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",
Photograph by Wilfried Kroeger, 1971
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
Sacred Urban Space by Niels Gutschow
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
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
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.
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.
the exhibit E-24 in gallery E of the Patan Museum: “Chaityas in Urban
(Vienna) and Darbar Square (Patan)
A COMPARISON OF TWO
PROMINENT PLAZAS OF THE 18TH CENTURY
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
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
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).
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.
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.
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
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.