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.Read More
Patan Durbar Square
Patan Durbar Square
Smaller and less monumental than its equivalent in Kathmandu, Patan’s Durbar Square comes across as more refined and less touristy. Maybe it’s because the city of artisans has a better eye for architectural harmony; or because Patan, which hasn’t been a capital since the eighteenth century, has escaped the continuous meddling of monument-building kings. The formula is, however, similar to that in Kathmandu, with a solemn royal palace looming along one side and assorted temples grouped in the remaining public areas.
The Royal Palace
The Royal Palace
Patan’s richly decorated Royal Palace was largely constructed during the second half of the seventeenth century, but substantially rebuilt after both the Gorkhali invasion of 1769 and the 1934 earthquake. The palace – whose ongoing renovation, due to be completed in 2013, should open up new parts of the complex – consists of three main wings, each enclosing a central courtyard and reached by a separate entrance.
The Royal Palace’s northernmost wing, Mani Keshab Narayan Chowk, once served as the palace of another noted seventeenth-century king, Yoganarendra Malla. It too suffered in the 1934 earthquake and at the time was only clumsily rebuilt. With assistance from the Austrian government, however, it has been restored to house the splendid Patan Museum.
The museum displays a well-curated permanent collection of important bronzes, stone sculptures and woodcarvings, a gilded Malla throne and archival photographs. The exhibits are arranged thematically to lead you through Hindu, Buddhist and tantric iconography, temple construction, ritual objects and metallurgical processes, all supported by excellent explanatory text. Moreover, the building itself, with its newly stuccoed walls and artful lighting, suggests the royal palace Yoganarendra Malla might have built had he reigned at the beginning of the twenty-first century. From the interior balconies you can look out onto the courtyard below and its central Lakshmi shrine, and watch the kinkinimali, leaf-shaped tin cut-outs hanging from the eaves, fluttering in the breeze. A stunning gold window above the exterior main entrance depicts Vishnu and a heavenly host.
There’s a sedate café, run by the Summit Hotel, in the courtyard behind the museum (you don’t need an entry ticket to eat here), and a gift shop. The courtyard also hosts regular concerts.
Raato Machhendranath’s big ride
Raato Machhendranath’s big ride
The Kathmandu Valley’s oldest, longest and most exciting festival, the Machhendranath Rath Jaatra begins the day after the full moon of Baisaakh (April/May), when priests ritually bathe Raato Machhendranath’s sandalwood idol in Patan’s Lagankhel square. Moved back to its temple at Ta Bahal, the idol spends the next ten days undergoing the life-cycle rituals of Buddhist Newars. Meanwhile, just south of the Western Stupa at Pulchowk, Machhendranath’s chariot (raath) – more like a mobile temple – is assembled and its 18m-high tower of poles and vegetation constructed. A smaller chariot to carry Minnath is also built.
The idols are eventually installed in their chariots and the great procession begins. Scores of men heave at the ropes; Machhendranath’s unwieldy vehicle rocks, teeters and suddenly lurches forward, its spire swaying and grazing buildings as it passes. The crowd roars, people leap out of the way, and the chariot comes to a stubborn stop until the pullers regroup and try to budge it again. Separately, local children pull Minnath’s chariot. It goes on like this, in stages, for four or more weeks, until the chariots reach Jawalakhel Chowk, a journey of about 4km.
At Jawalakhel, the stage is set for the dramatic Bhoto Jaatra. A huge crowd begins assembling before noon on a day ordained by the astrologers – usually the fourth day after the chariots’ arrival at the chowk. At around 4pm or 5pm, Patan’s Kumari is carried in by palanquin. Local VIPs climb aboard Machhendranath’s chariot and take turns holding aloft the god’s magical jewelled vest. Since the procession culminates during the showery pre-monsoon, Machhendranath usually obliges with rain: bring an umbrella.
Machhendranath’s idol is then carried to Bungmati, 6km to the south, where it is welcomed home with great fanfare; the cult of Raato Machhendranath being believed to have originated in Bungmati, accounting for the god’s Newari name, Bunga Dyo (“God of Bunga”). The idol spends the summer months in Bungmati before being transported back to Ta Bahal, but once every twelve years it’s kept in Bungmati all winter and the chariot procession begins and ends there. That will next happen in 2015.