A house situated right at the intersecting corner of Dhaugal bazaar’s alley and Kwalkhu road was reconstructed around a year ago. The new house hardly looks anything like its original; the brick and mud walls are now concrete, it is taller and white-washed, but some of the designs that have been left unaltered continue to provide the house its old charm; the carved wooden windows, doors, and the ‘falcha’.
It is not difficult to imagine what the old Newar valley used to look like when one walks through the small, interlaced gallis, seeing sights and smelling aromas that still evoke the 16th century. And if one is attentive enough, one will notice that there is a recurring theme in each location—the falchas. There are at least 6 falchas within a 50-meter radius of my house in Patan alone. If the number is to be considered any lead, there must be hundreds of similar structures in the city of Patan only, and thousands throughout the valley.
Falcha or paati is a common sight in old Newar cities. One of the most famous falchas is Kasthamandap in Basantapur Durbar Square. By design, there are at least three different types of falchas: mandap, sattal, and the regular paati. Mandaps are falchas that are open on all sides, like Manimandap in Patan Durbar Square, and the famous Kasthamandap. Sattals are two-storied, where the ground floor is open on three sides, and the first floor is used as storage for musical or religious instruments. Paatis are the more commonly found one-storied falchas that are either carved into a residential house or built independently.
The popular idea behind a falcha is similar to that of chautara found in the hilly region, providing a resting place for the fatigued. They are basically rest stops. According to Suresh Man Lakhe, gallery head of the Patan Museum, researchers have speculated that Kasthamandap was built to provide shelter to Tibetan traders that arrived in yesteryear Kathmandu for business. At a time when guest houses or hotels were unheard of, it was falchas that provided lodging services to the pilgrims, that too for free. It is perhaps the reason why, more often than not, falchas are found near a water source such as dhungedhara or sundhara, providing easy access of water to the guests of the falcha.
But its usage and importance transcends the noble courtesy in a Newari community. Culture, community, tradition, and religion are deeply rooted and interdependent in any Newari society; the existence of one near impossible without the other. Falcha is a perfect example of that beautiful, ethereal blend. As mentioned earlier, falchas are found in every chowk and galli. Other than water sources, they are also built near temples, and thus are used by the community as a platform for daily devotional singing. On special occasions such as Indra Jatra, locals gather at their respective falchas to prepare or hand out samaybaji. More important falchas like Manimandap have even graver purpose. It is here, and only here, that a group of astrologers meet in order to fix a date for the procession of Rato Macchindranath from Etee to Jawalakhel.
On a community level, falcha had a rather amiable role. In a time before internet, cell-phones, television, and other modern leisure activities, it was in falchas that people shared juicy gossip, rumors, and just hung out. Serious agendas or everyday problems were shared and discussed in these very falchas. It was here that children played house, won marble matches, and forged life-long friendships. In a bygone era when neighborhood was home, and neighbors were family, falchas brought people together.
I remember a time not long ago when a particular scene repeated itself almost every day at one of the falchas near home. I saw men smoking hukka and playing paasa, while women made batti and shared hearty laughs at secret jokes. Today, a scene like that is harder to find than a four-leafed clover. A neighborhood doesn’t come together that often, and the design of falcha is fast fading from this old city.
But there are a few sights that still give hope; hope that all is not gone. The new house with the old falcha is some relief. And then, I see some children playing in another falcha. A pretend-feast is underway and they all look famished. I want to join the party.