This article was first published in the June 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine
Legend has it that the Kathmandu valley was once filled by a lake. In the centre of the lake grew a vast sacred lotus flower, encrusted with diamonds and rubies, with a fire burning at its centre. This was a manifestation of divinity, right at the heart of Nepal – and the seed of the country’s capital, Kathmandu. Today, the city has all the hallmarks of a rapidly developing Asian city, with new buildings constructed on layers of myth, legend and history.
Kathmandu has tripled in size since 1996, when I first visited as a backpacker. City-dwellers used to be able to admire the peaks of the Himalayas ranged on the northern horizon. Now the city is often shrouded by smoggy pollution. The roads are jammed with traffic and it hums with the thrill of rapid growth.
The city is faced with the challenges of such a boom, not least how to protect its historic monuments.
Kathmandu is also still recovering from the shattering earthquake of April 2015 that killed more than 8,000 people and wrecked much of the city’s heritage and infrastructure, though rebuilding and restoration is already well advanced.
Sandwiched between Tibet and India, Nepal has its own distinctive blend of animism, Hinduism and Buddhism, manifested in unique architecture. In some places the Buddhist influence is strongest, such as at the stupa complex of Swayambunath that’s on every tourist’s wish list. One of the most ancient sites in Kathmandu, the stupa is at least 1,500 years old (stories recount a visit by the Indian emperor Ashoka in the third century BC). Climbing the stone pilgrims’ stairway on its eastern flank, you emerge high above Kathmandu. The Buddha’s eyes, painted on four gilded sides of the temple, gaze down from above the white dome of the stupa onto the city below. Prayer flags flutter everywhere and prayer wheels rumble as you spin them.
Many different ethnic groups share Kathmandu, but the cultural influence of the Newar people is inescapable, especially in Patan, the capital’s twin city lying south of the Bagmati river. Here, intricately gabled wooden houses surround peaceful courtyards, and a cluster of Buddhist monasteries still forms the bedrock of the old city. Patan’s lanes throng with life. Watch artisans working at bronze, stone or wood sculptures, or painstakingly colouring thangkas (Buddhist cloth paintings), and you can imagine the city as it was in the 16th and 17th centuries. Patan Museum is a gem, set in an 18th-century palace housing hundreds of Hindu and Buddhist sculptures.
About three miles south-west of Kathmandu is Kirtipur, besieged in 1768 by Prithvi Narayan Shah, the Gorkha leader credited with unifying Nepal. According to local myth, when he finally broke through, Shah’s armies sliced off the noses and lips of all the men in Kirtipur – apart from those who could play wind instruments.
The temple of Bagh Bhairab is adorned with swords and shields reputedly seized from the defeated soldiers. In the evenings, the temple courtyard fills with people listening to religious songs at dusk.
The durbar (royal) squares are crammed with temples whose architecture is quite different from the styles prevalent in neighbouring India and China. Multi-roofed, rising up to five storeys high, decorated with gold and bells, with burning rails of butter lamps, these pagodas are some of the oldest wooden temples in the world, and they’re immensely atmospheric.
Nepal was always important to Asian trade and travellers. Yet it was also far more isolated and protected from British rule than other parts of the subcontinent, managing to keep Europeans out. Until the mid-20th century, only a handful of westerners had visited Nepal and it was slow to open to outsiders; television was only introduced in 1985. The imprint of centuries of royal authority is clear however, although the country has been a republic since 2008.
For many, Nepali history is inextricably linked with the Gurkhas. Today the tradition of exporting manpower continues, and flights out of Kathmandu are full of young men going to work in Dubai and Qatar. The Nepali diaspora now lives all over the world, and locals deftly import ingredients and recipes. I’ve had excellent cappuccinos and croissants in Kathmandu. You can even find a decent English fried breakfast – though I would rather tuck into a plate of hot momos (dumplings) or paratha (flat bread).
Yasmin Khan is an associate professor of history at the University of Oxford.