The origins of Kathmandu Valley’s accomplished art and architecture lie in the simple fact that the valley floor was once-upon-a-time a lakebed. Once the lake was drained, by geological process or the mythological sword of the Bodhisattva Manjushree, depending on your personal outlook, the fertile alluvium provided the basis for rice cultivation and the growth of an accomplished urban culture. Over time, the hunter-gatherers made way for herders and agriculturalists, and the dynasties rolled on from the Kirat in the 5th to 9th centuries to the Lichhavi in the 9th to 11th centuries and the Malla of the 12th to 18th centuries. The basis of their architecture was the fine clay of the Valley floor, which provided material for brick, tile and mortar, and the wood from the surrounding hillside forests for latticework windows, doorways and rafters. Besides exquisite woodwork, the arts that evolved included statuary in stone and bronze, and all that was left was for a 19th century British traveller to claim that Kathmandu had “more temples than houses and more idols than people”.
Urban planning of the ancients was such that the lowland terraces were reserved for paddy farming, while settlements came up on the less productive sandy plateaus. The towns evolved from the agglomeration of inter-connected courtyards, which are called baha; or bahi, if smaller. From the gates of the cities, the lanes lead inward through ever-more ornate architecture till you arrive at the ‘durbar squares’, consisting of magnificent plazas, temples and palaces.
Written by Kanak Dixit