This is what Father Gillespie, one of the first foreigners to visit the secluded kingdom of Nepal in the 18th century, wrote in his ‘Account of the Kingdom of Nepal’: “Cat’hmandu contains about 18000 houses, Lelit Pattan contains about 25000 houses, B’hatgan contains about 12000 houses…the houses are constructed of brick and are three or four stories high…streets of all their towns are paved with brick or stone…there are also good wells made of stone…In every town there are large square verandas…called ‘pati’…on the outside of the great towns, small square reservoirs of water….” (Asiatic Researcher, 1801, Vol. II, London)
Father Gillespie’s description of Kathmandu Valley as it was then is a flattering portrayal of the Malla period (1200-1769). Similarly, in ‘The Traditional Architecture of the Kathmandu Valley’, Wolfgang Korn writes, “The terracing of similar building elements around a temple or monastery grouping formed street spaces, courtyards, groups of houses and finally, town districts or tols…” Much of all this holds true even today, and one will many examples in the valley. Of course, there are many changes, as well. While in days past, a particular tol would have inhabitants of a particular caste and family descent, with the passing of time, this no longer holds true, although there might be dominance of a specific group. Each such tol had a sequence of streets and squares, at the centre of which was a chowk with a temple or monastery
Both security and privacy were thus givens, and while the four sides of the chowk had separate units, access to the street was usually through only the gateway of one house, this always being of low height, some say, to discourage thieves. The chowk had an important role in communal life, as a washing and bathing area, as a playground, for sitting in the sun on colder days, and as an area for grinding grain. It was also most important for organizing feasts. Such an arrangement encouraged regular interaction among the community members. Similarly, public squares had shrines, sattals (open meeting halls / free lodging houses), patis (public loggias), dyochens (communal buildings with deity shrines), dablis (platform for public performances), hitis and dhunge dharas (fountain complexes), wells, etc. These amenities fulfilled the social, economic, and ritualistic activities of the locals. The ground floors of houses facing the street had shops providing basic daily necessities.
For the typical Newar, the tol was actually his living area. Not only because it was well facilitated, but also because houses of the period were not fully adequate to satisfy all needs. The Malla period homes did have constraints; for example, they were low-roofed, and lacked enough sunlight. Air circulation was also unsatisfactory, and the mud floors resulted in dampness that was quite prevalent. However, the innovativeness of the Malla period builders in has to be admired, especially regarding their concern for public welfare. The hitis, for instance, served as marvelous watering places for all the locals. Designed like enormous sunken baths, water flowed copiously from beautifully carved dhunge dharas (stone spouts). They were centers of social gathering. Pokharis (ponds) throughout the towns were the reservoirs. and large numbers tuns (small draw-wells) were usually found in backyards. Drainage consisted of partly open brickwork ducts.
In those times, houses were not allowed to be built to a greater height than the temples around them, thus resulting in a harmonious skyline. It could also be observed that the height of the houses usually delineated status of its inhabitants, with the richest having homes nearer the center that were four-storied, after that, three-storied, and then, two-storied. But, all the houses were equally rich in some aspects, such as the splendid woodwork, a major feature of traditional Newari architecture. According to Dr. Ranjitkar, Nepal Director of Kathmandu Preservation Trust, and author ofauthor of the ‘Heritage Homeowner’s Preservation Manual’, “The Malla Period is the most valuable period of traditional architecture of Kathmandu Valley, for which Nepal is known all over the world.”