Today I was off to Bhaktapur, an ancient city which Bhupen had described as a living museum. I checked out of my hotel, took all my bags and caught a taxi from Thamel, an hour’s trip to Bhaktpur. Normally I’d take a local bus but you have to put your big bags on the roof racks and with my shoulder that wasn’t going to happen, if I wanted to secure them properly. The taxi driver was friendly and I found out he has 4 children whose education he pays for, 400 rupees a month per kid (about 4 quid, but that’s quite a lot in Nepal). The trip took us down one of the best roads in Nepal, a new motorway made by the Japanese which has reduced the trip from a few hours to just half an hour. My dad, who went to Nepal maybe 40 years ago, recalls the old road being one of the worst main roads he’d driven on his travels, and broke his van’s axel on it. We drove past other big towns but it didn’t really feel like we left the urban sprawl at any point, although the countryside got leafier. The tractor (the long, low Nepali version) that I’d seen the other day in Kathmandu turned out not to be a novelty, as out here there were loads of them, chugging away loudly and slowly, carrying water tanks, stacks of metal and other heavy goods.
At Bhaktapur I was met by a guide arranged through Fantastic Nepal. Mohan was a spectacled, skinny 25 year old. As Bhaktapur has so many things to see and a lot of history, I thought a guide would be a good idea, I was thinking of staying a few days. I’d arrived at one of the old city gates, a big archway through which you could see Bhaktapur’s Durbar square, an amazing collection of old temples and palaces which appears on postcards and posters all over Nepal. It bustled with tourists and locals, disabled beggars and street kids milled around beseeching all. We walked less than a minute past tiered temples to a guesthouse in the heart of the old city, through some old courtyards, one of which contained an intricately carved wooden double-door. At the Golden Gate guesthouse I dumped my bags and Mohan led me outside.
We sat on wooden benches under the eaves of an old police rest house. These rest stations are still used around the city by old men and women who relax on the wooden planks under the rafters and watch the world go by. Mohan explained the history of the Durbar square, most of it is 16th century and the old dynasty kings built the temples and palace here, all of which are Hindu. With only a beginner knowledge of Hinduism I got Mohan to give me a crash course in it where we covered the main gods and Hindu philosophy.
We started touring the square. First we entered a temple with a golden doorway guarded by a rilfe-wielding policeman, because inside is a valuable relic. The door was flanked by big stone lions (acting as guardians) and ancient statues of Hindu gods. We followed a passage between buildings with ornate wooden carvings on the roof supports, and wooden lattice windows.
At the main temple gate I couldn’t go inside as only Hindus are allowed, but next to it was one of the water spouts used by the king. A series of tiered steps descended into the ground like a reverse pyramid, at the bottom sat a green, algae covered pool. A tall pole sprouted from the centre topped by a snake, the god Shiva’s “vehicle”. The edges of the pit were lined with stone snakes.
Down a staircase next to the pool was the metal water spout, which was a crocodile eating a goat, the spout coming out of the goats mouth. This used to be fed by underground streams but these days the water supply is taken by the rest of the city before it reaches here, so it remained dry.
Next we walked around the smaller temples in the square and followed a narrow, shop-lined street to the tallest temple in Nepal, having 5-tiers, and the only one to survive the massive earthquake in the 1930’s.
Most of the other temples in Bhakatpur were rebuilt but you can see many statues have been put back together like a jigsaw puzzle. A smaller tiered temple stood on another side of the square with a goat tethered next to it. Buffalos and goats have the dubious honour of being worthy for sacrifice and it’s commonly done for big festivals. Families may also make an animal sacrifice at a temple to appease (or please) a god if they are having problems, or for occasions like marriage, though usually they hire someone to perform the execution. This goat was on death row.
We walked along the old streets where daily life carried on as normal. All the houses are ancient with old crumbling bricks, cracking woodwork, and lattice windows. Many were destroyed and rebuilt after the earthquake (which flattened most of Nepal’s buildings). There are loads of souvenir shops selling jewellery, “antiques”, demon masks and fine detail Nepali art (colourful Thanka paintings) which this city specialises in. Compared to Kathmandu it was chilled, with much less people and no cars – they’re banned in the old city. There’s still honks from the occasional motorbike that runs through town but it’s nothing compared to the capital where a foot wrong can lead to an accident.
We passed some deep circular wells, lined with moss and ferns, and wooden posts wrapped with colourful string bracelets, sometimes with a mask fixed on top. These are for the Indra Jatra festival and commemorate the binding of a god who was imprisoned for stealing food from the people.
In another square we went inside a wood workshop. At the entrance craftsmen and women were tapping away with hammer and chisel on wooden planks, creating very intricate patterns in the style I’d seen around the city. Upstairs a man showed me around their shop which was full of amazingly detailed work – lattice windows, effigies, ornate chests, statues and masks. They also make the peacock window, a lattice window with a fine carved peacock in the middle, which can only be found in Bhaktapur.
On the first floor of an old building with an open side to the square we ate lunch. Mohan told me he taught language classes at school as a second job. He only lives a few minutes away from the Durbar square and has lived here all his life. His knowledgeable about the history and religion of the place was deep and around town he would often greet shopkeepers he knew. Everyone seemed to know him.
Next we went down alleyways past the original peacock window to “pottery square”. Pottery is another specialty here. The square was covered with clay pots and vases drying out in the sun, black and red clay alongside bundles of grass. An old potter was spinning a stone wheel on the ground and effortlessly forming a new jug with his dripping hands, as a tour group swarmed around him. As he was asking for money for photos most of them begrudgingly kept their cameras down!
Down a side alley from the square were the firing stacks. The pots are stacked in beds of long grass and completely covered with it. The grass is set alight, firing the pots, and the resulting ash blankets them, protecting them from smashing. It takes around two days for them to be ready.
Back in the square I photographed the potter and give him a tip. I watched a man loading a wheelbarrow with big sausages of supple black clay, which they get from the hills nearby.
We continued through the old town, stopping at a Thanka painting shop. Mohan knew the guy working there who showed me around. Sat inside were painters working on big canvases with very fine brushes. The artistry was impressive. Both masters and students work here. After colouring, some paintings have an extra stage where real gold paint is used to add detail on top. I watched one of the painters at work adding in some tiny pupils to a buddah’s eyes. This was the final, crucial stage and he did it perfectly. It can take a few months to complete a painting so to mess up here would be costly! If mistakes are made then sometimes they can be repainted, but you can always tell. With the gold paintings it can be a write-off if a mistake is made, and an expensive one at that!
Upstairs I was given a crash course in Buddhism and shown different types of Thanka painting in more detail. I felt like I was being pushed into a sale with all of the goodwill being shown to me, having expressed my interest for one of the styles earlier. Fortunately the guy wasn’t too pushy and was understanding when I explained that I was travelling and couldn’t be walking around for 6 months carrying a painting!
At a souvenir stall Mohan showed me a traditional Nepali board game, on a small bronze board with metal playing pieces. It’s called Tigers and Goats, for two players, one playing the tigers and the other the goats. The tiger player must moves his tigers and hops over goats to eat them, and every turn the goat player places a goat on the board. If the goats trap the tigers (leaving them no possible moves) the goats win, if the tigers eat 5 goats the tigers win.
Back at Durbar square I paid Mohan his fee and said goodbye. Now it was 4pm the light was nice for photos at last after the glaring sun of the daytime. I wandered around with my camera, catching locals doing their rounds of the temples, making offerings.
When dusk came I returned to the guest house and went up to the roof garden. The views were really nice, looking over the old and new rooftops of Bhaktapur and we were right next to the big tiered temples which rose above them. Beyond were rising hills covered in terrace farmland and woods. Crows pecked at breadcrumbs on the wall. The odd horn and murmur of people below were the only thing disturbing the peace up here. I ate dinner up there, a set Newari meal of assorted beans, Dhal Bhat (lentils and rice), pickled vegetables and meat.
A guy who works at the guesthouse joined me for a drink. His name was Decent (yes really), a jovial mid-20 year old who spoke really good English with an American accent. He’d studied in Texas and only returned some months ago to his family who run the guesthouse. We chatted all evening, smoking joints, and he seemed a really sound guy. He was able to give me lots of insight into Nepalese life and he was also interested in photography like me. We could hear the Indra Jatra festival in full swing below, the chariots were being hauled around the city. I peered down and could see they were much smaller than the Kathmandu ones and were carried on the shoulders of the bearers. We said goodnight and I hit the sack.