Sunday, October 17, 2010

Walking Bhaktapur with Anil - Part II

One week ago, Yanik, Mikaela, and myself visited Bhaktapur with Anil Chitrakar, who gave us a tour of the city. Part I of this series was about Bhaktapur and its recent history. This post will follow the first half of our tour with Anil.

Our walk began at Bhaktapur's eastern gate - the side of the city that faces away from Kathmandu toward the rim of the valley. After paying the tourist entrance fee, we went through the gate, up a road with a relatively steep gradient. The city's history, as a fiercely independent city state and thus a fortress, was already clearly evident. Bhaktapur sits on a ridge overlooking the surrounding countryside. Its gates needed to be easy to defend. The gradient of the road leading from the Eastern gate ensured that anyone assaulting the city would be fighting uphill virtually the entire time.

Unfortunately, the side effect of living on a hill, is that water is usually quite a ways below. Bhaktapur is no exception to this rule and throughout the walk, we passed a number of wells and public fountains, which are dug at least twenty feet down in order to access the water table. Bhaktapur is in the midst of a renaissance right now, but one of the city's biggest remaining challenges involves managing its water supply.

Anyway, after steeply ascending, the road from the east gate opened into a wide open square. The public squares of the city are the surest sign that Bhaktapur was and continues to be a city of farmers. After rice is harvested from the surrounding countryside, it is brought to these squares and laid out in the sun for drying. During the peak of the harvest, only the smallest lanes are left between piles of rice for people to walk. We were a little early for the harvest but we did see a few people drying their rice. The fact that they had already harvested rice indicates that their fields are artificially irrigated.

But though the squares were largely devoid of rice, they were being used for another purpose. Dasein, one of the largest festivals in Nepal (think of it sort of like the Christmas of Nepal), is currently in full swing. As a result, the squares were being used to dry the small ceramic holders used for butter or oil lamps. These lamps are an integral part of the Dasein observances and are thus in high demand right now.

From the square nearest the east gate, we stepped through a small doorway, into the courtyard that houses Wakupati Narayan, a small, two-story pagoda-like temple dedicated to Vishnu. The monarchy of Nepal used to primarily worship Vishnu, and as a result this temple was well funded a few hundred years ago. However, after the monarchy switched to primarily worshiping Shiva, this temple fell into disuse.

From here we moved towards the Northern outskirts of the city, which have not yet been restored. The brickwork on the buildings here is visibly old and many of the building have visible cracks left over from the last major earthquake eighty years ago.

The picture below is of one of the squares near this area. Interestingly, another shrine used to stand here but it was toppled by an earthquake and never rebuilt. All that remains now is the plinth on which the shrine used to stand.

However, one building in this area is newly restored. That building is the Toni Hagen house. Toni Hagen was a Swiss geologist and diplomat who conducted some major geological surveys of Nepal. Needless to say, this is not why he is remembered. Rather, when the Chinese occupied Tibet in 1959, Hagen used his influence with the Swiss government to provide aid to the Tibetan refugees and also to resettle a number of Tibetans in Switzerland. He was something of a pioneer in development aid as well. Apparently, he used to live in this house in Bhaktapur and it has recently been restored in his honor.

The Toni Hagen house.
Moving on, we began to head southwest towards the part core of the city, which is also the best restored area. As we got closer, the buildings began to visibly improve in quality. We also encountered a number of buildings that were in the process of being repaired.

A building being restored. If I recall correctly it's being made into a bed and breakfast.
Along the way, however, we also passed this public reservoir.

Yes, that's a reservoir, not a park. It's just so overgrown with duckweed that it doesn't really look like water. This has happened because the water is not properly oxygenated - i.e. it's just sitting water. The fountain, which is not working, appears to have been an attempt at fixing this problem, but the duckweed is so thick it seems to have clogged the fountain as well.

Now why is this a problem? The water remains drinkable, provided you filter the duckweed out, so that's not the issue. Actually, the real risk is that if the reservoir is left in this state, water hyacinth will eventually begin to grow in the reservoir and clog it so much that it becomes physically unusable as a water source. As I said earlier, one of Bhaktapur's remaining challenges involves its water supply. This is one aspect of that problem.

As we moved towards the restored portion of the city, the city's affluence became very visible. I mentioned in the previous post that the Bhaktapur Development Project has been effective at jump starting the local economy. Let me impress that fact upon you a little bit...

This is a hardware store near the center of Bhaktapur. Like most of the restored portion of the city, its facade is done in the traditional Newari architectural style. The consistency of this style all across the city is what lends Bhaktapur its charm and contributes to its status as a major tourist location. Most of the facades in the core of the city do not deviate from this style. Moving inside, this hardware store has marble floors. When was the last time you were in a hardware store with marble floors? Never? The point is, business is going extremely well right now in the portions of Bhaktapur that have been restored. Speaking of which, I'll be discussing that central part of Bhaktapur in Part III of this series.

That's it for Part II. In Part III, we'll move into the center of the city. There will be some pictures of Bhaktapur's Durbar Square, as well as some incredible temples and shrines, so be sure to check it out when it's posted.


  1. If any water hyacinth appears in the reservoir, they'd better be ready to eradicate it the moment it shows up. Once established, its renewability is a curse. Keep its presence too small to exploit, or you will be sorry. Once established, it is a maddeningly renewable biofuel source. As is the established duckweed. Guard the reservoir carefully, or lose it.

  2. @SteveK Yeah, I doubt they are prepared.

    It is one of those things though where prevention is much better than treatment after the fact. Nearby Patan used to have a similar problem but they have had some luck with a combination of a major filtering effort to get rid of the duckweed followed by the installation of a kind of modified paddle boat to oxygenate the water and prevent this sort of thing from happening again.

    It's possible that Bhaktapur will adopt a similar strategy...