Words by Sara Pierdonà
Images from Paola Bay, Sara Pierdonà and Camilla Frances
Sara Pierdonà travels to Nepal's Kathmandu Valley and discovers exquisite Newari architecture, picturesque villages, masterful craftsmanship and medieval buildings in a remarkable state of preservation.
“In Xanadu did Kubla Khan, A stately pleasure-dome decree”: when I was a child, I was convinced (incorrectly, of course), that Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem, Kubla Khan, was written about Kathmandu. Perhaps the names of Coleridge’s imagined palace sounded similar to my young, fanciful mind; similarly exotic and faraway. It was enough to fuel my imagination of a grandiose city enshrined among the world's highest mountains and beautified, century after century, by the passionate efforts of munificent rulers.
Then, these childhood fantasies of Nepal were overwritten by other more concrete and disenchanted notions: the controversies over high-altitude hiking; the dismal succession of air crashes; the sad exodus of Tibetan monks; the news, in 2015, of the terrible earthquake. I sensed there was more to it, but nothing that brought me back to the myth I had created. Until that is, I heard someone question a very learned elderly gentleman – an expert in the arts – on the most beautiful place in the world (what a hazardous question!) His answer: “The Valley of Kathmandu, for Newari architecture.” I had only to look at a few photographs to understand what he meant, and rediscover the inlay work, gilded statues and pagoda roofs I had imagined, while daydreaming, years before.
When I finally visited the Valley of Kathmandu, I soon discovered that travelers are facilitated by the surprising proximity of the city’s major historical sites. Patan is less than ten kilometers from the capital, Bhaktapur a few more; and, were it not for historical reasons (and national pride), these would be considered suburbs of Kathmandu. All three together are called “sister cities”: the heartland of Nepal. During the Malla dynasty, they were city-states that alternated between phases of cooperation and armed conflicts. Scattered around them to this day is a constellation of picturesque smaller villages, full of medieval buildings in a remarkable state of preservation.
The writer, John Sanday, reports an incident that happened to him on one of his trips to Nepal, during an excursion not far from the capital. “I vividly remember encountering a wizened old Sherpa lady striding along the trail towards me with a great sense of purpose but apparently miles from anywhere. We greeted one another and [...] I asked her where she was going, and she replied “Nepal”. I asked her again, “Where are you going?’. Again she replied, “Nepal”, adding that it would take her three days to reach her destination. It was only then that I realized she was, in fact, referring to the Kathmandu Valley, which to her and to many people of her generation is the Kingdom of Nepal.”
A net of ancient trails connects the many villages to the “sister cities”. Seeing them on foot is an authentic experience; you are more likely to encounter tourists trekking in the Himalayas than within walking distance of the capital. Everywhere, one comes across hidden courtyards, alleys decorated with prayer flags, and stalls selling tagetes (marigolds, used to make traditional Nepalese flower garlands).
But each stop more than justifies its inclusion in the itinerary: for example, at Budhanilkantha, you can admire the immense statue of Vishnu floating in the waters of a sacred pool (the God, carved in black stone, dozes on the coils of an 11-headed serpent; the statue dates from the 8th century); at Bungamati, you’ll be enchanted by the masterful chisel work (and hypnotic noise) of the carpenters thronging the square; and at Pashupatinath (which is, according to various guidebooks, the “most emotionally engaging” religious site in Nepal) you can even watch cremation ceremonies and spy on sadhus wandering around wearing extravagant robes and elaborate hairstyles.
Cities, temples and neighborhoods often have more than one name. Patan is also called by its Sanskrit name, Latipur ("City of Beauty"), but is known to its inhabitants as Yala. Each village has a patron deity (frequently inspired by a weather agent), and each of the “sister cities” boasts a mythological foundation: Hindu deities who, in ancient times, commanded its construction, following enigmatic whims and being inspired by vague metaphors.
Yet historians always conclude that Nepal’s street plan study suggests that cities grew “without planning.” And that is exactly the impression one gets from straying through Kathmandu’s atmospheric maze of alleys. Only the royal residence and the spaces dedicated to its tutelary deity made use of meticulously planned architecture, always in the center of the city. In the immediate vicinity, with a radial but labyrinthine arrangement, stood the magnificent homes of high-ranking courtiers.
In the cities, the splendors of the past are clearly visible. In the midst of a vast tract of entirely rural and agrarian peoples, Newars developed an urban civilization that in many respects rivals the ancient cities of Europe and China. Houses were built very close to each other, bordered by small gardens and shared walls.
Architecture was inextricably connected to sculpture and camouflaged through it. It is well known that competition among the “sister cities”, and the impulse to build increasingly lavish palaces, gave rise to craftsmanship of an exceptional standard. As evidenced by restoration work, the Nepalese are still exceptionally skilled masters of traditional craftsmanship techniques.
Visitors to Kathmandu will find it almost impossible to resist the bright colors of the ubiquitous stalls or the whispered call of the many antique dealers overlooking the tole (streets) or the chowk (courtyards). However, if you are looking for a specific item, you can head straight to the center of production: masks in Thimi; Tibetan carpets in southern Patan and metalwork in old Patan; carved wood in Bungamati and Bhaktapur.
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