Nuwakot, where kings of old plotted the downfall of the Kathmandu Valley
It’s not easy reaching Nuwakot, one of the most important sites in Nepal. Few make the journey to this ancient crumbling fortress that was once one of the epicenters to the formation of Nepal as country. For hill walkers the area is a breath of fresh air with views over the little visited western edges of the Kathmandu valley. For culture lovers it’s the last chance to see the block fortress of Nuwakot.
It’s set up high on the outskirts of Kathmandu valley on what as vital hill station. Today there’s still an army barracks in residence. But ignore the big guidebooks who seem to make out the army is a “presence”. The reality is they have a few shacks hidden to the front of the fortress compound and you’ll rarely see them.
Moreover, as a visitor you’ll be one of the last people in history to see the fortress that saw the beginning of the end for the Malla kingdom.
Visiting Nuwakot on a dusty day by jeep
I’d been to Nuwakot to photograph the old fortress following the earthquake. I knew the route. Independently by bus it’s possible to visit in a day and return. Otherwise it’s possible to stay over night. There’s a famous traditional hotel here where you’ll pay a lot but get an “authentic” Newari setting. Today there’s also handful of local residents opening up more mid-range and budget friendly accommodation.
There’s a dusty bus that takes 4+ hours from Kathmandu plus another random amount of time (40 minutes) locating a motorbike to take you up the hill to the ancient fortress. Getting back is annoying too, as the last transport leaves which is around 4pm. For me I wanted just a day trip to catch up. So the best thing is to hire a jeep and driver. It’s expensive, but it saves time, hassle, pressure and well to be honest I brought a packed lunch as there’s little around.
My visit was to do some more photographing of the area. Moreover, I had learned some disturbing news about the old fortress. It would seem that it’s not long for the world anymore. At least not in its current original form. So, like an old friend who’d been told they won’t be around much longer, I wanted to go and spend as much time with it before it was gone.
Fortress on a hill
You approach Nuwakot from a winding road. There are trees, rock and valley landscapes. Then as if formed from the heavy iron rock under it, the Nuwakot fortress appears high on the hill. I feel a sigh of relief.
The fortress is still there
Ironically the fortress was built by King Prithvi Narayan Shah after he conquered the hill-station from the Newari in his attempts to take the Malla kingdom in the Kathmandu Valley. It worked. This building is actually his palace which was also a fort. The very place that saw plans drawn up to end the Malla’s kings of the valley stretching out before it.
The fortress resisted the earthquake of 2015. But not without sustaining formidable wounds to its infrastructure. It is literally barely hanging on.
Nuwakot Durbar Square
The jeeps brings me all the way to the gates of Nuwakot Durbar Square. We are ahead by 3 hours compared to taking the bus option. It’s still morning and the place is deserted.
To the left is a row of crumbling buildings I’ll come to later. It’s also were the “army barracks” is. Not that you can even see them. To the right one can’t miss the seven-story old fort palace. Huge metal poles still visible to steady the building. While straight ahead is the road to a look out place and a Bhairab temple.
The old Nuwakot Fortress is still standing
Nuwakot fortress is unmistakably Newari in design. In this, it’s built in a large rectangular block design over looking a hillside cliff. The museum was opened in 2011 but shut up post-earthquake. There were promises from officials that it would be a priority to rebuild the old palace fort.
The massive fort was badly damaged in the earthquake beyond what you see form the front. The entire rear of the building is supported by giant metal poles. One gets the impression that if one pole is knocked, the whole building will collapse over the hillside cliff.
Despite the promises the old fort hasn’t had any work done to it. Indeed locals have lost hope in pleading to restore it. Officials showed and simply ordered tarpaulin to be placed over the old museum displays.
A local dared to speak up on the water damage from the roof and how tarpaulin at the very least should be placed there too. Or the artifacts moved to a more secure storage. More promises were made and still today the fortress remains as it was.
Now there are rumors the Chinese are due to rebuild the entire fort. It is designated to be a “tourist attraction”. All from the new makers who have a fondness for concrete and parking lots.
Garad Ghar and Ranga Mahal
Opposite the fortress is a dance hall and the former old barracks. Both buildings equally damaged by the earthquake. In front of them two shrines to Vishnu. All surrounded by a peaceful garden.
It’s this former royal garden that gives you a clue at how elegant this square was in its day. Today it is still well tended to.
Up further the ancient Bhairab temples is in the midst of renovation. This is not a fortress to the past, this is a local communities deity. So, they can take charge and restore it. Something they are keen and proud to say they have.
Just a little further is a look out point spanning the west of the valley. It’s impressive in its solitude. Rice terraces, farm land and peace.
One more Taleju Temple
There’s another secret to Nuwakot. Another huge rectangular block tower located before Nuwakot Fortress on a small hill. It is the Taleju temple built back in 1564. Taleju is the Malla families god.
Here the building is even more damaged than the main fortress. It seems relatively isolated too. There’s a caretaker. But what can they do when the building is on the verge of collapse.
What is Nuwakot’s fate?
I visited again for many reasons. Nepal is a strange place in that information does not flow freely. I could ask ten people if Nuwakot fortress had collapsed yet and be told no. Then read about it’s collapse on a two month old newspaper a day later.
It’s one of the reasons writing about Nepal is best done and trusted in person.
When talking about Nuwakot’s fate one cannot just mean the main fortress tower. As you can see there’s more here than just the former seven-floor palace that King Prithvi Narayan Shah used to plan his takeover of the Kathmandu Valley.
Is waiting for collapse the fate of these historic buildings?
Despite the unique architecture and significant history of Nuwakot and the local community hoping for work to begin it sits untouched. Much like Gaddi Baihak in Kathmandu Durbar Square.
Gaddi Balak was deemed too expensive to repair less than a year ago. A better, cheaper, option was to simply let it collapse from the elements than reconstruct it. Word got around quickly and this position was reversed.
Today not just Gaddi Balak but all of Hanuman Doka is surrounded by Chinese scaffolding and signs written in Chinese to stay clear uniform work is accelerated.
For Nuwakot it would seem its isolation and smaller community means such a fate is more terminal. To repair this building alone would mean creating giant new supports, new foundations, along with a slow expensive replacement of timbers and bricks.
That’s just for the fortress. The same would need to be done for all the other buildings in the square and the Taleju temple. There has been much outrage within Kathmandu city from local communities who’ve halted the reconstruction of Kasthamandap and Rani Pokhari because of similar events including using modern concrete.
Traditional restoration and rebuilds are what the communities want
In Nuwakot there are few people around. Yet, it seems some who seem to have learned the lesson of silence from Kathmandu. Nobody wants to be the one to say “take it down.” For it might just cause the locals to be heard here too.
It seems the cheaper, faster and less antagonized option in Nuwakot is to “let the buildings collapse naturally” then there will be no one to blame for “demolishing them”.
The result? All the buildings could be rebuilt rather then repaired. Nuwakot is a unique place not just physically but also historically. Perhaps that too is why it’s being left to rot.
Or is it simply waiting for the Chinese construction cranes to move in. The rich “untapped” surrounding hills are a tantalizing prospect for a new executive resort area.
Nuwakot rose up as a hill-station during the Malla period. Was taken over be the Shah’s who used it as base to plot the Malla downfall. The palace fortress was built as a possible appeasement architecturally to the Newari citizens in the valley at the time.
Today who would love such a building? There are now no more Shahs or Mallas. The kingdom’s are gone. So now a new empire from the north seems to have taken an art of war approach with a financially friendly acquisition of the old fortress. Rebuilding it as a new palace to oversee their other acquisitions throughout the valley.
Right or wrong, it seems this is the fate of Nuwakot.
When is the best time to visit Nuwakot?
Now, before it collapses. There’s no guarantee it will ever be rebuilt. Sure, people have said it will be. Just like “it will be renovated”. If the Chinese (re)construction rumors are true then you can be sure it won’t look like this much longer.
If you are a fan of heritage or disappearing sites. Sooner rather than later is the best time to visit Nuwakot.
Asides from that, it will take years to rebuild should it collapse. Right now, it still stands.
If you are interested in visiting here you and read my online guide to Nuwakot or get my guidebook to Nepal which has the most detailed information on Nuwakot.
And yes, a visit to Nuwakot is well worth it. Rarely in Nepal can you see such magnificence a few hours from Kathmandu.
For me I drive away wondering if that ancient fortress on hill will still be watching over the Kathmandu Valley when I return. Will it be covered in scaffolding. Or will it join the bricks, rubble and history books of what once stood there.
The very building that saw the arrival of nation now literally hangs to life on precipice.
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