Thursday, October 21, 2010

Walking Bhaktapur with Anil - Part III

This is the final installment on the series about Bhaktapur. Check out Part 1 and Part 2 if you haven't already. This final part will focus on central Bhaktapur, which is the best restored and most vibrant part of the city.

The consistent theme throughout these posts has been how Bhaktapur's current economic renaissance relates to development efforts that began 30+ years ago. Nowhere is that relationship more evident, than in central Bhaktapur's major public squares, which literally hum with tourists and locals conducting business. Tourism is the resource that has revitalized this city, and central Bhaktapur is the place to go if you are a tourist. Here's one big reason why...

That's Nyatapola Temple, which, if wikipedia is to be trusted, translates literally as "five storied temple." It's a 300 year old temple, dedicated (appropriately enough) to Laxmi, the goddess of wealth. Its five-tiered foundation, mirrored by the five levels of the pagoda itself, are easily enough to make it the tallest structure in the city. Incidentally, it's also the tallest temple in the entire Kathmandu Valley.

The (cloudy) view from Nyatapola

Bhairab Nath

Directly adjacent to Nyatapola Temple, is the older Bhairab Nath Temple. Bhairab is one of the forms of the god Shiva, and he is associated with annihilation. Anil has a pretty good metaphor that westerners can use to think about Bhairab: he's sort of like a blue version of the Incredible Hulk - big, ridiculously strong, extremely violent and absurdly destructive. This is possibly apocryphal, but I was told that the King who constructed the Nyatapola Temple did so with the explicit goal of counteracting this destructive spirit. The idea is that only a larger temple, dedicated to a female deity, could subdue the violent masculine spirit of Bhairab. The public square in which these two temples sit, then, is a sort of meditation on gender power relations.

One block over from Nyatapola square is Bhaktapur's Durbar Square. This is the largest open space in the city and it is bordered on all sides by the palaces and offices of the old kingdoms. Some of these buildings have been converted into an art museum. Others are in the process of being restored.

The woodwork on the exteriors of these buildings is almost impossibly ornate. You could revisit these buildings every day for years and continually be surprised by a new detail, unnoticed up until the moment. Indeed, sometimes even the details have details. Take this for example:

That's a fairly typical example of the kind of woodwork that coats these buildings. This particular case is directly above a random window. Now look at the leaf motifs at the very top of the photo. A casual glance suggests that the same leaf is repeated all along the exterior of the building. Not so. Though weathering has made it somewhat hard to discern, each one of those leaves was designed and carved so as to be different from all the others. What looks like a basic repeating pattern, is actually a series of unique details.

This is cool on its own, but it also has implications for how the buildings are restored. The woodworkers who are restoring these buildings need to be more than just talented craftsmen. They need to have a sharp eye for details and they need to be historically knowledgeable about the buildings that they are restoring.

One of the best woodworkers in Bhaktapur in his workshop. The picture on the wall is of the structure he is working to restore.

Woodwork waiting to be installed as part of the restoration efforts.

After visiting Durbar Square, Anil took us to meet one of the woodworkers who is doing these restorations. Since wood rots, the restorations involve carving entirely new pieces of wood that perfectly copy the originals and then replacing the old facade with the newly constructed one. As a result the workshop was covered with archival drawings, photographs, and diagrams. Since sometimes a piece of woodwork is so weathered as to have lost its finer detail, the craftsman often has to rely on these historical documents to determine the original work's details.

The entrance to another woodworking shop.

The artisans at work...

Needless to say, there are very few craftsmen who can do this sort of work. Not surprisingly, (and fortunately) most of them live in Bhaktapur. They make a living restoring the city's historic buildings. They also frequently sell a variety of wooden crafts to tourists. They are the direct beneficiaries of the positive relationship that has been forged here between the preservation of local arts  and economic growth.


Of course, not every city is Bhaktapur. Here economic growth has been spurred through a process of historic restoration, which in turn revitalized traditional crafts industries while creating new markets for those industries by encouraging tourism. But few places are as culturally and historically rich as Bhaktapur. As a result, the Bhaktapur Development Project and Bhaktapur's economic revival, really aren't scalable. In many places, it cannot be replicated.

And that's OK. In some ways, the specifics of Bhaktapur's case are not so important. Bhaktapur's rich history is a resource, the same way that oil or rare minerals are resources. Too often, one hears about places, blessed with an abundance of resources, that nevertheless fail to develop. Eventually the oil dries up or the market for copper collapses or another country figures out how to provide cheaper labor. What's stunning about these cases is how, in retrospect, those abundant resources were appallingly misallocated. Often it is a wealth distribution/income inequality problem. Other times, it's just an inability to imagine new economic markets.

What's cool about Bhaktapur is that, so far at least, it seems to have escaped this sort of trap. I mentioned that that tourist fee, collected at all the city's gates, is going towards free education for the city's children. Some of these children will grow up to be craftsmen, innkeepers and farmers, like their parents. But many will become accountants, business men, computer programmers, etc. That probably doesn't sound all that spectacular, but it matters a lot. The city is using it's current abundance of a particular resource to diversify its future economic base. The extent to which it can succeed at doing that is probably going to decide the extent to which the city continues to flourish.


  1. Fascinating. You're wise to pay close attention to the details. The woodworking is fantastic.

  2. What a lovely tour of the square, Nick. And yes, those patterns are quite beautiful.