Visiting Bhaktapur was really a treat. It is an extremely old city, dating back centuries, an ancient capital of Nepal and has been listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. In addition the old part of city is not only still intact but also still functioning as a residential area for lots of people. While the main palace has been turned into an art museum, the city’s numerous temples and other sacred Buddhist sites are very much in use. I was there for two days so had an opportunity to witness the rhythm of life, including daily morning devotions by the local population. While Bhaktapur is located only about six miles from the Kathmandu city center, the trip to get there was an adventure in itself!
Prem met me at my hotel on Friday morning and we set off. Since I was only going to be gone two days and was checking back into the same hotel when I returned to Kathmandu I left most of my stuff at the hotel. For such a short trip I could really travel lightly; I only needed my daypack and a small shoulder bag. It was nice to be even more minimalist than usual! We walked to the local bus stop, about 30 minutes from the hotel, through streets I had not seen yet, well out of the heavily tourist-centric area of Thamel. Another local bus meant another crowded bus and that is what happened. Luckily we got on at the beginning of the route so we had seats, but soon the bus was full, with people packed like sardines in the aisles. (It was like this on the way back, too.) I was near the window and it was fascinating to watch at each stop how many were exiting versus those boarding. It seemed that the number getting on was always greater and I have absolutely no idea where on the bus those people were placing themselves, as I could not discern any unoccupied space, anywhere. But everyone made it work, somehow. Those in the back of the bus wanting off squeezed up the center aisle like a salmon swimming upstream, it was slow going to move forward.
After about an hour or so (only six miles!) we got to our stop, where fortunately, a bunch of people also got off so we did not have to fight our way out, bags and all. A short walk found us at the main gate of Durbar Square, the palace square for the old city. Prem had gotten the name of a guest house from a friend so we set off through the narrow bricked streets to find our lodging. I had a map, handed to me when I bought the ticket, but it was not too helpful. After calling our hostess we re-oriented and soon arrived after passing through several interesting, temple lined public squares. Exploration would have to wait until we got settled in, which we did in short order once we figured out how to navigate properly to our destination.
It was late afternoon by the time we finally ventured out to wander around the city. The sun was shining brightly and it was fairly hot so the activity level of city was low and the crowds were sparse. It would get livelier in the various public squares as the sun started setting and the air got cooler. As we walked from one of the many main squares to another I admired the architecture of the buildings. The local craftsmen are known for their intricate woodworking skills, especially related to windows. I found that artistry on display everywhere, on both buildings and temples. The buildings were a mix of old, new and rubble. Like everywhere else in Nepal, Bhaktapur received a lot of damage from the earthquake and like everywhere else I had been I could see various stages of construction ongoing. Bricks, sand, cement mix, steel reinforcement rods, and rocks of varying sized were piled up all over the place. I don’t know how long it will take Nepal to fully recover from that disaster but there are people all over the country working on it….
After poking our noses in lots of nooks and crannies, we wandered back to the main square nearest our guest house, Taumahdi, to hang out. There were two large temples located on the square, one of them the largest intact temple in the city. It featured stairs that allowed you to climb up to the top level, quite high actually, to a ledge perfect for sitting and watching the world go by. The top spot was a very popular not only with the tourists, but also with the local teenagers. Both groups intermingled as people passed up and down the steep stone steps. We liked the idea of crowd watching for a while so climbed up and plopped down at one of the corner posts to relax and observe. As it grew cooler more and more people came out, including the sudden appearance of a local market as farmers arrived from somewhere bringing vegetables and produce to sell. Over the course of the next two days we actually spent a lot of time in that square as it was the best people watching place in the city. Friday the square was mainly occupied by locals, but as the weekend arrived so did the tourists.
One of the activities that Prem suggested I might like was to wake early the next morning, Saturday which the one day a week people are off from work and kids off from school, and wander around the city to observe the morning devotions that take place daily, but more so on the free day. I agreed enthusiastically and at 6:30 am Saturday morning we were back out in the square. I would like to comment that I have noticed the day starts early in this country, in general. No matter where I have been I have routinely observed that people are out and about starting around 5 am (and yes, that means I have been awake at that hour, too) and by 6 am or so it seems like the whole population is moving around. So by 6:30 am the streets of Bhaktapur were already quite busy, with especially dense crowds in front of the various temples and shrines, preforming their devotions.
The devotions consisted of offering something to the temple deity, whether that be plants, rice, other food such as bananas or mangoes, the colored powder that is used to mark foreheads, or lighting candles. In addition, each temple and shrine had bells in the vicinity, which the postulants would ring as part of their ritual. Consequently as we moved around the city watching this activity at the various religious sites, the sound of bells was constantly following us. As the bells were all sizes and shapes, the result was quite musical. There were large bells with deep tones, whose gongs resonated through the open spaces. There was the light, whimsical tinkle of small,delicate bells, a melodic collection of notes mimicking wind chimes. Bells of some sort were constantly ringing for most of the morning.
Prem explained that there was a circuit that the residents traversed through the city stopping at the shrines important to them. Different families and professions had different deities. In addition, apparently the different deities had preferable offerings. It sounded complicated and something that could only be understood by osmosis; living there and absorbing the traditions as part of the community. I won’t go into the details but Prem further explained that the rituals and practice in the city has morphed and evolved over the centuries, incorporating a bit of Hindu and Bon philosophy. It was fascinating and I was trying to capture the experience with my camera, but in a non-intrusive way. Walking around the city later Prem also pointed out to me the small square stones in front of almost every house, that also serve as a small type of shrine where devotions are also practiced closer to home. Interestingly enough, I only saw one other tourist the whole morning. Those that sleep late in Bhaktapur are missing the whole point of being there!
We went back to the guest house for a late breakfast where I got introduced to another specialty of Bhaktapur called “King Curd”. King Curd is buffalo milk yogurt and the Bhaktapur version throughout Nepal is acclaimed as the best in the country. It is made in clay bowls (also produced in the city) which are only used once. I asked about this and was told that it was because the bowls can only absorb moisture appropriately one time, so there is something going on during the yogurt production that has to do with the clay’s porosity. In any event, it was, by far, the best yogurt I have ever had. We liked it so much we split a liter of it for breakfast the next morning, adding bananas and basically stuffing ourselves. And yes, a liter of yogurt is a bunch of yogurt, but Prem wanted to go for it, so we did. (I did not eat much the rest of the day, though!) The buffalo milk yogurt is not to be missed if you are ever in Bhaktapur.
The two days passed with the same lazy rhythm, exploring the city and sitting still watching the crowds. I roamed around for a while by myself, using the rough map to find all of the hidden and small side streets. That is where I saw some of the devastation the city was still recovering from. In all my travels around Nepal I have found the people to be incredibly friendly and Bhaktapur was no exception. With my light brown, almost blond hair, I was clearly not a native so people would say “Hello” in English as I passed. The most popular questions I encountered, which may have something to do with English language skills as much as curiosity, have been “What is your name?”, “Where are you from?” and “Where are you going?”. This last one has constantly perplexed me, and I assume is part of a language instruction class somewhere, because it is such a random question. (Except as I was climbing the mountain from Besisahar to Gaunsahar—that is an obvious place villagers don’t expect to see Westerners- wandering around on their mountain outside of tourist areas.) The kids were especially keen to try out their English skills so I always answered them and asked them questions too. There have only been a few times when kids have asked for money or candy and my reply was always “no”. My Nepali friends were quite firm in advising that these kind of requests should always be denied so as to not build bad habits in the young people.
As I walked around the city I found the site by the river where cremations are carried out, an area also currently under construction, lots of goats and chickens, some really nice houses and some really dilapidated ones, craftsmen at work in their shops, and old women husking rice. I passed a small group of people gathered around a large blue tarp spread on the ground, on which two men were sitting and finishing off the butchering of a goat. I assume that the crowd were there to receive some of the resultant piece parts. A woman was working with a bucket of the entrails. I did not linger even though it was an interesting scene. Old men were gathered here and there around the city in small groups near some of the temples, sitting and talking or playing chess. Even though it was kind of hot, I enjoyed just walking around and soaking in the atmosphere.
I met up with Prem later and we went back to our perch in Taumadhi square. Saturday night some local men showed up with drums, cymbals, and a pipe, parked themselves near the main temple, and proceeded to sing and chant. Prem told me the songs were mantras and the men were singing devotionals. Listening to them I realized that is what I had heard frequently in the mornings in Gaunsahar too. Saturday evening was social night at the square and everyone was out, tourists and locals, young and old. The farmers market had appeared again out of nowhere and people were shopping, talking, lingering, the teenagers were flirting with each other and the tourists were running around taking pictures. It was a bee hive of activity and fun to watch.
Bhaktapur is well worth a day or two for those traveling to Nepal.
The following pictures are just some small examples of the many different kinds of temples and shrines scattered around the city.