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The Transformation of a Royal Palace

Chapter 2: The Urban Setting


According to ancient myth, the Kathmandu Valley in previous ages was a huge lake (as confirmed by geological research), until the benevolent Boddhisattva Manjushri, with a blow of his sword, cleaved the southern rim of the valley at the gorge of Chobhar, to drain the waters of the lake, thus rendering the Valley inhabitable.


Illustration by Harka Gurung in C. Pruscha (ed.):
"Physical  Development Plan for the Kathmandu Valley",
HMG 1969

The Kathmandu Valley


Photograph by Wilfried Kroeger, 1971


The name Nepal originally applied only to the Kathmandu valley. A large “bowl” of fertile, alluvial land in the middle ranges of the Himalayas, the Valley is the historical core and the cultural heart of the country. In addition to the agricultural surplus production its settlements gained wealth due to their ideal entrepot location on the ancient trade routes between the Indian plains and the Tibetan plateau; an accumulation of wealth that led to the early development of an artistic and sophisticated urban culture. It is a worldwide and historically rare phenomenon that the Newars, as a mainly agricultural population, would prefer to live in cities rather than villages or hamlets, as all other ethnic groups in the Himalayas do. This urban culture was, and still is, also a highly religious one. Some of the holiest, oldest and most venerated shrines and pilgrimage sites of the Hindu and Buddhist domains are located in the Valley, and its ruling elites were always associated with the divine.

The ancient settlements of Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur date back to the first millennium of the common era. As capitals of minor kingdoms (governed for centuries by the Malla dynasty), they flourished in competition with one other. This sometimes involved warlike means, but was often simply a matter of trying to outdo their rivals in the more peaceful activities of art and architecture. The focus of attention in this competitive situation was the Darbar, the royal palace compound of each city, which was the centre of all religious and public life. All three Darbars are today World Heritage Sites.

Sacred Urban Space by Niels Gutschow

Chaityas imitate the structure of the universe, and also designate sacred space on a larger scale.  On the periphery of the former medieval kingdom of  Patan stand four ancient mounds known as the "Ashokan" stupas.  They are probably the oldest Buddhist monuments of the Kathmandu Valley. The four mounds orient the human settlement towards the cardinal directions of the cosmos. They define the limits of meaningful, i.e., sacred, space against the surrounding continuum of profane and non-significant space.


Patan Darbar Square as seen from the South. Engraving after a photograph by Gustave Le Bon, 1885

This Licchavi Period chaitya stands in the courtyard of Om-baha monastery;  pencil on paper, Robert Powell, 1993 exhibit E-28 in gallery E

The royal palace stands at the center of this space,  marked by the intersection of north-south, east-west connecting streets.  This museum is housed in one of its courtyards.  Neither the location of the four mounds nor the alignment of the connecting streets follow a strict axial order.  Visually, the cosmic order the Ashokan stupas create is too large to be experienced; the mere assurance of its existence is enough.

On the day of August full moon, bereaved persons visit all four stupas in a continuous circumambulation.  A few days later, thousands of Patan residents join a day-long procession to worship some 600 other chaityas and sacred Buddhist places.  The processional route becomes a continuous circumambulation through and around the city, circling all four mounds in a single day.

 from the exhibit E-24 in gallery E of the Patan Museum: “Chaityas in Urban Space”

Josephsplatz (Vienna) and Darbar Square (Patan)

Both squares are grand open plazas, planned and built in manifestation of monarchic rule at the center of power, and designed as urban scenery and backdrop for the staging of court ritual and public processions. Both were set within a dense maze of mediaeval houses and alleys.

Both Squares as seen from the North: (above) Josephsplatz and (left) Patan Darbar Square

Although built on partly much older foundations, the present shape of both squares dates back to the early 18th century A.D. The National Library, which dominates the Josephsplatz in Vienna, was designed in 1726 as part of the imperial court of the Habsburgs. The Keshav Narayan Chowk of Patan Darbar was built as the residential court of the Malla Kings, and inaugurated in 1734.Both squares are counted among the world's most beautiful ones.

It's hard to believe that the two site plans are presented at the same scale: the Viennese example (top) almost looks like an enlarged detail of the one from Patan (bottom).

The actual differences have to do with size and complexity, or with apparent degrees of magnitude and intimacy in urban scale. The lot size and depth of buildings on and around Josephsplatz for example are about three to five times larger than those in Patan. At the same time, a much greater number of buildings and monuments fill the equivalent map area in Patan, corresponding to an articulation of urban space that is considerably more varied and intimately articulated.

While the use of axis and symmetry in both cases is a basic feature for the expression, and perception, of hierarchic order in architecture and urban design, the square and the monuments in Patan together display many more central axes and layers of symmetry than the few dominating ones in Vienna.

The Palace Building seen from the North, with the temples of Taleju and Degutale in the background. The pavilion in the foreground (mani-mandapa) was used for the coronation of the Kings of Patan.

The difference in the height of buildings is the most striking one. Though each of the two comparative buildings has the same number of floors, the National Library in Vienna is three times as tall as the Patan Museum. The very low floor-to-floor height of traditional buildings - and even palaces - in Nepal defines the more intimate height scale of its historic townscapes.

During the same period when the House of Habsburg built in imperial scale and magnitude, as manifestation of its absolute power - always under one single god, the Malla kings of Kathmandu Valley competed with each other on a more human scale and with a perhaps more pluralistic concept of power, while embellishing their Darbars with a variety of architectural means and great monuments - always devoted to at least one of the many gods of Nepal.

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