Ancient Panauti’s French Connection

Panauti in 2013. Photo: PRASANT SHRESTHA

The 13-century town of Panauti has the ambience of a place that has been bypassed by history. The fertile valley along the Rosi Khola was given by the king of Bhaktapur as dowry to his newly-married sister.  However, archaeological finds prove that Panauti was settled much sooner, in the early Kirat period 1,500 years ago.

It escaped the Gorkha invasion of the Valley, 30km to the west, and was annexed into the unified Kingdom of Nepal by default. Situated astride the India-Tibet trade route, Panauti was set back far enough from it not to be tainted by commerce. In 1964, the Kodari Highway linking Nepal with China once more circumvented Panauti. Today, a new alternative road from Lalitpur to the B P Highway in Kavre passes through the town, but it is still not a major highway.

Panauti in 1970s. Photo: GERARD TOFFIN

Panauti today. Photo: PRASANT SHRESTHA



All this has meant that despite the march of modernity and the non-traditional reconstruction after many of its monuments were brought down by the 2015 earthquake, Panauti still retains much of its quaint and bucolic charm. The town has a sacred location at the confluence of the Rosi Khola and the Punyamati, as well as a third mythological river, Lilawati. Panauti is also the seat of the famous Indreswar Temple – one of Nepal’s oldest standing pagoda shrines, built in 1294 to honour Lord Shiva. The temple grounds now house a museum as well.

Panauti also has intangible heritage: it is still a largely cohesive town, which has preserved its Newa culture that has similarities, but also differences, to Kathmandu Valley traditions. Piles of newly harvested paddy are still spread out to dry in golden circles along the brick-paved square of the old palace. Next month, on full moon day, the town will mark the three-day chariot festival and the exciting mass-crossing of the Punyamati by devotees.

Picture taken in 1974. Photo: GERARD TOFFIN

Harvested paddy is still spread out to dry in golden circles along the old palace today. Photo: PRASANT SHRESTHA

This year will also see the Makar Mela, which happens every 12 years in Panauti, when tens of thousands of people from surrounding districts -- including Kathmandu Valley -- will converge on the town to take a dip in the holy confluence of the rivers.  The month-long festival will be held in January.

It was at the last Makar Mela in 2010 that Panauti native and photographer Prasant Shrestha met Gerard Toffin, the French anthropologist who has researched Nepal’s Newa civilisation. Toffin is now emeritus professor at the Centre national de recherche scientifique (CNRS) and was involved in detailed research of Panauti’s culture and architecture with Vincent Barré, Patrick Berger and Laurence Feveile. This led to French Government involvement in the restoration of Panauti and its urban renewal from 1979-1989, just as the Germans were involved in restoring Bhaktapur.

Bramhayani temple in 1970s. Photo: GERARD TOFFIN

Bramhayani temple today. Photo: PRASANT SHRESTHA

To find out more about Panauti’s past, present and perhaps even the future, Shrestha and Toffin have collaborated on an exhibition of old and new photographs at the Alliance Française in Jhamsikhel, on display till 6 May. The exhibition is part of events to mark the 70th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between France and Nepal.

Toffin’s photographs of Panauti from the 1970s are juxtaposed with Shrestha’s recent images from the same spot. The before-and-after photography depicts the changes that have taken place in the town in the past four decades, but it is also heartening to see how much of the core area of Panauti is preserved. In fact, a temple that is in ruins after the 1934 earthquake in Toffin’s photograph, has been meticulously restored in Shrestha’s image of the same shrine.



Says Shrestha: “We have managed to restore and salvage much of Panauti’s history and culture, and now we need to get the younger generation to value our heritage. That is why this exhibition is important: to prove that our past is precious.”

Changes in Panauti

Photo Exhibition

Till 6 May, 9am-5pm

Alliance Française Kathmandu

Jhamsikhel  01 5009221

Free Entry