In the soft, dusty light of evening the old city of Bhaktapur, with its pagoda roofs and its harmonious blend of wood, mud-brick and copper, looked extraordinarily beautiful. It was as though a faded medieval tapestry were tacked on to the pale tea-rose sky. In the foreground a farmhouse was on fire, and orange flames licked like liquescent dragon’s tongues across the thatched roof. One thought of Chaucer’s England and Rabelais’s France; of a world of intense, violent passions and brilliant colour, where sin was plentiful but so were grace and forgiveness …

Charlie Pye-Smith Travels in Nepal

Kathmandu’s field of gravity weakens somewhere east of the airport; beyond, you fall into the rich atmosphere of BHAKTAPUR (also known as BHADGAUN). Rising in a tight mass of warm brick out of the fertile fields of the valley, the city looks something like Kathmandu must have done before the arrival of the modern world. During the day, tour groups and persistent “student” guides mill about enthusiastically in the main squares, but after hours, or in among the maze of backstreets, it would be hard not to feel the pulse of this quintessential Newari city. In among Bhaktapur’s herringbone-paved streets and narrow alleys, women wash at public taps, men in traditional dress lounge in the many sattal, or covered loggias, peasants squat by the road selling meagre baskets of vegetables, and worshippers assiduously attend neighbourhood shrines. And everywhere the burnt-peach hue of bricks is offset by the deep brown of intensely carved wood – the essential materials of the Newari architects.

Physically, the city drapes across an east–west fold in the valley, with a single pedestrianized road as its spine, and its southern fringe sliding down towards the sluggish Hanumante Khola. Owing to a gradual westward drift, the city has two centres (residents of the two halves stage a boisterous tug-of-war during the city’s annual Bisket festival) and three main squares. In the west, Durbar Square and Taumadhi Tol dominate the post-fifteenth-century city, while Tachapal Tol (Dattatreya Square) presides over the older east end.

Brief history

The “City of Devotees” was probably founded in the ninth century, and by 1200 it was ruling Nepal. In that year Bhaktapur witnessed the launch of the Malla era when, according to the Nepali chronicles, King Aridev, upon being called out of a wrestling bout to hear of the birth of a son, bestowed on the prince the hereditary title Malla (“wrestler”). To this day, beefy carved wrestlers are the city’s trademark temple guardians. Bhaktapur ruled the valley until 1482, when Yaksha Malla divided the kingdom among his three sons, setting in train three centuries of continuous squabbling.

It was a Bhaktapur king who helped to bring the Malla era to a close in 1766 by inviting Prithvi Narayan Shah, the Gorkha leader, to aid him in a quarrel against Kathmandu. Seizing on this pretext, Prithvi Narayan conquered the valley within three years, Bhaktapur being the last of the three capitals to surrender.

Well over half of Bhaktapur’s population is from the agricultural Jyapu caste of the Newars, and it may well be the city’s tightly knit, inward-looking nature that has saved it from the free-for-all expansion that overwhelms Kathmandu. Thanks to a long-term restoration and sanitation programme, and to the policies of its independent-minded municipal council, much of the city is pedestrianized. Temples and public shelters have been restored with the money raised from the city’s entrance fee, and new buildings are now required to follow traditional architectural styles. This is one Nepali city that has got its act together, and it wears its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site proudly.

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