Resurrecting Kasthamandap from the rubble
It was a quiet Saturday morning, and people were lining up for a blood donation drive inside the historic pavilion from which Kathmandu gets its name.
Four minutes before noon on 25 April 2015, the building started shaking. There was a frightening roar as nearby temples collapsed in clouds of yellow dust. Kasthamandap’s ancient timber beams creaked and shook, but they could not withstand the force of the quake.
The structure collapsed before the blood donors could scramble out to safety, killing 10 of them. For the past five years this imposing pavilion, built on foundations said to be 1,500 years old, had just been a heap of rubble. But it is finally being restored.
Kathmandu was then on the historic trans-Himalayan trade route between India and Tibet, and Kasthamandap was the bustling rest house where buyers and sellers from the north and south mingled. The exchanges were not just of goods and commodities, but were also cultural and religious.
Kasthamandap means ‘wooden pavilion’, and legend has it that it was constructed from the timber of single giant tree. It is also colloquially called Maru Satha (empty rest house). Everything happened around Kasthamandap, in the bustling Maru bazaar that exists to this day.
“You will still find people here selling old currency from Lhasa and India that have been passed on from one generation to another,” says Alok Siddhi Tuladhar, a heritage conservationist and documentarian.
After it came down in 2015, there was controversy about how exactly to rebuild Kastamandap. After much debate, restoration was entrusted to the Kasthamandap Reconstruction Committee, a citizen-led committee of 55 members made up of heritage experts, architects, government officials and the local community. Caged by its thick bamboo scaffold, the structure is now finally taking its original shape. The construction is targeted to finish three years after the start of the process in 2017 but is being delayed by the pandemic.
The first documented mention of Kasthamandap is from 1143 CE in a Namasangiti manuscript stored in Tibet’s Saskya Monastery. This discredited the common notion that Kasthamandap was built by Laxmi Narsingh Malla in the 17th century. In fact, results of an excavation done in 2016 by the Department of Archaeology and Durham University puts the origins of the site even further back to the 7th century CE.
Recent carbon dating also proved that a mekh (wooden joint) used in a wooden beam is even older -- from the 5th century. Archaeologists have not found any evidence that there was a structure here from that far back, and more site samples are needed. Archaeological digs have been delayed due to the pandemic and the cost of carbon dating.
Says project manager Manindra Shrestha: “Because we only found excavation evidence from just the central foundation, Kasthamandap might have been smaller in size during the 7th century.”
This is disputed by Yagya Man Pati Bajracharya, a Buddhist priest who says he is a descendant of the original builders. “The dimensions of Kasthamandap are ordained by religion, and that is supposed to be the way it is. I don’t think it was smaller in the past.”
Bajracharya is an authority on the subject and correctly predicted that there would be a nine-celled mandala under the central cell of the Gorakhnath Shrine. Sure enough, the excavations proved there was indeed a nine pit mandap in the foundation.
“That information was passed down from generation to generation by my ancestors,” Bajracharya said. “There were written records, but these were destroyed by Jang Bahadur Rana during one of his tantrums.”
Like with every other structure in Kathmandu, the origins of Kasthamandap are also shrouded in myth and legend. Bajracharya thinks it was built during the Licchavi era by Lilabazra, a Buddhist priest and his own 43rd ancestor, as a rest house and mandap.
Another popular legend suggests that Kasthamandap was built from the wood of a single tree. The tree god Kalpa Brikshya is supposed to have visited Kathmandu once to witness the Machindranath chariot festival in human disguise. One of the Buddhist tantric priests recognised him and imprisoned the sage who promised anything for his freedom. The people of Kathmandu asked for timber to build Kasthamandap, and being the god of trees himself, Kalpa Brichya magically created a massive tree enough to supply the Kasthamandap project.
But even after Kasthamandap was erected, there was so much leftover timber that two more buildings were constructed nearby whose names give away their origins: Sin Lyon Sattah (rest house built with leftover wood) and Sin Khon Mu Baha (Buddhist monastic complex built with spare wood).
“Kasthamandap’s destruction was to be expected, it was not at all well maintained and past renovations were done in a rush,” says Binita Magaiya, one of the architects involved in the reconstruction.
In 1960, for example, Kasthamandap was hurriedly repaired with cement for the visit of Queen Elizabeth without much attention to traditional materials. Due to this, one of the keystones that held the columns was improperly placed, and parts of the timber beam that was underground had rotted. This could not hold the monument’s weight when the 2015 earthquake struck.
Says Rajesh Shakya, the head of Kasthamandap Reconstruction Committee, “The traditional methods of construction would not have failed. Every joint and corner was originally designed to withstand earthquakes.”
These were traditional seismic-resistant building techniques like having a copper shoe at the bottom of the timber columns to extend the life of the timber columns and stone bases to distribute the weight equally across the base were used, and these technique are being revived.
With little to no architectural record of the original Kasthamandap, restoring the great structure from scratch was not easy. When the building came down, many of its elements were lost or mishandled. The Committee has been looking for some of the missing pieces for five years, Most of a priceless 6m wooden frieze with Buddhist-Hindu motifs was recovered, and is being reinstalled.
“It was like a 3-D jigsaw puzzle, the picture does not come together even if one piece is lost,” explains Shrestha.
Thankfully, German architect Wolfgang Korn’s architectural drawings of Kasthamandap contained detailed measurements of Kasthamandap, and these proved invaluable in accurately recreating the structure.
Restoration architects also relied on sketches, paintings and old scripts to come up with the blueprint. It was not just getting the design right that was difficult, there were also very few who still had the necessary skill sets for rebuilding.
“There are hardly any workers with traditional skills left in Kathmandu, and we have to bring craftsmen from Bhaktapur,” said Shrestha, adding that each part of the restoration process is being meticulously recorded for future generations.
The saying goes in Kathmandu that the temples were for the gods, palaces were for kings, and the satal (rest house) was for ordinary people. And although the valley has many satal, Kasthamandap was the biggest of its kind. Even on 25 April 2015, it was serving as a venue for public charity event.
Community effort was necessary in rebuilding a monument that had such great local significance. The resurrected Kasthamandap has also revived Kathmandu’s intangible heritage of a sense of community and perhaps also the ancient cosmopolitanism of the pavilion.
Tuladhar sums it up: “Kasthamandap was a home where everyone was welcomed, commoners and nobility, travelers and locals. It still embodies that spirit.”