Nepal is a living museum, and its cultural
heritage is enlivened by centuries-old customs, traditions, crafts and
spiritual rites actively practiced by its people. The transformation of wood
into meticulously detailed deities, the fine-hammering and metalwork involved
in producing the many glistening figures standing guard over the country’s
spiritual sites, and the production of Tibetan Singing Bowls, are a chain
traceable far into the country’s history. Nested amongst Kathmandu’s dizzied streets, shrines, stupas and temples marked
by offerings of grains, coconuts and flowers mean Nepal’s intoxicating spiritual
culture is always in the periphery.
For many Nepalese, though, Bhaktapur – about eight miles away from Kathmandu – is one of the largest, and most unspoilt examples of traditional Newari culture. The typical Nepalese sights of tiered pagodas, temples and statues are only a prelude to what this subdued and accommodating city has to offer. Potter’s Square is an open-air display of the region’s long standing pottery industry. Hand-made clay pots, still wet, bake in the morning sun, and treadle-power wheels are out on display, used in the trade by generations of locals. Perched on roadsides, artisans chisel away at timber and weave cloth, and natives to the area bathe and socialise in courtyards. The Nepalese also, fittingly, refer to Bhaktapur as Bhadgaon – the city of devotees – a title just as aptly in-line with its devotion to fine crafts and skills as to its spiritual monuments and practices.
The latter, though, is also an excellent reason to spend at least a day roaming this precious, historic city. In addition to its own Durbar Square, of which there are three dotted around Kathmandu – “Durbar” roughly translating to “King’s Court” in English – there are two other major squares in Bhaktapur, embellished by a concoction of architecturally unique and intricate monuments to the divine. The temples, carefully constructed beacons of reverence for the many Hindu gods, are each entrenched in their own symbolism. The Erotic Elephants Temple, for example, shows members of the animal kingdom getting saucy with one another. Despite celebrating the reproduction of animals, though, and in alignment with Nepal’s bull-horned commitment to spiritual tradition, blood flows every Saturday at the Indrayani Temple, as animals are sacrificed to the Gods.
The many traditions making up Nepalese culture are inescapable. A celebratory attitude can be found amidst the dancing crowds making up the country’s many festivals, and Bhaktapur is an excellent place to absorb these lively occasions in a – mostly – traffic and pollution-free idyll. The city’s heartfelt commitment to cleanliness means most of its streets – despite earthquake damage – are a pleasure to walk around. A lack of vehicles also heightens the sense of community, as locals can mingle peacefully together without the threats of noise and danger from traffic.
Bhaktapur is also the perfect place to witness the country’s many festivals. Arrive during Teej, for example, – Nepal’s festival for women, celebrating marital stability amongst other things – and Bhaktapur erupts in a sea of red dresses dancing to traditional Nepalese music. Devotees wait in queues snaking through the squares to gain entrance to temples, and stalls selling varieties of offerings, food and trinkets all contribute to the jovial, booming, bustling atmosphere.
Bhaktapur is also a banquet of culinary delights, and is especially praised for its curd. The thick and creamy treat is often served in small wooden bowls. Whilst it is popular elsewhere in Kathmandu, Bhaktapur is famed for being the grandfather of this dairy delight. There are many restaurants and cafes to choose from, too, from the less-moderately priced establishments around Durbar Square, to more affordable eateries tucked off the beaten track. A feast of Tibetan Momos, for example, can be enjoyed for less than 100 rupees.
The city was once the direct trade route between India and Tibet, and from the 14th to 16th century it was a dominating Malla kingdom. The oldest part of the city is Taumadhi Tole, a square constructed in the 12th century under the reign of King Ananda. The Square’s Nyatapola Temple, five tiers high, is the tallest in Nepal. Exquisitely proportioned and only marginally damaged by the 2015 earthquake, Nyatapola was so sturdily built - during the reign of King Bhupatindra Madrid in 1702 – that only its upper storey required rebuilding. The temple is dedicated to the gruesome and bloodthirsty incarnation of Parvati. The idol of the goddess, in the inner sanctum, is allegedly too unsettling for members of the public, and so only priests are allowed inside.
If or when visitors become satiated with the city’s culture, an excursion to Nagarkot – a three-hour seven mile hike or a 40-minute bus or taxi journey from Bhaktapur – will be especially welcome for nature-lovers pining after the mountains. Ideally, at least a whole day should be spent here. Nature trails compliment the grandeur of Himalayan views, providing the Gods are feeling generous enough to unveil them from behind cloaks of clouds. October and November is when they are known to be the most generous...
Bhaktapur is about 8 miles from Thamel, and travelling from Thamel costs around 800 rupees by taxi. Buses are also regular and stop at the city’s Ratna Park bus station.