Preserving Patan post-earthquake

All photos: THOMAS KELLY

Much of Kathmandu’s centuries-old architectural heritage was destroyed in 45 seconds on a Saturday afternoon in 2015. Many of the temples built by the Malla kings in 16th and 17th century in the three Darbar Squares of Kathmandu, Bhaktapur and Patan, collapsed.

But in the aftermath of the 2015 earthquake, the Patan Darbar Square stood out as a model of the conservation effort.

Immediately after the earthquake, local volunteers gathered to collect and protect the remnants of the temples,cordoning off the premises and keeping the struts, columns and pillars safe in the Patan Museum courtyard.

Led by the Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust (KVPT) in cooperation with the Department of Archaeology the quadrangle palace complex is being restored piece by piece with care and patience.

“I don’t view the earthquake only as a negative,” reflects Rohit Ranjitkar, director of KVPT, the non-profit that has worked in the Valley for three decades. “Before the earthquake, a lot of people did not value the heritage here. But when the temples collapsed, they suddenly had no place to worship. They recognised the historical and religious value of their shrines. The earthquake brought both the intangible and tangible heritage together.”

Restoration of a number of temples is still on-going. But as the national priorities have shifted and building costs increased after the pandemic, the process has slowed down.

Char Narayan Mandir

The oldest major temple in Patan Darbar Square, Char Narayan Mandir collapsed down to the plinth. But within a week, local volunteers rescued and stacked the original veneer bricks and carved elements around the square.

With the help of old photos, five broken struts and other parts were reused and repaired, so that the temple could be restored in its original form.

Built primarily of brick in the pagoda style, Char Nayaran has two tiered roofs supported by carved struts. In Newa woodcarving, the temple struts surpass their functional purpose, as they are also artistic, protective, and divine. Twelve of the twenty struts that support Char Narayan’s lower roof depict Vishnu in his manifestation as the cow herding Krishna.

Read also: Learning from Nepal's past to rebuilt its future, Prakriti Kandel

Char Narayan’s construction started in 1563, and struts of this era often feature deities with 16 arms in different positions, often holding objects identified with the deity. When the temple came down, 162 arms were rescued from the rubble of the temple and nearby Harishankar temple.

The team installed the struts in their proper cardinal directions and the 102 arms that could not be put back are displayed in the Patan Museum in an exhibition dedicated to post-earthquake rescue and conservation efforts.

Two years ago, KVPT appointed Shiva Chauguthi as the head carpenter on the scaffoldings of temple roofs and to oversee the restoration according to precise measurements.

“Joining timber correctly that high up is the hardest thing for a carpenter to learn,” says Chauguthi.

Born in Bhaktapur, a city famous for its woodworkers and carvers, Chauguthi learned to make furniture as a boy. “When I was first recruited, I wondered, how can I do this? But now I can show what I achieved,” he says.

Some of the timber pieces were 4 metres long, until recent years, wood was abundant in Nepal. It is in this medium that Newa craftsmen excelled in, but larger pieces of timber have become harder to get ,and the younger generations have moved away from woodwork.

“We need the government or an organisation created to teach the word carving art and give certification,” says Indra Kaji Shilpakar.

Indra Kaji and his son Indra Prasad worked and oversaw the carvings in several temples around Patan Darbar Squareafter 2015. He is from a generation which learnt wood carving from his father and uncle at the age of 12 using traditional tools.

Familiar with traditional iconography and equipped with his grandfather’s drawings, Indra Kaji draws the imagery onto the wood to reproduce or repair the struts or door panel. The wood carvers then carve the details out.

Then he or his son complete the final intricate designs and install the piece based on traditional knowledge. It takes up to five months to carve out a whole torana, the ornamental arched piece above a portal and a single panel flanking a door or window 5-6 weeks.

“One thing we did not know before the earthquake is how our ancestors saved time, putting the most intricate carving closer to the ground where we can best see it. So, a first-floor temple window may have the carving of a god. The floor above may have a lion, and then above that a bird, and then perhaps only a small motif on the top level,” says Indra Prasad.

Periodic earthquakes also offer the chance for this inter-generational knowledge and craftsmanship to be revived and passed on.

Harishankar Mandir

The Harishankar temple survived the earthquakes of 1809, 1833 and 1934, but the three-tiered shrine built in 1706 collapsed almost completely in 2015.

The rebuilding involved sorting, documenting and repairing 2,000 parts. In 2017, the first storey temple ambulatory including columns, capitals and beams was test-assembled in KVPT’s workshop, then disassembled and reassembled on the original plinth.

In 2018 the second storey woodwork was installed and in 2019 the third storey was completed. 16 truckloads of yellow mud topped by overlapping clay jhingati tiles to cover the roofs. Finally, metalsmiths Babu Ratna and Binod repaired and re-gilded the roof pinnacle.

The reconstruction spanned four years and used 90% of the original recovered materials while improving seismic strength.

The image of Harishankar was damaged diagonally at the waist during the earthquake. Local engineers, craftsmen and a team from University of Applied Arts, Vienna helped repair the one and a half-meter tall, eight armed manifestation of Vishnu (Hari) and Shiva (Shankar), that stood in the sanctum of the temple.

But local customs dictate that a broken statue cannot be worshipped. So it was Amar Shakya, master stone carver who carefully sculpted out a replica with the help of a photograph.

The temple priest gave the new statue life during a homa puja, a ritual of regeneration. Both the original and the new god reside together to receive worshippers in the temple’s sanctum.

“Before I was hired to work on the square, I did not take so much notice of it. But now I’ve looked hard at everything and it has inspired me in my profession,” says Shakya, who also helped KVPT restore and replace stone images that were stolen in other temples.

He is particularly proud of an image of Mahalakshmi, eternal companion of Lord Vishnu, which he carved to replace a stolen image in the Vishveshwara temple.

The Priestess

For hundreds of years, the relatives of Bandana Jha, 35 performed daily ritual puja at the temples in the square. When a priest who had performed puja for the Harishankar temple could not carry on, she and her mother-in-law took over.

Every day starting at 4am, Jha goes to the various temples in the neighbourhood. After completing the rituals at Krishna temple in the southern end of the square, she makes her way to Hari Shankar temple.

Read also: The history of heritage, Ashish Dhakal

She opens the door to the inner sanctum after cleaning off the dust and popsicle sticks in front of it. In the center of the sanctum stands the impressive statue of Hari Shankar. The right half of the image, Shiva, is flanked by a smaller Uma Parvati, while the left half, Vishnu, is accompanied by Laxmi.

It has been so well-repaired one can scarcely see the damage, but a replica image rests on a stone block below it.

“God is in both”, she says, “but the old one is imperfect for worship.”

She washes both the statues with water and lights an oil lamp, assembling rice, black sesame, unhusked grains of barley, red and yellow powder, and orange and red petals. She scatters petals and grains on the feet and then the heads of each image, marking the feet, navel, arms and head with vermillion powder. She rings the bell and recites the chants.

Jha offers sweets and fruits and lights the incense. She ritually washes her face with the smoke, a blessing from the gods,  and bows her head to the feet of each statue.

She then returns home to make tea and have a meal with her mother-in-law, satisfied that the gods are fed and cared for till the next day.

Krishna Mandir

The three-storey, square stone shikhara temple withstood the 2015 earthquake but the base, corner stones and other elements had been disintegrating and the stone columns were out of alignment following insufficient repairs after the previous quakes.

For the small team of Nepali architects, engineers and stone masons of KVPT, designing a way to shore up the building and replace four bearing corner stones on the second story, which houses a shiva lingam, was a steep learning curve.

Repair required lifting stones weighing up to 700kg to 5 meters above the square and then removing and replacing the damaged corner stones, a dangerous procedure that potentially risked the stability of the building.

The conservation process lasted three years, finishing just in time to celebrate Lord Krishna’s birthday in 2018.

Surya Bahadur Ranjitkar and his father Asha Bahadur Ranjitkar were an integral part of the team that restored the Krishna Mandir. A descendent of a long line of stone carvers, Surya Bahadur has worked with KVPT for 13 years.

On the second floor of Krishna Mandir, Surya Bahadur carved and replaced base stones, spending days climbing up and down a heavy scaffold. “I was scared because the stones were so large and heavy, but I wore a helmet and could do it using a chain pulley,” he recounts.

Yoganarendra Malla

King Yoganarendra Malla erected the 8m stone pillar with a sculpture of himself, flanked by his two wives at the top in 1693. He is symbolically protected by a large serpent deity, or naga, and is armed with two swords and a shield. But the king’s statue was not protected from the earthquake.

The statue crashed beneath the fallen pedestal, bending the King at the neck and waist, but fortunately the head was intact.

“Everyone wanted to make a new one, but the old is valuable — it has history. We are not here to create Disneyland,” says Rohit Ranjitkar of KVPT.

The team put a steel skeleton inside the statue and the pedestal to strengthen it. Then with help from the Viennese conservators, the areas that were damaged from hammering the King’s body back into shape were gilded.

In 2016 the pillar was re-erected, and in 2017 the king and his wives were back on their high perch above the square. It was Babu Ratna Maharjan who hammered out each part of the lotus, straightened out the iron rod within the snake and disassembled and repaired the parts of the statue of Yoganarendra Malla and his wives.

“It is easier to make something new than to repair the old,” admits Babu Ratna. “What I learned from KVPT is how to conserve with quality, take time, and not to compromise.”

Babu Ratna has been working with KVPT for 20 years, making repoussé and developing new technology for installation of stone pillars and blocks.

“I never thought the square would be rebuilt in my lifetime. Now I come here with my child and am so proud — rebuilding is part of our story,” he says.

After the 2015 earthquake, the Bhimsen temple at the southern end of the square needed to be strengthened on all four sides.

KVPT’s artisans not only strengthened the building, but replaced stolen images around the gilded copper repoussé door frame. With the temple’s splendid metal decorations gleaming, the Prime Minister of Nepal recently consecrated its reopening.

Repoussé carvers

Brothers Rajendra and Rabindra Shakya learned metal work from their family when they were only children. Rabindra then went on to an arts university to continue his training. In their workshop, composed mostly of a series of metal sheds, images of deities and buddhas destined for monasteries all around the world are under creation.

Their work involves drawing a design to a sheet of metal, setting it in pitch and hammering from the backside (repoussé) and then setting it in pitch again before carving details with chisels.

It is not sure yet if the next generation of this family will continue their metalwork tradition, but for four years the brothers have been training three boys of the Tamang ethnicity, all in their early twenties. “That these boys are interested to learn is so important for the future, or else our profession will not continue,” says Rajendra.

Vishveshwara Mandir

Consecrated in 1627, the roofs of both the storeys of Vishveshwara Temple collapsed due to rain in 1989. The damaged stone elephants at the front which were at the time poorly patched with cement and sand serve as a reminder of this event.

The carved wooden columns on the temples first storey create what scholar Niels Gutschow calls a “virtual forest of sturdy pillars”.

In 2015, it was this timber structure that saved the temple when its brick walls collapsed.  Now the brick masonry has been rebuilt and the precious columns have a steel skeleton to take the load. Though some of the temple’s stone bases were broken, the KVPT team salvaged the stone pieces and rejoined them.

“Conserving doesn’t mean you have to build from scratch,” says Rohit, who is critical of quick rebuilding efforts that take place without research and investigation. “People don’t want to reuse old pieces. Most people don’t understand the importance of saving material, the importance of things that are old.”

Unique to Newa brick construction is the use of daci apa brick, a type of exterior veneer brick that tapers towards the back, with the front face showing almost no mortar. This high-fired deep red brick makes a beautiful smooth wall surface. Behind it is an interior layer of low-fired brick called ma apa, and a core of rubble brick fills in the space between these outer and inner layers.

Few people today retain the ancient skill of bricklaying. Bishwo Ram Suwal, 53, is a master mason who has worked at KVPT for 14 years, not only laying brick but also paving stone and installing heavy base stones of the temples.

When he saw the square after the earthquake, the salvaged bricks carefully stacked in piles around the collapsed temples, he knew that although the task of rebuilding was daunting, it could be done.

Where temples had collapsed completely, the task to rebuild was relatively straightforward. With collapsed temples, he simply started with the foundation and built upwards. Much harder was to repair walls that still stood but were fragile.

In the process of repairing walls he came up with new ideas, such as a system of interlocking outer and inner bricks to make the walls more resilient long term. Says Suwal, “We are lucky to have the chance to work on these monuments, as they are a gift from our ancestors. In working on them we see their skill.”