Continuity and Change in the Durbar Square at Bhaktapur, Nepal

1 minute read

MAA cares for a collection of photographs made by Margaret and Frederick Williamson during their travels across Tibet, Sikkim, and Bhutan in the 1970s, when Frederick served as Political Officer of the region. Among these are photographs of Bhaktapur in Nepal, a prominent holy city and UNESCO World Heritage site, which the couple visited in June 1974, while attending the coronation ceremony of Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the fourth king of Bhutan. Most of these photographs were made by Margaret, and they spotlight Bhaktapur’s notable Durbar Square and its surroundings. The Durbar Square is one of three royal squares in Nepal’s Kathmandu Valley. It was built in the 13th century by the Malla Hindu Dynasty, and is home to some of Nepal’s most exquisite temples. It is significant as a nexus of Nepal’s architectural history, religious traditions, and Hindu spiritual practices, earning it the local moniker ‘Living Heritage’.

On the left, is a photograph of the important structures in the Durbar Square - to the right is a gateway to a temple with a torn gilded in gold and copper with intricate metalwork, beside which is a the Palace Quarters built in white stone with wooden windows and doors, and in the distance is the National Art Museum built in brick, and temple built in brick and wood with a two tiered roof. This is a typical image of the Bhaktapur Durbar Square and we see also see a woman worshipping at a shrine, people walking, children praying, and a soldier guarding the palace quarters' gates. On the right, is a photograph of Bhaktapur's skyline taken from the roof of a building. We see multiple temples, all built in brick and wood but the focus in the photograph is on the pagoda and tiered shikhara style roofs of the temples. The city looks visually coherent because of the extensive use of brick to build temples and the uniformity in architectural styles. In the background we see a silhouette of the lower Himalayan mountains and an overcast sky above.

Figures 1 and 2. Left – A classic view of the Durbar Square, surrounded by important buildings such as the Palace Quarters and the National Art Museum. Margaret Williamson, 1974. MAA N.103903.WIL. Right – Bhaktapur’s skyline with its towering shikhara and pagoda style roofs. Devi Chakrabarti, 2021.

Margaret’s photographs of the Square, predate internationally-led efforts for the conservation of the area. The captions accompanying them in MAA’s catalogue records need to be historically and ethnographically contextualised. In a new exhibition on the Digital Lab, I bring Margaret’s photographs in conversation with more recent ones made during my fieldwork in Bhaktapur between 2021 and 2022. Through this juxtaposition, I trace patterns of continuity and change in a vulnerable city susceptible to disaster, decay, and cycles of conservation. The exhibition aims at contextualising Margaret’s photographs, providing viewers and readers a glimpse into Bhaktapur’s devotional and architectural landscape. It seeks to foreground the value of photographs as a critical archive for historical and anthropological analyses, appealing to those who appreciate the visual medium.


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