Nepal’s Durbar Squares – Glimpses into History and Heritage

Nepal’s Durbar Squares – Glimpses into History and Heritage

Many of the world’s great cities have famous squares that help give them their identity and capture their essence. Think Trafalgar Square in London, Red Square in Moscow, Tiananmen Square in Beijing, Times Square in New York.

Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu, is also blessed with a square that, in its own distinct way, reflects the city’s heart. And the greater Kathmandu Valley area has three, all rich in history, culture and wonderful sights.

Each is known as Durbar Square. They are hundreds of years old. One is in the centre of Kathmandu and the others in the adjoining cities of Patan and Bhaktapur.

Sunset over Patan Durbar Square. Image: © Miroslav Liska

When I first visited Nepal in the 1970s, the three cities, though close to each other, were separated by green countryside. Today they form an unbroken urban sprawl that fills most of the valley.

The three Durbar Squares are areas in front of former royal palaces – “durbar” means palace. Each of the cities had its own kings and autonomy, and the grandeur of the squares reflects this. In addition to the palaces, most still standing, they are home to many of Nepal’s oldest and finest temples, both Hindu and Buddhist.

The Durbar Squares are ideal turf for older travellers. They are brimming with history. They are easily explored on foot, either as part of a group tour or at a leisurely pace on your own. They provide an opportunity to mingle with local people.

A busy shrine in Kathmandu Durbar Square. Image: © Alan Williams

And should you want to take a breather along the way, all are overlooked by cosy cafes and restaurants, where you can relax and enjoy the passing scene.

All three squares were devastated by the earthquake of 25 April 2015, which killed nearly 9,000 people across Nepal. Some historic temples were completely destroyed and others badly damaged.

But don’t let this put you off. The squares remain fascinating places, still full of amazing buildings. And the ongoing restoration work, slow though much of it is, gives you a sense of everyday life, and of the capacity of people to deal with hardship. What you’re seeing is the real Nepal, not monuments frozen in time.

Handicraft vendors in Kathmandu Durbar Square. Image: © Alan Williams

Most visitors to Kathmandu will want to set aside time to visit at least one of these squares, and possibly all of them. They are different enough to make visits to all three richly rewarding. All are UNESCO World Heritage Sites and feature striking examples of Newa architecture, an indigenous style used by the valley’s Newari people.

You probably wouldn’t want to attempt to visit all three in a single day. That would be a recipe for getting templed out and for everything becoming a blur. Ideally you’ll want at least a couple of hours at any one of the squares.    

Kathmandu Durbar Square

Kathmandu Durbar Square contains a remarkable range of old palaces (some now museums) and temples, the oldest of which date back to the mid-16th century.  

First-time visitors will notice there’s more than one name for some places in the Kathmandu Valley, which can be a little confusing at first. Kathmandu’s Durbar Square, for instance, is also called Hanumandhoka Durbar Square (after the old palace that bears this name).

Repairing a temple roof in Kathmandu Durbar Square. Image: © Alan Williams

The entrance fee for most foreigners is 1,000 rupees (around US$9). Visitors from countries of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, SAARC, pay 500 rupees. Along with your ticket, you’ll be given a handy, large-scale map with all the temples and palaces marked. It’s easy to find maps online too.

If you’re on your own, you’ll be approached by people offering to be your personal tour guide. If you’re interested, you’ll need to negotiate a fee, likely to be several hundred rupees. 

Every visitor will have their own favourite moments. For me, the highlight of a recent visit was following an escorted group of visitors into the Kumari Ghar, a beautiful 260-year-old palace on the south side of the square.  

The Kumari Ghar Palace in Kathmandu Durbar Square. Image: © Alan WIlliams

The city of Patan lies several kilometres south of central Kathmandu, across the holy but badly polluted Bagmati River. Confusingly, the city is also known as Lalitpur. At the centre is its Durbar Square.

The entry fee for foreign visitors is 1,000 rupees, with a smaller fee for those from SAARC countries. The square consists mainly of a large open area running roughly south to north. Most of the temples are on the western side and the large palace complex on the east. 

Many consider this the finest of the three Durbar Squares, with its concentration of impressive temples. The building of temples here is said to have begun at least as early as the 14th century. Some of the most acclaimed temples date from the first half of the 17th century.

The Krishna Temple in Patan Durbar Square. Image: © Alan Williams

Sadly, the square took a heavy pounding in the 2015 earthquake. Damaged temples are covered in scaffolding as restoration work continues, and safety fencing keeps visitors at bay.

If you’d like to delve further into the country’s history, don’t miss the fine museum housed in the royal palace. Some consider it among the best museums in South Asia, with its extensive collection of religious art, relics and photos. The square’s entrance fee includes admission to the museum.

Behind the museum, in a large, leafy palace compound, is the Patan Museum Café, a pleasant spot to relax. Also popular is the Café du Temple at the square’s northern end. Its rooftop restaurant offers excellent views of the square.

Bhaktapur Durbar Square

The old city of Bhaktapur lies around 13 km southeast of central Kathmandu. Also called Bhadgaon, it was Nepal’s capital until the 15th century. Apart from its historic buildings, it’s famous for its handicrafts, particularly its pottery.  

Its Durbar Square, large and full of temples, is the most expensive of the three to visit. The entrance fee for foreigners is 1500 rupees (less for SAARC and Chinese nationals).

Earthquake repairs in Bhaktapur Durbar Square in 2016. Image: © Alan Williams

The square’s most iconic attraction is the multi-tiered Nyatapola Temple, the tallest temple in Nepal and surely one of the most beautiful. It dates back to 1702 and suffered only minor damage in the 2015 earthquake.

It’s fun to climb the steep steps to the upper level, stopping on your way to check out the imposing sets of stone temple guardians on either side of the steps. From the top, you’ll have good views of the square down below.

Another highlight is the impressive Golden Gate, which leads to the inner courtyards of the royal palace, once a compound of nearly 100 courtyards.  

The famous Golden Gate in Bhaktapur Durbar Square. Image: © Alan Williams

Unlike Nyatapola, some of Bhaktapur’s temples were destroyed or badly damaged in the earthquake, as were parts of the palace. It’ll be years before the square – and those in Kathmandu and Patan – are restored to their previous glory.

Meanwhile, the repairs go on. Visitors who refuse to be deterred by this can take satisfaction in the knowledge that part of their entrance fee is helping meet the cost of the restoration work. Every little bit helps.

Header image: © Ipek Morel Diplikaya | Dreamstime

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