Chapter 1, Part 19
One early morning at the reception in our hotel, situated amid the labyrinthine alleys of Kathmandu, we asked a lady, presumably the manager, about the cost of taking a taxi to Patan during the fuel crisis. We then walked to a taxi stand on Tridevi Sadak, just a few hundreds meters away, and asked the first driver we saw. It was still very early, the usual throngs of tourists and local people were yet to be seen, and the negotiation with the taxi driver went smoothly.
Located roughly 7 km south of the nation’s capital, Patan, also known as Lalitpur, is not only one of the largest cities in modern-day Nepal, but also one of the oldest with historical accounts dating back to the third century BC. At that time Ashoka was the king of a prominent Buddhist empire in the Indian subcontinent, controlling vast swathes of lands far beyond its core realm. Legend has it that the king once erected five stupas around an area which is today part of Patan. Taking the shape of Dharma Chakra – a ubiquitous wheel symbol in Buddhism – the stupas were said to guard all four directions of the town.
In spite of being a Hindu-majority country, Nepal has always been a land where Hinduism and Buddhism coexist, mostly peacefully. In the seventh century AD during the reign of King Amsuvarman of the Licchavi dynasty, temples of both religions were venerated and granted tax money.
In the beginning of the 13th century, the Mallas ruled over Kathmandu Valley and made Bhaktapur its capital. At that time Patan was considered a secondary town, and only when the two dynasties of Tipura and Bhonta took control of the valley between the mid-13th and 14th centuries did Patan serve as the capital of the region when Bhaktapur and Banepa, the capitals of both dynasties respectively, were constantly at war against each other. But in peacetime, they alternately provided kings for the valley.
In the 15th century, Yaksha Malla – one of the most successful kings in the history of the Malla dynasty – unified Nepal and enlarged the boundaries of his kingdom. However upon his death the kingdom was divided yet again, but this time between the king’s sons. The dynamics of the power struggle and political alliances in the valley were so intense that from 1516 to 1597 Patan was effectively independent of the Mallas and ruled by the noblemen of the town.
Patan returned to the hands of the Mallas following the conquest of the town by Siva Simha Malla from Kantipur (modern-day Kathmandu). However his kingdom was once again divided after his death in the early 17th century, with Siddhi Narasimha Malla controlling Patan, and Lakhsmi Narasimha Malla resorting to Kathmandu. Both were the grandsons of Siva Simha Malla.
The Patan we know today is essentially a creation of three kings: Siddhi Narasimha Malla, Srinivasa (Shree Niwas) Malla, and Yog Narendra Malla. Siddhi Narasimha built Krishna Mandir in the 17th century, a temple with a distinctive sikhara (towering spire above the sanctum) style unlike other multi-tiered roofed Newar temples more common in the valley. Facing the temple, a statue of Garuda – Vishnu’s vehicle – stood on a tall pedestal. Situated to the north was Vishwanath Temple, another shrine built by Siddhi Narasimha. Its walls were supported by wooden beams, a reminder of the destructive force that rattled the country several months before my visit. But instead of sadness and despair, the place was filled with the joy of students playing with the pigeons around the temples, as well as the colors of locals and tourists alike. Looming over them was Taleju Bhawani Temple, dedicated to the four-faced ten-handed clan goddess of the Mallas.
Constructed by Siddhi Narasimha and rebuilt by his son Srinivasa after being destroyed by fire, the Taleju Bhawani Temple with its multiple roofs dominated the city’s Durbar Square. Srinivasa also left a legacy at the northern end of the main passageway that cut through the heart of the square: Bhimsen Temple. According to the local tradition, Bhimsen is the god of business and trade, hence the temple’s importance for shopkeepers, artisans and farmers, among others.
Srinivasa Malla also established Mul Chowk in the 17th century, the main courtyard at the heart of the royal palace. Together with the adjacent and smaller Sundari Chowk, they housed some of the most exquisite works of Newar artists, including a golden doorway guarded by gilded statues of Ganga and Yamuna, the highly intricate Tushahiti stepwell (closed for renovation at the time of my visit), and countless ornately carved wooden window shutters and pillars.
All of the centuries-old architectural gems at Patan Durbar Square did leave a deep impression on a British traveler by the name of Percival London. In 1928 he wrote “As an ensemble, the Durbar in Patan probably remains the most picturesque collection of buildings that have been set up in so small a place by the piety of oriental man.” Yog Narendra Malla, Siddhi Narasimha’s grandson, unfortunately died at a relatively young age and left less grandiose monuments compared to what his father and grandfather had built. Poisoned at the age of 39, Yog Narendra Malla is believed to have been murdered by a person the people of Bhaktapur sent to Patan as revenge for a siege the young king had laid to the city.
One might be forgiven for not realizing that the Malla kings of Patan once ruled over a Buddhist-majority population for all of the temples around the Durbar Square were attributed to Hindu deities. Claiming themselves to be the descendants of Rama, the Hindu god from the Ramayana, the kings of Patan were in fact devout Hindus. However their rule was not perceived as a threat by the people as the Malla kings did not show any intention of converting them to Hinduism. They rather enveloped Buddhist rituals as a part of the bigger picture of Hindu cosmology.
Syncretism was indeed evident in Nepal, and it still is today. Located at Keshav Narayan Chowk, the 18th-century portion of Patan Royal Palace which was built in the final decades of the Mallas’ reign, Patan Museum provided me with a better understanding of how Hinduism evolved in Nepal. When the religion had not yet reached the Kathmandu Valley, the locals were animists, worshiping nature and the spirits. Hence in the earliest form of Hinduism, the Trimurti – Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva – were still unknown. Surya (the sun god), Chandra (the moon god), and Agni (the fire god) were worshiped instead, a result of the syncretism of Hinduism with animist beliefs.
It is apparent that thousands of years later, syncretism has become not only the norm, but also an integral part of Nepalese culture. And there is no other place in the valley where this is more evident than in eclectic Kathmandu.
Click here for the full list of stories from the Spice Odyssey series.