Durbar Square in Patan
Durbar Square in Patan

The other side of Nepal

Nepali architecture is experiencing a slow revival, visible in its new and old buildings that speak of cultural diversity

A striking pagoda with cantilevered wooden roofs, towers above Bhaktapur, a royal city in the Kathmandu Valley, Nepal. Close by is an Indian-style temple whose statues of deities are carved in stone. Nepal is a staple on the Indian tourist map and had a 33 per cent rise in Indian travellers flying into the country in 2023. The mountain country’s religious diversity evidenced in its wealth of temples, monasteries and stupas is no secret. Historically it stands at the cultural crossroads of India, Tibet and China since myriad ethnic groups and communities have influenced its architecture.

Nepal is witnessing an indigenous architectural rediscovery as can be observed in Bhaktapur’s new boutique hotel, The Nanee (Nepalese for small courtyard), tucked into a narrow lane which takes inspiration from the Newari houses built around a courtyard. “The homes here are typically multi-storeyed, with large courtyards that serve as gathering places for families and friends,” explains host Aditya Piya. Aware of seismic dangers, traditional Newari houses incorporated earthquake-resistant techniques such as interlocking bricks, flexible joints and stone foundations. The five-tiered Nyatapola Pagoda temple is an example since it has never been destroyed ever by any earthquake.

Sanctuary Resort’s Bawa-esque architecture
Sanctuary Resort’s Bawa-esque architecture

A striking element of Nepali architecture is its intricate woodwork. The Bhaktapur palace of 55 windows at the Durbar Square has dozens of carved timber windows, each with different designs. Some have mythological and religious themes with geometric and floral motifs. Bhaktapur local Rita Suwal explains that Nepal has three distinct architectural styles—the Pagoda, Shikhara and the Stupa. The first features multiple tiers of roofs, each diminishing in size, creating an elegant and tapering structure. The struts that support each level are elaborately carved and decorated. Inspired by ancient Indian architectural principles, Hindu temples in Nepal showcase the Shikhara style through towering spires and stone carvings reminiscent of pyramids. A prime examples is the Pashupatinath Temple. Its dome-shaped Stupa style is thought to have been introduced to Nepal by Emperor Asoka. With a broad base and tapering towards the top, Boudhanath Stupa in Kathmandu exemplifies his taste. The soft chants and smell of incense imparts a Zen vibe here.

Like all indigenous architecture, Nepal’s too is influenced by topography. On the western edge of Chitwan National Park in southern Nepal, along the banks of the Narayani River stands the Sanctuary Resort. Designed by Sri Lankan architect Palinda Kannangara, who is influenced by the legendary Geoffrey Bawa, it has stone cottages with rustic interiors that mirrors the dwellings of the local Tharu people. “We designed the property to merge seamlessly with the landscape using local bamboo and stone. The bamboo screens were made by women from the village,” explains Palinda.

Nyatapola Temple in Bhaktapur
Nyatapola Temple in Bhaktapur

For an architecture aficionado, Nepal is Shangrila. Owner Dwarika Das Shreshta of Dwarika’s Hotel in Kathmandu is a time traveller through his country’s design age. In 1952, he saw a man cutting an old carved pillar of a building to use as firewood. The thought of his country’s artistic ancestry being burned, set him on a mission. He started collecting old window frames, pillars and doors for his hotel, which feels more like a heritage museum than a tourist refuge. Red brick and exposed wooden beams, intricately carved windows and doors including a 13th-century door, are reminders that Nepal has woken up to its past treasures.

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The New Indian Express
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