Kathmandu Durbar Square (Basantapur) is no longer Nepal’s crown jewel attraction
The main focal point of Kathmandu’s heritage and tourist attractions is its old historic royal square known as Basantapur or more popularly by tourism as Kathmandu Durbar Square. It’s the place where two small trading villages joined to form Kasamandap, Kathmandu’s first building. It dates back to the Licchavi period in the third century.
It was and still is a public trading square for produce, work and business.
It’s where Kathmandu’s living goddess resides. It’s where the tantric blending of Newari, Hindu and Buddhist beliefs all join together.
It became the ancient royal capital of Nepal during the Malla era when the kings of the Kathmandu Valley battled to have the most beautiful city in the world and for royal power.
A place where the Shah’s took over the royalty of Nepal before democracy came to light and the square became a living museum of the past and present.
Kathmandu Durbar Square was and is the historic center of Nepal both in terms of cultural heritage, sovereignty, economics, religion and pride.
In 2015 the earthquake shook Kathmandu Durbar Square to its knees and tore down most of the southern section of temples and sent physical cracks of destruction throughout the remaining buildings.
One would think this ancient square would have become the central focus for rebuilding the nation both physically and spiritually but also as a rising symbol of the nations pride in its past and its present.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Kathmandu Durbar Square is an undeniable mess both physically and bureaucratically.
Instead of being the center of pride for Kathmandu, Basantapur may well have become a symbol of national disgrace
What happened to make Kathmandu Durbar Square so bad?
At the outset you might think that the 2015 earthquake was to blame for the ongoing destruction of Durbar Square. This is not the case. It has been damaged and rebuilt after previous earthquakes. The 2015 earthquake has only highlighted the real culprits of the modern era.
Let’s go back to the start of Kathmandu Durbar Square’s problems.
After Nepal became a democracy new authorities were set up to look after the world heritage areas of Nepal. This is ground zero.
While the Department of Archeology used to have near on full control it suddenly had to work with Kathmandu city municipalities and departments like the then Cultural Heritage and Tourism Department. To be frank – this was and still is the main problem.
Kathmandu Durbar Square sadly found itself in a bureaucratic tug-of-war and became an entity that nobody really wanted to maintain but everyone had to have.
While the Department of Archeology set up an office in Hanuman Dhoka Durbar Square so to did the then Cultural Heritage and Tourism Department and the local Municipality.
It’s hard enough to get one department working efficiently in Nepal let alone have three working together. And so Kathmandu Durbar Square basically stagnated for the next nine long years.
Ignoble profiteering of a public square
Back in 2007/8 there was a 200 rupee (USD $2) fee for any “foreigner” who wanted to enter Durbar Square. Keep in mind that Durbar Square is a “public square”. So charging people to enter it is akin to charging a fee to enter New York Times Square, or Trafalgar Square in London or Plaza Mayor in Madrid.
While the authorities claimed the fee was to help maintain the square others said it was because the square was a tourist attraction and people should pay. Both reasons didn’t hold up to international scrutiny. Maintenance of the square comes through the municipality and Department of Archeology who get funding through government coffers.
Okay, so it’s a tourist attraction Well, so are the other international squares listed above not to mention just about everywhere else in Nepal or elsewhere in the world.
It irks everyone to pay to enter a public building let alone a public square. If you want to use this central area to get from one part of the city to another you need to offer payment to cross over if you are not Nepalese.
Being Nepal, this 200 rupee charge was pushed as a “token” gesture to help keep this ancient square maintained and in good condition. Being Nepal, most of us all nodded and smiled back before handing over this relatively small amount of change.
Then, two years later, the fee went up to 350 rupees briefly (a few months) before being further hiked up to 500 rupees (USD $5). Rumors of bickering and disputes between the municipality and Department of Archeology over the running costs of the square were rampant.
By now Durbar Square had become a popular choice for local taxis to park in among the temples that never even looked to get a lick of paint.
Bring on 2011, the year of tourism, and the price was jutted up to a nasty 750 rupees with even more taxis, motorbikes, touts and crumbling rooftops present. I believe Kumari Chowk’s exterior windows had some black paint that year, the Narayan Temple (now gone) had some scaffolding put up around it and Maju Dega was white washed (bumper year!).
Prior to post-earthquake renovation work beginning I saw two buildings get their windows painted just before the Indra Jatra Festival.
At the end of 2015 the price was then hiked up to an outstanding 1,000 rupees (USD $10) for a visit. The reasoning? The earthquake had resulted in decreased numbers of tourists so they needed to increase the price to keep the place running.
Numerous officials in Kathmandu Durbar square also agree that since the price hike to 1,000 rupees the complaints from tourists have been numerous.
“1,000 rupees is just too much for what you get.”
Okay, so the square had major damage and one needs the cash to rebuild … well isn’t that what this years American Ambassadors Fund of $320,000 goes towards. Ah wait, they’ve been doing that since 2001 with over $2.2 million already spent so it’s not new. Just one of many funds like UNESCOs that help “maintain” Nepal’s Heritage sites.
For sure there are no sour grapes when “western’ funding like this is used in conjunction with a 1,000 rupee entrance fee while SARC countries only pay 200 rupees to enter and dare I mention the Chinese now get free visas to enter Nepal too.
I won’t even mention the 4.2 billion dollars of international aid that wasn’t spent for a year as it doesn’t directly relate to heritage construction. Well, maybe some of it does but no one seems to know …
It’s not just tourists who are suffering either. In 2016 local Durbar Square souvenir vendors say tourist numbers are down and so are their sales because of the entrance price increase.
Kathmandu Durbar Square 2016 is a mess both in terms of repairs, maintenance, tourist hospitality, pricing and infrasturure.
Watching Kathmandu Durbar Square crumble for ten years
It’s mind-boggling to watch the decay of Kathmandu Durbar Square continue over nearly ten years. It wouldn’t be so bad if Bhaktapur Durbar Square and Patan Durbar Square had similar stories. But they don’t. The two other main squares in the Kathmandu Valley are very well kept, devoid of traffic and they nearly always have some form of maintenance visible.
Both Patan and Bhaktapur charge $5 (going up soon) and $15 respectively. The latter encompasses a much larger area than Kathmandu Durbar Square.
Then again let’s look at Panauti. A beautifully well-kept town of esteemed heritage that doesn’t charge anyone to enter it!
By the way, here’s a list of temples destroyed in the Kathmandu Valley after the earthquake.
Over the years I’ve watched Kathmandu Durbar square’s temples crumble away. I’m sorry but painting a temple is not full maintenance.
Kathmandu Durbar Square has had an increasing number of taxis park in the middle of this historic and “protected” zone while other heritage zones refuse to let them in due to the damage they cause. Meanwhile “authorities” chase off local vendors from setting up shop on temple platforms yet they run away during major festivals when the platforms are dangerously overcrowded with people.
The vast treasure uncovered in Kathmandu Durbar Square seems to have … well not been mentioned since it was discovered a few years back.
Meanwhile it’s always interesting to watch the aggressive ticket counter security guards chase after tourists though always a little worrying as tourists tell them to go away as they often think of them as touts.
Not surprising considering the touts in Durbar Square wear more badges than the actual staff!
The lack of a public toilet is evident by the rank smell around King Malla’s column (now collapsed but still open as an unofficial lavatory it seems).
The number of homeless people living around the temples is quite shocking. Part of this is due to their right for shelter at a temple. However one can’t help but wonder why all the international aid money to help these people is not evident here … Or at least part of the 1,000 rupee charge could be set aside to help people out. Then again, there’s a lack of homeless people in Bhaktapur Durbar Square and Patan Durbar Square … why?
Post earthquake, things have become worse & show no sign of ever improving
The Taleju temple, that tall temple locked up behind high walls that no one is allowed to enter or get near, has had some renovation work done to it by the Department of Archeology. Not that anyone can tell as you aren’t allowed near it. Though you can search Facebook for some relatively rogue photos ;)
Gaddi Baihak (the white column building) has been noted as too damaged to repair and will be knocked down and rebuilt. Still, that doesn’t stop chunks of plaster falling down whenever it rains. One wonders if this is a cost cutting ploy to help bring it down or to bring in headlines when a brick finally hits someone on the head.
Horrendous, and I do mean “horrendous”, stainless steel lamp posts have been placed around Durbar Square to light it up at night. Only the lamp posts are sensationally ugly which effects any photographs being taken of the remaining beautifully artistic temples.
Seriously, would it have been too much to simply use wooden poles which would have at least fitted in with the overall design of the square? By the way (in case someone in maintenance is reading this), at least two of these “new” lights are already broken.
Kasthamandap (the oldest in the square) after being completely destroyed in the earthquake was then discovered not to have any architectural plans to help rebuild it! An engineer from Europe donated his survey from the 1970s to help with this rather embarrassing situation.
It doesn’t end there though as just recently those two wonderful of partners the city municipality and Department of Archeology have brought the whole possibility of reconstructing the building to a halt over a dispute on how to rebuild it.
I guess it will come of no surprise to then learn of how the municipality, without notice, went about putting up metal poles and fencing around the collapsed temples. Aside from the damage caused by boring holes for the poles around the buildings they effectively blocked off religious sites that are used everyday!
I might mention that all the pole driving into the ground happened soon after new underground structures were discovered in post-earthquake ground scans.
Just to emphasis that in many Nepali religious traditions the building does not matter so much as the site does. So by fencing off these areas one is essentially stopping people from practicing their daily rituals and religious beliefs!
This at least brought the ire of the local people who finally woke up and took them to task. The Department of Archeology also spoke up about this. Sadly, nothing that was done helped and the municipality finished fencing off “their” area of Durbar Square.
Kathmandu’s lost legacy
I don’t hold out much hope for Kathmandu Durbar Square today given the past ten years and the non-changing efforts to make things better. It’s one of the reasons the Digital Archeology Foundation tries to preserve what’s left today, digitally. Because even without natural disasters Nepal’s treatment of Basantapur is ensuring it won’t be around much longer.
What should be Nepal’s centerpiece attraction is no more than a shameful embarrassment to the Nepalese people today
There’s no doubt a tourist can still visit Kathmandu Durbar Square and find it incredible. Indeed both my Kathmandu city guidebook and Kathmandu Valley guidebook contain extensive information and maps that you won’t find anywhere else.
I’ve also pushed hard to encourage tourists to visit the old city in Kathmandu (between Thamel and Durbar Square) with Heritage Walks in Kathmandu. They’re free and offer so much lovers of cultural heritage.
In someways it’s more important to visit these places now, quickly. Because I really don’t think they will be around in a generation or two.
Why does no one complain? (they do)
About a year ago someone from a high ranking post in Nepal asked me to write some home truths about Nepal. I asked why when it was obvious what the problems were?
They said they knew, but nobody “higher up” cares unless a “foreigner” tells them.
So there you have it, some views over the years on the sad de-construction of Kathmandu cities national treasure.
Many tourists and visitors to Nepal feel the same way. The problem is that they have nowhere to officially let their voices be heard.
Someone could read the online forums, social networks and books all saying what we already know. Kathmandu Durbar Square is a mess, has lost its prestige and people are losing interest in it. But then that would take time and effort.
A very sad state of affairs mainly due to too many meetings, bickering and greed.
It wouldn’t cost a lot to photocopy some “feedback” forms and hand them out to tourists after they get their ticket. Then put up some mailboxes to place the completed forms in before they leave the square. It’s not a hard thing to do if you really want to know what we tourists think of Kathmandu Durbar Square.
Who will take responsibility to do this though? The Municipality, Department of Archeology or even the Tourism Board. I know it’s none of their direct “responsibilities” but for goodness sake all it takes is one person with some photocopies to discover what the rest of the world already knows.
Your capitals national treasure of Nepal is very nearly gone and what remains is a mess. Very soon even the tourists will stop caring and visiting.
Very soon your national treasure will be consigned to the pages of history. Then, your generation will have to bear the scars of history writing about you who neglected it.
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