Ornately dotted around the anarchic cluster of Kathmandu’s core, Newari towns distinguished by their unique code of architecture can be found. An interweaving of intricate wooden carvings, gold, and deep reds brand the majestic multi-tiered buildings and temples. A short excursion from the central attractions of Kathmandu, Patan, also known as Lalitpur – city of arts – is a feast of mysticism, art and history, and at least a day can be spent losing yourself in its charm. The region’s own Durbar Square is home to one of the country’s most impressive collections of palaces and temples, but there are many other nuggets of interest punctuating this unique suburban enclave.
Just north of Durbar Square, the Golden Temple – or Kwa Bahal as it is otherwise known – has stood in pristine condition since 1409, and withstood the 2015 earthquake. Through a small, ornately detailed wooden doorway, visitors are met by a gleaming display of Buddhist iconography framing the inner courtyard. The natural light washing through the open-air complex breathes life into the beautiful elephant guardians - golden statues situated by the main entrance – and hours can be spent marvelling at the intricate and symbolic flourishes of this historic site.
Entering from the east means passing two wild-eyed lion statues through a doorway sculpted by the stonemason Krishnabir in 1886, famously marked by its frieze of Buddhist deities, into the main courtyard. The main shrine is home to a statue of Sakyamuni, and to the left a statue of Green Tara – the Buddha’s quick-thinking and wise counterpart. Nestled into the corner on the right and cloaked in a silver-and-gold, the Boddhisatva Vajrassatva is also graciously captured in statue form. Priests serve for 30 days at the Golden Temple, and are no more than 12 years of age. Photography is allowed inside the temple, but photographing Sakyumuni is prohibited, and shoes and leather items must be removed before entering the main courtyard.
Heading back towards Patan’s Durbar Square, restaurants both grandiose and discreet lure guests with a hearty range of international cuisines. Indulge in the hair-raising spice kick of traditional Newari cuisine from restaurants nestled just off the beaten tourist track, where food is cooked over open fire in bustling cave-like nooks. Or sit overlooking the square from a small balcony, sipping on Masala tea, in one of the many multi-story restaurants or cafes, peacefully gawping at the splendour of the region’s skyline.
Aside from the many temples and stupas making up this historic, Buddhist town, a harrowing yet important collection of photographs from the decade-long civil war in Nepal are housed in Patan’s Peace Gallery. Another indoor cultural retreat from monsoon rains, the Patan Museum is one of Durbar Square’s top sites and an excellent introduction to the symbolism, history and culture typical of Nepal. It’s also one of the most exquisite collections of religious art in Asia, and was once the residency of the Malla kings. The museum is an excellent opportunity to gain a closer insight into the hard labour and intricate craft skills involved in constructing Kathmandu’s aesthetically unique buildings.
Forming a labyrinthine border around Patan, streets lined with seemingly hundreds of shops selling traditional Nepalese handicrafts glisten with freshly cellophane-wrapped Buddha ornaments, colourful mandala paintings, wood carvings and other trinkets. Shop in the right places and you’ll be supporting small, fair trade business determined to preserve the work of this craft and tradition without exploiting craftsmen and women.
Patan is easily accessible by bus or taxi, or about a 4km walk from Thamel.