Does Patan Have No Pride?
If you can withstand asphyxiation by the combined fumes of the local latrine and the Patan buses enter Patan through Patan Dhoka. If you can find your way through, the shanty town at Lagankhe’ or avoid being hit on the freeway of Pulchowk, visit Patan while there is still something left to see.
I first came to Patan 25 years ago. At that time, a few whimsical white stucco versions of Singha Durbar and a few ugly government buildings of cement on the edges of Mangal Bazaar were the only exception to the red brick, wood and stone of old Patan. Sheep grazed on the Ashoka stupa at Pulchowk and temple bells were the loudest sound on a windy day. To enter a baha was to step back in time, to immerse yourself in living history.
Returning to Patan in January this year was a painful experience. The charm is gone. In most countries, the houses which I saw and photographed a quarter of a century ago would have been on a national register of historic preservation. In Patan, they have been cemented over, or razed to the ground. The wealthy have used their power, paid their bribes, pulled down old classics, and thrown up new ones in concrete. Among the more unique travesties is the splitting of houses down the middle, one side recalling Patan’s glorious past, the other side miming the worst of contemporary Sub-continental architecture.
What was unique about ancient Patan was that a common esthetic and love of craftsmanship crossed all social and economic boundaries. Small shrines, private homes and tiny shops were often as elegantly decorated as the king’s palace and the major temples. Many were of superior craftsmanship.
Nor is any great, new shining city rising from the foundations of the old. From the dust of crushed red brick, dull grey cement buildings now cast long shadows over temples and bahas. Where richly carved “akhey jhyas” once stopped me in my tracks, today glass windows stare blankly out on the gullies. Where open passageways with painted parrots and frescoes of protective deities led into exquisite courtyards of stupas and shrines, today, metal grates and sliding steel doors block the way.
Do the citizens of Patan really care? Woodcarvers may complain that they have no work, but their own homes are of cement. An artist might feel regret at seeing a fresco done by his grandfather crumble with the demolished houses, but he fails to pass on the technique to his own sons. The Newar curio dealers of Patan are themselves willing to sell copies of traditional Newari images which are mass-produced in India.
And what of the tourists, from whom Patan hopes to earn its future income? Tourists come for postcard views: a reconstructed Williamsburg or Warsaw, the meticulously restored town squares and cathedrals of Europe flanked by houses and shops of the same period. They expect to wander through blocks of old cities where even electric and telephone lines, and not just sewers, run underground. Patan, on the other hand, offers 17th Century stupas hemmed in by electric transformer poles and concrete buildings. If Patan had civic pride, its citizens would try to save their town from self-destruction. They would ban the sale of curios which are not authentic, and bring down billboard and banners that hide temples and shrines. They would restrict vehicular traffic in the narrow lanes and find a way to keep Patan dirt-free. They would also lobby to eliminate property taxes on houses of artistic or historic significance, and increase fees and penalties for new construction. It is within the power of the citizens of Patan, even now, to resuscitate their old town.
Eckherd is an anthropologist presently studying the Tharus of Nepal’s Parsa District.