Bhaktapur: Unveiling Nepal's Captivating Hidden Gem

Bhaktapur, also known as Bhadgaon or Khwopa, is one of the three major cities in the Kathmandu Valley in Nepal and is located about 14 kilometers east of Kathmandu. It is an ancient city established in the 9th century and was the capital of Nepal during the great Malla Kingdom until the second half of the 15th century.

Bhaktapur is known as the 'City of Devotees' and the 'City of Culture' due to its rich cultural, artistic, and religious heritage that has been preserved over centuries. The city is also famous for its distinctive architecture, intricate wood, metal, and stone carvings, colorful festivals, delicious cuisines, and traditional artistry. Several UNESCO World Heritage Sites are located within Bhaktapur city.

Bhaktapur is situated in the eastern part of the Kathmandu Valley, Nepal's largest intermontane valley. The valley itself lies at an elevation of around 1,300 meters above sea level, surrounded by the Shivapuri mountain range to the north, the Phulchoki mountain to the south, the Nagarkot ridge to the east, and the Chandragiri/Dakshinkali ridge to the west.

The ancient city of Bhaktapur covers an area of around 6 square kilometers in a roughly oval shape, divided into 24 traditional neighborhoods. The city is set in a landscape of verdant paddy fields and rural villages, with the Hanumante and Bishnumati rivers flowing along its eastern and western borders. Several ponds and water reservoir tanks are also dotted within the city limits.

Historical Significance

The Malla Dynasty and Medieval History

Bhaktapur was founded in the 9th century by King Anandadev of the Lichhavi dynasty. It grew in prominence under the Malla dynasty beginning in the early 13th century. The Malla rulers transformed Bhaktapur into a major center of power, commerce, and culture in Nepal for over 500 years until the late 18th century.

The 12th-century ruler Arideva Malla laid the foundations of the Palace of 55 Windows and Nyatapola Temple. In the early 1400s, King Yaksha Malla expanded the city significantly and also established many of Bhaktapur's most renowned temples and palaces including the Golden Gate and Pashupatinath Temple. 

Over time, Bhaktapur developed into a major trading center along the ancient trans-Himalayan salt and wool routes. The 17th century was considered Bhaktapur's golden era when arts, crafts, and literary works flourished under King Jagajyotir Malla.

Architectural Heritage

Bhaktapur is renowned for its unique temples and buildings designed in the distinctive Newari style of architecture. The pagoda-shaped multi-tiered temples with ornately carved wooden columns, struts, doors, windows, and roof struts are iconic landmarks. Red clay brick is the main building material used alongside wood, metal, and terra-cotta.

Key architectural sites include the Nyatapola Temple (18th-century 5-storied pagoda), the Durbar Square complex (with the Palace of 55 Windows, Golden Gate, Lion's Gate, etc.), Dattatreya temple and courtyard buildings or bahals. The city's layout itself follows a unique cosmic mandala design based on tantric Hinduism/Buddhism. 

Narrow alleyways, pilgrims' rest houses, sunken water spouts, open courtyards, and farmer's markets are some other distinct architectural features throughout historic Bhaktapur city.

Exploring Durbar Square

Key Temples and Structures

Bhaktapur Durbar Square is located in the center of the old town and contains a collection of ornate temples, palaces, courtyards, and wood/stone artworks built by Bhaktapur's Malla rulers.

The 5-storied Nyatapola Temple, the tallest pagoda-style temple in Nepal, sits atop several sets of carved figures supporting the structure. Stone statues of guardian deities and elephants line the staircase leading up to the top. Nearby is the 3-storied Bhairab Nath Temple dedicated to the god Bhairab with an unusual obelisk-like shape.

Other key temples include the Pashupatinath Temple with a gold-topped roof and sculpture of Shiva, the stone Shiva temple with erotic carvings, and the small but iconic Peacock Window temple noted for its ornate wooden window frame carved in the shape of a peacock.

The Royal Palace

The Palace of 55 Windows was built in the 1700s by King Bhupatindra Malla to serve as the royal residence with many lavishly carved balconies, windows (including the 55 Window facade), and columned support struts projecting outwards from the brick walls. The Golden Gate is a masterpiece of repoussé metal art and depicts tales from Hindu epics.

After the 1934 earthquake, portions of the old palace were rebuilt in modern style for museums and government offices but much of the centuries-old square retains its architectural integrity as an open-air museum showcasing Nepal's proud cultural history and resilience.

Cultural Treasures of Bhaktapur

Traditional Arts and Crafts

Bhaktapur is renowned for its thriving traditional arts and crafts culture, having supplied finished goods like metalwork, pottery, and textiles along the old trans-Himalayan trade routes for centuries.

Notable crafts include intricate woodcarving evident on temple and building struts, columns, roof tiles, etc, ceramic pottery crafted from the fine clay of the Hanumante River, and textile weaving factories producing hand-woven wool carpets and the traditional dorrā salwar kurta dress.

Local artisans are still practicing these specialized crafts throughout the city, many concentrated in neighborhoods like Thimi, Honachhen, and Duwakot. Visitors can tour woodcarving workshops around Taumadhi Square, purchase iconic Ju Ju Dhau yogurt at famous pottery shops, or watch weavers making Bhaktapur wool products on old looms.

Festivals and Celebrations

Bhaktapur is renowned for its colorful religious festivals and cultural celebrations that take over the city streets throughout the year. The Bisket Jatra festival occurs in early spring with processions of rattling chariots and masked dancers celebrating the Nepali New Year.

September brings dances, chariot processions, and abundant feasts for Indra Jatra honoring the rain god Indra. The harvest is celebrated during Mohani and Yomari Punhi in autumn when locals indulge in rice pudding and steamed sweet cakes.

Marking the cold-season descent of Shiva and his divine consort, Pulu Kisi offers masked performances during the November/December full moon. These and many more festivals infuse Bhaktapur's cultural heritage with enduring spiritual meaning and celebrate the city's resilience with great joy and pride for locals and visitors alike.

Culinary Delights

Local Cuisine

Bhaktapur is renowned for its unique Newari-style cuisine that includes dishes like Juju Dhau (king curd), Wo (lentil doughnuts), Chataamari (rice crepes), Samay Baji (flattened rice), Bara (fried lentil pancake), and flavored sel roti pastries.

Many iconic Bhaktapur dishes feature buff (water buffalo) meat and yogurt, cheese, pickles, roasted soybeans, medicinal herbs, etc. The cuisine also reflects Chinese and Tibetan influences due to Bhaktapur's place on major caravan routes. Visitor favorites include the Thwon (chicken) and Chhoyala (spiced buff meat) sets served in tiny streetside eateries amidst cultural ambiance.

Best Places to Eat

Top picks like Cafe Beyond and Namaste Bhaktapur Cafe offer modern twists on traditional cuisine alongside informative cultural programs for tourists. But for an authentic local experience, visitors should sample street foods like Samaybaji at open market stalls, have Juju Dhau yogurt at famous shops like Krishna Dhau or king curd of Bhaktapur, or sit down for a traditional Newari Thali set in tiny old town establishments.

Places like Titaura veerek jhilche newari kitchen, Mums Kitchen, and Sarkha are Bhaktapur institutions for homemade classics like Wo, Bara, organic buff Chowela meat, pickle sides and local Chang beer, all served in settings that provide a flavorful immersion into everyday culinary life.

The Living Heritage: Local Lifestyle and Traditions

Daily Life in Bhaktapur

Behind the magnificent temples and ornate buildings, Bhaktapur still pulses with community life that follows long-established Newari customs. Locals wake before dawn, sweep streets and temples, carry offerings to shrines, chatter over juju dhau yogurt at corner shops, haul goods to the market square, and worship various gods and guardians to maintain harmony and prosperity.

The city layout, activities, cuisine, and crafts reflect the intimate intermingling of Hindu and Buddhist traditions that guide locals through annual cycles of vibrant festivals. Deep bonds to this living heritage endure despite modernization, as seen in residents still repairing centuries-old buildings, hosting feasts for neighborhoods like their ancestors did for generations, or speaking Nepal Bhasa as their mother tongue.

Traditional Practices

Time-honored customs like historic designs adorning homes with carved deities guarding the door and roof struts, children wearing gunyo cholo caps and traditional dress, or the community collectively cleaning the entire city before major festivals emphasize continuity with Bhaktapur's past.

The significance of cultural practices like cremating the deceased by the holy Hanumante River, organizing neighborhood Guthi community associations to uphold festivals, or farming lands in the same ways done for 1600+ years reinforces locals' sense of pride and purpose - which visitors witness through a distinct glimpse into Nepal's 'living museum city' where heritage still breathes and thrives.

Art and Museums

Art Galleries and Exhibitions

Bhaktapur has a thriving arts scene led by local Newari artists and centered around Taumadhi Square and the surrounding alleyways. Standout galleries like the Sky Lounge Art Cafe, Mukaschari Art, and Siddhi Art Gallery exhibit Modern abstract works alongside traditional Thangka Buddhist paintings, Papier Mâché masks, metal statues, and more by contemporary Nepali artists.

Visitors can also wander the old city to experience pop-up art installations, see artists at work in their studios, or even take a class to learn traditional ink painting, pottery making, or papier mache from local master craftsmen.

Museums and Cultural Centers

The National Art Museum showcases the evolution of Buddhist and Hindu art in Nepal from the 12th century onwards through stone, metal, wood, and painting collections. Housed partially in the former Royal Palace, the museum provides wonderful cultural insight.

Other highlights include the Woodcarving Museum and Brass & Bronze Museum with rare Tantric pieces and Hindu/Buddhist deity statues. Additionally, the Quake Museum details Bhaktapur's destruction and subsequent rebuild efforts after the 1934 and 2015 Nepal earthquakes via photos, artifacts, and multimedia displays.

These museums contextualize Bhaktapur's living heritage while the city itself serves as an open-air museum filled with centuries of restored temples, palaces, markets, crafts shops, and backstreet homes exemplifying the rich culture on display.

Shopping and Souvenirs

Local Markets and Handicrafts

As an artisan city, Bhaktapur offers endless shopping for traditional Nepali handicrafts. Key areas to browse include Potters' Square for clay pots, juju dhau sets and sculpted vases, Brass Street for statues and bowls, Woodcarving Square for intricate Ganesh reliefs, puppets and masks, and Weaving Street for wool textiles, clothing, and carpets.

Bargaining is expected in Bhaktapur's markets. Unique finds like metal singing bowls, embroidered caps, rice paper prints, thangka paintings, prayer beads and flags, patchwork sacks, recycled paper products, bamboo Crafts, stone carvings, pashmina shawls, jams, pickles, spices, teas, coffee and other local goods are available.

Unique Finds in Bhaktapur

Truly special souvenirs native to the Bhaktapur region include juju dhau yogurt starters, tiny Ganesh miniatures carved from a single grain of rice, detailed papier mâché masks once used in traditional dances, old bronze bells from dilapidated temples, intricate torma sculptures made of flour and butter for rituals, and textiles dyed with natural colors featuring Bhaktapur's iconic motifs.

For upscale boutiques with such specialty items, visit Thagu Chhen which supports local artisans. Or peek down back alleys to discover tiny corner shops with the city's hidden treasures.

Accommodations and Facilities

Where to Stay

Bhaktapur offers diverse lodging from basic guesthouses to 3-star hotels

  • Traditional options like the Golden Gate Guest House, Dwarika's Inn, and Toni House are nestled in old alleys with pagoda-style architecture and courtyard gardens.
  • Modern hotels like the Padmashree Guest House, Hotel Heritage, and Greenwich Village Hotel provide luxurious facilities alongside cultural programs and valley views from their rooftops.
  • Homestays like Neydo Tashi Choeling give an inside perspective on local life with stays in traditional Bhaktapur homes or former monasteries.

Tourist Facilities

The Bhaktapur Visitor Center near Durbar Square provides maps alongside cultural information. Numerous private tour agencies offer guided walking trips through historic sites. Guesthouses can arrange city tours, day hikes up Chandragiri Hills, or transfers to Kathmandu.

Bhaktapur has frequent bus links and road connections to Kathmandu and other towns across Nepal. Taxis, like Safa Tempos (auto-rickshaws), are commonly used for short journeys across the city. Facilities-wise, over 50 restaurants feature international and local cuisine options. ATMs, cafes with wi-fi, shops with communication services, and other tourism infrastructure serve visitors to this increasingly popular destination.

Responsible Tourism in Bhaktapur

Preserving Cultural Heritage

As a UNESCO site, Bhaktapur depends on tourism revenue to restore temples and infrastructure damaged during the 2015 earthquake. Visitors should pay all entrance fees to heritage sites without haggling to support preservation efforts. Opting for homestays, locally guided tours, cultural shows, or shopping for handicrafts also helps the community maintain its living heritage.

Sustainable Travel Practices

With narrow streets in the old city, tourists should walk, bike, or use public transport instead of taxis to reduce congestion and emissions. Using water, electricity, and AC conservatively during hotel stays minimizes resource waste. Choosing to eat at small local eateries reduces the environmental impact of large luxury hotels and instead supports family businesses.

Pack out non-biodegradable waste, respect no photography zones inside sacred sites, and avoid giving money or buying goods from child vendors to prevent exploitation. Additionally, opting for eco-conscious operators like Heart for Travel helps mitigate tourism's impacts by funding community development initiatives in Bhaktapur.

By following responsible travel principles, visitors play a vital role in sustaining Bhaktapur as a ‘living museum city’ for future generations.

Day Trips and Nearby Attractions

Surrounding Areas

Bhaktapur makes an ideal base to explore the Kathmandu Valley. Panauti, a nearby medieval town rich in temples and culture, offers picturesque day hikes along its ancient trade route trails.

Changu Narayan is an important Hindu temple complex situated atop a hill with valley views. Kopan Monastery gives a peek into Tibetan Buddhist traditions. The traditional Newari villages of Sankhu, Bode, and Mahankal add cultural immersion within nature to any eastern Valley itinerary.

Connecting with Nature

Eco-conscious travelers can walk the peaceful Nilbarahi forest path, join birdwatching tours centered at Surya Binayak Temple, or hike uphill through the lush forest to reach Nagarkot Ridge.

For overnight nature stays near Bhaktapur, rustic village guesthouses in places like Tinpiple, Gatlang, and Hattigaunda offer magnificent mountain panoramas, relaxation, and insights into indigenous Tamang culture through guided hiking, homestays, and cultural encounters.

Conclusion: Embracing the Essence of Bhaktapur

The Unforgettable Experience

From ornately carved temples to alleyways draped with drying chilies and full of banter, the ancient setting of Bhaktapur transports visitors across centuries with one simple step, yet welcomes with the warmth, artistry, and living heritage exclusive to this medieval place seemingly untouched by modern times.

To wander Bhaktapur's backstreets, courtyards, and lively market squares brings the realization that, despite the brick and timber bones of this old city having weathered earthquakes and the inevitable passage of generations, their soul and spirit remain vibrant as ever through proud locals who actively embrace and pass forward the essence of their Newari culture.

Invitation to Explore

As lasting impressions take route, Bhaktapur leaves visitors filled with a sense of rediscovery about the validity and vitality of this ancient way of community and purpose. The city stands ready to reconnect any open-eyed traveler willing to lose themselves within the living museum where heritage still thrives. Through exploration emerges a realization about life’s simplicities, perseverance, and purity of culture; the ingredients underlying Bhaktapur’s alluring essence awaiting anyone curious to immerse in worlds still wonderfully unchanged by time.