Go to Bhaktapur before your visit there proves costly. The best preserved and least polluted of Kathmandu Valley's cities has placed a further premium on visits. The entry fee for foreign visitors is slated for an increase, beginning Jan 2001. The fee for non-South Asians will be raised to $10, while those from the region will have to pay Rs 50. But there is no point cribbing about it since the trip will prove well worth the amount and more.
This easternmost of the Valley's medieval urban settlements has remained a model for heritage conservation since it was declared a World Heritage Site in 1979. Indeed, Bhaktapur and her citizens stand proud with many awards and mentions for the preservation of their culture and heritage. The First Honourable Mention from Asia for 1998-99 awarded by UNESCO, states-'in recognition of its outstanding contribution to the restoration of hope, the reinforcement of solidarity and the consolidation of the culture of peace in everyday life'.
The admiration for Bhaktapur is not new. As far back as the late 19th century, when Nepal still had many well-guarded secrets, foreigners like E.A. Powell of the British East India Company wrote in his book, The Last Home of Mystery: "Were there nothing else in Nepal, save the Durbar Square in Bhadgaon [Bhaktapur], it would still be amply worth making a journey halfway around the globe to see it."
And sure enough more then 50 percent of the tourists who come to Nepal take the time off to visit this great city. The city gates, just west of the Durbar Square, welcome more than 500 visitors a day during the peak season. Entry fees are $5 and Rs 30. (The entry tickets entitle an individual multiple entry for a week. A visitor's pass valid till the expiry of the visa date is also issued for same price should the visitor ask for it.) More than 39,000 non-South Asians and 12,000 South Asian visitors have visited Bhaktapur this fiscal year and the city has already realised revenues exceeding $200,000.
"They come in all sorts, individual travellers, touring groups, researchers, photographers and artists. And from all over-from Latin America to the small islands in the Pacific," says Damodar Suwal, who is in charge of the Bhaktapur Tourist Service Centre. A total of 202,688 tourists visited the city in 1999/2000, while projected arrivals for the current year is 220,000. The municipality earned $1,483,365 in 1998/99, of which it spent $1,117,760 towards heritage conservation.
"This is a city full of treasured culture, heritage, social harmony and committed people who are gentle and hard working," says Prem Suwal, mayor of Bhaktapur. "The people of this city are to be credited for having a positive outlook towards the conservation of their town. Earlier, it took quite an effort to make them do it but now everything, from heritage conservation to sanitation management, is taken care of through community efforts."
Bhaktapur, or the "city of devotees", with its myths of Tantrics and Tandavs, is a living heritage site believed to be guarded by the eight power goddesses, or Ashta Matrikas, who surround the city. Though official history has it that this Newari town was founded by king Anand Dev Malla in the 9th century, the famed Chinese traveller Hieun Tsang mentions the city in his travel chronicles of the 5th century AD.
Spread over an area of 6.88 sq km, 12 km south-east of Kathmandu, Bhaktapur, or Bhadgaon as it was formerly known, showcases the splendour of the Golden Age of Nepali art and architecture. There are 345 significant monuments (108 Buddhist and 273 Hindu) all of which are part of the Bhaktapur world heritage site since 1979.
The city's architecture is a reminder of the various stages in Bhaktapur's history, and reflect the rule and patronage of various rulers. Among these, there are 232 architectural masterpieces from the Malla period. Several of these Malla period buildings are privately owned, and many of them are still being used as residences. The Shah rulers who came after the Mallas added another 117 buildings and the Ranas have had their own influence as well.
To talk about the timelessness of Bhaktapur's living heritage would be to risk telling the same story twice over. Yet this aspect is its biggest draw. Dawn breaks over Bhaktapur like the opening of an act set in some medieval conch-shaped stage. Hundreds of ancient monuments, brick houses, shrines and temples stand as props, and the eighty thousand or so citizens who live in this ancient town still go about doing what have done for more than a thousand years. Devotees get their vermilion tika from the temples, farmers tread well-worn paths to their fields, potters start rolling their wheels, and women wearing the traditional black saree with red border spread the harvested rice grain out in the morning sun.
In the evening, the piths and temple courtyards come alive with bhajans, devotional songs rendered by the town's elderly men and traditional musical performances by the Kushule musicians. The ten sites of Bhramyayani, Maheshwori, Kumari, Bhadrakali, Barahi, Indryayani, Mahakali, Mahalaxmi, Tripura Sundari and Bhairav Temple are the places to observe these performances at dusk.
"There are two types of bhajans. The morning bhajan wishes people a fruitful day ahead and asks the gods to be with them. The evening songs remind them to rest since the day is done," says one old man as he waits for his fellow musicians at the Bhairav temple sattal. Tibetan chants from the music shops reverberate on a serene morning, a reminder of the not-so-distant past when pilgrims from the north came chanting Buddhist prayers and rested in the numerous paati pauwas (resting places for pilgrims and travellers).
History is replayed when Sundar Prajapati, a potter at Talako Square, sits down beside the furnace with his eight-year-old son, teaching what was handed down by his forefathers. "We don't make so much of the old designs anymore, but at least my son is learning," he says.
One difficult aspect of conserving Bhaktapur's living heritage is to maintain a fine balance between the ancient and the modern. Some decisions like the municipality's ban on cable television are met with scepticism by the younger generation. "Do we have to be deprived of what the rest of the world is enjoying? Not everybody would like to stay back and do the same old work here," says Rajesh, a college student.
Not exactly an argument that is likely to move the mayor. "We don't want to spoil our age-old rich culture with mediocre cultural values aired through cable television," he says.
There are also some critics of the move to increase the entry fee for visitors. Among them is Goetz Hagmueller, Austrian conservationist and architect, who has been living in Bhaktapur since 1979. As head of the Bhaktapur Development Board, he played an important role in the conservation and restoration of the town. Hagmueller is not too happy about the increased entrance fee; "I agree that the municipality has been doing a lot from the money raised and has set an example in preserving the cultural and historical heritage. But the income generation has only helped a certain section of the society. So it is not likely that the increase in the fee will help those in need," he says. "It is not right to use the money raised from the tourists to be used for any other purpose apart from heritage conservation," he says.
Another Kathmandu-based expat says: "If the municipality really wants to increase the fee, the tourists should also be provided with services and facilities of equal value. Even if tourists are charged a hundred dollars they might still come in, but that may not be the best way to go about it."
Mayor Suwal justifies the impending rise in entry fee saying: "We don't just collect money from visitors because it is profitable. People should realise that they have actually contributed to the preservation of a unique civilisation for generations to come. Our every effort is envisioned with the future in mind."
The municipality is very confident of carrying out heritage conservation on its own, and has refused grants from big enterprises that have shown interest in restoring the monuments. The revenue generated from tourism has been utilised efficiently and the results are there for all to see; the architectural heritage is well preserved and the city is well maintained and free from the traffic and chaos of other places.
The debate may continue on aspects such as the increased entry fee and others like the ban on cable television. However, Bhaktapur's guardians have a credible history-of knowing what is best for the preservation of this ancient town. A visit there will tell you more.