When you drive into Bhaktapur, your car is a time machine and you are back in the 15th century.
Of all the ancient cities of the Kathmandu valley, Bhaktapur is the least changed. There are vistas over acres of medieval tiled roofs interrupted only by the thrust of temple spires and golden images atop tall stone pedestals. In the narrower lanes, carved wooden windows almost meet overhead. Grain is winnowed in the streets and chillies dried wherever space permits, so at times streets, temple squares and rooftops are bright scarlet. Corn and vegetables cascade from wooden eaves to dry in the wondrously golden sun of Bhaktapur. It is a farmer's city, so one surprises people laden with hay or carrying vegetables hung from bamboo yokes across their shoulders. It is not uncommon to see piled vegetables in one basket balanced by a small child or two in the other. Now small tractors have invaded the streets and lanes tremble as they pass.
There is far less Western attire about. The elderly and the old stick to their traditional dress. Women wear striking red and black sarees with white shawls, their ears outlined in gold rings. There are as yet no shops selling the enticements of Bangkok and Hong Kong. Although for a while, when the valley discovered videos, there were cinema posters stuck to ancient carved wood or left standing against guardian stone lions outside temples. Youths glued to walkmans or swinging transistors to the rhythms of the BeeGees and Eagles, were never a feature of Bhaktapur. The young are out in the fields, in their unsophisticated shops, or working in Kathmandu.
In fact, when you drive into Bhaktapur, your car is a time machine and you are back in the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries, but endowed with the extra sensory perception of looking into the twentieth century to which the tourists belong. The streets are paved in herring-bone brick. You may meet the nine Durgas, fearfully masked, who strut and dance and hold up traffic as long as it pleases them. Their acolytes, boys dressed in turbans and loose robes hung with heavy silver and copper jewellery demand alms. Or your progress may be stopped by a bull fight on which bets are hurriedly placed. Shops overflow into the streets; earthen pots, vegetables, insecticides, fertilizers, brass and copper ware. On a temple plinth, a witch doctor spreads his potions such as fragments of dead animals, birds and reptiles while making sure of business by including nails, hammers, locks and flashlights among his exotica.
Tradition has it that Lord Vishnu himself built the city in the shape of a sacred conch. Surprisingly enough, aerial photographs confirm the shell shape of Bhaktapur. More believable is the claim that Licchavi kings raised the status of a cluster of villages called Bhaktagiama, on the Tibet-India trade route, to the status of a small city over which a known king, Ananda, ruled in the late ninth century It is recorded that at the end of the fourteenth century the well-known Malla king, Jaya Sthiti, moved his capital to Bhaktapur.
The city prospered. MuIe trains jingled over the passes from Tibet. Caravans of porters came from India. One can imagine the streets filled with traders from as far as Lhasa, Shigatse, Lucknow and Benares. Spices and condiments, salt, brocades, fine cotton silks, tea, grain, jade and porcelain, gilded images, furs, painted scrolls, arms, horses, live birds and animals for a king's menagerie. In the centre of the town was a large hostelry favoured by Tibetans, still known as the Bhote Bahal. In an outstandingly handsome temple square is a house built for Indian Brahmins imported from South India to teach and translate religious texts. The rich raised fine houses, kings lavished love and money on the city to raise temples, shrines and rest houses for pilgrims. They embellished the city with statuary and carving, extended the palace, built baths and fountains, ghats by the river and large, ornate tanks to ensure an adequate supply of water. The fame of the city spread far and wide. Because of its numerous temples and shrines and the pious nature of its people, it became known as the city of devotees.
Though once the capital of an undivided valley, Bhaktapur fell prey to the politics of ambition that not only separated the cities of Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur, but had them almost continuously at war with each other. Perhaps the walls that ringed the cities belong to an earlier age when they were susceptible to attack from numerous enemies. Or they were hurriedly built when the valley divided itself into three kingdoms, each with armed satellite towns that protected the cities. Chronicles make numerous mentions of these walls, but nothing remains of them except two gates in Bhaktapur and one in Patan. Even these are not very old. As targets of repeated attack they must have been destroyed time and time again. The western gate in Bhaktapur, surprisingly Moghul in style, is late Malla. Having seen the assault of the Gurkha king Prithvi Narayan Shah in 1767 and the unification not only of the valley but the whole of Nepal, the old gate has remained an ornament, its two stone lions guarding the city against nothing more serious than invasions of modern tourists.
Through the gate is one of my favourite views; the cobbled road dipping steeply into the medieval city so that houses are elevated on plinths and connected to the road by stone stairways. Carved wooden rest houses that must once have stood free are now part of the walls of houses, most of them housing ceremonial raths of various sizes. Over the rooftops looms the tiers of the temple of the five sages, Bhaktapur's proudest monument. And beyond, are the mountains.
The road is invariably filled with men carrying heavy loads of vegetables, hay and pottery. Time stands still. One looks into the high noon of Newari art and culture. Into a wondrous age that has left so many brilliant monuments behind.
Only the lampposts and the Mercedes Benz relic remind of the present.
(Excerpted with permission from In the Kingdom of the Gods, HarperCollins, 1999)