Lap of the Gods

Nepal Old and New: Kathmandu Valley’s Royal Cities Get a Facelift

There’s a new buzz in Nepal's Kathmandu Valley as some of the world’s most magnificent temples and palaces are fixed up. Isabella Tree on the monuments, the towering Himalayas, and a million-plus deities—three of them very much alive—of Nepal’s buzzing Kathmandu Valley.

08.19.13 2:45 PM ET

by Isabella Tree

A hush descended on the tiny stone courtyard, an expectant lull in which every footfall, every cough, the beating of a pigeon’s wings resounded like a thunderclap. Outside, Kathmandu’s diurnal jangling of rickshaw bells and motorbike horns seemed part of another world. At a nod from their guide, a group of Japanese tourists put away their cameras.

Without warning, a child appeared at the window. No more than eight or nine years old, she gazed sternly down on the assembled foreigners, pouting slightly, looking mildly inconvenienced. Her eyes were exaggerated with thick lines of kohl reaching all the way to her temples. She had bright-red lips and her hair was bound up tightly in a topknot. Dressed entirely in red, she had gold ornaments around her neck and bangles on her wrists. Her tiny hands, with red-painted fingernails, clasped a wooden rail across the bottom of the window, as if she were a captain at a ship’s helm.

Just as suddenly she was gone, leaving a flutter of red curtains.

I’d just caught a glimpse—or had darshan, as the Nepalese say—of the living goddess, or Kumari, of Kathmandu. The practice of worshipping Kumaris was once widespread in the Kathmandu Valley, a lush emerald-green region about twice the size of Martha’s Vineyard and ringed by the Himalayas. The tradition remains strongest in the valley’s three ancient royal cities—Kathmandu, Patan, and Bhaktapur. The Kumaris are chosen at around the age of three or four from the valley’s indigenous, relatively well-educated Newar community, after being put forward by their parents as candidates. Astrologers then select the girl with the most auspicious horoscope, after checking her for physical imperfections like scars or birthmarks. Life for the chosen girl becomes a rarefied existence governed by centuries-old codes of behavior; her friends and family can visit, but they must show her deference. The Kumari of Kathmandu is regarded as the guardian of the nation, and her reactions are scrutinized for presentiments of earthquakes and civil unrest. Every year, Nepal’s president kneels at her feet to receive her blessing. When the goddesses retire at puberty, they become mortal again, joining the swim of everyday life.

The Kumaris remain a tender echo of a time when Kathmandu, Patan, and Bhaktapur were resplendent capitals of separate kingdoms just a few miles apart. From the late fifteenth century up until Nepal was unified in the eighteenth century, the so-called Malla kings of those cities would build palaces and splurge on temples and devotional sculptures honoring the region’s blend of Buddhist and Hindu deities. The most vivid reminders of these old kingdoms are the “Durbar Squares”—the open plazas in front of the palaces, which contain temples, devotional columns, dancing platforms, public bathing tanks, water fountains, and other striking architectural features. “As an ensemble,” wrote the English journalist Perceval Landon in the 1920s, “the Durbar Square in Patan probably remains the most picturesque collection of buildings that has ever been set up in so small a space by the piety and the pride of Oriental man.”

In 1934, however, the devastating Bihar earthquake—which killed more than ten thousand people in India and Nepal—severely damaged all three cities. In the aftermath, materials were scarce, leading to the hasty reconstruction of some structures and the abandonment of others—a courtyard of one temple in Patan, for example, was used for years as a latrine and garbage dump.

It took time for the West, and its dollars, to notice. In 1979 the Durbar Square of each city was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And recently, restoration projects, overseen by the Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust and other nonprofits, have been dusting off and illuminating the architectural and sculptural treasures that once defined the valley’s peak of power and beauty.

“The gods live with us in Kathmandu,” said Gyam Man Pati Vajracharya, a Buddhist priest I’d met several years earlier through a Nepalese filmmaker friend. He and I had just climbed the steps to the top of the Maju Deval Temple after seeing the Kumari in the window. “All these temples were made by people who were pure of heart, who followed the niyamas—religious laws and disciplines. They knew how to make places the gods wanted to live in. We have to preserve the conditions that allow the gods to stay here. But nowadays, that is not so easy.”

Gyam Man and I surveyed the crush of street vendors, marigold sellers, monks, sadhus, lottery touts, dark-skinned Indian boys wheeling bicycles loaded with fruit, clerks and office managers and civil servants rushing to work, and sherpas from the hills staggering full tilt, heads bowed, under some monstrous load such as an oven or a refrigerator. As we sat up there, with the temple’s red valance fluttering in the eaves above us and chimes tinkling in the breeze, it was easy to feel how history folds into myth in Kathmandu, the world of the imagination reaching its fingers into every crevice, and to understand why residents of the Kathmandu Valley consider themselves to be, quite literally, in the lap of the gods.