Saturday, October 2, 2010

Walking Patan with Anil

Almost two weeks ago, I went on a walk around Patan, a predominantly Newari Buddhist community, directly South of and adjacent to Kathmandu proper. Patan is a major tourist destination, largely because its Durbar Square is one of the best concentrations of temples and palaces in all of Nepal. However, my trip to Patan was a little unusual, because Anil Chitrakar was showing me around.

Anil, who's somewhere in his late forties, was trained as an engineer and energy consultant and it can seem at times like he's worked for everyone on everything. He's been involved in a number of environmental engineering projects, including projects on sustainable forestry and alternative energy development. He received an Ashoka fellowship in 1989 for founding Conservation Camps for Children, a program designed to educate children in rural Nepal about environmental science. He was involved in a major hydroelectric project funded by the World Bank in the 90's. In addition to the World Bank, he's worked for USAID, UNESCO, various arms of the Nepali government and the Kathmandu municipal government. Together with his wife, he founded and runs Crafted in Kathmandu, a business designed to allow local artisans to sell their goods directly to Western consumers. He is also currently teaching a class on "Buddhism and Development" in Kathmandu.

In short, Anil is an institution. He has a wide ranging knowledge that comes directly from years of experience. He knows a ridiculous number of people and how to leverage those social connections to get things done. He is intensely involved in his community and he has a proven record of leading projects that make a difference there. I should probably also mention that he's a damn nice guy.

And he's the guy who is giving me a series of one-on-one tours around the Kathmandu valley. I'm not really sure how I could be so lucky as to have Anil take hours out of his (usually scarce) free time to teach me about Kathmandu, but that's what's happening. So Saturday, Yanik and I headed over to meet up with Anil. We met near the gate that marks the historic boundary of Patan. What ensued, was an incredible tour.

I've been thinking about how best to describe the way Anil thinks, and what I've come up with is a computer metaphor. Anil is equipped with the experience and knowledge to "decode" his environment. Think of it sort of like how in the Matrix, Neo is able to see through the Matrix's veneer of reality and instead view the underlying code vertically scrolling in green lettering all around him. Anil can walk through Kathmandu, and understand the reasons why the city is the way it is, how it's various elements relate, how these elements effect the day to day lives of it's citizens, etc. He is able to read off of his environment information that escapes more casual or inexperienced observers.

This well is a simple example of that phenomenon:

Here is what I, a casual observer, noted about this well:
  • It is a well.
  • It is covered with concrete and accessed with a pump.
  • It has some ornamental snake statues on its side.
  • It is publicly located, and probably serves several of the surrounding houses.
Here is what Anil knows, and what he told me, about this well:
  • This is an old well, that used to be accessed with a bucket and pulley. In other words, it wasn't originally covered with concrete, but has instead been retrofitted with a concrete cover and a pump.
  • The concrete cover prevents people from falling in. But it also prevents people from throwing garbage down the well shaft. Government waste disposal services have been poor enough recently so as to make that a problem. So the concrete cap on this well is a physical indication that certain government services are working inadequately these days. More generally, this well tells a story about how government failure in some areas can lead to the degredation of seemingly unrelated public goods because of changes in the behavior of individuals.
  • When the well was open, the constant lowering and raising of buckets naturally oxygenated the water. However, the pump does not provide the same service. Poor oxygen levels in the well water were an unintended consequence of the switch to a pump based system. You can tell this consequence was unintended and unforseen as the concrete cap had to be crudely cut open after the fact in order to allow access for oxygenation processes...
  • The serpent figures on the side represent the water spirits of the Kathmandu Valley. Periodically, it would be necessary to send someone down into the well to perform maintenance on it. Before doing this, it was traditional to lower a lit oil lamp down into the well, to appease the water spirits and ensure the safety of the poor guy who had to go down the well. If the lamp went out during this process, the water spirits were believed to be angry, the man was not permitted to enter the well, and the maintenance was delayed. To modern ears, this story sounds like a bunch of superstition. But consider this: before anyone enters a well today, it's good safety practice to check the carbon monoxide levels in the well, because if your well technician inhales too much carbon monoxide, he'll pass out, fall further down the well, physically injure himself, and suffocate. Lamps need oxygen to burn, and will go out in a carbon monoxide rich environment. So appeasing the water spirits with a lamp is actually an ancient carbon monoxide test. Of course, people in the past had no idea what carbon monoxide was, but they did know that it was dangerous to enter a well if a lit lamp went out when it was lowered down the well. So this well is an example of how there may be important but non-intuitive reasons why things are traditionally done in a particular way.
This is just a single, tiny little well in the center of Patan. I was struck by Anil's knowledge of tiny details like this well, as well as his knowledge of larger trends. On that latter point, he was able (for instance) to point out how the architecture of Patan had changed in response to the switch from a barter economy to a cash economy. In an effort to get more cash, landowners (who often were farmers) became landlords. The result was a vast increase in the vertical density of Kathmandu, as people built taller structures, in order to maximize the amount of rent they could extract from their lots. Incidentally, this also made Kathmandu more succeptible to earthquakes...

Here's are some small things we passed on our walk...
This is an empty lot we walked past as we were moving through Patan.

It's obviously overgrown and un-maintained, but the interesting question is why? Turns out it's the subject of a land dispute. The adjoining properties each claim that it belongs to them. Unfortunately, the lack of a Nepali government has hamstrung the courts. The result is that there is no forthcoming resolution to the dispute. Additionally, no one is willing to properly maintain the lot, since if they lose the case and thus the rights to the lot, they won't see a return on any of the money spent to maintain it. Also, note how the lot has become a dumping ground, possibly indicating problems with trash disposal in the city...

This is a road.

It's also a pretty good history of governance in Nepal in the last 10 years. It is obviously rutted, falling apart, and otherwise poorly maintained. In fact, it was fixed 8 years ago, the last time there was a government that actually functioned. Note that when it was built, the basic design was pretty good. It has a storm drain on the left that separates storm water from the sewer line (under the manhole on the right) thus ensuring that the local watershed is not contaminated with sewage.

Here is an unusual building.

What is a building with Greek columns and French windows doing in the center of one of the oldest architectural districts in the Kathmandu valley? Turns out, this was the house of a diplomat, one of the first Nepali's to visit Europe. This guy was part of a delegation that toured England and France, and when he returned to Nepal, he wanted to advertise this fact to his neighbors, so he gave his house a European facade. This building could stand at the center of a large debate about cultural authenticity and cultural imperialism. There are some who look at this and see an abomination. The building is inauthentic, imperialist, it should be demolished, etc. What I find interesting is that you could actually turn that argument on its head and argue that this building is remarkably authentic, at least insofar as it represents the historical moment in which it was built.

To that discussion about cultural imperialsim you could also add this statue:

The Buddha is wearing a toga and the base of the statue has a pegasus at each corner. This statue is quite new, but that shouldn't stop us from asking when this sort of iconography was introduced to Nepal. There's at least the possibility that we could trace this sort of Greco-Roman inspiration back to Alexander's invasion of India...

This is a small shrine that we walked past.

It is a very recent construction, payed for by a wealthy individual in the community. And yes, those are bathroom tiles on the facade. In fact, almost all the materials used are modern, or at least non-traditional for this sort of structure. To the builder, the idea was conspicuous consumption, and somehow bathroom tiles translated in his perception to just that. Is this an example of American/European ideas of opulence poorly translating into gaudy (and often quite ugly) displays of wealth in other parts of the world? Not completely sure. It is a shame though that this guy would rather build this thing, adding further congestion to already cramped public space, rather than repair one of several historic shrines or temples that are crumbling nearby. I wonder if there is some sort of perverse economic incentive driving that sort of behavior, but again, I don't know.

One thing that really impressed me was the architectural layout of the older areas of Patan. Basically, the older residential areas of Patan are composed of a bunch of adjacent courtyards. Like these:

Some of these even had fairly elaborate fountains or baths like this:

The courtyards are public space, and they are accessed by a number of passages that look sort of like this:

This actually confuses a lot of American tourists because they see a passage like that and they say, "there is no way that's public space, so I'm not going in." Instead they walk around the exterior of the buildings that encircle these courtyards. In other words, they walk around roads that look like this:

The historical purpose of this road was as a service lane. It is there only to separate things like trash pick up, mail delivery, etc. from the more vibrant public spaces - the courtyards. So basically, Americans come to Patan, and they often spend most of their time walking around service lanes because they don't understand how this sort of urban space is organized.

And this is understandable, because the Patan model, couldn't be more different from how American urban spaces are typically laid out. In America, our public space is usually outward looking. That is to say that the external facades of our buildings are usually what borders the "real" public space, which in most American cities is inevitably a street wide enough for vehicles. If our buildings even have an internal courtyard, it's often private - restricted for the exclusive use of the building's residents.

In Patan, "real" public space is inward looking. As I've already explained, the courtyards are the really vibrant public space. The courtyards have green space, shrines, fountains, store fronts, and spaces for political meetings. They are the places where individuals meet. In other words, the community is centered in these courtyard spaces.

Oh, one other thing, these spaces usually aren't accessible by car. Which is interesting, particularly during a time when for a number of reasons, there is a lot of thinking going towards how to design or change communities so that you don't need a car to live in them. Patan's model might not be such a bad idea. I can think of a few advantages:

  • Green space, such as courtyards, raises property values, provided that space is properly maintained and policed.
  • If you have a city that is shrinking, courtyards are fairly easy to create by demolishing excess housing.
  • Courtyards, because they place amenities on the interior of a space, are much more pedestrian friendly than the block model. Think of it this way, if I'm on one side of a block and I want to go somewhere on the other side, I have to walk around it. But if I'm on one side of a courtyard and I want to go somewhere on the other side of it, I walk across.

I'm pretty sure I read an article in the NY Times a few years ago about a German city that was trying something like this. But a google search isn't turning anything up right now...

I did notice one issue with Patan's courtyards, though. Over time, possibly due to poor or unenforced zoning rules, they've become congested. This large space, which used to serve as an emergency reservoir for Patan, is a good example.

Anil showed me a picture of what this square used to look like, and one notable feature is that there was no wall surrounding the reservoir. If you scroll up and look at those pictures of other courtyards I've included, you'll notice that they're overrun with fences, random small buildings, etc.

Anil is currently working with the local community to restore this reservoir space. As part of that plan, the water quality has been fixed. Previously there was an oxygenation problem, and as a result the pool was just a large cesspool of duckweed and algae. To fix that, the water was cleaned, and a fixed paddle boat-like system was installed. Basically, people can come to the reservoir, get a little exercise cycling and this process oxygenates the pool at the same time. The next step has been to collect money from the community to repave the square. Then finally, the walls around the reservoir will be removed and replaced with stairs down to the surface of the water. The result should be a public space that is practically useful as a source of water and also aesthetically pleasing. That second point should hopefully make the space a good location for restaurants and cafes, which are well positioned to benefit from the large number of tourists who visit Patan every year.

At the end of our tour, we stopped by Durbar Square. It's a major tourist location, and with good reason. I'm not going to write much about it, but here are a few photos...


  1. So interesting. You were really lucky to find someone who could bring you so deeply into their culture. It's wonderful to see so many things that the normal passerby/tourist would miss. Enjoy.

  2. Great post, Nick. Thanks for sharing all of these insights. :)