Rich in Beauty and History, Nuwakot Beckons

Experience Issue 206 Jan, 2019
Text by Evangeline Neve

“We are in the middle of history,” the man said to me, almost conspiratorially. He was a stranger—a German tourist judging by his accent—and we were at the back of Nuwakot’s Durbar Square, in an open shed filled with carved wooden struts in various stages of preservation and re-carving. Some were very new, some extremely old, and others a combination of the two. Alongside were woodcarving tools, a tub of glue.

Nuwakot has been on my list of places to visit for some time now; and with a few days off last month for the holidays, it seemed like the perfect opportunity. I was fascinated by its history, and knew that while the old buildings had been damaged in the quake, a lot of them still remained—at least for now.

There are three ways to get to and from Nuwakot from Kathmandu—the road that goes past Tokha, the Kakani road, and going part way on the main Prithvi Highway before turning off. I chose the first way to go there, returning via Kakani; and so set out in the morning on my trusty old scooter, which I recommend you try at your own peril. It is a beautiful drive; the first part of the road goes through a section of the Shivapuri National Park, and it was peaceful and green and almost meditative. This is a rather hilly area, with lots of ups and downs once you pass Tokha, and the road soon got very rough in parts. Soon, I reached a flatter area—more populated but no less beautiful. The road was flatter here but unpaved, so I had to drive slowly, which gave me plenty of time to watch everyone cheerfully moving between houses celebrating Dashain, the size of the tikas on their foreheads getting larger as the day went on. Unfortunately, the road never really improved, remaining dusty and rocky until I got quite close to Nuwakot; whenever this road is finished, however, it will be a really great, and relatively short, way to travel there.

As I neared my destination, I was starting to wonder, wasn’t Nuwakot supposed to be on a ridge? I was practically in a valley. But, after a few missed turns at Bidur, I found the right road, just about 400 meters of switchback took me up nearly 1000 meters in altitude, and there I was.

You might not guess it to look at it today, but this little town played a key role in the history and eventual development of Nepal as a united country. Nuwakot is ideally situated above the Tandi and Trisuli Rivers, and its location gives it nearly 360 degree views of the surrounding countryside. While beautiful and picturesque, these views were part of its importance as a key fortress town in the Malla era. It’s said that it took Prithvi Narayan Shah two tries before he managed to conquer it, and when he finally did, it became his base from where he eventually took over the Kathmandu Valley in 1767 or ‘68. Finally, in 1775, Prithvi Narayan Shah died here, in Nuwakot’s Devighat. It’s an incredible amount of history crammed into an area you can walk across in about half an hour, and it deserves to be more widely visited.

I stayed at The Famous Farm during my one night stop, another place I’ve been hearing about for ages, and one that certainly lived up to the hype. It’s a cluster of buildings set on a hill, further along the ridge from the main center (such as it is) of Nuwakot. Despite being only minutes away, something about the geography of the place and the way the ridge loops back on itself makes it such that you can sit and sip a drink as the light fades, and look out across the valley to your right, and if you turn to your left, the rooftops that make up Nuwakot’s Durbar Square winking back at you.

The Famous Farm is a collection of Newari-style buildings, some old and some more recently built in the traditional style; the land terraces down several levels, and is filled with trees, flowers, and—as befits a farm—animals. The most noticeable were the turkeys, shameless attention seekers who strutted around as if they knew their job was to add to the atmosphere. Meals were served outside, blooms spilled over doorways, and the whole effect was just delightful. Usually, hotel rooms are pretty stereotypical, but nothing could be farther from that here; a great deal of thought had been put into the décor and furniture, and it really made a difference. Traditional clay floors, old-style wooden doors and windows, all a really surprising combination of rustic and chic. I slept well, not a given when I’m away from home, and just felt completely cozy and homey while there. If you’re looking for a short getaway destination, I couldn’t recommend it more highly.

There weren’t many other places to stay in the area, though down the hill in Bidur there are apparently lots. Tilak Bhandari, the resident manager at the Farm, explained that they, with their organization, Rural Heritage, are working with Nuwakot residents to set up a collection of guesthouses and homestays, as well as providing engineering support for villagers whose homes were damaged in the quake, so they can be rebuilt in a traditional style. The atmosphere seems conducive to local interaction and small intimate set-ups, rather than anything large and elaborate, and I think it’s going to be great once it gets off the ground.

Wandering through the town is, in fact, what I did for the rest of the afternoon—my first stop was the Taleju Mandir, now closed due to earthquake damage. It’s set high up and offers commanding views of the surrounding area, is quite large, and at four stories, more imposing than I expected; in fact, when I first saw it, I mistook it for the palace. Looking at it, though, you feel that even a small tremor would bring the whole thing down, which will be heartbreaking. The rear part is mostly gone already. I took pictures from every angle I could—just in case it’s not here next time I come. Though it’s closed, the area is still being used by the locals: around a wooden post out front, blood stained the grass from the recent holiday sacrifice.

Nuwakot’s Durbar Square, a bit farther on, is where the palace actually is, along with temples and other buildings, and it’s even more impressive. The palace is five storied, and of course, was also closed (pre-earthquake, it housed a museum), and I wondered where those artifacts are now, and when they’ll be on view again. The rest of the compound is filled with smaller temples, statuary, and some flat raised platforms that appeared to have previously held more temples. The grass was littered with pieces of brick and rock, which strangely gave the impression of devastation that had just occurred, rather than from an earthquake two and a half years ago. It’s impossible to ignore the effects of what happened here, but there’s also still so much beauty, and hope.

A long, low building runs along the back, it sustained a lot of damage, and in some places nature seems to be reclaiming it, yet it is still covered with countless intricate carvings: Garudas, Vishnus, dragons and other creatures I had no name for. And, off to the side of this is where I found the shed I started my story with, the place where the restoration is currently under way. It was Dashain, so no one was actually there, but their work was, the stages clearly visible. Lines of struts, some broken, some old but in good condition, were propped alongside fresh wood that was in the process of being carved. Despite the inevitable sadness at the losses, this area made me feel happy and hopeful: there are so many amazing craftspeople in Nepal, and they can rebuild these beautiful, historic places. The evidence was right in front of me. Tilak Bhandari told me later that these carvings are part of a temple restoration being organized by the government. Several other buildings in the Durbar Square area are to be restored by the Chinese government, though at the time of my visit that work had not yet begun.

While trying to learn more about Nuwakot after returning to Kathmandu, I learned that it’s currently on a list of places tentatively being proposed by UNESCO as world heritage sites. I have no idea how long this process will take, or if it will come to pass, but I fervently hope it does—if by doing so it brings more attention and conservation to the area, it can only be a good thing.

Leaving the Durbar Square, I walked through another short stretch of town to the ridge’s edge, where several more historic temples are located, as well as a very attractive pati (community seating area). The temples at this end seemed worse off than the palace area, but it was still possible to get a glimpse of what must once have been. Here also there is scaffolding and signs of rebuilding, particularly around the Bhairav Mandir.

The early evening light was turning that perfect shade of orange that makes everything look so wonderful as I retraced my steps. Back through the Durbar Square, where once again I felt compelled to take more pictures. The sun was setting as I reached The Famous Farm, and the view across the doubled-back ridge was even more spectacular. It was the perfect place to settle in with a beer and some tasty munchies while I waited for my dinner—delicious, by the way—as I watched the colors change over Nuwakot’s ancient buildings.