Kathmandu / Patan, Nepal
February 24 – 25, 2013
For centuries, life in three ancient kingdoms in Kathmandu Valley – Kathmandu, Patan, and Bhaktapur – had revolved around their respective royal and religious centers: Durbar Square. These kingdoms had since become cities, and each of their squares a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The squares were not kept at arm’s length from the public. No velvet rope, only an entrance fee for foreign visitors. Nepal citizens (I heard they prefered this term over “locals”) went about their daily life in and around ancient temples, palaces, courtyards, altars, and marketplaces in these squares that remained as vibrant today as they may have been in 15th-century Malla Dynasty.
Let me loose in such heritage sites and I’d get lost in history and art, as I did in Angkor Wat and Borobudur, but Durbar Square felt more grounded to the present. The ebb and flow of a sea of people drowned me. Between exquisite antiquity and the beautiful people of Nepal – there was no contest.
Both in Kathmandu and Patan, my excursions to Durbar Square invariably turned into people watching. How could it not be? Magnificent temples sported the beehive look, covered as they were by a swarm of people, buzzing in conversation and enjoying the balmy February afternoon, their feet hanging out of railing-less tiers. Like any downtown, I found the squares to be the city’s melting pot of every demographic. May they be at work or at play, men and women, young and old, visitors and residents, the religious and the entrepreneurial were all accounted for. Back in the day, local populations were kept close to royal palaces for conscription. People had not left since, I surmised, even after the decline of the monarchy in recent times.
Unencumbered by modern issues about sexual orientation, Nepali dudes had no qualms about showing affection to one another as they huddled on temples’ red brick steps. They leaned on or wrapped their arms around each other, and even walked in a handclasp – openly, without putting their masculinity into question. Bromance was alive and well in Nepal, apparently. Ladies at the marketplace, on the other hand, chatted together without getting too touchy-feely.
I rarely came across groups of mixed genders. even among schoolchildren I bumped into in a temple. Men and women were together, it seemed, only as couples, though never engaging in PDA (public display of affection), leaving to guesswork which pairs were an item or just friends.
Durbar Square was a crossroad, a stop in trading routes between India and Tibet in ancient times. These days, my guide Bhuwan said Nepalis would drop in Durbar Square to and from work, as evidenced by the continuous stream of people. They would buy marigold garlands, beans, and grains from street vendors with which to appease their temperamental deities in stone – proof positive of the symbiosis between religion and commerce. Some stood or sat by intricately carved pillars or walls to pause, or perhaps pose. All picture-perfect scenes if I only I had a powerful camera. I had to settle for long shots from my point-and-shoot.
Rather unlikely for a protected heritage site, elderly panhandlers worked the temples and children were left to their devices, straddling ancient stone elephants and playing ball in crowded courtyards while their parents were doing temple duties or doing business. Many statues and monuments in these living museums had been smoothed out by both the prayerful and the playful.
The Nepalis evoked that good ol’ innocence of a bygone time: clinging to tradition, largely unaffected by the changing world beyond the wall of mountains surrounding them, oblivious to foreign eyes ogling and capturing their every move, set in their ways by the four corners of Durbar Square, it seemed.
As the afternoon drew to a close, some elderly men took their place by the external wall of the Royal Palace of Patan, seated in a row and engaged in spirited conversation. Bhuwan later joined them on the bench, giving me an excuse to shoot at close range. I caught the old man beside him pressing his index finger against his lips, as if telling his friend not to tattle the juicy piece of gossip he had just shared.
Ah, such was a retirement after my own heart: plopped down at the picturesque square that had been the center of the lives of Nepalis, unmindful of the steady march of time as they were of the last rays of golden sunshine.
Tour or trek Nepal with Bhuwan Shrestha. You may reach him through his cellphone (977) 98-5111-1907 or (977) 97-2155-3885 and email: firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.