Patan was once an independent city state in Nepal, one of three kingdoms run by three princes that were the offspring of a single king. The three Durbar Squares of Kathmandu sprung up in these places centuries ago: in Kathmandu proper, in Bhaktapur, and Patan.
The earthquake that shook Nepal in 2015 hit all three like a body slam, scattering bricks like they were discarded Lego blocks, leaving buildings that had stood strong for 400 or 500 years in ruins. I reported on the rebuilding in Bhaktapur last year. I returned to Nepal again recently to speak at a tourism conference there and spent the day in Patan with Christine from Grrrl Traveler and our guide Nabaraj of Wanderlust Himalaya Adventures. I got the same mixed feelings from beauty and tragedy, destruction and rebuilding.
The good news is, there’s a lot going on in the rebuilding department and it’s not at all haphazard. Sometimes the tendency in places so dependent on tourism is to cut corners to get the cash cows back up again, to restore buildings as quickly as possible so the tourists who come to see them will return. Nepal, in conjunction with a lot of international donor countries, is doing it right. Some people would love to see them move faster, especially hotel owners and tour operators, but the artisans and historians are in charge instead of the business owners and that’s a good thing. Instead of slapping together bricks and mortar to repair a broken building, restoration crews are recreating the look of the originals down to the carved support beams and embellished bricks with designs on them.
Nepal still has plenty of skilled craftsmen (and women) working in the Kathmandu Valley, so when funds started rolling in from donor countries, UNESCO, and private donations, the wood carvers got to work. In the Mulchowk palace courtyard complex, there are dedicated architecture galleries where centuries-old paintings and drawings help today’s architects figure out what the buildings and rooms of Patan looked like originally.
The Mulchowk buildings got their own renovations in 2011, so those structures (seen in the Bhandarkhal water tank photo above) were already stronger than the others. That renovation set the stage for the post-earthquake ones as well, with artisans already experienced in matching up the figures on carved wood roof struts. The bath house here is especially interesting, with one large bath area for royalty in the middle of the room, with animal water spouts delivering water in the recessed area. As with most Newari buildings, there are carved wood screens above where someone could look down from above, behind the lattice.
There’s a contrast in Patan of quiet places that look like they did in the 1600s and 1700s, while in the main square it’s hard to imagine the original grandeur with so much scaffolding and construction still going on. I’m glad I got to visit this area when I first backpacked around the world in the mid-90s. I remember it as a magical place, a step back in time. Eventually it will return to that state, but it’s going to take time and a lot of money. Labor is cheap in Nepal, but when you need a whole army of workers and you have strict historic preservation guidelines, it’s still a costly process–even if you manage to defy human nature and keep the whole process corruption-free.
I was glad I had come with a guide used to working with writers and film crews because he led us to hidden places I probably would not have found on my own. Many of the Patan tours breeze through the area in a couple hours and just hit the highlights. Sometimes they miss one of the oldest structures in the area, Hiranya Varna Mahavihar—The Golden Temple.
This 12-century Buddhist monastery is named for the color, not real gold, but it’s a regal sight nevertheless. With prayer wheels, incense burning, and statues that would take a whole day to decipher, it’s at once overwhelming and calming, an antidote to the ugly buildings and brutal traffic of modern Kathmandu.
We also stopped in a Hindu temple and had good timing. We arrived on the day when women come to Kumbheshwar Temple to pray for fertility and get counseling. There was a sea of saris and one woman was busy replacing the candles that burned out since the whole rack of them was lit. With a wall of bells on one side, swirls of incense, plus sadhus and fortune tellers lining the walls, this was a place that reminded me of the joy of travel. If you need a real change of scenery that will be the opposite of what you experience at home, come to a place like this and be truly transported.
We also got to visit the child goddess Kumari and pay our respects in her home. She is one of several around the Kathmandu Valley. I’m not going to picture her here or try to explain the whole history of the custom in a few sentences. It would take a book to do it right—and it would be a ripe subject for a novel in the right skilled hands. You can get an overview here.
The stupa above is one of hundreds in the Kathmandu Valley, as popular as a pocket park with a fountain in a European city. We passed it walking from one place to another, just another site in the old city of Patan.
As a foreigner, you need to pay 1,000 rupees to enter the old city of Patan (US$9) and another 50 for the Golden Temple. You need to show your ticket to enter most buildings. This can seem exorbitant by Nepal standards, where you can get a hotel room or five lunches for that, but just look at all the scaffolding and consider it a rebuilding donation.
Patan was once a separate kingdom from Kathmandu, back when it took a while to travel 7.5 kilometers by foot or animal. Now it might take a while to get there because of traffic. Figure on 30-40 minutes in a taxi from Thamel, which will cost less than half the amount of your entrance fee.