While the frenetic chaos of Kathmandu sprawls and teems across the Bagmati River to the north, Patan – or Lalitpur as it's also known – abides in the ways it always has: more peacefully, more quietly, and with an inclination towards the considered and the artistic. It’s no coincidence that Buddhism has long exerted a strong hold on the city – Buddhist enclaves in Nepal, as throughout South Asia, are often characterised by a serenity which eludes their wider, more Hindu surroundings.
Patan-Lalitpur was long an independent city-state in its own right, and it retains a distinct identity to this day. At heart, this is an artistic city, and the name Lalitpur – ‘City of Beauty’ – is richly deserved. This is the source of much of the celebrated fine metalwork that Nepal is famous for, and the architecture – all lavish temples and grand palaces – is some of the most beautiful in the whole country. Parts of the city were badly damaged in the 2015 earthquake, although on the whole it escaped lightly compared to its neighbour, Kathmandu.
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Patan-Lalitpur’s proximity to Kathmandu means it is one of the easiest places to explore in Nepal outside the capital. In fact, to walk from Kathmandu’s Durbar Square to its namesake in Patan takes just an hour, so makes an easy day trip. Linger for a few days, though, and you’ll be rewarded by the city's wealth of historic and cultural riches.
Your exploration of Patan-Lalitpur will likely begin and end in Durbar Square, the historical epicentre of the city. Like the other two Durbar Squares in the Kathmandu Valley – in Kathmandu itself, and in Bhaktapur – the square is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
It’s not hard to see why; the centuries-old buildings here have endured fires, earthquakes and invading hordes to remain standing as the finest examples of Newari architecture to be found anywhere. On the east side of the square looms the impressive Ancient Royal Palace, which dates back to the late 1600s. With its red-brick walls, tiered rooftop pavilions and latticed window screens, the palace is a shining example of traditional Nepalese architecture. At its core is a shrine to Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of wealth and good fortune, while on its interior eaves you can spot intricate kinkinimali – little tin leaves that serve as an illustration of the city's illustrious metalwork heritage.
Head to the north wing of the palace to find the Patan Museum, dedicated to the religious art of Nepal. Exhibits include hundreds of Buddhist and Hindu sculptures from across the centuries. South of the museum is Mul Chowk, home to the royal family of Patan until 1769, when the city was conquered by the Gorkhali king Prithvi Narayan Shah.
This campaign was a major milestone in the unification of Nepal, which has held fast against invasion or colonisation for centuries – no mean feat, considering it’s a tiny country sandwiched between the juggernauts of India and China (though the Himalayas help, of course). Even the British Empire was stopped in its tracks; so fierce were the Gorkhali soldiers during the Anglo-Nepalese War of 1814-16 that the East India Company decided to snap some of them up for itself, a tradition which lives on in the British Army’s modern units of Gurkha soldiers.
Durbar Square is also home to some of Nepal’s most beautiful and ornate religious ornamentation. Two stone lions, surrounded by vibrant Shiva murals, stand silent guard at the entrance to Mul Chowk; beyond, in the northeast corner of the courtyard, is a gilded doorway flanked by statues of Ganga and Jamuna, personifications of two of India’s mightiest rivers. Sundari Chowk is a stunning courtyard with ornately carved wooden pillars, windows and doorways, set around a sunken water tank whose 72 niches are filled with statues of Hindu gods and goddesses.
Much of Patan-Lalitpur’s most flamboyant building work was overseen by the Malla kings, of whom one, King Yoganarendra (r.1684–1705) is commemorated with a statue in the Hari Shankar Mandir on the western edge of Durbar Square. True to form, it’s an extravagant construction: the king sits with his hands clasped in prayer, while a huge cobra rears up behind him – the naga (snake deity) was thought to bring life-giving rains to the Kathmandu Valley.
On the cobra’s head sits a small bird. It’s said that when the king renounced the trappings of royalty to become a holy man after his son’s early death, he proclaimed that as long as the bird was still there, he was alive and could yet return to his throne. To this day, a bed is kept ready for him in the palace.
While most of Patan-Lalitpur’s headline attractions can be found in Durbar Square, perhaps the jewel in its crown – the Golden Temple – lies just to the north. Also known as Kwa Bahal and Hiranyavarna Mahavihara, this Buddhist monastery takes its English name from the beautiful golden metalwork which adorns its façade, decorated with images of the Buddha and of Tara, the pre-eminent female bodhisattva. The monastery has been active since the 12th century and upholds many of its ancient traditions to this day. The head priest, for example, is a 12-year-old boy who holds the office for a month before passing it on to one of his contemporaries. Legend has it that the temple’s founder, King Bhaskardev, dreamed that the temple should be built in a place where rats chase cats – to the benefit of the city's modern-day rat population, who gladly consume the offerings left for them around the temple. Watch your feet, too, for the resident tortoises, who are also allowed the run of the place – this time in tribute to Kurma, the Vedic equivalent of the mythical ‘cosmic tortoise’ who carries the world on his back.
Patan-Lalitpur can be easily explored from Kathmandu, but it rewards prolonged stays, and is such a peaceful and attractive place that basing yourself there is an appealing option. There are some beautiful boutique hotels in the historic heart of the city, and some atmospheric restaurants housed in old buildings. This is a good place to sample some rich Newari cuisine; try choyila (cubed buffalo meat, spiced and fried with vegetables) or, if you’re feeling adventurous, swanpuka (goat’s lungs filled with spicy batter and fried). Don’t miss the opportunity to pick up a souvenir , either. At Jawalakhel Handicraft Centre, Tibetan refugees hand-weave beautiful rugs from the wool of Tibetan highland sheep – the perfect memento of your time in this city of artisans.
Top image: Patan's Durbar Square © Yulia_B/Shutterstock