The art, culture and ambience of old, medieval Patan has almost disappeared under the assault of historical neglect and runaway “modernisation”
Buddhi Man Shakya, a 77-year-old craftsman from Nag Baha, remembers the days when traditional Newer homes like his used to grace all the-narrow stone or brick-paved streets of Patan and its multitude of courtyards. Even till the late 1960s, the market thoroughfare of Mangal Bazaar, the Durbar Square, and the more than 175 residential courtyards had an ambience that was quintessentially medieval Patan. Lalitpur, the artisans’ town, which is Patan’s other name, looked and functioned like Florence, Milan or Rome might have at the height of their renaissance glory.
But no more. Over a span of just four decades, Patan has lost that luster it had preserved for centuries. Today the skyline of the “city of a thousand golden roofs” is being taken over by spindly concrete ” skyscrapers” built on tiny plots of sub-divided land. The population has doubled many times, the town services are over-burdened and Patan today is a dirty relic of its old self.
Aged buildings with frescos, latticed windows and fired-brick fronts come down in a flurry of centuries-old dust and in their places shoot up multi-storyed cement boxes with ubiquitous steel shutters on the ground floor. Billboards of Pepsi and Coca Cola block views of stupas, political graffiti deface temple walls, and banners of assorted beers and lotteries festoon the narrow gullies. Patan gets to look more and more like India’s provincial towns of Muzaffarpur or Gorakhpur.
In the courtyard of Nag Baha where Buddhi Man whiles away his afternoons, the deep foundations of the neighbouring high-rise have disrupted the conduits that bring water from faraway sources to the sunken dhunge dhara (water spout), and the flow is down to a trickle. Outside the courtyard, there is the din of cars, three wheelers and motorcycles beeping and speeding on the gentle, winding lanes meant only for foot traffic.
Even today, it is possible to traverse the entire length of the Paten by going from one baha (monastery compound) to another, only once in a while stepping unto a public lane before entering yet another baha through tunnel-like passageways. Each courtyard used to have a distinct ambience, defined by who lived there and what trade was practiced by its resident.
It is within these bahas that the extraordinary artistry of Patan’s Newar artisans was born. But where once craftsmen chipped away at stone, or hammered on brass or copper, today, shops offer cheap locally made curios, or souvenirs imported from Hong Kong, Thailand and India.
The deterioration of Patan’s indigenous cultural forms can be ascribed to a number of historical, political, economic and demographic factors. A slow decline actually began with the fall of the town’s Malla rulers. In 1768, Prithvi Narayan Shah conquered the three principalities of Kathmandu Valley and established Kathmandu town as the national capital. Bhaktapur and Patan were sidelined.
The political unification of the Valley ended 550 years of stability and prosperity under the Mallas, during which period Patan was able to preserve and build on its uniqueness. The chaos that followed Prithvi Narayan’s death in 1774 also marked the beginning of the endless palace intrigues in the Valley, which kept the upper classes fully occupied. The Newar artisans had lost their Malls patrons earlier, and in the confusion that ensued, there was less and less support for the arts.
During the last century, the lucrative India to Tibet trade that passed through the Valley began to dry up, especially after the British opened up the Chumbi Valley route from Kalimpong. With the slide in trading activity, the income of the Newar town plummeted. A major source of income under the Mallas had been the customs duties levied on goods in transit to Lhasa. Also, Patan and its sister towns had a monopoly on handloom exports to Tibet and the nearby mountain regions. Patan’s brassware, bronze statues, religious paraphernalia, and silver and gold ornaments were in great demand in Lhasa.
Patan is said to have suffered more than its sister towns after the change in political fortunes. While Kathmandu enjoyed its status as the country’s capital, Patan’s close proximity to Kathmandu meant that, after 1768, its political identity diminished even more than Bhaktapur’s. Before the unification, Patan was governed by a council of six powerful ministers, known as the Pradhans, who wielded enormous power. They were king-makers who had humiliated and dethroned many a ruler. Dal Mardan Shah, younger brother of Prithvi Narayan Shah, invited by the Pradhans from Nuwakot to rule Patan, was one of those deposed by the Pradhans. Soon after the conquest of 1768, these ministers were killed, and Patan was spited.
Why else, ask local residents, was Patan Durbar left to rot while Hanuman Dhoka in Kathmandu and the Bhaktapur Durbar complex remained well preserved? Even today, no military guards stand at Patan’s Durbar Square, as they do outside the Bhaktapur and Kathmandu durbars. This may also explain why so many idols have been lifted from the Patan’s durbar complex.
The century-old Rana rule continued the Shah tradition of ignoring Patan. The annual “Bhoto Jatra” of Machindranath (Bungdeo), which required the king’s presence, was the only day when Kathmandu’s power elite looked Patan’s way.
Other than build a few French Renaissance style palaces (about as far as you could get from the indigenous architecture of the Valley) in the fields outside the town, such as in Jawalakhel and Pulchowk, the Ranas left Patan to itself. While this translated into loss of political power and stagnation, the workings of the old town was not tampered with. Outside influence was kept at bay and Patan remained “medieval” well into the late 1950s.
It was with the passing of the Ranas and the opening of Nepal to the outside world that time suddenly caught up with Patan. It found Patan unprepared. At first, the change was slow, but with all manner of social and economic influence breezing into the town, the pace of change accelerated to a frenzy, and anarchic modernisation emerged the victor.
The exponential increase in population and the continuous division and sub-division of property within Newar families have dealt death blows to old Patan. For a town that is said to have housed a population of a little over 15,000 under the Mall as, within the same living space today there are about 60,000 Patanites, and their numbers grow.
The infiltration of “western” values into the inner core of the town is evident in the collapse of Buddhi Man’s joint family. Five years ago, his four sons decided to break up, so Buddhi Man had to divide his house four ways. When a Newar house is divided (angsa bands), it is normally separated into vertical segments. When Buddhi Man’s third son found his living space reduced to such a sliver, he sold his share to his brothers and moved out of the old town precincts to Kopudole, down the hill towards Kathmandu.
Today, Buddhi Man’s old house has been cruelly transformed. Half of it remains untouched, with the traditional motifs, frescos and lattice-work intact. On the other half, from a narrow base, concrete pillars and cantilevers reach out at the second floor to make more space. The rooms are one on top of the other, connected by a narrow stairway that reaches up four stories.
Not even one new house is built to the old architecture. While there is function in the modem cement boxes, there is no beauty. And the series of cement boxes around a baha robs it of its soul, unlike in the preserved sections of the old cities of Europe. While the old houses had dank and dark landings used for stacking straw, the ground floors of today are built with an eye on the market. Houses facing the street have cement plastered over handsome red brick to make them commercially more attractive.
One is not sure whom to blame for the architectural folly that has done Patan in. “But where can we get the wood to build what you call a typical Newar house?” asks Ram Chandra Lal Joshi, a shopkeeper. He lives in his old house at Nag Baha though he has built a new brick-and-concrete one just a block away. “Where are the artisans, where do you get the old telia eet (“oiled bricks”), and the old techniques? A cubic foot of wooden beam costs 500 rupees.”
The real estate boom at Patan’s outskirts, particularly the perimeter from Lagankhel around to Pulchowk and toward the Bagmati bridge and Kathmandu, has also changed the character of the town. New residential enclaves have come up, inhabited by many who have forsaken their compact, traditional inner-city settlement to live as suburbanites with lawns, gardens and garages. What they have lost in this shift is the life of the public spaces within all old towns: the courtyards, the neighbourhood shop, the patis (rest houses), the public stages, and the dhungedharas.
Meanwhile, suburban Patan has claimed the very fertile agricultural land which had helped sustain medieval Patan. The Mallas had kept Patan residents from building outside its precincts so that there was no encroachment on the productive fields. Today, it is a free-for-all. The sky-rocketing price of land has made many traditional farming families (Jyapus) rich in cash. Many Jyapus of Jawalakhel, Kumaripati, and Chakupat have given up farming altogether, their time-tested skills in farming lost forever. From Patan Dhoka, only a decade ago, you could travel down through terraced rice fields all the way down to the Bagmati River. Today, this is the neighbourhood known as Chakupat, an unplanned mishmash of upper middle-class housing where concrete and tarmac is the rule and rice fields the exception.
Why has Patan changed more than Bhaktapur? In a way it was Bhaktapur’s poverty that helped preserve that town. Patan became much more commercialised and its land values rose dramatically because it was closer to Kathmandu. Each paisa Patan’s wealthy have has gone into tearing down old buildings to replace them with new cement ones. One measure of Patan’s wealth is the fact that well-heeled Kathmandu families no longer hesitate in giving their daughters to Patan families, while they would think twice before considering a match with a Bhaktapur boy.
Though Patan remains a Newar town, the larger “Nepali culture” has intruded on its insularity, through education, radio, television and exposure of residents to the “modern world” outside. Two decades ago, a non-Newar who came to Patan to sell his wares would have to first learn Newari, says Mahendra Dhoj Joshi, a middle-aged retired shopkeeper. Today, the people of Patan use their video-film Hindi while buying vegetable from Indian vendors. Many Newar children do not speak their parent’s tongue even at home because schooling is in Nepali.
Today, residents seem to have little pride in “belonging” to Patan. Whereas even two decades ago, families were unwilling to live away in spite of better facilities outside, today’s educated generation would readily pull up the stakes and shift to Kathmandu or to one of the suburban settlements.
Dev Ratna Shakya, 55, a jeweller of Naka Bahi is one who would never move. But does the same hold for his five sons? The two eldest have followed the family’s calling and make silver and gold jewellery. The third has taken to writing for journals in Newari, the fourth is studying law, and the youngest finishes high school this year.
“It is difficult to keep a balance between my sons’ interests and this family art,” says Dev Ratna. “If they go to college they will stop making jewelry, but I also want them to be educated.”
To Patan’s young, it is more prestigious to own a general provisions shop, join government service or the university, or be a travel executive, than to follow the family’s calling. And so they leave the trade, which is taken over by mass-production artists with an eye on tourist sales. The fact that Nepal’s schools do not impart any vocational training has hit the Newar towns hardest because, as the traditional father-to-son transfer of skills is interrupted, there is no other means to keep a craft alive.
Thus it is that the stone masons have all but disappeared from Patan. The town previously had many stone toles where lon karmis worked on the thriving trade of stone carving. Today they are confined to a few families in Bhinche Baha.
Patan also had a vigorous handloom industry. Unlike Kirtipur and Bhaktapur, however, the business has all but disappeared in Patan. “Practically each house used to have a loom and you saw women with hand-held spindles drying yarn for saris along every baha lane,” says Ramchandra Lal Joshi, 77. Cotton and nylon saris imported from India have taken over. During the time of the Ranas, remembers Joshi, weavers were paid 10 paisa for weaving a yard of cloth.
“But now even for 12 rupees, no one is willing to take up the work.”
The Mallas, whose rule began at the end of the 12th Century, provided Patan with a water system and sewers. They built monasteries, temples and rest houses, and set the rules and regulations for running the town. One of the traditions they left behind was that of the guthis, which are trusts run by neighbourhood elders (“guthiyars”). The heart of Patan beats in these guthis, which have the responsibility of maintaining the temples and monasteries, observing rituals and festivals, and sponsoring feasts. The guthiyars, in turn, relied on the income from their agricultural lands, brought in by the tiller who had a tenant-landlord relationship with the guthi.
If there is one cause for the decline of Patan’s living culture, it is the pauperisation of the guthis. Large tracts of guthiland were confiscated during the reign of Rana Bahadur Shah, grandson of Prithvi Narayan. The vast grounds of today’s Singha Durbar Secretariat were once property of Patan’s Yampi Matta Bihar (Ibahi). The Ranas, too, confiscated the lands of many bahas to build palaces, depriving many guthis of their primary income source.
In 1964, King Mahendra introduced the Land Reform Act as part of a social programme to do away with exploitation of the tiller. It proposed to secure for the tenant ownership of a part of the land he tilled and a substantial amount of the harvest. While most landowners managed in one way or the other to evade the programme’s impact, the guthis caught the full brunt. Prior to land reform, the tenants used to bring in their dues without the community members having to supervise the harvest. But the land reform broke the bond of trust existing between the jyapu farmer and the guthi. A national government’s well-intentioned and “modem” programme had the effect of weakening the core of Paten’s old traditions.
In some cases, the farmers took advantage of the situation by having the guthiland registered in their own names. In others, members of the guthi themselves acquired legal ownership of the land by deceit. Mostly, however, tenants simply stopped bringing a share to the guthi. As transference of guthi real estate into private hands reached scandalous proportions, the government set up the Guthi Sansthan in 1964 to undo what its policy had wrought. The Sansthan (corporation), to be run by the government bureaucracy, was to look after guthi properties and to channel the income back to the guthi community.
The Sansthan, in many instances, sold guthiland to the tiller and deposited the amount in a bank. The interest was then given to guthi members to cover the usual guthi activities as well as to maintain the guthi buildings. In such cases, the guthi’s traditional income of food grain was replaced by interest from the bank.
Unfortunately, the Guthi Sansthan, like most government offices, is poorly run. It has a hard time running the guthiland in 72 of the country’s 75 districts. The inevitable official corruption has also had its toll on the guthis. Also, the Guthi Sansthan bureaucrat is liable to view the festivals, rituals and pujas as simply administrative work. Ideally, the Sansthan should have kept the guthis afloat until they (the guthis) were given back to the people.
Since land reform, Buddhi Raj Bajracharya, 77, the guvaju priest of Cho Baha, has received only one marl (a sackful) of paddy for performing the annual rituals required of his position. Every year, in the bright half of the month of Chaitra, after Buddhi Raj performs rites at the shrine of Cho Baba, he is expected to give a feast to the community. Since the guthi income is not enough to feed even a quarter of the guests, he has to reach into his family coffers. Says Buddhi Raj, “I am doing it merely because I am nearing my end and because it is my dharma.”
FOUR THAT SURVIVE
Together with the decline of the guthi system, one sees in Patan today the steady disappearance of traditional rites and rituals in many temples and shrines large and small. Without an income nor caretakers, many small vihars (Buddhist monasteries) are in ruin. Hem Raj Shakya, a specialist on inscriptions who is retired from the Department of Archaeology, says that most vihars are no longer places to learn granthas (old texts), ayurveda and traditional iconography. “As a result, today’s community members are illiterate in traditional learning. They are no longer able to look at inscriptions and rel ig ious documents, and decipher history of the bahas in which they live,” says Shakya.
Only four of the 15 principal vihars in Patan continue the tradition of sounding the wooden gong known as the dharmagranthi to summon lay people to worship. These are Kwa Baha, Ugu Baha, Bu Baha and Ha Baha. These vihars have survived because their incomes from guthilands have continued uninterrupted. They have managed to remain out of the Guthi Sansthan’s administration and, most importantly, they have at loyal contingent of well-to-do community members.
Even the richer vihars today find it difficult to manage all the traditions due to the high cost of performing rituals, hosting feasts, and maintaining the spaces. Kwa Baha now conducts the Sambhyaya feast only once a year instead of four times. According to guvaju Hira Vajra Bajracharya, who laments the loss of faith among his flock, those who attend the pujas and rituals do so more out of a sense of formality. Piety seems to be on the wane, he says. Among the well-to-do, religious ceremonies have become social occasions to show off imported clothing and lavish gold jewellery.
One fallout of the “waning piety” is that the care and protection of Patan’s numerous places of worship has suffered. When a town as rich in traditional artifacts and icons as Pam suddenly loses the community spirit, and when the administration and police are made up of often disinterested “outsiders”, idol-lifters and international smugglers move in. Idol theft has stripped Patan of many priceless treasures. Eighteen idols are missing from the Tusha Hiti, the royal bath in the Patan Durbar Square. Astonishingly, a police post is located in the very same courtyard as Tusha Hiti. A few years ago, the life-size idol of male/female Balbhadra was lifted from the Ta Baha courtyard (what you see in its place is a new. idol).
Perhaps the story of Patan is the story of all ancient communities subjected to political pressures from without, as well as the sheer pace of economic change and “modem” influence. Unable to withstand the changes, Patan has lost its old unity and ambience.
Today, as one takes the side gullies off Mangal Bazaar, a sense of old Patan still lingers under the eaves and around the shrines. But within a few years, even this will be gone. The retouched Durbar Square or the main vihars will serve the tourists, but for the inhabitants that will not be enough.
What s Patan waiting for? As the temples and the vihars fall into disrepair, perhaps its inhabitants are looking the way of a well-meaning western government, or UNESCO, to come along and give them back their city. Because the Germans restored parts of Bhaktapur, perhaps Patan is waiting for the French. This waiting game is costly, because every day another tradition bites the dust, another ancient dwelling crumbles, another exquisite door or window succumbs to rot, and another idol is stolen. The people of Patan have to wake up to the meaning of what is happening to their city.
Many attribute the drying up of numerous sunken dhunge dharas and wells to the construction of the Ring Road, which is said to have cut off the Raj Kuloo aqueduct which brought in water from the south. If the people of Pa tan want it, the conduit can be reconstructed.
There was a pond at Kumaripati that had been handed over to a guvaju by Girvana Yuddha Bikram, successor of Rana Bahadur. People purified themselves in the pond on the tenth day of mourning their deceased. Unable to sustain its upkeep, the guvaju’s grandchildren handed it over to the Town Panchayat, which simply divided the pond into smaller plots and sold them off as commercial property. One of the houses on this plot is today the Lalitpur District office of the Nepali Congress party.
What does the new democratic polity in Nepal have in store for Patan? If the old town could not be preserved even under directed authoritarian rule, is there some hope in a democracy? Taking advantage of “freedom”, many clever Patanites have already added a storey or two to their new buildings, exceeding the limits set as a zoning measure by the now-defunct Panchayat government.
Unless these clever residents wake up, the economic pressures of modernisation will continue their onslaught on Patan. Local initiative and activism, discouraged in the decades past, are now allowed full play by Nepal’s democracy. And if any community in Nepal can come together with the activism and the funds required to preserve the heritage of the old Newar inner cities, it is the Newars themselves.
So, if Patan is to preserve its uniqueness and not be subsumed into the identity of Kathmandu, the townspeople have to take matters into their own hands. Unfortunately, those who would be activists in Patan are preoccupied speculating on land or adding floors to their skyscrapers. Busy as they are reaping economic profit from the Valley’s commercial and real estate boom, the young careerists of Paint would rather join the Jaycees or the Lions than take a concerned look back at the old neighbourhood guthi.
B.L Shrestha is a reporter for Kathmandu’s Rising Nepal daily.