ET at Palace Museum

SYNOPSIS:  About the residential communities in Patan, a community organizer, a few local traditions, and an internationally funded women’s project.  Keep scrolling down.  Lots of images are embedded.

Lalitpur, city of art, as contemporary Patan is known in the Newari language, won me over within minutes!  Of course, it is a city of art and artisans; how could I not love it?!  It is quieter here, cleaner, slower.  Or perhaps, it just feels like that to me because of the very noisy and dirty street I came from.  But I think there is more to it. 

Patan is the name of one of the ancient royal capitals of this valley and it is the third-largest city in Nepal.  Today, you hardly notice when you pass from Kathmandu over into Patan as you cross the Bagmati River, since urban sprawl has created a seamless transition.  Yet, if you look carefully, you see architectural changes indicating a distinct historical development and you see evidence of this long-standing artistic community at every corner:  carved doors, windows, and tympani (arches above the doors) abound; courtyard stone carvings are of first-rate quality; side-street metal ornaments on temples will take your breath away!

One of the most noticeable features of Patan’s urban layout are its numerous courtyards, connecting blocks and blocks of houses via tiny and narrow alleys into a unit that often evolves around a monastery.  You may cross through 5 or 6 courtyards and emerge at the other end … who knows where?  And along the way you pass metal-smith’s workshops, wood carvers, schools of tangkha painters, abandoned woodblock printing presses and many little shrines, beautiful doorways, and lovely people who don’t mind one bit that you are strolling around in their backyard.  An interesting feature to notice at the doors is the U-shaped decoration that is put on when a resident turns 77 years, 7 months and 7 days.  Main entrances to a set of courtyards also indicated the number of people who died in this community, by inserting nails into the lintel.

If you look carefully, you see that now Buddhist monasteries and Buddhist courtyard shrines dominate.  Kathmandu is representative for all of Nepal with her predominantly Hindu population.  But Patan’s residents clearly form a Buddhist majority.   Beautiful small stupas adorn almost every one of these residential courtyards.  Some of them feature carvings of Buddhist deities that would be on par with any museum piece anywhere.  Some ill-intending people have figured that out, too…  Now some of the more accessible sculptures have to be protected from theft by metal cages. 

Patan’s Durbar Square is much smaller than Kathmandu’s and more compact.  Yes, there is earthquake damage, but it is more clearly defined and does not ruin the entire area.  People stroll, sit, and enjoy the nearly intact palace that houses Nepal’s most worthwhile Museum.  And as everywhere else where tourists can be found, you will be harassed by street vendors who are trying to sell you just one more necklace, one more flute, or one more knickknack; and wannabe guides pop out of nowhere in desperate need of customers.  It is low season now, hot and very humid.  Almost every day is interrupted by a thunderstorm or a quick shower.  That does the humidity no good, but it brings some relief nonetheless.  But people around here depend on tourists, and there aren’t many of us coming between now and October.  While I was there, a Bollywood crew was filming a TV series taking place in the 8th C.  As one of the brief thunderstorms interrupted their work, I found myself with the three lead actors seeking shelter and lunch in the museum restaurant.  We had a good hour and 1/2 chatting.  I should have gotten their autographs…  Who knows how famous they are!?

Patan’s rebuilding efforts are either more successful than Kathmandu’s or they are just lucky that they are a city that is broken up into more highly-functioning local communities that get their act together.  Meet Pakash!  He is the vice-president of Nagbahal, one of the models of a functioning community that unites about 1200 residents in two large courtyard backing the Golden Temple; arguably the most beautiful in town.  His community has a community house with a UN-funded project teaching women to become tailors; ultimately heading for a store that will sustain the project.  They have a library and a clinic where a variety of doctor’s serve on different days, treating the residents of this unit at community subsidized prizes.  They have a playground and have sponsored new artworks, notably a large Buddha figure.  And most importantly, they  organize a regular and reliable water supply for the entire community by filling two large tanks every day from which residents can fetch their water. 

Pakash is one of the home owners of the Cosy Nepal project.  His father’s home was renovated with CN investor funds, and he now rents four of the floors of his home to local residents.  He added an interesting point to the delay of some of the rebuilding efforts:  family disputes.  Once a house is owned by more than one family member, competition, disputes, and varying ideas over the future of a property lead to delays, decay, and even destruction.  He pointed to a few homes where different curtains on the windows indicate the walls that have been erected inside — signs of trouble. In the image below, a traditional house has literally been chopped into half (note the window and the remains of a fraction of a wooden window frame).  One brother went concrete, the other remained traditional…  

When Brothers become Enemies

Pakash is as active as any community organizers you can imagine, and infectiously enthusiastic about his community.  He is but one example of a model that seems to ensure transparency in the use of funds and progress visible and tangible for all.  I was impressed!

Give me Patan over Kathmandu any day!