Phalcās in Kathmandu: Everday Rhythms and Stories of Placemaking
by Julia Meckl
They are places to rest, find shelter from the rain and sun, hang out, socialize, shop and bargain, worship, play, make music and feast. The architecture of Newars, the indigenous inhabitants of the Kathmandu valley, unites a plethora of activities in the phalcās (Nepali pāṭi). These are arcaded platforms, traditionally built of timber, brick and mud mortar. Some are more elaborate, but mostly they are simple structures used by the immediate resident community, as well as “outsiders” – traders, travelers, and passers-by, looking for shelter or a place to offer their products. Perhaps at first sight less impressive than the grand temples and palaces, Kathmandu valley’s phalcās are valued for their mulifaceted functionality in everyday socio cultural-life.
Urban rhythms and placemaking
Above all, phalcās are extraordinary rhythmic sites: from the temporal succession of daily activities, their integration in ritual and festive cycles, to the rhythms of songs played during dāphā bhajan, the offering of devotional music. According to Henri Lefebvre (2004 ), it is the interaction of diverse rhythms that animates everyday life in a city. A place is characterized and permeated by an “ensemble of rhythms” (Edensor 2010: 69). Analyzing these rhythms tells of power and its shifting distribution: who can claim the temporary right to a site? Which times a phalcā “belongs” to whom? How do these relations shift in the course of a day, or longer temporary intervals, or for particular occasions?
Early in the morning, traders set up their “showrooms” – spreading vegetables, fruit or utensils right at the edge of the platform, sometimes transforming the whole phalcā into a store. Mobile merchants with wheeled carts or bicycles announce their wares, while devotees ring the bell to worship the God in the phalcā. By 9:30, honking of scooters fills the air. When heavy traffic takes off, the temporary shops are already closing. In the afternoon, elder people rest in the shade provided by the phalcā, and children play around. In the evening, a bhajan group meets to play and sing devotional songs, until the night falls and the place belongs to the dogs.
Ganesh phalcā in Patan, Lalitpur.
While Nepal’s capital is relentlessly expanding, rapid urbanization also affects the rich social lives of phalcās: They emerge equally as places of continuity as of change, of reclaiming and reinterpreting history and heritage, as sites of conflict and resistance, whilst deeply remaining sites of the everyday.
Placemaking can be understood as a dynamic process of transformation wherein people, flows of capital, objects and physical matter converge and produce a place collectively; place emerges as an “ever changing polyrhytmic constellation” (Edensor 2011: 190-191). This constellation is probably never without contestation and conflict. Let us look at three sites, which all tell unique stories of placemaking, showing phalcās as such constellations.
Kvaylāchī phalcā, Sunaguthi.
Sunaguthi, Kvaylāchī phalcā: A phalcā withstanding roadwidening
Next to the extremely dusty – in monsoon months muddy – Sunaguthi-Chapagaun road stands the reconstructed Kvaylāchī phalcā. Damaged during previous earthquakes, meanwhile rebuilt in concrete, the phalcā was torn down completely in 2018 and reconstructed by a group of volunteers, using traditional techniques and sticking to the historical foundations. Significantly, this happend when a major road widening project was planned for the town of Sunaguthi, which, if executed, would completely swallow up the phalcā. Padma Sundar Maharjan, architect and a key figure in the reconstruction, explains: “The main idea was: it is not only to rebuild that phalcā. […] if it’s built then it’s for the people also, and subtly resists this road widening project.” In this way, rebuilding a phalcā becomes an act of resistance, visible and tangible. It is an act to demonstrate the vital importance of the many small public structures along the road, and crucially: of the road itself, which forms the backbone of all outdoors activities in the settlement. Kvaylāchī phalcā, now coated thick in powdery brownish dust, also speaks of the need of a well-paved road. The pitching done last year in a sort of ad hoc instance to calm complaining voices, crumbled after 2 months, leaving the road in an even worse condition than before. To those who take part in daily activities around the phalcā, the dust and noise from the road are constant reminders of the failure of responsible authorities to provide them with decent infrastructure. During the annual Navadurgā dances performed in front of the phalcā, this becomes also visible to a larger audience that attends the festival.
“The main idea was: it is not only to rebuild that phalcā. […] if it’s built then it’s for the people also, and subtly resists this road widening project.”
The road to Chapagaun, Sunaguthi.
Pulchowk, Samay phalcā: (Re)claiming a site and heritage
Another place, another phalcā, rebuilt with a different political message. Samay phalcā of the Pulchowk area of Lalitpur, which derives its name from the distribution of festive food samay baji, had collapsed in the 1970ies. It took decades of local activism until the City of Lalitpur lately won the legal dispute with the Laligurans Bank over the site, submitting historical photographs to the court as proof. Reconstruction was done by a committee formed by locals of Pulchowk, and completed in March 2022. The whole case was supported by Lalitpur’s mayor, Chiri Babu Maharjan. Unlike Kvaylāchi phalcā, reconstructed Samay phalcā looks quite different from historical photographs: it (re)appears as a mixture of elements from different periods and styles, probably also gathered from different locations, built directly attached to the bank – thereby blocking its main entry. The final touches are also rather unusual for a phalcā: “Samay phalcā” is written in large letters on the wall, statues of Gods and Goddesses received nameplates, and the phalcā is illuminated at night. Unmistakably, this is a triumphant message that the community’s right to this place has prevailed over the rights of the cooperative bank. This phalcā raises a multitude of questions, including: Who is the rightful owner of land, when private property regimes and other, presumably more ancient claims collide? How exactly is the “community” defined?
Inauguration of Samay phalcā, March 19, 2022. Photo by Yogesh Budathoki.
Kirtipur, Chithu phalcā: Reviving links to a “lost” tradition
There is not only interest in rebuilding phalcās, but also in reviving practices related to them. The third story is of bringing a practice “back” to a place, while innovating the tradition along. Bharat Maharjan, historian and local of Kirtipur, discovered in his study of ancient (late Malla period) inscriptions in phalcās that a particular tradition called “hāthu haykegu” was widespread in Newar towns of the valley. This ritual involves the procession of a mask of the God Bhairava to a phalcā, where devotees receive chyāng (rice beer) from the mouth of the God. Until recently, hāthu haykegu only continued to be performed during the festival of Indrajātrā in Basantapur (Kathmandu) and few phalcās in the valley. To revive it in Kirtipur, a group of local youth got together and sought public support. This included fundraising, setting up a new trust (guṭhī), and cooperation with local artist and music groups. Funds were only collected from the public to ensure the process stays community-owned. Crafted by traditional artists in Bungamati, the mask was brought in a procession to Kirtipur – thus, the ritual also strengthens the connection of the two towns. While this is an instance of reinstalling a tradition, it also adds many new aspects: from the constellation of people involved, the ways of participation, the making of the mask – which is probably the largest wooden Bhairava mask of this kind – to the unique fusion of musical performances, including new female dāphā group members. Reviving the ritual can be read as a very contemporary and conscious sign against the decline of traditional arts and living heritage under urbanization.
The sounds of hāthu, polyrhythmic culmination in front of the phalcā: Dāphā groups of Kirtipur, sounds of trumpets, cymbals and drums; vehicles honking their way through the crowd; excited chatter as the chyāng flows and as people take photos of the mask.
The performance of the hāthu ritual in front of Chithu phalcā, Kirtipur.
These glimpses show phalcās as sites of continuity and innovation, of social constellations activated in rhythms of everyday and festive cycles, and as sites of collective placemaking in a context of massive urban transformations happening in the city of Kathmandu and the valley at large.
Fieldwork for this essay was carried out in February and March 2022. I thank Padma Sundar Maharjan and Bharat Maharjan for sharing about their commitment for phalcās and the living heritage of Kathmandu valley.
Edensor, Tim. 2010. “Walking in Rhythms: Place, Regulation, Style and the Flow of Experience.”
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Read more about the phalcās:
Ghimire, Rabindra. 2021. “Samay Phalcha and Lalitpur City’s Long Fight to Restore the Demolished
Monument.” OnlineKhabar English News, August 27, 2021. https://english.onlinekhabar.com/samay-phalcha-lalitpur-restoration-efforts.html.
Maharjan, Bharat. 2022. “Bahupratikṣita hāthu svarūpakā bāghabhairabako viśāla mukhākṛti
kīrtipura lyāim̐dai.” Kirtipur Sandesh, February 25, 2022. https://www.kirtipursandesh.com.np/2022/02/blog-post_25.html.
Maharjan, Padma. 2019. “Reconstruction of Kvay Lāchī Phalcā, Nepal: Completion Report.”
Mishra, Aashish. 2022. “Kirtipur’s Hathu Hyakegu Ritual Revives after Generations.” The Rising
Julia Shrestha (née Meckl)
Julia Shrestha holds a MA in South Asian Studies (MADESH) of the University of Heidelberg. For her MA dissertation she conducted field research in eastern Nepal on the multiple social lives and contested place of nagarā kettledrums in the Limbu society. Her interests include theories and methods of multisensory ethnography, everyday cultures, rhythm and space, as well as ethnicity and belonging in the Himalayas.