Now largely absorbed by greater Kathmandu, and easy to reach from the centre of town, PATAN was once the capital of a powerful independent kingdom, and still maintains a defiantly distinct identity. Compared to Kathmandu it’s quieter, less frenetic and more Buddhist. Patan is sophisticated and, in a Nepali sort of way, bohemian: while Kathmanduites are busy amassing power and wealth, Patan’s residents appreciate the finer things of life, which perhaps explains the area’s alternate name, Lalitpur (“City of Beauty”). Above all, it remains a proud city of artisans. Patan produces much of Nepal’s fine metalwork, and its craftspeople have created some of the most extraordinarily lavish temples, hiti and bahal in the country. Bahal – their doorways here always guarded by cuddly stone lions with overbites – are a particular feature of Patan, and a few still function as active monasteries. In the past two decades, Patan has also emerged as the de facto foreign aid capital of Nepal: the offices of the UN and innumerable NGOs are scattered around the western suburbs, as are many expat residences.
In legend and in fact, Patan is the oldest city in the Kathmandu Valley. Manjushri, the great lake-drainer, is supposed to have founded Manjupatan, the forerunner of Patan, right after he enshrined Swayambhu, while the so-called Ashokan stupas, earthen mounds standing at four cardinal points around Patan, seem to support the legend that the Indian emperor Ashoka visited the valley in the third century BC (historians are sceptical). More reliable legend ascribes Patan’s founding to Yalambar, second-century king of the Kirats, an ancient tribe that provided the original stock for the valley’s Newari population (which explains the traditional Newari name for Patan, Yala), or to the Lichhavi King Arideva at the end of the third century. Under the long-running Lichhavi dynasty, Patan emerged as the cultural and artistic capital of Nepal, if not the entire Himalayan region. It maintained strong links with the Buddhist centres of learning in Bengal and Bihar – thereby playing a role in the transmission of Buddhism to Tibet – and when these fell to the Muslims in the twelfth century, many scholars and artists fled to Patan, setting the stage for a renaissance under the later Malla kings. Patan existed as part of a unified valley kingdom until the late fifteenth century, then enjoyed equal status with Kathmandu and Bhaktapur as a sovereign state until 1769, when Prithvi Narayan Shah and his Gorkhali band conquered the valley and chose Kathmandu for their capital.
One of Patan’s charms is that its historic core is frozen much as it was at the time of defeat. However, see it while you can: although a number of temples and public monuments have been skilfully restored in recent years, the city has lost many of its older private buildings in the name of modernization.