Nepal: Living with the Buddha in Patan

Nepal: Living with the Buddha in Patan
Photo Credit: Puneet K. Paliwal

The beautiful Buddhist courtyards of Patan in the Kathmandu Valley

June 07 , 2017
07 Min Read

The three main cities of the Kathmandu Valley–Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur–are best known for their Durbar Squares, filled with monumental temples and shrines to Hindu deities, constructed by the Malla kings of the the tree cities. The Mallas were Hindu kings, who had first come as refugees to the valley in the 13th century CE. Over the centuries they built up a formidable kingdom, while ruling over their predominantly Buddhist subjects, the Newars. 

The Newars have been prolific traders and master craftsmen for over a thousand years. Their trading activities brought them into close contact with both the Gangetic Plains of north and eastern India as well as the Tibetan Plateau and the Silk Route in China. Their culture has been predominantly Indian and the Newars have historically been mostly Mahayana Buddhist in their religious orientation. During the great flowering of Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism in eastern India under the Pala kings of Bengal and Bihar between the 8th and the 13th centuries, the Newars were important participants in an international Buddhist culture centred around Nalanda and Bodh Gaya. Many learned pandits and monks travelled between the Kathmandu Valley and India, and later they were instrumental in the conversion of Tibet to Indian Buddhism as well.

With the sudden demise of Indian Buddhism in the 13th century CE, many Indian monks and pandits moved to the valley, carrying with them precious manuscripts, works of Buddhist art and the tradition of tantric Buddhism. These traditions continued to exist in the valley, and indeed, still do, making the Newar community the only Buddhists in the whole world whose religious texts and practices are still in Sanskrit. 

Over the centuries, Patan or Lalitpur (as it's called in the valley), has remained the most Buddhist of the three cities, and beyond the major tourist draw of the Patan Durbar Square lie the community viharas (called Baha in Newari) and courtyards where the Newars live. Today you'll find Newars in all walks of Nepali life, though they retain their millennia-old reputation of being master artists. Artists' workshops and ateliers lie all around town, as do shops and emporia selling some of the finest Buddhist art you will find anywhere. Take a walk with us into the magical Buddhist courtyards of Patan.

A view of the magnificent Patan Durbar Square as it was before the devastation caused by the 2015 earthquake
A stone's throw away from the Durbar Square are the Buddhist courtyards of the Mangah neighbourhood. Most of them have a common space surrounded by houses. The courtyards are secular spaces, but they also function as the immediate sacred site for the people of the neighbourhood, so you will find stupas, three-dimensional mandalas and the sacred vajra, along with a shrine to the Buddha in even the most basic courtyard
Stupas or chaityas come in many sizes and designs in Patan. This one watches over a courtyard that was affected by the 2015 earthquake
The bigger courtyards are, of course, the ones that are home to the big monasteries or bahas. These are entirely religious spaces, with multiple shrines and temples enclosed within. This is the ornate entrance to the biggest monastery in Patan, the Kwa Baha. Its Sanskrit name is Hiranyavarna Mahavihar, and its popularly known to tourists as the Golden Temple
Kwa Baha has Patan's largest sangha or Buddhist community attached to it. As a result, it is also the wealthiest vihara in Patan. It gets its golden sheen from donations over the centuries, with many Hindus too acting as doners to obtain merit. The vihar traces its antecedents to the 12th century, when it was built in the neighbourhood of Nag Bahal near the Durbar Square. In the picture is the sacred Swayambhu Chaitya which also houses many invaluable works of sacred art, quite predictably, made of gold. Behind it is the huge shrine to the main deity of the monastery, the Kwapah Dyah or Sakyamuni Buddha. This is the main exoteric deity of the vihara, open to all who come here. The secret tantric shrine, which can only be visited by the tantric Buddhist priests, the Vajracharyas, is located on an upper floor. All viharas are in the form of a three-dimensional mandala
The Newars are masters of repoussé¡·ork, especially when working with gold. This gorgeous artwork at the top of one of the toranas or doors of the Swayambhu chaitya is proof of their mastery
At the Kwa Baha, you will find depictions of 12 forms of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshwara, including this one, Nrityeshwar. Avalokiteshwara is the most important deity of Patan, and maybe even the entire Kathmandu Valley. The cult of Karunamaya or Rakta Lokeshwara is the basis of the biggest religious festival of Patan, the Karunamaya Rath Yatra. Hindus identify Karunamaya with the Saiva siddha Macchendranath

There are two main aratis during the day, usually at 6 am and 6 pm. These are usually peaceful affairs, with members of the community chanting sacred texts like the Namasamgiti in the form of kirtans. Here, an evening arati is in front of the main shrine of the Kwa Baha
The oldest historical vihara in Patan is the Uku Baha, or the Rudravarna Mahavihar, which was built in Patan by a Thakuri king called Sivadeva. While some scholars claim this was as far back as the 6th century CE, Uku Baha has certainly been a major and flourishing monastery since at least the 11th century
Not all sacred courtyards house a monastery, however. Take the Mahabaudha for example. This magnificent brick temple was built in 1564 by Abhaya Raj Sakya, and it's modelled on the Mahabodhi Temple in Bodh Gaya, which Abhaya Raj had visitied on pilgrimage.
The Sakya god guardian of Mahabaudha lights lamps before the evening arati
A girl drops in for a quick prayer at the Tanga Baha or the Jyeshthavarna Mahavihar near the Mangah market. Another old monastic courtyard, this is a popular meeting spot for local Newars
Small chaityas in residential courtyards abound, like this one near the Durbar Square. In Patan, heritage exists side by side with lived spaces, and you'd often find locals chatting over a cup of tea beside gorgeous old structures
Many of the bigger monastic courtyards are also home to kirtan guthis or groups. Members of the group congregate here during the day for performances of devotional Buddhist songs. This one is at Bu Baha or the Yashodhara Mahavihar
An intricately carved chaitya representing the Pancha Tathagata or the 5 Buddhas at Guji Baha or the Vaishravana Mahavihar. They form the cornerstone of Vajrayana practice in the valley. The other two ever-present structures in a monastic courtyard is the vajra and the the three-dimensional Vajradhatu Mandala, as you can see here
An ever-present sound in the courtyard is the tinkering and hammering produced by artisan guilds, like this one at the Guji Baha. Newar craftsmen work in these small ateliers to produce beautiful statues that are then sold all over the world. One of the most famous historical Newari figures is the legendary sculptor Araniko. He became Kublai Khan's court artist and provided a vital link between the art traditions of India and China.
A sculptor works on his unfinished statue of the tantric Buddhist goddess Vajrayogini at a small atelier in the courtyard of Nagu Baha, or Rupbarna Mahavihar
An art shop display window in Patan
The Newars are also fantastic miniaturists, especially when working with wood. This decorative frieze is from the outer gate of Nagu Baha, or Rupbarna Mahavihar

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