The history of Kathmandu Valley, as told by its architecture

Kathmandu’s Darbar Square was one of the worst affected by the earthquake. Jool-yan/shutterstock.com

The Kathmandu Valley, which was already called “Nepal” centuries before the emergence of the modern nation-state of that name, is a 220 square mile bowl, 4,000 feet up in the lap of the central Himalaya. Its history begins with a myth which tells of how the Bodhisattva (“Buddha-to-be”) Manjushri came down from the north and cleaved the valley rim to release the waters of an enormous lake, thus rendering the valley habitable for the propagation of the Buddhist faith.

The Licchavi kings of the 4th-9th centuries established the valley’s most ancient sacred sites, both Hindu and Buddhist, but it was the Malla kings of the 13th-18th centuries who created its extraordinary built environment. From the lush green rice fields that yielded two or even three crops a year on the fertile soils of the valley floor there arose not one but three tiny city states: Kathmandu, Bhaktapur, and Lalitpur (also called Patan). Each was centred upon a rambling palace complex with a temple-filled square, or Durbar square, adjacent to it, and each competed with the others for control of the lucrative trans-Himalayan trade.

The valley’s indigenous Newars developed their own distinctive style of traditional architecture, of which the multi-tiered “pagoda” temple is the most emblematic form. Their artisans’ fame spread far and wide – even to the court of Kubilai Khan in Beijing.

King Prithvi Narayan Shah of Gorkha, in the hills 80 miles to the west, invaded the valley in the mid-18th century. The Malla kings failed to unite against him and were promptly overwhelmed and displaced. The Shah king simply relocated his court from Gorkha to the Hanuman Dhoka palace in Kathmandu before going on to conquer and annex much of the territory that now constitutes Nepal. The king warmed to the local architecture, and when in 1770 he added a wing to the palace, the famous nine-storey Basantpur Tower, he had it built in the traditional Newar style.

The first photograph I ever took of Kathmandu Darbar Square, in January 1978. All of the pagodas were completely destroyed by the April 25 earthquake. Michael Hutt, Author provided

Darbar Square

I made my first visits to Nepal when I was an undergraduate at SOAS in 1978 and 1979. In those days I used to stay in the attic room of the old Paras Hotel, three minutes stroll from the Kathmandu Darbar Square (the room was not usually let out to guests, but I was an impecunious student and the hotelier was kind). The square was not really a square: walking though it from north to south, one threaded one’s way around and between some 25 temples and pavilions, all commissioned by one royal patron or another between the 16th and 20th centuries, spreading along a quarter of a mile on the west of the palace complex. In those days this part of Kathmandu was dilapidated and rustic, but very much alive.

A squat three-storey building called Kasthamandapa (“wood-pavilion”) was tucked into the south-west corner of the square. This was the largest and oldest structure in the traditional Newar style (the first historical reference to it dates from 1143). It is the building from which Kathmandu takes its name.

Kathmandu Durbar Square. www.digitalhimalaya.com, CC BY-SA

Its ground floor was an open pillared hall on a raised platform, and it stood beside the principal north-south trade route through the old city. It was probably built as a rest house for pilgrims and traders, though some sources suggest that it may have been a royal council hall. I remember the distinctive sound of this old corner of Kathmandu: the tiny Ganesh shrine at the mouth of the Maruhiti alley that leads down to the Bishnumati river had an old brass bell, which almost every passerby paused to ring: it is good to invoke Ganesh, the Remover of Obstacles, as you go about your day.

Just to the east stood Trailokya Mohan Deval (“Mohan of the Three Worlds Temple”), a classic Newar pagoda. This was founded by Parthivendra Malla in memory of his elder brother in 1679, replacing an earlier structure on the site. Into the wooden struts supporting the three sloping tiled roofs were carved representations of the ten incarnations of Vishnu and other Vaishnav deities. On the ground to the west of the temple there knelt a eight-foot Garuda, the man-bird vehicle of Vishnu, created in 1689 from a single piece of stone.

The Garuda of Trailokya Mohan Temple. Michael Hutt, Author provided

Maju Dega (“Mother-in-Law’s Temple”) was 45 metres to the north. Built in 1690 by Riddhi Lakshmi, the grandmother of King Bhupalendra Malla, it towered 23 metres over the square. Its plinth was a fabulous vantage point: the hippies used to hang out here in the old days, and during national festivals the steps would disappear beneath a sea of colourfully dressed humanity.

The devastation

Kasthamandapa, Trailokya Mohan Deval and Maju Dega are just three of the hundreds of monuments of the Kathmandu Valley’s World Heritage sites that were completely destroyed by the earthquake of April 25 2015. The upper storeys of the Basantapur Tower have also collapsed. This part of the Kathmandu Darbar Square took the biggest hit of all three palace squares.

Salvaged monuments. Sangeeta Thapa, Instagram

Lives matter more than buildings, and all efforts are rightly focused on humanitarian relief in the immediate aftermath. But at some point in the future, minds will turn to the task of reconstruction. When many of the same buildings were destroyed in 1934, they were rebuilt by local artisans, with little or no help from the outside world. Now, however, many of the old crafts barely survive, and there are serious concerns about the theft of portable cultural artefacts and saleable architectural elements from these sites.

The valley’s cultural heritage was a source of great pride for a nation that has long been beset by political and economic problems, and now by a humanitarian crisis. Making sure that future generations will be able to glory in these places again will be an essential part of the national recovery.