Alleys Full of Art

Festival Issue 112 Feb, 2011
Text by Kapil Bisht / Photo: ECS Media

As you pass through the narrow, sun-deprived streets of Patan, you can hear, in between the roar of the vehicles zooming past, the monotonous melody of hammers coming down on metal. The artists of Patan are at work. Walking in Patan is like taking a tour of an artist’s studio; everywhere there’s an artist engrossed in making something or the other. And all around there are works that every artist wishes to match.

Patan Durbar Square is one of the most prominent places in Patan. It is also the ideal place to start one’s tour of Patan, for in the museum housed in the old palace are vital information on the esoteric art of sculpting that adorns almost all the famous structures of Patan. A visitor to the museum returns with enough knowledge to understand and appreciate the architectural feats of Patan.

The best place to test one’s recently acquired knowledge of sculpting – what facial expressions and postures of the various Hindu and Buddhist gods symbolize – is the Rudravarna Mahavihar. Located a mere 500 meters from the Patan Durbar Square, it is one of the oldest monasteries of Patan. It was built in the 6th century AD by the Licchavi king, Shiva Deva. In the past, the monastery also had a community of artisans that were specifically settled nearby to promote the growth of the various forms of art. The monastery has two courtyards, the larger of which is filled with stone and metal statues. The main shrine, which is three-stories high, houses an idol of ‘Kwapadhya’, the Shakyamuni Buddha. This statue is unique for its red face, which adds to the aura created by its intricate ornaments and the skillful metalwork surrounding it.

A five-minute walk north of Rudravarna Mahavihar is the Mahaboudha Temple. It is probably the only Buddhist temple in Nepal to be built in the shikhara style. The temple’s outer walls, which are made from terracotta, are covered in images of the Buddha. It is because of this feature that the temple is also referred to as ‘the temple of 9000 Buddhas’. The temple’s unique style was inspired by the temples of Bodh Gaya in India. It is said that Abhayaraj, the builder of the temple, conceived the idea of Mahadboudha Temple while on pilgrimage in India.

Another architectural masterpiece of Patan is the Golden Temple. The temple is full of artwork of all kinds from its pagoda roofs to its numerous metal sculptures. The temples and monasteries of Patan, most of which lie concealed behind houses, seem to preserve in them fragments of the past. The environment around them seems to have changed very little. In Patan, it seems, the houses haven’t crowded these historical and cultural monuments, but that they have given them refuge by enclosing them.

Patan is an artistic labyrinth: in nondescript alleys, in between modern concrete houses, behind simple looking low doorways are gems of architecture. Behind every mundane house is a relic of the city’s past. A visitor to Patan is best advised to tuck the map in the backpack. For every temple or monastery shown on the map there are a couple of inconspicuous but intriguing ones waiting to be discovered by anyone who will explore little passages between houses, duck and pass beneath low doorways, and let curiosity get the better of him or her.