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Bhaktapur Durbar Square, Nepal. Source: XtravaganT / Adobe Stock

Nepal’s Bhaktapur Durbar Square: Heart of An Historic Capital

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Bhaktapur Durbar Square is a group of plazas at the heart of the ancient city of Bhaktapur, in Nepal’s Kathmandu Valley . A number of historical monuments occupy Bhaktapur Durbar Square, including the old royal palace, the Golden Gate, and various temples. These structures were built over an extended period of time, when the city was the capital of the powerful Bhaktapur Kingdom. When Bhaktapur was conquered by a rival dynasty during the 18 th century, however, the city lost its status as a capital, and became a secondary town. Nevertheless, its monuments were left intact. As a result of earthquakes, the most recent one being in 2015, however, some of these buildings were damaged, and others completely demolished. Today, Bhaktapur Durbar Square is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site known as “Kathmandu Valley.”

The History of Bhaktapur Durbar Square

Bhaktapur, which translates from Nepali to mean ‘City of Devotees,’ is situated in central Nepal, in the eastern part of the Kathmandu Valley. The city is known also as Khwopa and is located about 20 km (12.43 mi) to the east of Nepal’s current capital, Kathmandu. Bhaktapur prospered in ancient times due to its strategic location on the trade route between Tibet and India. The city’s significance is also evident in the fact that it became the capital of the Bhaktapur Kingdom. This was one of the three Malla kingdoms (the other two being Kathmandu and Patan), which were formed during the 15 th century, as a result of the division of the Malla Kingdom.

The city of Bhaktapur itself is said to have been founded in 865 AD by Ananda Malla. As mentioned earlier, the city is located on the trade route connecting Tibet and India, which contributed to its prosperity. Alternatively, it has been claimed that Ananda Malla lived during the 12 th century. In any case, it was only in 1482 that the Bhaktapur Kingdom was established, and the man responsible for its formation was Raya Malla, and the eldest son of Yaksha Malla, who ruled over a unified Nepal from 1428 to 1482. Yaksha Malla, however, decided that upon his death that the kingdom should be divided amongst his children. As a consequence, Nepal was split into three kingdoms.

The Mallas ruled Bhaktapur until 1769, when its last king, Ranjit Malla, was defeated, and overthrown by Prithvi Narayan Shah. This not only marked the end of Malla rule in Nepal, but also the beginning of the Shah dynasty in Nepal, and the country’s reunification as the Kingdom of Nepal. The conquest of Bhaktapur also meant that the city lost its status as a capital becoming a secondary town. As a matter of fact, many of the ancient buildings at Bhaktapur were constructed during the time of the Malla dynasty, especially during the 15 th century AD, i.e. during the reign of Yaksha Malla, and during the 17 th and 19 th centuries AD, i.e. during the reigns of Jitmitra Malla and Bhupatindra Malla.

Bhaktapur Durbar Square Is Actually Four Squares

Bhaktapur Durbar Square actually consists of several separate plazas, including Durbar Square, Taumadhi Square, Dattatraya Square, and the Pottery Square. This series of squares forms the heart of the city, which is evident in the fact that many of Bhaktapur’s small streets converge on it. Each of these plazas has its own attractions.

The Durbar Square, for instance, is the location of the old royal palace, whereas the Taumadhi Square is known for the Nyatapola Temple and the Bhairavnath Temple. The Dattatraya Square is famous for its Dattatraya Temple, whilst the Pottery Square was and still is the place for the production of clay vessels.

Durbar Square, one of the 4 squares in Bhaktapur Durbar Square (Uwe Gille / CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Historical Attractions of Durbar Square

The old royal palace in Durbar Square is one of Bhaktapur’s major tourist attractions today. The monument is known also as the Palace of the Fifty-Five Windows, and its construction began during the reign of Bhupatindra Malla. The palace was, however, only completed during the reign of his successor, Ranjit Malla. The palace is remarkably well-preserved, and is notable for its intricate woodwork, especially that of its 55 wooden windows along the palace’s upper level. It is from these windows that the palace derives its name.

The old royal palace in Durbar Square ( boyloso / Adobe stock)

In addition, the palace is also famed for its Golden Gate, considered to be one of the palace’s masterpieces. The Golden Gate was built during the reign of Ranjit Malla and leads into the palace’s inner courtyards. The gate is set into a red gatehouse and surrounded by white palace walls. The figures that adorn the Golden Gate include Taleju Bhawani (the family deity of the Malla dynasty), a garuda (the bird-man most notable as the vehicle of the Hindu god Vishnu), and other mythical creatures. Apart from the Golden Gate, there are a number of other features in the palace worth noticing. One of these, for instance, is a pair of enormous war drums, placed today behind grills on either side of the palace’s inner gates. In the past, the drums would have been beaten to alert the city in the event of an attack. Another building in the palace worth mentioning is the Taleju Temple, which dates to 1553. This is considered to be one of the holiest temples in Bhaktapur, and only Hindus may enter it. However, non-Hindus may look at the temple’s exterior.

Facing the old royal palace is a column, on top of which is a statue of Bhupatindra Malla seated on a ‘throne’. The statue is made of metal and depicts the king in an act of worship. The statue of Bhupatindra Malla shows the king with his hands joined, and his legs crossed. The ‘throne’, on the other hand, has lions at its four corners, and rests on top of a lotus flower . Beneath the lotus is a serpent.

Another monument on Durbar Square is the Vatsala Durga Temple which is known for its bell. This bell was installed by Ranjit Malla in front of the temple. According to local folklore, whenever the bell was rung, the city’s dogs would start barking. Therefore, the bell became known informally as the ‘Bell of the Barking Dogs.’

Behind the Vatsala Durga Temple is another temple, the Yaksheshwar Temple, known also as the Pashupatinath Temple. Pashupatinath is one of many forms of Shiva. In this form, the god appears as the ‘Lord of the Animals.’ This temple is considered to be one of the oldest in Bhaktapur, as it was built by Yaksha Malla. Alternatively, it has been suggested that the temple was built by Sansardevi, the wife of Yaksha Malla, in his memory, and that the temple was named in his honor. Like many of the other monuments at Bhaktapur, the Yaksheswar Temple is notable for its woodcarving, including erotic scenes based on the Kama Sutra .  

Nyatapola Temple in Taumadhi Square. ( Christian Kaehler / Adobe Stock)

The Historical Attractions of Taumadhi Square

Taumadhi Square is located to the southeast of Durbar Square and is best-known for the Nyatapola Temple and the Bhairavnath Temple. ‘Nyatapola’ means ‘five-stories,’ and as its name suggests, this temple is a five-story building. The temple was built during the reign of Bhupatindra Malla, and it has been claimed that the whole structure was raised in just 214 days. Standing at a height of 33 m (108.27 ft), the Nyatapola Temple is the tallest temple in Nepal. The five levels of the temple are said to correspond with the five elements. Apart from that, other architectural features of the temple may be said to be numerically symbolic. For instance, the temple is recorded to have five plinths, 108 struts, and 360 battens. Nevertheless, it is not entirely clear as to the symbolism of these numbers. The Nyatapola Temple is dedicated to the goddess Siddhi Lakshmi and is largely off-limits to the public.

The Bhairavnath Temple is located to the left of the Nyatapola Temple and was constructed during the reign of Jagat Jyoti Malla in the 17 th century AD. Renovations to the temple were later initiated by Bhupatindra Malla. During these renovations, the temple was turned into a three-story structure, which has been maintained till this day. The temple is dedicated to Bhairava, another manifestation of the god Shiva. Unlike Pashupatinath, this form of Shiva is much more fearsome, and is associated with retribution and destruction.

Dattatraya Temple in Dattatraya Square. (Ms Sarah Welch / CC BY-SA 4.0 )

The Historical Attractions of Dattatraya Square

To the east of the Durbar Square is Dattatraya Square which is famous for its Dattatraya Temple. This temple was established in 1427, during the reign of Yaksha Malla, and is considered to be one of the oldest temples in Bhaktapur. The temple is dedicated to Dattatraya, who is believed to be a combination of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva, the Trimurti, or three principal deities of Hinduism. It is claimed that this is the only temple in Nepal dedicated to Dattatraya. In spite of that, the temple’s symbols, such as the conch and chakra on standing pillars at the entrance of the temple, as well as the garuda, suggests that more emphasis is placed on Vishnu compared to the other two deities. According to legend, the entire temple was built from the wood of a single tree.

Bhaktapur: From The Mallas To Modern Times

When the Malla dynasty was overthrown in 1769, Bhaktapur fell into the hands of Prithvi Narayan Shah. The rulers of the new Shah dynasty were also Hindus, which contributed to the preservation of the monuments constructed by the Mallas. The city of Bhaktapur, however, lost its importance, as Kathmandu was declared the capital of the newly formed Kingdom of Nepal. As a result, no remarkable monuments were built in Bhaktapur during the period when the Shah dynasty was in power since it was now only a secondary town.

Damage done to Bhaktapur Durbar Square from the 2015 Nepal earthquake. (U.S. Department of State from United States / Public domain )

Although the ancient monuments were not damaged by war they eventually became victims of natural disasters . In 1934, Nepal was struck by a massive 8.0 magnitude earthquake. Although the epicenter of the earthquake was located in the eastern part of Nepal, Bhaktapur was seriously affected by the disaster, and many of its ancient monuments were damaged. Nevertheless, after the earthquake, the inhabitants of Bhaktapur were able to restore most of the damaged buildings.

Reconstruction of Bhaktapur after the 2015 Nepal earthquake. (Pritush.m / CC BY-SA 4.0 )

Another major earthquake, this one having a magnitude 7.8 on the Richter scale, struck Nepal on the 25 th of April 2015 AD. This time, the epicenter of the earthquake was located closer to Bhaktapur, and once again, the monuments of the city were damaged. Some ancient monuments suffered more than others. The Vatsala Durga Temple, for instance, was completely demolished by the disaster. Another temple on Durbar Square, the Phasidegal, lost its dome-shaped shrine during the earthquake. Incidentally, this temple was also damaged during the 1934 earthquake. After that disaster, only the base of the original structure was left intact. Subsequently, a dome-shaped shrine was built on top of this base. As a result of the 2015 earthquake, however, this shrine was destroyed.

Following the 2015 earthquake, the inhabitants of Bhaktapur have been active rebuilding their town. It has been pointed out that the reconstruction of the city after this catastrophe is making significant changes to the town’s appearance, as damaged buildings are pulled down, and replaced with those made of more earthquake-resistant materials. As a comparison, after the completion of a restoration program in the 1970s, the town’s authorities controlled the construction of new buildings strictly, so as to maintain Bhaktapur’s brick façade. The efforts made by the authorities at Bhaktapur during the 1970s shows that there is awareness that the town’s appearance ought to be preserved. Nevertheless, considering the fact that the area is vulnerable to earthquakes, changes to the way the town’s buildings are constructed may be necessary.

The ancient monuments of Bhaktapur Durbar Square are no doubt culturally significant for Nepal and the world. Recognition of the monuments’ importance is seen in the fact that the square was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979. The site is part of a group called “Kathmandu Valley,” which includes six other sites in the Kathmandu Valley including the Durbar Squares of Kathmandu and Patan, two Buddhist stupas, and two Hindu temples. Following the 2015 earthquake, the World Heritage site was closed to visitors, but was subsequently reopened. As Nepal is prone to earthquakes, experts predict that more devastating earthquakes will strike the region in the near future. Therefore, apart from reconstruction, efforts have also been made during the rebuilding process to mitigate the damage that will be done by future earthquakes.   

Top image: Bhaktapur Durbar Square, Nepal. Source: XtravaganT / Adobe Stock

By Wu Mingren

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