At the outset, it has to be mentioned that the history of ancient Nepal is the history of Kathmandu Valley. There are two reasons for this. One is the lack of historical records for other parts of Nepal and the other is that the colorful past of this beautiful valley easily out dazzles what is known about elsewhere. There is also the fact that the name of the country is taken from what Kathmandu used to be known in earlier times – Nepal valley.
The tale of Kathmandu dates back to the time when the Gods communed with mortals. A glimpse into that period can be found in the Buddhist chronicles that tell of the coming of the Manjushree Bodhisattva from China to worship Swayambu. As the legend goes, Swayambu, a manifestation of Adhi Buddha, the primordial Buddha was a brilliant flame emanating from a lotus flower that rested in the midst of the lake Nagarad. From atop distant Mandapgiri (now Nagarkot), Manjushree gazed at this wondrous sight and decided to worship this flame more closely.
By going to the lowest hill in the southern part of the valley and slicing a portion of it with his Sword Of Wisdom, he drained the lake, thus creating the Chobar Gorge (which till today drains the rivers of the Kathmandu Valley). The valley with its fertile soil appeared, and Manjushree proceeded on his mission to worship the Swayambhu, which had rested upon the small hillock of present-day Swayambhu.
Manjushree is then said to have founded the city of Manjupatan, which was located midway between Swayambhu and Gujeshwori (near what is today the Kathmandu airport), and proclaimed his disciple Dharmakarma as the ruler of that city. It was also during this era that Krakuchanda Buddha, Kanak Muni Buddha and Kashyapa Buddha visited the Kathmandu valley to worship Swayambhu and Gujeshwori.
Aware that Kaliyug, the Dark Age, was drawing near, Kanak Muni Buddha sent Prachanda Deva, King of Gaur (Bengal), to cover the flaming image of Swayambhu since only such an act would preserve it from the gaze of the sin-ridden world. So, Prachanda Deva built a stupa encasing the sacred flame of Swayambhu.
Later, Prachandra Deva sent his son Shakti Deva to enthrone their cousin Gunakama Deva as King of Nepal. Gunakama’s reign saw a great famine afflict the kingdom but with aid from the Goddess Shantishree, he was able to overcome that disaster. The last king of this dynasty was Singhakhetu and, in his reign, the country flourished in both trade and commerce. It is said that the kingdom even conducted trade with places as far away as Singhaladeep (Sri Lanka).
The demise of Gunakama’s dynasty saw a succession of rulers from the provinces of India such as Bengal and even from as far as Madras rule Kathmandu. The most renowned was Dharmadutta of Kanchipuram who is said to have built the Pashupatinath Temple. Boudhanath may have been built by Dharmadutta’s second successor. Then came the Ahir or Abhir Dynasty who were a race of cowherds. There were eight kings in this line, the first being Bhuktaman and the last Yaksha Gupta. Owing to pastoral disputes, this dynasty was then replaced by another Abhir dynasty of shepherds. This second Abhir dynasty had a succession of three kings and their rule ended when the Kirati invaders defeated Bhuban Simha.
The Kiratis were a tribal hill people who came from the East. (The Ramayana mentions them as being dwellers of the northeastern Himalayan region.) The Kirati invasion of the Kathmandu valley occurred sometime around 700 BC. The mist famous among the Kirati rulers was Yalambar – the first of them.
Jitadassi, the seventh king, is said to have helped the Pandavas during the Great War of the Hindu epic the Mahabharata. It was also during the reign of Jitadassi that Gautama Buddha was said to have visited the Valley. The Kiratis’ rule saw a succession of 29 kings until the Licchavis at around AD 200 defeated Gasti, the last of them.
The advent of the Licchavis brought in the first golden era of Nepalese art and Culture. They were also the ones who introduced the Hindu caste system into the valley. Among the 48 Licchavi rulers, Mana Deva I, who ascended the throne in AD 464, was a ruler of considerable talent and abilities. He consolidated the kingdom in all directions with his powerful army and political tact. Besides this, he was also a patron of the arts. Pagoda-roofed structures came into vogue. Sculptors fashioned exquisite images of their Gods and Kings. It was during this same period that the temples of Changunarayan, Vishabjynarayan, Sikhomanarayan and Ichabgunarayan were built.Other notable masterpieces include the Reclining Vishnu of Budhanilkantha, the gilting of the roof of Pashupatinath Temple, the struts of Hanuman Dhoka and the Basantapur Tower, the Uku Bahal in Patan, and the Indreshwar Mhadev Temple at Panauti.
Amsuvarma, of the Thakuri lineage, ascended the throne in AD 605 upon the death of his father-in-law Shivadeva, a Licchavi King. According to the travelling Chinese monk Huen Tsanf, Amsuvarma had attained high military and literary glory. Of his palace at Deopatan, Huen Tsang says that it was seven stories high and ornamented with gems and pearls. Amsuvarma made matrimonial alliances with both his powerful neighbors of the north and the south. To Tsrongsten Gompo, Tibet’s powerful ruler, he offered his daughter, Bhrikuti, and to the Indian Prince, he offered the hand of his sister. (It was Bhrikuti, along with a Chinese princess, who converted the Tibetan king to Buddhism, thus heralding the advent of the religion the country was to later become famous for. Bhrikuti is considered the Green Tara of the Buddhist psntheon while the Chinese princess is known as the White Tara.)
After the death of Amsuvarma in AD 629, power reverted to the Licchavis once again for a considerable period of time. It was only in AD 879 that Raghadeva founded the real Thakuri Dynaty. To commemorate this event, Raghadeva established the Nepal Sambat Era, a calendar that is still followed by the Newars of Kathmandu Valley and is running in its 12th century.
The reign of the later Thakuris has been considered the Dark Age in the history of Kathmandu on account of much strife and turmoil during this period and that included the ravages of multiple foreign invasions. But trade and commerce still flourished and cities and settlements grew. Another King, Ganakamadeva, who ruled from AD 949 till AD 994 deserves special mention. It was he who introduced the important festivals of Indra, and Kridhna Jayanti. But more importantly, Gunakamadeva founded Kantipur, today’s Kathmandu.
In AD1200, King Arideva assumed the title of Malla, and the dynasty of the Mallas ruled Kathmandu Valley for a total of 568 years. At one time, during the reign of King Yakshya Malla (1428-1482), the Valley’s territorial gains had extended north as far as Digarcha in Tibet, Gorkha to the west, Morang to the east, and southwards up to Bodh Gaya in Bihar, India.
The early period of the Malla rule saw peace and tranquility with a great deal of progress in all spheres of life. Though the Mallas were Vaishnavite and Shaivite Hindus, they showed tolerance towards other religions too. Endowment monasteries, Muslims were allowed to settle in the Valley although they were forbidden to convert others. Even a Roman Catholic Mission of the Capuchin order was allowed into Kathmandu and granted land by royal decree.
The Mallas were benevolent patrons of the arts and it was during their reign that a renaissance of the arts flourished. Traditionally passed down from father to son, the skills of proficiency. Further developments evolved with new ideas being acquired from neighboring kingdoms. These craftsmen excelled in stone carving, woodcarving, brick making, metal work and painting.
The fame of Arniko
In the 13th Century, Arniko, a Newar architect and master craftsman of Bhaktapur, was invited to build a stupa in Tibet at the request of Kublai Khan. Word had reached the ears of the Mongol emperor about Arniko’s prowess as a master builder. Soon, after the initial assignment, Arniko was conscripted into the Court of China as "The Controller of Imperial Manufacture."
Other Newari craftsmen were also invited to Tibet and China. On their return, they brought back a new style, which was a fusion of their original newari style combined with Tibetan (Chinese) art. An example of this style is seen in the Golden Gate of Bhaktapur, which was built in 1754. It has Tibetan and Chinese motifs inlaid among the periodic designs.
Communes of Clay
Bricks were the main components used in construction. The Newari builders had devised a method of strengthening regular-fired bricks by mixing oil to the clay. Called Chikau Uppa (or Telia Eet in Nepali) meaning "oiled brick," this novel technique brought about stronger and longer-lasting constructions. Houses, temples, street and courtyards were all constructed with this brick.
Besides the three principle cities, other settlements grew around the Kathmandu Valley. Fortresses were set up at strategic points to serve as defense outposts which also provided protection to the farming community spread all across the Valley. Others grew up along the flourishing trade routes. Wary of attack by bandits and foreign invaders, people built their houses in close clusters, often on higher ground and high walls further fortified these.
The renaissance during the Malla eras saw further development in the craft of image making. Stone carvings of the earlier times gave way to mental craft. All the spires of important temples and shrines were crowned with gold; this technique of gilding involved a chemical compounding process. Skill in metal craft reached a high degree of excellence and Patan, or Lalitpur (city of arts) became the center. The best example of that period can still be seen today in the 14th century Kwa Bahal, the Golden Temple. Tibetan pilgrims who came on pilgrimage to this site were so enraptured by the sight of it that they called it "Yerang" meaning "Eternity Itself."
While the artisans of Patan excelled in metalwork, the artisans of Bhaktapur pursued the traditional craft of stone and woodcarving. Evidence of their excellence is still visible today as one observes the 55-Windowed Palace, the Peacock Windows, and the Nyatopola Temple – all built during the reign of King Bhupatindra Malla.
It is believed that Bhupatindra Malla was brought up by a carpenter since his step-mother had ordered to have him killed to make way for her own offspring to become king. He is considered to be among the ablest rulers of Bhaktapur. He was also a contemporary of Shah Jahan, the Indian emperor who built the Taj Mahal. In all likelihood, it is possible that the Moghyl Emperor and his sense of grandiose art inspired Bhupatindra Malla.
Paubha –Newari Paintings
From the 11th century, religious manuscripts were being embellished with paintings. Buddhism inspired the earliest of these. Drawn on palm leaf strips, these simple ink sketches were accented with basic natural colors. After the 15th century, paper began to replace the leaf.
The Newars also had a miniature form of painting till the 14th century that was distantly related to the Indian Pahari School. Thereafter, that from gave way to scrolls painting. Like the craftsmen, Newar painters had also been invited to Tibet to paint murals and scrolls in the monasteries. Tibet was then a prosperous trading country. Traders travelling the Silk Route brought in merchandise from other kingdoms and this provided an opportunity for the artists from Kathmandu to study the arts of the other parts of Asia. As a result, they were able to incorporate their own and other styles into the traditional Tibetan art and evolves a whole new genre. When the Newar artists returned back to their Kingdoms once more, they used their knowledge to create splendid works of art in Kathmandu valley.