21-27 October 2016 #830

Restoring our faith in restoration

When a god decides to remain hidden from humans, restoring its temple becomes a complex challenge for  devotees
Alok Tuladhar

Pics: Alok Tuladhar
RESTORATION FRAMEWORK: The Panchamukhi Hanuman temple being readied for restoration after it suffered major structural damage from multiple earthquakes over the years.

In 2014 , when the authorities decided to renovate the ageing Panchamukhi Hanuman temple in Kathmandu to mitigate possible damage from future earthquakes, they faced an unexpected challenge. Only designated priests were allowed to enter the sanctum room where the Hanuman figure is kept. 

The god was allowed to be worshipped only by the royal family and their priest, and it had been at least a couple of decades since the last known priest entered the sanctum for ritual worship. The practice had been inexplicably discontinued.

Demolition of the walls revealed hidden structural elements- wooden posts, beams and pegs, that prevented the temple from total collapse.

The restoration of the 25 m high temple built in the 17th century was stopped because no engineer could enter the sanctum to assess its structural condition. It was impossible for architects to take measurements of the inside of the temple. The wise and the elderly quickly came up with a solution: perform a Kshyama Puja, the ritual ceremony asking for forgiveness from the deity on an auspicious date by qualified tantric priests from the Taleju Temple. This allowed the relocation of the Hanuman figure to a secure site until the renovations were completed.

A team of seasoned engineers and architects immediately went to work to determine the best way to strengthen the temple and its adjoining wing to increase earthquake resistivity. Sophisticated computer-generated modeling helped the team decide on the strengthening measures to be taken.

An elaborately carved lattice window had been concealed behind a brick wall during a previous restoration job.

Simultaneously, funding was channelised from the Ministry of Culture, supplemented with a grant from the US Embassy. A public discussion was held to gather opinion from experts about the proposed conservation work and approvals were obtained from the Department of Archeology. All administration procedures were set in place to start the conservation work. Then the earthquake struck on 25 April 2015.

The temple standing standing atop four floors of a rectangular building with its unique five circular, tiered roofs had already suffered damage from the smaller earthquakes of 2012 and earlier, and needed renovation. But last year’s quake was a higher magnitude and severely damaged the temple. However, within two months of the earthquake, the project team went back to the drawing board to make a fresh conservation plan.

Archeology and iconology experts carefully examine the carved struts that provide support to the roof.

When the actual renovation started in late 2015, there were more surprises in store. An entire hidden floor less than a metre high, was discovered. As layers of weakened brickwork were peeled off, previously unseen wooden frames that tied the walls in place were revealed. 

A previous restoration job, perhaps hurriedly done, had buried a finely decorated latticed window under several layers of brick. Other unexpected findings during the restoration necessitated a redesign to adjust for the new discoveries, causing delays.

Existing wooden elements and bricks are used without compromising on the added strength and the original ambience of the building.

The new findings added tremendously to the available knowledge on medieval-era construction techniques that our ancestors had developed and mastered over centuries to make buildings safe, strong, graceful and functional all at the same time.

To conform to national as well as UNESCO archeological norms, all retrofitting work was carried out with traditional building materials – brick, wood and lime mortar. Cement and steel were not used, as that would have compromised the authenticity of the building. 

Interventions were kept to a minimum, without compromising on the added strength and the original ambience of the building. Utmost care was taken to salvage and reuse existing bricks, mud mortar and wooden elements. 

A new five-layered wooden cornice was added to the south facade, duplicating the existing one in the east facade.

All unusable wooden artefacts, such as windows, cornices and struts, were replaced with exact reproductions, carved meticulously by talented craftsmen from different parts of Kathmandu Valley. Authorised chemical treatment was applied to increase the longevity of wooden and metal parts. Today, the Panchamukhi Temple is one of the first monuments to be restored post-earthquake even though the preparations were underway before 25 April, 2015. The project also has exhaustive visual and engineering documentation painstakingly collected, with lessons for similar restoration projects. 

The restoration also provided on-the-job training to several young architects and engineers, paving the way for them to become conservation technicians.  

Series coordinated by Alok Siddhi Tuladhar

Read Also:

Rebuilding ourselves, Editorial

Bhaidegah restoration, Stéphane Huët

Rebuilding what is holy, Sahina Shrestha

Before and after in Kathmandu Valley, ALOK TUMBAHANGPHEY

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