Nepali Times
The city of good deeds

Leaving it to find a suitable leaf for its tongue, he returned to find his sheep missing and the mouth of the tongueless tiger open.

Damaged by battle and partly destroyed by earthquake, the fortress town of Kirtipur retains a shabby magnificence. The ravages of the twentieth century have not yet conquered the town though they have laid siege to the hill on which it clings, in the form of a university, a cement factory and a proposed sewage farm.

Founded by a Lichchhavian king who called it Kirtipur, the City of Good Deeds, to perpetuate the discovery of the lost image of Pashupati by a man and his cow who lived on the hill, it had grown to importance by the time the Valley was divided in the sixteenth century. It became a part of Patan.

Kirtipur gained fame by withstanding successive onslaughts on Kathmandu by the Gurkha Prithvi Narayan Shah, and when it fell after six months of stubborn resistance in 1767, its gallant defenders met a hideous fate. Despite assurances that they would be treated with respect if they surrendered, every male except infants and those who could play wind-instruments had their noses and upper lips cut off. For a long while afterwards, the town was known as Nakkatipur, the place of severed noses.

Calamity threatened in 1966 when astrologers, finding the planets in destructive formation, prophesied an earthquake that would destroy the town and much of Kathmandu Valley. All over Kathmandu, people slept in open spaces outside their houses. In Kirtipur, a parallel town of thatched huts rose to meet the threat. I went before dawn on the fateful day to the town wrapped in cold mist so that only the spires of its stupas and temples lanced clean. People muffled in white were already about and conches wailed.

The mist dissolved, day clearly etched the old, muddled buildings, narrow undulating lanes, shrines where people prayed and pools where children played regardless of doom. Perhaps the gods relented or the prayers of Kirtipur and the Valley were heeded. There was no earthquake and I wondered why all those who believe the legend that their city is built on a single rock worried at all.

On Kirtipur's highest point is the ruined temple of Uma-Maheshwor, built in 1673. It enshrines a beautiful image of Shiva and Parvati, or Uma-Maheshwor, and the stone stairway leading to it is guarded by two stone elephants with headless riders, trampling bodies underfoot. Here I sat to sketch the town, with an empty space where the old Durbar stood above the Bagh Bhairav temple. There is a charming story about this temple raised in the sixteenth century, which has a shepherd boy making a tiger of clay. Leaving it to find a suitable leaf for its tongue, he returned to find his sheep missing and the mouth of the tongueless tiger open. Believing the image to be possessed of Bhairav, devout townsfolk built one of the Valley's most perfect temples about it. Over the centuries this divine toy has been embellished with a silver mask, and a crown, and garlands of serpents.

On the other side of the hill and so not in my sketch, is a stupa. Adorned with a gilded finial, a metal canopy, and carved votive shrines, it is believed to have been built by the Indian Emperor Ashoka in the third century BC. I love the stupa for its slender proportions, its all-seeing eyes painted on black surfaces and the feel of space about it. Ashoka, we believe, came to the Valley in the footsteps of his master, Gautam Buddha, and built stupas at places of special Buddhist sanctity. Could it be that to this now-neglected town, which even guidebooks dismiss or hardly mention, came the Sakya Muni himself?

(Excerpted with permission from My Kind of Kathmandu, HarperCollins, 1994.)

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)