Glimpses of Patan and Living with the Gods

Features Issue 86 Jul, 2010
Text by Pradeep Rai / Photo: ECS Media

If you subscribe to the myth that Patan is a small ancient place far from the allure that Kathmandu enjoys, take a glance at the all the old yet beautiful monuments around it. Granted, some people don’t have a taste for history, nor architecture or spirituality, but most of us are enthralled and stimulated by the way this city was built. Its 2000 year old temples and medieval improvisations rouse an inherent curiosity within us. With its head in the busy streets of Lagankhel and its feet in main land Kathmandu, the precipitous ancient city of Patan has long been dubbed by illustrious connoisseurs or art as the most spectacular amalgamation of architectural finesse. Patan’s presence as a city alive with vibrant devotees to myriad Hindu and Buddhist temples has acted as a muse to incalculable artists and writers, and along with its narrow alleyways of ancient brick masonry connecting hill top villages and the flowing Bagmati River, it has also been successful at enticing a rather good flock of tourists for decades.

The ancient city of Patan, also called Lalitpur and Yala, lies five kilometers southeast of Kathmandu. Patan stretches across two intersecting axes—to the north stands Patan’s Durbar Square and the Golden and Kumbeshwar temples and to the west is the main city of Kathmandu. The bustling southern street runs past the Machhendranath temple and the Lagankhel bus park, while the eastern road skirts the Mahabuddha temple. There are four famous stupas built by the emperor Ashoka in 250 BC, one each at the four corners of the city. Often called the most Newari city in the whole Kathmandu Valley, Patan is a vibrant mélange of cultures, and with a host of funky little cafes and restaurants, it becomes perfect for creative ramblings. There is the Patan Palace, which was home to all the kings of Patan, now a museum displaying ancient artifacts and relics. The Patan Museum Board, established in 1996, is responsible for its maintenance.

Many scholars believe (and many disagree) that at the turn of the 2nd century AD, a Kirat king by the name of Yalamber built a palace in the then secluded small city of Patan on the bank of the sacred Bagmati, at the foot of the place where the Durbar square stands now. He transformed it into his capital and named it after him—Yala. About 400 years later when the Licchavis came into power, massive construction work began. The significant emergence of Patan as a city of commerce, ideas, and culture was undeniably the Licchavis’ supreme achievement. Patan remained a hugely important channel until the valley capital was shifted to Kathmandu with the arrival of King Prithivi Narayan Shah. As the new city of Kathmandu looks to the outside world and begins its historic reacquaintance, it falls a shade new for it never saw the historical glory days that Patan did.

For many, the road to Patan is recounting great history lesson, a persuasive crash course in culture and religion. Legend has it that an idol of the god Rato Machhendranath was brought to the Kathmandu valley from Kamaru Kamachhya, in Assam, India, by three people representing three kingdoms of the Kathmandu Valley, Kathmandu, Bhaktapur and Patan, in order to bring rainfall to overcome the worst drought affecting the valley. One of them, a devoted farmer named Lalit carried the idol all the way and established it near Patan. It is believed that Lalitpur was named after the farmer. And as it happens, for a daily fascination in the picturesque contrasts so cherished by snooping travelers, a little folklore adds more spice.

Patan derives its rich culture not from the temples but from the parade of regal powers who ruled its corners for the past two millennia. In Patan Durbar Square, the beautiful statue of King Yog Narendra Malla with a snake canopy and a golden bird on top still remains the underscore of Patan, mysteriously hiding a million stories and myths within it. Yog Narendra ruled Patan between 1684AD and 1705AD. During this period he added many structures to the city. He built the two sattals (rest places) just before the stone stairs leading to the stone water spouts (Manga Hiti), and also the Bhimsen temple.

The snake canopy statue of the king has an interesting story. During the reign of Yog Narendra, a farmer from Patan would go to the neighboring kingdom of Bhaktapur to sell vegetables. Out of pity for the farmer, the king of Bhaktapur bought all his vegetables thus becoming the regular daily customer. When the king of Patan heard about this, he conspired to use this to his advantage. He made a stone idol of ‘Ku Laxmi’, which would bring misfortune to Bhaktapur, and had it sold through the vegetable vendor.

The king of Bhaktapur now sought vengeance and asked the King of Patan if they could add a temple to the beautiful Patan Durbar Square. On receiving confirmation, the ‘Nisantaneshwor’ Mahadev Temple was built to make sure that Patan would not have an heir to the throne. As a result King Yog Narendra Malla had 30 wives but no son to succeed him. The Nisantaneshwor temple still stands in the Durbar Square, but it is never worshiped. Before Yog Narendra left his throne, he built a bronze statue and had a golden bird atop it. He told his people that they should believe that he lives, until the bird flies to heaven. One can still see the statue in Durbar Square standing magnificently as if to supervise a visit which some believe is no less than a divine coincidence.

In Patan’s Durbar Square, the early yet incessantly populated place is a city of its own, copiously bequeathed with superb temples, a palace of the Malla era, a giant bathhouse, and fine wooden carvings, a testament to the consummate dexterity of medieval Newari artisans. Within the vicinity of the square lies the beautiful Krishna Mandir. This three-storied stone temple was built by King Siddhi Narasingha Malla in the 16th century AD. Important scenes from the Mahabharata and Ramayana epics have been carved in its friezes and the temple houses 21 spires known as the Chyasin Deval. The main idol is on the first floor. In front of the Krishna temple, atop a high stone-pedestal, there is a gilded statue of Garuda, half man, half bird, the vehicle of Lord Vishnu. His wings are slightly outspread and he kneels with hands folded as if in a prayer. The two wings signify truth and knowledge respectively meaning to say that God exists in the presence of truth and knowledge. One of the finest specimens of Nepalese temple craft, the Krishna Mandir lures one with unstinting splendor, minute carvings, and a sense of purity that has bent to many winds, yet has remained deeply and valiantly rooted. The Durbar Square is bejeweled by the Bhimsen Temple, Manga Hiti, Vishwanath Temple, Jagatnarayan Temple and the Golden Temple.

There isn’t a real religious center any more than there is a real hangout spot. But if there were, it would be in Patan. Relatively unperturbed by the waves of invasion that swept through and transformed Kathmandu, Patan is the depository of medieval culture that underlies the spiritual reality of Nepal. It hosts a classic collection of temples, a large ensemble of spectacular structures devoted to the gods, both in and around it. The Hiranya Varna Mahavibar is a three-storeyed golden pagoda temple built in the 12th century AD by King Bhaskar Varma. It stands just outside the vicinity of the Durbar square. A golden icon of Lord Buddha and a huge prayer wheel stand on the pedestal of the upper portion of the vihar and elaborate decorative patterns are engraved on its outer walls. Walking through shops with handicrafts on display, mysterious old brick houses with narrow doors, gracious old men sitting beside temples, takes you to a five-storied pagoda temple which at a moment makes one relish a culture on the upswing. This one is the Kumbeshwar temple built by King Jayasthiti Malla in 1422AD. The courtyard houses a natural spring that forms a large pond and is opened on the eve of Janai Poornima, the festival of the sacred thread on the full moon day of August, when ritual bathing takes place every year.

Another of the significant monuments in Patan is the Mahabuddha temple, a masterpiece of brick and tile. Built by Abhaya Raj, a priest of Patan, every single brick portrays a tiny icon of Buddha. There are an astonishing nine thousand bricks in total. There is also the temple of Machhendranath, which stands in the middle of a wide quadrangle at the outer perimeter of the market place.

These temples reserve their greatest secrets for those who attain an understanding and value of them. There is something divine and supremely pure about visiting them, a gift that will always remain. We will never find out descriptions of divine beauty, but Patan fills one with cerebral images of phenomenal monuments, nights ablaze with prayer chants, and an oceanic army of pigeons which could humble you before its majesty and noble splendor. These are the loftiest creations ever raised by the hands of man, the most intelligent monuments of the human spirit and a bold sink into irrelevance by comparison. There stands Patan on a par with the world’s best, with its astounding composition of temples, palaces, and traditional alleys, with elevated statues of gods rising above the dust and a long procession of emperors marching along through their histories.