Bahals of Kathmandu Valley

Courtyards of culture and enchanted history

  •  26 Dec 2017  |

Bahal is a type of courtyard found amongst Newar communities in Nepal. It is the most dominant type of courtyard in Newari Architecture. Bahal is a Buddhist Monastery and derives its name from a Sanskrit word Bihara, meaning joy or enchantment and thus is a place of religious bliss.

The ancient civilization of Kathmandu valley is composed of the unique harmony between Hindus and Buddhists. To this day, as one goes down the main cities, he/she notices that every third or fourth doorway opens to a Baha. Derived from a Sanskrit word, vihara (the standard term for Buddhist monastery), bahal or Baha is a type of courtyard in Newari community.

Maha Boudha Bahal, Patan

As one of the oldest bahal of Patan, Maha Boudha bahal paints a picture of medieval Nepal in today’s contemporary Nepali society. Situated in a small, cramped courtyard, north of Uku Baha, it consists of a large, terracotta shikhara temple in the centre with the shrine to the mother of the Buddha to the side. Constructed in Sikhara style, this Buddhist shrine represents the unique fusion of Buddhism and Hinduism that the Newari society is based on.

The shrine is often called the “Temple of the Thousand Buddhas” since there is an image of the Buddha on every brick of the Temple. The relationship of Hinduism and Buddhism portrayed in the temple takes us to the period where Buddhism flourished in the Indian Subcontinent. Buddhists in that era used all of the art forms and forms of ritual that were common to the Indian culture. It is said that the Maha Boudha was inspired by Bodha Gaya in India.

According to legends, a priest by the name, Abhayaraj, lived there with his three wives. He then married a fourth wife, and seeing that his elder sons were displeased he went to Bodha Gaya with his newly married wife. After three years of living there as a devotee of Buddha, he heard a voice from the sky telling him to return home, where Maha Bauddha would come to visit him, and where he would receive a royal favour. They returned home taking a model Buddha with them from that place. After arriving, he built a three-story temple in which he placed a model image. Repaired at various times, Maha Bauddha temple still resides there and the descendants of Abhayaraj serve there as dya-palas (priests) performing their rituals every morning and evening.

Ticket of NRs 50 is required for foreign visitors which is available at the site.

Pim Bahal, Patan

The heart of the civilization of ancient Patan, Pim bahal is a hidden gem; a splendour of the architectural heritage of Nepal. Amidst the cluster of houses, this large courtyard is an escape from the concrete jungle. What makes it stand out from other Bahals is the gorgeous pond with a beautiful aisle leading to a pagoda style gazebo.

The historic significance of Pimbahal is as great as its beauty. It consists of a famous stupa, which resembles the Swayambhunath, built by Charumati, the daughter of emperor Ashoka. This bahal also houses the ancient palace of Licchavi dynasty which is currently under renovation.

At the edge of the courtyard there is a 14th-century pond called the Pim Bahal pokhari. The pond is a hidden jewel surrounded by the beautiful and vibrant pavilion. Legend has it that this pond was once a ground of rakshasa(a devil) and evil spirits who would terrorise the locals. Fed up, the locals went to Gayahbajya(a powerful priest) for help. Gayahbajya performed a series of rituals and ordered the civilians to build a pond within a day to seal the rakshasa.

Pim Bahal was considered as one of the most prestigious courtyard of medieval Nepal. Supported by large endowments, the resident of Pim Bahal used to have elaborate ceremonies in which they fed all the bare of Patan. Currently, it serves as an important asset for the tourism industry of Patan and is a must visit place for all the travellers coming to the city. Once you’re there don’t forget to try the flavoured local chips of Pim Bahal.

Itum Baha, New road

A west of Kilagal tole, when you enter a narrow passageway, you come out into the southern end of a large, magnificent rectangular courtyard surrounded by residential houses on three sides. This Bahal is a cultural treasure - the courtyard on which legends of Nepali society is based on.  When you enter this Bahal, the exquisite wooden carving is not the only thing that captivates your attention. The myths, customs and the historical events that is attached to this courtyard adds on to its architectural beauty and gives you an overview of the ancient yet advanced medieval Newari civilization of Kathmandu city.

Over the entryway to his courtyard there is an elegant carved wooden torana(statue) depicting the Buddha overcoming the Maras. The Baha Shrine is opposite the entrance and is marked by a pair of metal lions and a pair of stone lions flanked by large temple bells. In the centre of the courtyard is an enshrined chaitya (a sacred place) and to the east of this is another chaitya with four large Buddha figures from the eleventh or twelfth century. The three carved wooden struts supporting the roof of the main entryway are the most exquisite pieces in the courtyard.

There is a very interesting legend that is attached to this Baha, the legend of Guru Mapa. In the reign of Harideva (the then king of Kathmandu) there was a Thakuri (a member of a royal clan) named Kesavchandra. According to myths, he woke up one day and found a golden dung left by pigeons. There, he also found a demon by the name Guru Mapa. He won the demons trust by calling him “uncle” and enlisted his help to carry the gold home. As a reward, he gave the demon the right to consume the body of dead children.  With this, parents began to threaten their children by saying “Let Guru Mapa take you”. The demon took their word and began to devour live children. Kesavacandra banished the demon to a large open field he had recently bought called Tudikhel and promised that the field would remain his and no buildings would be built on it. He further promised to provide Guru Mapa with a great feast of boiled rice and buffalo meat once a year. To this day, locals of Itum Baha prepare a feast on February where they offer rice and meat to Guru Mapa.

On the left to this bahal, there is another beautiful bahal called Kichandra Baha. This bahal is home to the legendary beauty, Rajamati. There is a 200-year-old song about her extraordinary beauty and one of the most popular Newari movie on her tragic story.

Te Bahal, New Road

Te Bahal holds a significant role in both Hindu and Buddhist society of Nepal. At the west of Nepal Airlines Corporation (NAC) building off of New-road, this courtyard is another representation of the unbroken harmony between Hinduism and Buddhism in Nepali society.

Unlike other bahals, Te bahal has two dyochhes (house for gods) indicating two bahals merged into one. The main one, commonly known as the bhadrakali dya lies on the eastern side of the compound. The festival of this shrine falls at Ghode Jatra (a festival of the Newari community that takes place in the mid of April). With intricate carvings of different gods and goddesses, the wooden struts supporting the main roof of the shrine are the most attractive piece of the shrine. Just the south of the Bhadrakali shrine, there is large stupa with four small Lichchavi (one of the ruling dynasty of medieval Nepal) caityas.

In the south-west corner of the courtyard, there is another shrine, commonly known as sankata and at present, this  is one of the most important shrines in the valley. Standing two stories tall, this shrine is said to house Sankata, a powerful Buddhist tantric. Sankata is worshipped especially on Saturdays and on one’s birthday to ward of ill luck. As one of the most important shrines of the valley, people line up for hours to seek blessings from the almighty sankata confined there.


Text: Ayusha Pradhananga Photo/Video: Sijal Bajracharya