if you visit Bhaktapur, eat a bada or two here.

Also, when you are in this ancient city, buy some unique souvenirs to take back home. There are many such shops all around the place, including both street-side ones and attractively decorated ones, some of which have really good stuff. In fact, there’s one that calls itself the Bhaktapur Wood Carving Masterpieces, and going by the delicately carved miniature Newari-style wooden windows displayed outside, it truly is deserving of its name. Another shop opposite it has a fantastic collection of metal craft, with intricately designed brass hanging lamps displayed up front. By the way, the woodcarving shop’s name is also written in Chinese characters. So!

Now, the lane meanders on for some distance to the Dattareya Square, which many folks may not visit, having had their batteries discharged by all the wandering around the preceding squares and climbing those steep temple steps. The lane is lined on both sides by shops, and if you are hungry, you can have a plate of steaming hot momo dipped in less hot, but quite spicy sauce, at one of the eateries here that have the ubiquitous momo making utensils right at the entrance. Momo by itself is a delectable concoction, and with the sauce, it’s simply heavenly. What’s more, the sauce will leave a lingering taste in the mouth for quite some time. Now, while on the subject of food, let me end this piece about my pleasant day in this ancient city by declaring that, yes, we did have the famed Juju Dhau of Bhaktapur, and yes it was delicious.