Picture me for a moment in the southern, quasi-rural reaches of the Kathmandu Valley, my back to the city. I’m looking out onto the green, concrete-crested ridge linking Chobhar and Kirtipur, and the darker, rain-drenched mountains beyond. I’m thinking about Thamel. I’m thinking about a square kilometre of Kathmandu comprising 4,000 businesses, which five decades ago was nothing more than a sparsely populated neighbourhood of ethnic Newars grouped around the medieval Buddhist monastery of Thabahi.
The old city-state of Kathmandu was founded in 723 ad. Before the modern age imploded into it, it trailed out south to the confluence of the Bishnumati and Bagmati rivers, across which lay Lalitpur and, further east, Bhaktapur. Where I sit, struggling to conjure up Thamel, is halfway between Lalitpur and its vassal, Kirtipur, that spark so stubborn it resisted the Shah king of Gorkha from 1757 to 1767. Prithvi Narayan Shah’s labour of love and war was to unify the scores of states occupying the hilly terrain south of Tibet, and the Kathmandu Valley was the shining buckle in this Himalayan belt, offering pole position for a military state that sought to benefit from the trans-Himalayan trade circuit and keep track of the East India Company.
When he broke Kirtipur after two dozen attempts, Prithvi Narayan rubbed it in by ordering the noses and ears of all the men sliced off. Their weapons were nailed to the Bagh Bhairab temple, and that was that. I can still make out the squat pagoda from here, but the hill is now stacked with tube houses that impart an unruly harmony to it. Kirtipur’s sprawl has crept along the ridge to Chobhar, the village over the gorge leading the Bagmati out of the Kathmandu Valley. In legend, Chobhar was hacked open with a magic sword to bleed out the waters of a lake populated by divine serpents. Perhaps this was when the gods really started leaving the country, despite the valiant efforts of dynasties since to build them some of the most beautiful temples anywhere, to cage them in, to court them and appease them: the story of Kathmandu is one of kings offending gods and coming to their senses, over and over.
The Valley was settled, civilized and debauched—a depthless lake levelling out to a cluster of paddy-fringed temple cities that eventually merged into a sprawling dust bowl of a metropolis. Today, the Bagmati has shrunk to a snail’s trail of gooey sewage. Modern-day Kathmandu festers around it, three million souls crouched across 900 square kilometres, hoarding the fat of the land, awaiting the day of reckoning.
Picture this ridge, the mountains that hem in the Kathmandu Valley, and the twin city-states behind me. In 1768, Prithvi Narayan stormed Kathmandu, catching King Jaya Prakash Malla off guard as his people celebrated Indra Jatra, in honour of the rain-god. Jaya Prakash fled to Tej Narasimha Malla of Lalitpur, and when the Gorkhali troops followed, they took refuge with the doddering old sovereign of Bhaktapur, Ranajit Malla. The cousin-kings had put aside centuries of squabbling, finally, but the game was up.
Once Prithvi Narayan installed himself as sovereign of the Malla kingdoms, he ordered the destruction of the city ramparts. He had the whole of the Himalaya in his sights; what need did he have for walls now? Thus, the conqueror dissolved the zealously guarded and spiritually sanctified barriers between city and country. The astamatrika—the eight mother goddesses tasked with protecting Kathmandu—remained, and those compelled to live outside the perimeter, mostly Newars in lower-caste occupations such as butchery, sweeping and manual scavenging, may have felt less ostracized. But surely the Newar elite did not welcome the influx of Chhetri warriors, Brahmin priests and sundry Mongoloid mercenaries who followed in the wake of Prithvi Narayan and usurped the natural order of their tripartite civilization, by many accounts the most developed in the Himalayan region. But the physical erasure of the city walls also brought a northern outpost of old Kathmandu, Thabahi, back into the fold.
Why Thabahi alone—of the thirty-two symbolic tol occupied by the Maharjan farming caste —had been excluded from the inner city is a matter of conjecture. It is possible that the location here of a monastery complex, associated with significant tracts of farming land in addition to that taken up by shrines, courtyards and residential buildings, meant that it was more practical for the Malla kings to wall out the tol in its entirety. Either way, the 11th-century monastery founded in the village of Thabahi had a discrete identity as a centre for Buddhist learning. So it was both of and not of the city of Kathmandu. Following the Shah conquest and the subsequent rise in demand for city residences for the new court, Thabahi would not have seemed as remote as it might have to the last Malla king of Kathmandu.
Today, the maze of streets surrounding Thabahi constitutes Thamel, Kathmandu’s square kilometre of action. For many, it is the heart of the city. Even classed as an exclusive economic zone for tourism, there is no denying Thamel’s physical centrality in the capital. It is contiguous with the historic core that encompasses the great market square of Asan, and is a brief sally from both the old Malla palace and the newly vacated, 20th-century Shah palace at the head of trendy Durbar Marg.
Yet Thabahi’s ascendancy did not begin until quite recently. Following the invasion, the resident Newars, mostly Maharjans and high-caste Pradhans, went about their business. When the succession of unstable or underage Shah kings and powerful regents that followed Prithvi Narayan was supplanted by a line of bickering Rana prime ministers in 1846, land belonging to the Newars was appropriated ever more voraciously. Farming land, religious endowments and in some cases whole medieval villages were cleared to make way for the enormous neoclassical palaces favoured by the Ranas. Thabahi itself was besieged. The brick-and-wood houses of the Newars, crammed around communal courtyards linked by a warren of alleys and punctuated by numberless pagodas and shrines, stood in grimy, sublime contrast to the whitewashed, banal solidity of the Rana palaces, with their painted green windows, corrugated metal roofs and expansive gardens full of imported statuary. For half a century, these two contrasting visions of civilization stood adjacent yet aloof, rarely mixing.
When the Ranas were deposed in the middle of the 20th century, allowing the Shahs to rule under the guise of democracy (and appropriate yet more land in the name of nation-building), most were forced to sell and move out of their grand palaces, either for reasons of penury or political expediency. Some of these residences were demolished, many were requisitioned by the state and converted into government offices, and yet others were repurposed to house heritage hotels such as the Royal Hotel, Hotel Yak & Yeti and Hotel Shanker, to be patronized by the international jet set and mountaineering expeditions.
But Nepal soon found itself playing unwitting host to hordes of somewhat less desirable Westerners—the overland hippies. For want of infrastructure, these tourists were lodged in the low-caste neighbourhood of Maru Tol and then Jhoche, named Freak Street after the inclinations of its strange guests. In 1973, His Majesty’s Government of Nepal decided to promote adventure tours over narcotic stupors, and Jhoche fell away. A family of enterprising Newars living in an old mansion in the Rana enclave west of Thabahi—which they named the Kathmandu Guest House—began to take in the new travellers, and encouraged other businesses to set up shop in the vicinity. Thamel was born.
In the half-century since, Thamel has acquired not only another 500 hotels of variable pedigree, but thousands of businesses that cater to every human desire: restaurants, bars and cafés, trekking and tour agencies—courses for all horses. Everything this country produces—along with a good deal from the rest of the world, if only in counterfeit—can be purchased here from street vendors, bargain shops and boutiques. Thamel is where close to a million visitors a year come to plot their next move in Nepal. It’s where the locals come to pass the time of night. And that’s just what’s overground.
Thamel is a physical space, but it is, equally, a mental artefact. Foreigners have been coming here for half a century, Nepalis for half that. Yet we have always lived here, and thousands work and play here today, so Thamel is as much Nepal as a village of pastoral farmers in the Everest region is. At some level, it’s where the West meets Nepal, and where Nepal meets the West, but what these seekers find has as much to do with their own imaginings as any reality. Thamel has survived the Malla unification, the Shah invasion, the Rana encroachment, a Maoist civil war, the depredations of the sex industry and the criminal underground, a deadly fire that consumed its largest bookshop, and the earthquakes and economic blockade of 2015. This is the story of a place that won’t sit still. This is the story of Thamel.
1 In the classical caste pyramid, the Chaturvarnashram, Brahmins (priests, Bahuns in Nepal) sanctified a hierarchy governed by Kshatriyas (warriors/administrators, or Chhetris), driven by Vaishyas (merchants/farmers, Newars in Kathmandu) and serviced by Shudras (labourers/service providers, low-caste Newars and Dalits in Kathmandu). The Newars and many ethnic groups scattered across Nepal have nominally accepted this caste hierarchy through history, supplementing it with their own sub-castes, and though caste persists, it is much weakened by the sociopolitical upheavals of the last half century.
2 A ‘tol’ represents a spatio-cultural unit within a Newar urban settlement, historically dominated by a kinship group, such as the Maharjans, the most populous sub-group of Newars.
3 It seems inconceivable today, but Jaya Prakash Malla appears to have chosen carousing over caution in allowing the enemy to invade, then vacate Thabahi—a practice run if ever there was one, considering it was just a mile from the royal palace—mere weeks before the final, three-pronged attack.
4 K.P. Malla notes that between 1900 and 1940, more than 50,000 ropanis (2,544 hectares) of prime land in Kathmandu and Lalitpur were appropriated for the personal use of the ruling class by paying nominal compensation, including land held by community religious trusts. The policy was continued by King Mahendra Shah from the 1950s on: 146 hectares of farming land belonging to Kirtipur farmers, for instance, was acquired to make way for the nation’s first university, Tribhuvan University.