Bedrock of Buddhism

Restoring Itumbaha also saves the Valley’s intangible monastic heritage


All Nepalis take pride in the fact that the Buddha was born in Nepal, but few may know that Kathmandu Valley has the longest uninterrupted Buddhist tradition.

Legend has it that the Mauryan Emperor Ashoka visited the Valley and married his daughter Charumati to a Patan nobility 2,000 years ago. The stupas of Chabahil and Pim Baha date back to that period. Buddhism has been preserved and continuously practiced in Kathmandu Valley since then to this day.

Because of Kathmandu Valley’s relative isolation, the monastic tradition survived here while it was destroyed by waves of Muslim invasion in north India. The centres of learning and worship safeguarded Theravada practices, while evolving into the unique Vajrayana traditions that are the characteristic of Newar Buddhism that then travelled north into Tibet, China and up to Japan, assimilating local influences along the way.

It was in the Valley’s monastic sites, known as baha, that rituals and tantric practices of Newar Buddhism thrive to this day. Seven of Kathmandu Valley’s temple complexes are in UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites, and Itumbaha is one of five main Newar Buddhist monastic enclaves in Kathmandu.

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The World Monument Watch has included Itumbaha in its list of most endangered sites. A visit to the square shows why: while the courtyard and temple are intact, it is now surrounded by concrete high-rises of inner city Kathmandu. 

Itumbaha has existed for at least 800 years, and many of the carved wooden struts and columns, steles and votive structures survived earthquakes, invasions and political upheavals. Indeed, Itumbaha is only one of only three monastic structures in Kathmandu Valley that have preserved their original architecture for so long. 

The monastery is a part of the community and its rituals and activities are managed by the local sangha made of non-celibate priests, and the leadership in itself has been passed down through the generations. 

Because of its importance, Itumbaha was selected for urgent protection in 2003, and work started in restoring the collapsed south wing of the courtyard by Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust (KVPT) with support from the German Embassy and the local community. The eastern wing was subsequently restored with support from the World Monument Fund.

Read also: Polishing up the past, Nepali Times

The historical and cultural importance of Itumbaha and its meticulous rehabilitation from 2002- 2016 is now documented in a new book launched by KVPT last week: Restoration of Itumbaha.

The book has contributions from a star cast of heritage conservationists and architects like Niels Gutschow, Thomas Schrom, Rohit Ranjitkar and contributions by other local and international experts.

Alexander von Rospatt of Berkeley has a longish chapter on the monastic traditions of Itumbaha and explains why its intangible heritage is the reason the place is such a culturally vibrant shrine to this day.

Gutschow documents in great detail the restoration work, with revealing before and after illustrations. One of the elaborately carved wooden tympanum was stolen in 2003 and has never been found. It was probably sold by art dealers to collectors or museums.

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As a part of the effort to protect existing artefacts and to spread awareness about heritage theft, a small room in the southwest corner of the courtyard is housing a museum that is being upgraded with support from the Rubin Museum.

The Itumbaha Initiative did not even try to fight the tidal wave of concrete that engulfed the historic heart of Kathmandu in the past decades. There was no legal way to stop private property owners to go high, and neither was there the political will to implement zoning laws.

Gutschow notes: ‘Entering the courtyard one experiences a world of its own, a confined sanctuary with a horizon below the eaves. Rising the eyes only one is aware of the other world, contemporary Kathmandu … (with its) aggressive environment.’

And that is the message of this book: that Kathmandu’s best treasures like Itumbaha are hidden away. Finding them needs work. One has to walk down narrow alleys with cantilevered high-rises that block out the sky, through the fumes, noise and crowds of Asan Tole, to enter the Kayagunani square and from there cross the threshold of the inner courtyard and then the sanctum sanctorum.

Read also: Remembering Nepal's lost and the found, Ashish Dhakal

Centuries of history speak from the corners, cobble stones are polished by the feet of ages, the bricks are eroded with time, chaityas encrusted with vermilion dot the courtyard. 

Restoration of Itumbaha is a documentation of the heritage and conservation of this priceless secret jewel of Kathmandu, and the book can serve as a useful guide for first time visitors and frequenters alike. 

Once is not enough because there is so much history and culture crammed into such a small space. Best to take the book along, sit in the square and let the architectural drawings, pre-restoration images and progress of pilgrims immerse you in Itumbaha's universe.

Page 9 book details NT

Read also: Faith Stolen: Lost in Nepal, found in America, Lost Arts of Nepal

Kunda Dixit


Kunda Dixit is the former editor and publisher of Nepali Times. He is the author of 'Dateline Earth: Journalism As If the Planet Mattered' and 'A People War' trilogy of the Nepal conflict. He has a Masters in Journalism from Columbia University and is Visiting Faculty at New York University (Abu Dhabi Campus).

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