The Restoration of Patan Durbar Square

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The Restoration of Patan Durbar SquareFollowing the powerful 7.8 magnitude earthquake that struck Nepal in 2015, the Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust has brought together countless artisans who have since been restoring the square’s damaged temples and monuments. Stone carvers, woodworkers, brick layers, metalworkers and an array of helpers of all skill levels have been dutifully giving their time to rebuild this place of inestimable religious, cultural and historical importance.

I don’t view the aftermath of the earthquake as purely negative; there have also been positive outcomes,” reflects Rohit Ranjitkar. Rohit is the director of the Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust (KVPT), a not-for-profit organization that has worked on the Patan Durbar Square in Kathmandu, Nepal, for three decades. Following the powerful 7.8-magnitude earthquake that struck Nepal in 2015, KVPT has been busy restoring most of the square’s valuable historic monuments.

We meet in a workshop where woodworkers are repairing old carved temple columns and windows. “What could be positive about the effects of an earthquake!” I exclaim.

He responded: “Before the first earthquake, on April 25, a lot of people took their heritage for granted. When the temples collapsed, they suddenly had no place to worship. Hundreds of people came out to collect and protect the remnants of temples. They recognized their value. In this way the earthquake brought intangible and tangible heritage together.”

Rohit introduces me to Ravi Darshan­dhari, previously a tourist guide, who is now secretary of the square’s local improvement association (Mangal Tole Sudhar Sangh). Immediately after the earthquake, Ravi ran to the square to bring the toppled Yoganarendra statue, dating from 1693, into the Keshav Narayan Chowk palace for safety. Local people guarded the area for two nights and two days to keep wood and stone temple carvings safe from theft until the army and police arrived. “The earthquake brought people together,” Rohit tells me, “and their awakened understanding about the value of these monuments left an enduring message for the general public.”

How well I remember the valley’s second major earthquake on May 12, when my husband Thomas Schrom and I huddled with other staff members of the KVPT in the café of the Patan Museum. In the early 1990s, Thomas had been a member of the professional Austrian team who had transformed the Keshav Narayan Chowk into the world-renowned Patan Museum, which exhibits Buddhist and Hindu antiquities. The Museum was like a home to us and the people who had worked on it, who were like an extended family. We looked up to the tilting pinnacle of the northern Degutale temple, wondering what further damage the Patan Durbar had suffered. The earthquakes’ toll on people, animals and architecture left us in despair.

Now, seven years later, I can understand Rohit’s perspective. “After the earthquakes, we needed more craftsmen to restore the square,” he recounts. “Within a month, we engaged two hundred people and created our “royal workshop” behind the Museum, where many craftsmen learned new skills. So what I really want to remember from this experience is what we were able to teach and learn.”

I will never forget seeing the Patan Museum courtyard packed with struts, columns and other precious carvings rescued from the Durbar square’s major temples. Putting them together again seemed like an impossible puzzle. Rohit began the daunting task with a group of youth from around the square who helped to carry and store artifacts. They sorted elements by size and type—for instance, all the carved wooden lion heads were grouped together. Rohit admits that not all of the lions were replaced on temples exactly where they’d previously been, adding wryly, “Maybe they are not happy, thinking ‘I used to be facing the east rather than the west’—but at least they are all on their original level in the correct building.”

The Monuments and Craftspeople of the Patan Durbar Square

In the 16th and 17th centuries, until the conquest by Gorkha rulers in 1767, Kathmandu valley’s three major cities, Patan, Kathmandu and Bhaktapur, were each under the rule of Malla kings. The durbar (palace compound) of each kingdom faced an open quadrangle on which a succession of religious kings erected a panoply of temples. Their temples and palaces mark a pinnacle in the artistic achievement of the valley’s Newar craftsmen. The Newars, the original settlers of Kathmandu Valley, are today still renowned for their crafts skills, and because of these living artisans it has been possible to rebuild in Nepal.

Whenever I visit the Patan Durbar Square, just a five-minute walk from my house, I am struck by the harmony of more than 30 different-style monuments in a bricked space that measures only 525 feet by 230 feet. In 1652ce the poet Kunu Sharma wrote, “Isn’t it like a piece of heaven?” The widely traveled early-20th-century writer Perceval Landon observed: “As an ensemble, the Durbar Square in Patan probably remains the most picturesque collection of buildings that has ever been set up in so small a space.”

It is only since the earthquake, observing the great monuments of the square reassembled to their original splendor, that I have learned the names and individual identities of each temple. My curiosity about them grows as I watch the pagodas under repair by local builders and craftspeople of rare skill. “You know, there is money for conservation, but if we don’t have artisans, what can we do?” says Ravi. “They are the backbone of conservation. And it is not just the work of individuals, but the work of the team.”

Even now, not all of the temples have been fully restored. With the pandemic, national priorities shifted and building costs rose. Here we describe several completed monuments and their histories, shaped by the gifted artisans who recently restored them.

Char Narayana Mandir

Char Narayana Mandir is the square’s oldest major temple; construction was begun in 1563 to honor Narayan (Lord Vishnu). Built primarily of brick in the pagoda style, it has two tiered roofs supported by carved struts.

In Newar woodcarving, the struts are not merely functional; they are also artistic, protective and divine. Wooden struts of valley temples of this era had up to sixteen carved arms in various positions, their hands often holding objects that made clear the identity of the temple Deity. Twenty struts support Char Narayana’s lower roof; twelve of these depict Vishnu as the cowherding Krishna. Nepal’s kings were believed to be incarnations of Vishnu, so temples were often dedicated to His various forms.

Char Narayana collapsed down to its plinth in the 2015 earthquake. Within a week, its original veneer bricks and carved elements were rescued and stacked neatly around the square. Photo documentation helped in the reuse or repair of five broken struts and other broken parts, so that the temple could be rebuilt almost as it was.

Workers salvaged 162 of these carved wooden arms from the rubble of the Char Narayana and nearby Hari­shankara temples, but most were too badly damaged. The struts (with identifiable arms reattached) were reinstalled on the temples, and 102 of the unidentifiable arms were displayed in a Patan Museum exhibition showcasing post-earthquake rescue and conservation efforts.

Shiva Chauguthi, Head Carpenter

Shiva Chauguthi learned to make furniture as a boy in Bhaktapur, a city famous for its woodworkers and carvers. Jointing timber correctly, he tells me, is the hardest thing for a carpenter to learn. He describes the challenges of working on the scaffolding erected on temple roofs, overseeing the laborers who had to join huge pieces of timber according to precise measurements. It took months to find proper sizes of timber, with some 11” x 14” pieces a full twelve feet long. “At first I wondered, how can I do this? But now I can show what I’ve accomplished. Two years ago, KVPT appointed me head carpenter!”

Until recent years, wood was abundant in Nepal. It is in this medium that Newar craftsmen have most excelled. The carvings on door and window panels, arched toranas, end beams, columns and capitals all are significant in their iconography and demonstrate the artistic invention of the carver. Wooden temple struts of the Gods not only offer divine protection, but also provide instruction. For instance, below the depictions of Siva or Vishnu on the Harishankara Temple are small scenes showing results of evil deeds, with inscriptions such as, “Who abandons his dharma is stung by hornets.”

Indra Kaji & Indra Prasad Shilpakar, Woodcarvers

Following the tradition of generations of Shilpakars (the Newar caste of woodcarvers), Indra Kaji Shilpakar started sanding wood when he was ten. Guided by his father and uncle, he began carving at age 12, using the tools made traditionally by the Khami (blacksmith caste). “When I saw the damage of the Patan Durbar, I wondered how it would ever be rebuilt,” remembers this renowned master carver. “But I was called immediately to begin work on several temples.”

To begin the reproduction or repair of a strut or door panel, Indra Kaji draws the imagery for his relatives to roughly carve. He is familiar with traditional iconography and often refers to images of Deities drawn by his grandfather. When he has no model to work from, he must reimagine a carving of a God by studying carvings of other Gods: “there are so many questions to solve—how many arms, what the Deity holds,” he explains. Then he or his son Indra Prasad complete the final intricate carving. When it is time to install the finished piece, they know in which direction to install it: for instance, in the local Siva temples Ganesha will always face south.

Indra Prasad has a masters degree in fine arts, specializing in sculpture. He admits, “When we make carvings for private orders, we can earn more income. But the public doesn’t see those pieces. We like restoration work, because it stands out. When people can see our work on the square, we feel pride.”

Yet public work comes with a peril. A strut his father had painstakingly carved for Patan’s Sulima Temple was stolen and never found. “Once the carved work is public, there are so many risks—for instance, kids put their bubble gum in the crevices,” Indra Kaji says woefully.

Their struts, columns and most recently, carved window panels for the square’s Bhai Degah Temple are carefully documented on Indra Prasad’s mobile phone: A torana (an ornamental arched piece above a portal) may take five months to carve, and a single panel flanking a door or window 5 to 6 weeks. “One thing we had not known before the earthquake is how our ancestor carvers saved time, putting the most intricate carving closer to the ground where we can best see it. So, a first-floor temple window may have the carving of a God. The floor above may have a lion, and then above that a bird, and then perhaps only a small motif on the top level.”

Despite their success, they worry their profession may not survive into the next generation. Large pieces of wood are hard to obtain. The even bigger issue is passing on the skills: “We need the government or some organization to create a university to teach our carving arts and give certification,” explains Indra Kaji. Like other Nepalese craftsmen, he wishes the government would provide more support and appreciation for craftspeople and quality restoration. KVPT has tried to fill this gap.

Harishankara Mandir

Though it had survived the earthquakes of 1809, 1833 and 1934, this three-tiered temple built in 1706 collapsed almost completely in 2015. Soon after the earthquake, 2,000 parts were sorted, documented and repaired. By 2017, the entire first level of the temple—including columns, capitals and beams—had been “test-assembled” in KVPT’s workshop. It was then disassembled and reassembled on the empty plinth. By 2018 the second-level timber elements were installed, and by 2019 the third level was completed. Roofs were covered utilizing 16 truckloads of yellow mud topped by jhingati (overlapping clay tiles). Finally, metalsmiths Babu Ratna and Binod repaired and re-gilded the roof pinnacle.

The reconstruction, spanning four years and requiring several thousand man-days, succeeded in reusing 90% of recovered historical materials while improving seismic strength at the same time. Only when restoration was completed could the Deity, Hari­shankara, inhabit the temple again. Hari­shankara is the eight-armed manifestation of Vishnu (Hari) and Siva (Shankara).

During the earthquake, the Hari­shankara murti had broken diagonally at the waist. A unique collaboration between local engineers and craftsmen with students and professors from the University of Applied Arts, Vienna, helped to repair the almost five-foot-tall sculpture so that Harishankara could be returned to the temple sanctum.

Rohit recalls working out the challenge of its repair: “You cannot plan the reassembly on paper—you have to hold the sculpture and find the thickest parts where it would be safe to insert steel dowels.” But even after reassembly, the statue could not be worshiped; tradition does not allow the worshiping of a broken statue. So master stone carver Amar Shakya put a photo of the original on a smaller stone and made a smaller replica, less than one foot tall. The temple priest gave the new statue life during a fire puja (homa), a ritual of regeneration. Now, both the original and the new God reside together to receive worshipers in the temple’s sanctum.

Amar Shakya, Stone Sculptor

Amar says it has become harder and harder to find good stone, and he often needs to move his workshop when neighbors complain about the noise of chiseling and hammering. His children work on computers and not with the hammer and chisels of many types that he learned to use from his father. Yet he has found satisfaction working in this project: “Before I was hired to work on the square, I did not take so much notice of it. But now I’ve looked hard at everything and it has inspired me in my profession.”

Amar shows us places in the square where KVPT has not just restored or replaced earthquake-damaged pieces, but also added stone images that had been stolen or had never existed. He is particularly proud of an image of Mahalakshmi, eternal companion of Lord Vishnu, representing prosperity and abundance, which he carved to replace a stolen image in the Vishveshwara Temple.

Krishna Mandir

Krishna Mandir, a three-story square stone shikara-style temple, is the most important temple for Vaishnavite Hindu pilgrims from all over Nepal and India, who visit especially for the celebration of Krishna’s birth (Krishna Janmashtami). The term shikara refers to mountain peaks, which are suggested by the temple’s 16 open-air pavilions peaked with 21 gilded pinnacles. Its style, unique to Nepal, was compared to Mount Meru. Surrounding the ground floor are narrative friezes carved with 55 scenes from the Ramayana; on the floor above are 36 scenes from the Mahabharata. Legend has it King Siddhinarasimha Malla in a dream saw Radha and Krishna in front of the palace, and so he built a temple on that spot.

The temple miraculously withstood the 2015 earthquake, but base and corner stones and other elements had long been dangerously disintegrating due to insufficient repairs after prior quakes, and stone columns were out of plumb. Designing a way to shore up the building and replace four bearing corner stones on the second level, which houses a Sivalinga, required a steep learning curve for KVPT’s small team of Nepalese architects, engineers and stonemasons. Stones weighing up to 1,540 pounds had to be lifted to a level almost 16.5 feet above the square. Then the damaged corner stones had to be removed and replaced, a dangerous procedure that could have jeopardized the stability of the building. The repairs, which took nearly three years, were finished just in time to celebrate Lord Krishna’s birthday in 2018. Surya Bahadur Ranjitkar and his father, Asha Bahadur Ranjitkar, were an integral part of the repair team.

By Claire Burkert, Nepal