The historic Kathmandu beneath our feet
In late December 2021, social and mainstream media in Nepal was abuzz with news of the discovery of a stone slab in Patan Darbar Square area that contained ancient inscriptions.
Labourers working on the sewage system in front of the Bhimsen Temple came across the 1.5m high shilalekh in a layer of clay below cement pipes.
At the top of the inscription were two deer facing a Dharma Chakra, indicating it to be a Buddhist engraving. A team led by epigraphists Shyam Sundar Rajbanshi and archeologist Prakash Darnal studied the inscription and the area, and have determined it to be around 1,400 years old. Rajbanshi says, the inscription mentions the date Licchavi Sambat 536, which corresponds to 613 CE.
“It talks about a bihar built by Brish Dev and renovated by Amshuvarma,” explains Rajbanshi, taking the names of the Lichhavi-era kings. “Normally, inscriptions are kept in the periphery of the monuments, so it is probable that the structure was in that area.”
When the inscription was unearthed, the glaze over it was gone and parts of the inscriptions were damaged by mud and cement, rendering it difficult to read. What is surprising is that it was installed using cement, meaning that there must have been an intervention in recent years.
“Whoever did it must have known about its existence and yet chose to bury it under the ground. This is also an important part of our history, and it was buried for so long because of past carelessness,” says Rajbanshi.
While studying the area, Darnal also found a wall that may be of archeological interest just 1.4m below the recently dug site. “Whether it is of the bihar or not is difficult to say without proper study but we have noted that it is of interest,” he says.
Over the centuries, successive dynasties that ruled Kathmandu Valley left behind a legacy of palace complexes and temples, of which many from the Malla era are still standing. But very little is known about the earlier phases of Kathmandu’s history, especially subsurface archeological heritage.
Recent excavations in Lumbini have uncovered pre-brick structures below standing remains, which suggest that before the development of non-durable buildings there were already structures with non-fired bricks present.
Experts say that is also likely in Kathmandu Valley with its historical settlements and the presence of inscriptions dating back to the 4th century CE. Historical chronicles also state that sites like Pashupati were built as far back as the 3rd century, suggesting that there may be more to uncover below these ancient sites. But unplanned and haphazard urbanisation in Kathmandu, and the lack of political and community will are destroying our past.
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In his travelogue, An Account of Tibet The Travels of Ippolito Desideri of Pistoia, S.J. 1712- 1727, Italian Jesuit Ippolito Desideri who visited Kathmandu in 1721, mentions a plain stretching two miles (believed to be Tundikhel) near a pond. He writes, ‘There are many pyramids, or towers … dedicated to their Gods.’
If it is indeed Tundikhel that Desideri describes, there are only two of the ‘many’ temples remaining in the vicinity, the Bhadrakali temple in the eastern side and the Mahankal temple on the western edge. Others may have been destroyed or buried over the years, the remains of which may still be around.
“Ground levels in cities rise overtime as new structures are built over the rubble of older ones that have collapsed or been abandoned due to various reasons like fire or in case of Kathmandu Valley, earthquakes,” explains Rohit Ranjitkar of the Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust (KVPT), who did his PhD in heritage restoration.
The Pantheon in Rome was built on the site of another structure built around 27 BCE, but was destroyed in a fire. It was restored around 80 CE, but was again burnt to the ground after being struck by lightning 30 years later. It was later restored in 128 CE. Much of this information is found through painstaking archaeological work and historical records.
The centres of other European cities like Athens and Pompeii also have carefully preserved sites for archaeological digs.
In Kathmandu, the dabali across the Nautale Darbar, Basantapur has two chaitya more than 1m below current ground level. In front of the Kumari Ghar in Kathmandu Darbar Square, workers came across the finial of a chiba while building a road 15 years ago. This finial is still visible and the area has been encased in metal bars. These sites have also shown how the ground level has risen in Kathmandu over the centuries after being built over.
Ranjitkar says the dabali was actually a part of the palace before the 1934 earthquake. The houses there were damaged, but instead of repairing them, the palace complex was restructured, leaving the area open to make it easier for Prime Minister Judda Shamsher to manoeuvre his car. There were other subtle and not-so-subtle changes to the Darbar Squares after the 1934 earthquake.
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Kathmandu Valley has a history of earthquakes every 60-70 years. Early history of the Valley has been known from textual sources like inscriptions from 4th century CE onwards, manuscript colophons after 8th century CE, and archives like the Gopālarājavaṃśāvalī.
These chronicles provide a regular recording of earthquakes including those in 1224, 1255, 1260, 1344, 1408, 1618, 1767, 1823, 1833, 1834, 1869, 1916 and 1934 – and prove the contention of seismologists about the Himalayan tectonics. While the accounts of earlier earthquakes are generalised, there are more details available for the earthquakes of 1833 and 1934.
After the 1934 earthquake, the Bhandarkhal garden in the backyard of Patan Darbar was used to deposit debris from the palace complex and nearby areas. For years, no one cared to clean up the rubble and the garden lay dilapidated as the palace itself was used for government offices.
When KVPT was working to restore the Bhandarkhal pond in Patan Darbar Square in 2009, it discovered that the ground level of the area before the 1934 earthquake was much lower. The pond was in a dilapidated condition. There was a brick wall on the upper level that was built after the 1934 earthquake to contain the debris deposited in the garden. While working on the pond the team discovered the original base of the outer wall of the pond.
“This gave us an idea of the historic pre-1934 ground level, so we cleared up the entire garden to preserve that,” says Ranjitkar. One can see how high the ground was after the 1934 earthquake by looking at the trees. The team built a substructure to support and preserve the trees that had grown over the raised area. While clearing up the debris, they also discovered ancient stone artefacts currently kept in the Patan Museum garden.
Even after the restoration of pre-1934 level, one can see more layers underneath which could contain relics of debris from previous earthquakes. Says Ranjitkar: “When we excavated in Bhandarkhal garden, we found pockets of structure made of stone that were bigger than the ones that were in use at the time. This shows that there is a lot to learn about Kathmandu’s subsurface heritage.”
After the 2015 earthquake, a team from Durham University in coordination with UNESCO and the Nepal government, conducted Ground Penetrating Radar Survey and geo-archaeological analysis of the three Darbar Square areas of Kathmandu Valley. It was determined that Kasthamandap which was thought to be a 12th century structure was actually built in the 7th century. The team also found that in all three palaces the subsurface level had been intruded by modern utilities like water, sewage and electric cables.
The team has produced a provisional risk map of all three palace complexes highlighting possible archeological sites. The report has highlighted some areas in red as High Risk where there should be no intrusive development whatsoever. Yellow areas are Moderate Risk where construction should be avoided if possible, and Low Risk where development can take place but should be as non-intrusive as possible and fully reversible (see box).
After the 2015 earthquake, UNESCO and the Department of Archaeology (DoA) also made an emergency intervention at the Tashi Gomang Stupa (Mangal Bahudwar Chaitya) in Swayambhu, where they found that inside the stucco stupa was another stupa with sculptures and terracotta closely resembling those found at Mahabouddha in Patan. This could indicate that the inner stupa could be from a similar timeframe.
The discovery of the hidden chaitya could also prove that the practice of adding layers, creating a multi-shell structure – something characteristic of the larger mahachaitya – also occurred in smaller stupas.
Kathmandu’s Handigaon is perhaps the best known site related to the Lichhavi era, and is considered to be the capital of the dynasty. The area has been studied a few times since the 1960s and many 1,300 year old terracotta figures and pottery have been found here, including an inscription dating back to King Amshuvarma.
In 1989, an Italian team from ISMEO conducted an excavation at Satya Narayan temple in Handigaun which indicated that the earliest habitation activity in Kathmandu was in the 1st century BCE. Along with other archeological artefacts, a stone conduit dating back to 726 CE in the time of King Priya Varman was also discovered. A life-size stone statue of Jaya Varma was also discovered with an inscription dating back to the 2nd century CE from nearby Maligaun.
Many scholars including conservation architect Sudarshan Raj Tiwari believe that the fabled Kailashkut Bhawan was in this area. This was Lichhavi King Amshuverma’s palace built in 598 CE, and so big that Chinese monk Xuanzang who visited Kathmandu at the time chronicled that its upper chamber could hold 1,000 people.
“When we were looking for Kailashkut Bhawan, we found traces of archeological deposits inside the Balmandir complex. We are not sure if it is indeed the historical structure, but we also do not know if it is not,” says Tiwari. "Archeologists think that small traces aren't enough proof of anything, they need an entire wall to say that a building was there. But that is not the case because a lot of these places have been disturbed."
However, Handigaun is being rapidly built up with residential houses and office blocks. The DoA has said there are traces of the ancient palace in Handigaun but has not moved to protect the site.
Adds Tiwari: “The first thing that needs to be done is building restrictions in archaeological sites. We have been telling the government to control construction in Handigaun for years but nothing has happened. When we did the ground radar survey recently, we had to do it on the road.”
Even there, the team discovered that the areas under the ground had been disturbed with water pipes and other cable conduits.
Handigaun is not an isolated case. In 1984, while constructing the subway at Bhotahiti, an ancient system with four water conduits was discovered. One of the conduits which was facing east had an inscription dating back to 596 CE saying it was constructed by Bibhu Varman during the rule of King Amshuvarma. The other three facing west and north were from the Malla era. Water was still flowing from the spouts when they were unearthed.
But instead of preserving them, the municipality extracted the stone water spouts and stored them in the National Museum in Chhauni. The area was build over with an underpass that no one uses, but water is still seeping out through the concrete from this ancient system.
Bhotahiti was among the seven water spouts in the area, and locals say it was first buried during the expansion of Tundikhel by the Ranas in the 1880s.
Some 80m north from Bhotahiti towards Jamal is another sunken water spout called Jhanga Hiti which was covered over in 1981 after a local football team got permission to build its clubhouse over the historic site. The lower levels of the building now have shops while the football club has offices and meeting halls on the upper floors.
Locals also say that another sunken water spout lies buried under the Nepal Electricity Authority (NEA) building east of Ratna Park.
“History is layered, both metaphorically and literally,” says heritage documentarian and activist Alok Siddhi Tuladhar. “While it is understandable that things were destroyed during the Rana regime, it is sad that the same happened and continues to happen when we have people’s representatives running the government.”
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When it comes to conservation of these sites, ownership also plays an important role. Ancient pottery and terracotta have been found when digging foundations of buildings in Handigaun. Tiwari says that because people do not want to be bothered with delays in construction, they never report the finds.
In 1989, an inscription dating 536 of the Licchavi era was discovered in Baluwagaun near Gokarna which mentioned the presence of a Rajbihar as well as a village, making the area of archeological significance.
Archaeologist Prakash Darnal remembers that a house was being built over the find, and when the Village Development Committee was asked to stop construction, officials said nothing could be done because it was private property. A stone water conduit was found while digging the foundation of a private house in Hattisar, and that construction also could not be stopped.
Heritage experts say public awareness as well as political will is necessary to save Kathmandu’s historical sites both beneath the ground as much as above the ground.
“We explore and excavate to see if there is anything in the subsurface. But once it is done, it doesn’t mean the job is finished,” says Sudarshan Tiwari. “The reports have to be accessible, and in a language that is understandable by general public. This way people will become more aware about the value of protection.
“The government then has to implement the recommendations and specify the limitations. Everyone needs to take the conservation of these sites seriously,” he adds.
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What is beneath Kathmandu's Darbar Squares?
Provisional risk map for Kathmandu Darbar Square (left) and Bhaktapur Darbar Square (right). Source: POST-DISASTER URBAN ARCHAEOLOGICAL INVESTIGATION, EVALUATION AND INTERPRETATION IN THE KATHMANDU VALLEY WORLD HERITAGE PROPERTY
Archaeological investigation of the Kathmandu Darbar Square area by UNESCO, Durham University and the Nepal government after the 2015 earthquake classified the World Heritage Site into three zones for protection of subsurface relics of archaeological significance. It recommended:
Red ‘High Risk’ areas contain the most important archaeological remains at the site and are of significance not only to understand the development of a specific Darbar Square, but also the wider Kathmandu Valley and beyond. There should be no further development in these areas, and any existing modern structures should wherever possible be removed.
Yellow ‘Moderate Risk’ areas contain (or may contain) archaeological remains that can inform us about the development of a specific Darbar Square. Development in these areas should be kept to a minimum, in accordance with an Archaeological Watching Brief.
Green ‘Low Risk’ areas contain minor or no archaeological remains, which may be able to inform us about the development of a specific Darbar Square. Development in these areas is possible, but should be undertaken in accordance with an Archaeological Watching Brief.
Sahina Shrestha is a journalist interested in digital storytelling, product management, and audience development and engagement. She covers culture, heritage, and social justice. She has a Masters in Journalism from New York University.