Selective outrage about heritage loss

PAST GLORY: Bhasmeswar Mahadev Temple before it was destroyed by the 1934 earthquake, with Uma Maheswar on the left and Patan Darbar behind it. Pic: DHARMA MAHARJAN AND OTHERS

Contractors were using an excavator to dig a new community water storage tank in Patan’s Mangal Bazar last month when they unearthed an ancient sunken water spout.

Legend had it that the Sumangal Dhara spout had water with such miraculous qualities that kings who washed there were granted their wish. The kings of Bhaktapur got jealous and asked the Patan king for a favour: build a Shiva temple above the very spout.

Being a close kin of the Malla clan, the Patan royal ended up burying the spout to build the temple of Bhasmeswar Mahadev, thus depriving himself of the water that could deliver miracles.

The legend survives to this day, but neither the temple nor the water spout do. The small domed shrine replaced the grand shikhara-style stone temple destroyed in 1934, and the Sumangal Dhara was rediscovered last month only to be hurriedly reburied for the concrete lining of the new water tank.

At a time when there are protests about the Guthi Bill, Rani Pokhari and other heritage sites threatened by modern infrastructure, there has been little outrage about Sumangal and Bhasmeswar at the Patan World Heritage Site.

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The temple was probably built in the 16th century, and after being destroyed in 1934 was hastily replaced by Juddha Shumsher’s administration, smaller in size and different in structure.

“Back then, the principles of heritage conservation and reconstruction were not followed, and no one thought of preserving the original structure,” said Kaji Pyakurel of the Department of Architecture (DoA).

The legend of the sunken spout that could perform miracles resurfaced this June as the government began digging up the area. The stone ruins of the Sumangal Dhara surfaced with a brick lining, a stone floor and two pieces of stone spouts.

“It seemed to be the historical spout, but the dozer had already damaged some of the structure and it was monsoon season, so we could not investigate further,” Pyakurel said. The historic site has now been covered with concrete to create a park on top of the reservoir.

“When the earthquake struck in 2015, we realised that open spaces are valuable,” said Sumendra Tamrakar, who owns a tea shop next to the proposed park and did not seemed unduly concerned about the historical importance of the site. “This open space was not being used. Once it is turned into a park with benches, tourists could enjoy the view of Patan Darbar Square from here, and that would be a boost for our business.”

Ward Chair Narayan Lal Awale also did not seem much bothered. He told us: “Reconstructing that stone spout today does not make sense. The square has changed since the Malla era. If we have water coming out from there now, there is no place for it to flow. It would become a garbage dump. We want to be practical rather than sentimental about what serves the needs of the people better.”

Awale insists the DoA is responsible for conservation or reconstruction of the stone spout, and that the ward office has taken care to construct the water tank away from it so that the archaeological remains are undisturbed. The DoA claims the ward office was unauthorised to dig there in the first place, and Patan could lose its World Heritage listing with such development.

Asked why this Malla-era gem lies neglected, the ward office and DoA are in agreement — they say there is too little information to act on. “We cannot just start rebuilding this temple on a hunch. There were no remaining pieces, and no records of what it looked like,” Awale claimed.

However, old photos and sketches of the temple do exist, and heritage conservationists say that the real reason behind this reluctance to preserve the temple and spout is that no one sees personal benefit in it.

“There were angry protests about the Guthi Bill because it involved expensive urban real estate. But there is no personal property or money to be made here, and no one cares about faith,” laments Patan resident and culture expert Hariram Joshi, 84.

Joshi was born two years after the 1934 earthquake, so he did not see the temple and spout in their full glory. But he knows enough of local history to be sure that the Bhasmeswar and the Uma Maheswar temple next to it were grand stone monuments. With the nearby Radha Krishna temple, the three were the holy trinity of Patan.

“Of course, they both should be reconstructed so that our heritage can be preserved,” says Joshi. “But our government has totally ignored this landmark of vital importance, which is a sad thing.”