You’ve heard about Patan’s world heritage monument, the Durbar Square, with its many fascinating monuments, including temples of many different architectural styles. You’ve also probably heard about the restorations completed in recent times, such as that of Tusha Hiti, as well as ongoing restorations at sites such as the Bhaideval Temple. Patan Museum inside the former royal palace is one of the more famous renovation projects, a successfully completed Nepal-Austrian joint venture with architect Gotz Hagmueller (also responsible for ‘Garden of Dreams’ in Keshar Mahal in Thamel) at the helm. However, most other restoration/renovation works around the locality are the efforts of an organization called Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust (KVPT).
Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust
Many renowned restorers/architects are part of this trust, which was also responsible for the making of the famous Baber Mahal Revisited, an extensive renovation of what was once just a cowshed that was part of a 250-room palace called Baber Mahal, one of nine neo-classical palaces built by Prime Minister Chandra S.J.B. Rana in 1901-1929. Baber Mahal Revisited is one of KPVT’s most visible accomplishments, but there are many more important works to their credit. Now, if you’re in Nepal, make it a point to visit their office, located in an old building in one corner of the Patan Durbar Square.
Besides its architectural offices, there’s also a library with a collection of some pretty interesting hard-to-find photographs, old drawings, and historical books. The top floor is a guest quarter with tasteful and comfortable ethnic interiors where you could spend a night or two. The small veranda has a sweeping view of the durbar square, and really, sitting there watching the activities below throughout the day, you’ll realize why we keep on talking about ‘living culture’ all the time.
There’s a shop on the ground floor of the same building that’s referred to by locals as the ‘Birth-to-death Shop” (real name: Hem Narsingh ko Pasal). Ask, and the shopkeeper will show you a file full of lists pertaining to items needed for rituals ranging from birth to death for the Newar community, as well as for parbates (hill people), and Buddhists. The shop’s reputation is based on the precinct that it will have available, at all times, even the smallest item needed. The shop also sells the rare Matsyendranath flower that’s meant for offering at the sacred Matsyendranath Temple, and root-like herbs called sadewa and sadewi (male-female in English) that are said to have the power to make anyone besotted to you if you just touch them with it.
Dare if you want to, but know that the one besotted will be after you forever and more, and if the love is unrequited, you’ll be in serious trouble! Among the shop’s regular clients are shamans who come shopping for such things, as well as for bear’s hair, tiger’s whisker, etc. for their tantric practices. So, visit the ‘Birth-to-Death-Shop’ and browse around for some truly exotic souvenirs.
Jyotishis and shamans
Although there are plenty of excellent hospitals in Patan, jyotisis (astrologers) and shamans, too, have thriving practices, with many clients seeking out-of-the-world cures for various ailments. Here’s a typical scene at one: Time: evening. The jyotishi: a man in his 70s who sits on a sofa behind a table full of parchments, scrolls, and a brass plate containing raw rice. The client: a well-dressed middle-aged woman. The conversation: “My husband is an important government official. Things are not going well for him; a promotion is overdue.” She hands over her husband’s janma patra (document showing planetary positions at time of birth). The jyotishi studies it for some time, and does some calculations. “Your husband’s graha dasha (planetary configuration) is not favorable for the next six months. I will give you a mantra (Vedic incantation). Ask him to repeat it 100,000 times. He should also wear a coral Ganesh ring. Things will start getting better.”
You don’t need a janma patra; your birthday and year will also do if you want to have your fortune told and want a cure for some bad karma. Look around for signboards, you’ll find quite a few around the area known as Prayag Pokhari, as well as in Satdobato. You’ll also find jyotishis in well-known tantric shrines like the Baglamukhi and Bhairabhnath temples.
What bout shamans? Well, here’s what I observed at Buddhi Kumar ‘Gurujyu’’s place of work in Kutisawagal, a 15-minute-walk from Patan Durbar Square, A ‘Shiva tantric’, he sat under a canopy of colorful wooden snakes. Shelves held deity figures as well as plastic bags containing herbs and vials of so-called ‘Himalayan Oil’. A woman and a frail-looking boy of about five sat cross-legged facing him across a brass topped counter.
The woman said, “He keeps on crying all the time. Don’t know why.” She handed over a plastic bag of rice. Gurujyu poured the rice on a brass plate, picked up a few, and then let them fall on the plate. He repeated this procedure a couple of times, and then declared, “Runche bimari (crybaby syndrome)”. He offered some rice to one of the deities, and then flicked some on the child. Next, he blew forcefully on the boy’s face. The young mother murmured, “Doctor said...pneumonia…” The shaman again flicked some grains at the child, waved a black-feathered broom over his head, and blew forcefully twice more on his face. “He will be all right now,” he said. The woman thanked him, and bowing respectfully, went out with her son.
Next, a young woman entered and handed over 10 rupees. In return, Gurujyu handed over a small plastic bag with some herb inside. “They are ‘karne paat’ (a variety of leaf),” he said, adding, “They can only be collected at midnight in the jungle.” Apparently, it is a cure for alcoholics and the woman is a regular customer. One can assume that she must be administering the cure in a surreptitious manner to her husband. If you are interested in shamanism, do visit the Gurujyu. He’s a robust middle-aged man with an open and forthcoming manner. Among his clients are many women who come to look for a cure to prevent their husbands from deserting them. He also claims to communicate with spirits, especially for patients suffering from acute depression.
Another fascinating but less well-known site in Patan is a fire shrine called Agnishala Temple that’s located at the end of a lane opposite Kumaripatti (where Patan’s Living Goddess Kumari give audience during big festivals) in Kumaripati Road near Jawalakhel. As far as anybody knows, a fire has been kept burning at one or more of its five fire altars for the last 4000 years or so. According to the priests here, it may perhaps be the only fire temple in the world with five kundas (fire altars), most of the others making do with only one. These are called Vishnu Kunda, Brahma Kunda, Shiva Kunda, Surya Kunda, and Savya Kunda. The first is the largest and most important while the last is meant for end-of-life rites. Homs (fire rites) are conducted for those wanting to negate the impacts of bad graha dashas or to enhance their fortune by appeasing various gods/goddesses as well as the planets. Birthdays are special days, when visitors have a hom done to please their planetary ruler/s as determined by their birth charts.
Sacred pear tree
There’s something else about this unique temple that is worth knowing about. On its premises are some tall dense trees, the likes of which are not to be found anywhere else in the country. Called Barun Brikshyas (Barun: god of water; brikshya: tree), it is said that water will never dry out in wells around its locality. Scientifically named Crateava religiosa, they are also called ‘sacred garlic pear trees’. Myth has it that sages in ancient times ate one of these pears to stave off hunger for a whole month of meditation. You might be lucky to get one too!
Well, there you have it. These are but a few of the many hidden gems of Patan that are pretty fascinating; and you should not only make it a point to visit them, but also make the effort to discover more during your Nepal tour. Oh yes, you can rest assured that there’s plenty more!