Turning a shrine into a temple of learning

Tripurasundari Temple in Kathmandu undergoing restoration. Photo: LOCHAN RIJAL

On 25 April 2015, when a 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit Nepal, aside from lives lost and homes destroyed, there was great damage to the temples and monuments of Kathmandu Valley.

Today, five years later, many have been rebuilt, some of them adhering even more to the original designs. But there are others which are only now being rebuilt like the 1,300 year old Kasthamandap and other shrines, with reconstruction further delayed by the COVID-19 lockdown.

One of the more unique monuments under reconstruction is the Kal Mochan Temple and Mahadev Temple in Tripureswor. Having been built relatively recently in 1818, the temple is also unique because it is a tribute to a Shah queen, Lalita Tripura Sundari, but built in the style of the Malla period.

The temple has been under renovation for the Kathmandu University Department of Music after signing a 25-year agreement with the Guthi Sansthan that manages heritage activities and the Department of Archaeology.

The elegant, tall temple is located by the banks of Bagmati, and was in the process of being retrofitted when the 2015 earthquake struck damaging the structure and the surrounding sattal. But a dispute between a self-styled musical instrument museum occupying the north wing of the temple courtyard, has been refusing to vacate despite losing its case against Kathmandu University.

Lochan Rijal heads the Department of Music at Kathmandu University and is optimistic that the school and its students from Nepal and 35 other countries can move in once renovation, which is funded by the Thai government and university, is complete.

“The Lalit Tripurasundari site is the best available spot for a school of ethno-musicology,” Rijal said. “Our purpose is to amalgamate both tangible and intangible heritage so that students can have an authentic cultural foundation for their study of music.”

Just as the university was planning to move it, the final touches of the renovation work has been delayed by the coronavirus lockdown. Even so, wood carvers, architects and construction workers are at work at the site, aiming to complete the project on schedule.

“We have to finish the project anyway, but for that the lockdown needs to end, otherwise, we will run out of funding. But we are patient, and will wait it out,” Rijal adds.

Rohit Ranjitkar of the Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust is a consultant architect for the Tripurasundari Temple project and brings with him vast experience from the renovation work in Patan.

“The temple was had fallen into disuse for a long time, there were squatters living in it, and the monument suffered from lack of maintenance and supervision,” Ranjitkar says. “The Department of Music coming on board will mean a new beginning in preserving this unique  heritage.”

Indeed, the renovation stays true to the original architecture of the complex, but has completely remodelled the inside of the sattal for use as classrooms and for musical performances. The KU Department of Music started outing Bhaktapur and expects to move into the new premises later this year.

Artisans from Bhaktapur are busy replacing wooden columns that have bene damaged by copying the carvings from the intact ones. The metal roof has had to be repaired, and the pinnacle is gleaming in the sun after being cleaned and dusted, possibly for the first time in the 2002 years since it was built.

The Tripurasundari restoration has given added meaning to post-earthquake revival by turning a shrine also into a temple of learning.

Fighting to preserve heritage

Although Bhaktapur and Patan have made much progress in renovation of temples, monument complexes and shrines, Kathmandu has not shown the same level of commitment.

Being the capital, Kathmandu has had to deal with foreign countries competing to rebuild various parts of the old town. Even though Nepal has rebuilt its monuments itself after destructive earthquakes every 100 years,  governments since 2015 have not been able to say no. The hanuman Dhaka Palace is being rebuilt by the Chinese, the Gaddi Baithak was renovated by the United States, the Japanese are rebuilding a section of the Nasal Chok.

But there have been delays even the sites that the municipality itself was reconstructing like Kasthamandap and Rani Pokhara. Disputes arose between heritage preservationists and the city government which wanted to pour concrete and depart from the original style and design. The disagreement has finally been sorted out, and both sites are now being rebuilt.

Dharara tower, where more than 60 people were killed five years ago, was also bogged down in a controversy about how to rebuild it. It was finally decided to keep the base of the tower that remains as a monument to the earthquake, and build another identical tower next to it.

In July 2019, UNESCO issued a statement on dropping two construction projects from Basantapur Durbar Square the Jagannath and Gopinath temples, following threats from the community and local workers.

Sushil Gyewali, the head of Nepal Reconstruction Authority, agrees that there have bene delays in Kathmandu and hints are lack of coordination between various government entities.

He adds: “It is true that the authority has prioritised family homes, and heritage reconstruction has suffered, and the lockdown has pushed the completion further.”