Harmonious Kathmandu in the Malla Period

Patan Durbar Square. Image: flickr/Chris Hartford

Father Gillespie in his ‘Account of the Kingdom of Nepal’ published in the Asiatic Researcher, 1801, wrote: “Cat’hmandu contains about 18000 houses, Lelit Pattan 25000 houses, B’hatgan 2000 houses. Besides these Thimi and another Cipali (Kirtipur), each contains about 8000 houses… All these towns are well built; the houses are constructed of brick and are three or four stories high; their apartments are not lofty, they have doors and windows of wood. The streets are paved with brick or stone  there are also good wells made of stone, from which the water passes through several stone canals for the public benefit. In every town there are large square verandas, well built, for the accommodation of travelers and the public  as well as wells for public use. There are also reservoirs of water, faced with brick, with a good road to walk upon and a long flight of steps for the convenience of those who chose to bathe.”

It is a good portrayal of the Valley during Malla period (1200-1769) when public good was the principle when building townships and basic facilities to entire communities was the goal. This is vindicated by Wolfgang Korn’s account in his ‘The Traditional Architecture of the Kathmandu Valley’: “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… These temples together with the rest houses, dance platforms, springs, ponds and sculptures, shape the village square…”

In those days, each tol was inhabited by people of a particular caste or of the same family descent and the orientation of each tol followed a sequence of streets and squares. The framework of squares was built around a temple at the centre. According to Korn, the aim of each family/clan was to build one single house around one courtyard, thus providing them with security and privacy. Different units made up the four sides of the chowk, with access to the street through a gateway on the ground floor of at least one house. The courtyard had many functions besides being a playground for children and a washing area as well as an area for grinding grain and for sitting in the sun. The gateway was low in height to discourage thieves.

As far as public squares were concerned, these had many temples (piths, mandirs, shikaras or chaityas), communal buildings (Dyochens), open meeting halls/free lodging houses (sattals), public loggias (patis), fountain complexes (hitis), and so on. Shops were mainly lined on the ground floors of houses facing the street and sold mostly the basic necessities of life. The ‘hitis’—public fountains serving as watering places for all the locals—was an important part of the locality. Let into the ground and reached by step ways, water flowed copiously from carved stone pipes (dhunge dharas). Fetching water was a daily affair and these were centers of social gathering. Ponds or ‘pokharis’ nearby, were the reservoirs while in backyards of houses, there was usually a small draw-well or ‘tun’.

The Malla period had some sensible strictures on construction of houses: so as to maintain a harmonious skyline, no house could be built higher than nearby temples while houses nearer the center were generally four storied, after that, three storied, and then, two storied. This also delineated the richest, the next richest and then, the poorer sections of society. However, all the houses were rich in their woodwork. As Korn noted, “In spite of the uniform building materials the rows of symmetrical house fronts are never monotonous, mainly because of their different designs, ornate details or simply their unplanned free arrangement in relation to each other.”

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