What lies below Hadigaon

A new book documents the archaeological history buried beneath Kathmandu Valley

The navakunda, identified as a part of a Buddhist stupa.

What we know of Kathmandu Valley’s history is mostly through epigraphs, the engraved inscriptions scattered around the Valley that document important events. These are mostly found above ground.

But underground, there is much more to be discovered about the waves of civilisations that thrived and waned in Kathmandu Valley over the past millennia. 

The fertile soil of the former lake bed was the source of Kathmandu's agricultural surplus and, along with its entrepôt status between India and Tibet, a source of its wealth. The same soil also hides clues to the Valley’s past, but many of these archaeological sites are now built over with concrete houses and asphalt roads.  

The first exploration of Kathmandu Valley’s prehistory was carried out by R V Joshi but it did not yield any palaeolithic or microlithic relics. In 1965, S B Deo carried out an excavation in Manamaneswor near Hadigaon and Lazimpat that showed the earliest habitations were in the ‘early centuries of the Christian era’.

But further digs by the Department of Archaeology (DoA) did not show new evidence of habitation. Then the DoA, with an Italian team from Instituto Italiano per il Medio ed Estremo Oriente (IsMEO) jointly organised excavations and surveys in Hadigaon. The excavations at the Satya Narayan temple dated the earliest habitation of Kathmandu to the first century BCE, much earlier than previously thought.

Now, the results of the expedition from 1984-1989 have been published in the new book Harigaon Revisited: Chronicle and Outcomes of an Excavation in Kathmandu by Giovanni Verardi with Dániel Balogh, Daniela De Simone and Elio Paparatti. 

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The idea to revisit the 80s excavation and turn it into a book came as IsMEO itself was closed down. Its documentation of excavations, particularly the graphic and photographic materials, were archived at Museo Nazionale di Arte Orientale in Via Merulana, Rome. In 2016, the museum merged with Museo Nazinale Preistorico Etnografico Luigi Pigorini in Piazza Guglielmo Marconi, Rome, to form the new Museo delle CiviltàIn Rome where a large part of the documentation is kept, ‘waiting to be rearranged and usable’.

While much of the book is technical results of the excavation, the first part provides a narrative of the fieldwork from a personal point of view of Giovanni Verardi, an archaeologist and Professor specialising in the civilisations of central Asia and India who was appointed the Director of the Nepali-Italian Archaeological Mission in 1988.

The inscribed water conduit donated by Priyavarman in 749 AD.

Verardi remembers a different Kathmandu from today and says he found Nepali people to be "kind and cooperative" but the Ministry was "strict and severe" about the excavation. The team was obliged to write a daily report about their work and submit it to the DoA every afternoon.

 “Kathmandu back then was different,” said Verardi over the phone from Italy. “I returned to Nepal after many years in 2007/8 and then again two years ago, and was surprised by the transformation. I did not expect it to change so much.”

Verardi spent a few months travelling across the Valley visiting old sites like Gokarna and Thankot with the Director General of DoA. With epigraphical inscriptions and Lain Singh Bangdel, then with the Royal Nepal Academy, identifying images found in Hadigaon to second century CE, the Satya Narayan temple seemed promising.

Large areas were limited in number but Hadigaon was large enough for the team to conduct horizontal excavations to see if different kinds of buildings came out and they did get interesting results, like 898kg of ceramic materials. They were mostly broken pieces of pottery but 213 of them were intact vessels. 

More interesting were a Mathura-type sandstone fragments which were later determined to be a training weight. It depicts a scene of Lord Krishna slaying a horse demon Keshin. A water drain bearing the inscription dated 4 March 749 that says that one of the ancient names of the place was Andigrama, donated by Priyavarman to honour his deceased parents.

The team also exposed a nine-pit structure which was named navakunda. Among the scholars who visited the site were Dhanavajra Vajracharya who had published Licchavikalaka Abhilekha and Prayag Raj Sharma, professor of history at Tribhuvan University who had assisted S B Deo during the excavation at Manamaeswor. 

It was not until Verardi came across a Mahayana silpa text, the Manjushrivastuvidyasastra, that it was established to be a part of a Buddhist stupa. The team found a few antiquities that were recognisable as Buddhist. One was a ‘conical sealing that on the bottom exhibited a stupa and an inscription in Licchavi characters’.

Read also: Restoring a piece of Nepal's history, Sahina Shrestha

 Another was the handle of a terracotta lamp showing Aksobhya, one of the five Wisdom Buddhas. The book also dedicates a section to the restoration of the Jayavarma statue which was found by chance in Maligaon in 1992, near the Hadigaon excavation site. Elio Papparatti of the Nepali-Italian team restored the statue from twenty-three fragments and also made it earthquake proof. The statue is now housed at the National Museum.

These and other discoveries clearly put Hadigaon as a place of archaeological and historical significance. 

But like much of Kathmandu, Hadigaon is also built up. While archeological finds were still being unearthed when digging foundations of new houses until a few years ago, the government has shown little interest in preserving the area for future research.

Verardi says not all is yet lost. “There are still small areas where it would be possible to excavate in Hadigaon,” he says. "We already have a sequence so it would be much simpler to excavate compared to the 1980s.”  

Harigaon Revisited is an important documentation of an excavation that provide historical evidence that pre-date the earliest dates mentioned in known inscriptions. While some may argue that archaeological digs may be unnecessary given other inscriptions found in the Valley, the Hadigaon excavations demonstrated that the history of the Valley was much earlier than those dated by epigraphical evidence. 

Perhaps the only way for us to actually understand the real sequence of the earliest history of Kathmandu is through excavations. This book, though technical, will be useful for anyone interested in learning the prehistory of Nepal. 


Sahina Shrestha


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.

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