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Exploring the Timeless Beauty of Bhaktapur: Nepal's Living Museum

Discover this Nepali city where ancient traditions, stunning architecture, captivating culture, and the secrets within its intricate alleyways weave stories of history and artistry waiting to be explored.

Bhaktapur building and mountains

by Yashika CG

19 de sept de 2023

My love for time-honored cities, mystical alleyways, complex designs, and intriguing cultural practices deepens with every new expedition. This time my quest for immersing myself in ancient wisdom takes me to this enigmatic town called Bhaktapur in the east corner of the Katmandu Valley in Nepal. The town known for its artistry, handicrafts and ancient architecture, felt like I had landed in a mysterious painting in the imagination of a divine artist.

A Glimpse into Bhaktapur's Rich History

It was around 8:00 a.m. when the local bus dropped me off at the Suryabinayak bus stop. After walking through a narrow pathway I reached the entrance of Bhaktapur, a UNESCO World Heritage site. There was a distinct vintage vibe to this place, with the Hanumanthe River flowing beneath the bridge I looked up to trace my eyes through the monochromatic hues taken over the land. Shades of brown and deep red filled my gaze.

Good to know: Entry to the town is chargeable for foreigners, if you carry a passport from one of the SAARC countries you pay 500 Napali Rupees and any other passport holders pay 1800 Napali Rupees.

Ancient folklore believes that the entire valley was once a lake formed during the tectonic shift by the collision of Indian and Eurasian plates. The story goes that the lake was drained by a monk from Tibet. He cut out a chasm with his sword to drain the water so that he could become a student and learn from Swayambhunath Buddha, who resided in the lake.

Situated on the ancient trade route to Tibet, Bhaktapur was once a wealthy city that sustained the test of time in spite of being a target of many invasions. The town has managed to preserve its medival heritage of intricately designed temples and palaces. Some structures have been repurposed into cafes and restaurants while still maintaining their authenticity.

The Enchanting Durbar Square

As I arrived at the Durbar Square, I was approached by a local guide Suman who offered to take me around. The Durbar Square is a square at the heart of the palace complex. An open space from where the alleyways radiate. There was a freshness in the vibe as travelers of different ages and ethnicity strolled by with their cameras, some observing the area while seated on the courtyard, connecting through conversations and just being.

Suman took me through the replica of the Indian-inspired Char Dham temples (four pilgrimage sites) built around the square. The mesmerizing temples built in Shikara (the towering spire-like structures inspired by Hindu architecture), Pagoda (characterized by multiple tiers of roofs with upturned eaves, typically made of wood inspired by Japanese architecture) and Stupa style (dome-shaped structures inspired by Buddhist architecture) was a display of complex cultural interplay. These structures are believed to have been built during the 17th Century by King Yaksha Mall for people who could not travel to India to gain the spiritual satisfaction of visiting the Char Dhams of India. It might be useful to know that a few temples here are exclusively open for practitioners of Hinduism and closed for foreign visitors.

The 55 windows palace is another architectural marvel of this place. The palace made of intricately carved teak wood is said to have taken about 58 years to complete. Suman also shared that to maintain the uniqueness of these structures, it was a practice in ancient times for the architect to lose his hands to the kings after the completion of the structure to avoid any kind of imitations. Shows how these architectural wonders were a status symbol of the kingdom.

The square is also known for its fountains and public baths which were connected through underground channels during ancient times. Although they are non-functional now, they are a mystery to ponder on and a scene to behold. A living museum indeed.

A shop with hand painted wooden masks and string puppets

Photo by Yashika CG

The Conjuring Alleyways

The narrow alleyways branching out of the Durbar Square gave me an aesthetic high, the streets, an artistic mosaic of deep red bricks, intricately carved wooden facades and windows evoked a sense of symmetry. The alluring display of traditional and contemporary paintings, ancient artifacts, pottery, fabric made of Yak and other varieties of wool, elaborate masks and puppets in vibrant colors, crystals, and souvenirs of a diverse selection conjured and captivated my senses.

The ever-enthusiastic shop owners, eager to display their products somehow maintained a stance that didn’t pressure me to buy something in return for their effort. They kept reaffirming that “you are not compelled to buy anything if you are not interested, but don’t resist yourself from the experience.

Craftsmanship and Creativity

Bhaktapur, often referred to as the cultural capital of Nepal is known for its traditional art, pottery and woodwork. I got to visit a traditional Thanka painting institute Lama Thanka Center which is open for visitors and learn about the complex system of this Buddhist religious scroll painting that originated in Tibet and made it’s way to Nepal. The artists go through decades of dedicated effort to master the fine art form painted with pure 24-carat gold as shared by a senior student at the institute.

Apart from this, workshops in woodwork and pottery are also conducted here for visitors to experience the art form and take back souvenirs from their unique experiences.

Savoring the World-Famous Juju Dhau

I had heard a lot about the special yogurt dessert made of buffalo milk called Juju Dhau or King Curd which is available only in Bhaktapur. It was now time to taste it! The traditional recipe belongs to the Newar community who are the indigenous inhabitants of this land and have managed to preserve its authenticity for generations.

The rich creamy texture and mild sweetness of this dessert presented in traditional clay pots called matka are a delight to the senses if you are sweet-toothed. I enjoyed one while Suman took me into a household where he showed me the equipment used in the preparation while the fermentation process was in progress in a dark room.

A Nepali Temple

Photo by Yashika CG

Final Thoughts

After savoring the delicious Juju Dhau, as I walked back to the bus stop and boarded the bus to my next destination I carried with me a part of Bhaktapur. The mysticism of the temples, the complexity of cultural symphony, the resilience of heritage that stood the test of time, and connections that fulfilled the soul. To wrap it up, Bhaktapur was a wholesome experience that enhanced my love for understanding cultures and humans across cultures and I hope it inspired you to craft your next travel experience.

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