Print Edition - 2015-04-11  |  On Saturday

Labyrinthine layers

  • The more one starts to understand Newari architecture, the more one gets entranced by the cities built in accordance with its age-old aesthetics
- Rachana Chettri
Labyrinthine layers

Apr 10, 2015-

A few paces inside the Patan Durbar Square from the main entrance and you’ll notice a small stone gate to your right. The gate is not so much a gate but an archway of stone statues, intricately detailed sculptures of deities and mythological creatures. Inside is a tiny square that leads up to a ticket counter. The archway leads to four restored annexes of the Durbar Square that were opened to the public in 2014—Mulchowk, Bhandarkhal Garden and Sundari Chowk, and parts of the old palace that have been converted into the Patan Museum’s architectural galleries.

The architectural galleries house a collection of mostly wooden building elements—some originals from as far back as the 11th century, others modern replicas based on photographs of originals that have gotten lost—inside what used to be annexes to the palace Vidyapith (esoteric shrine rooms where members of medieval Malla courts were probably schooled before initiation). The gallery spaces themselves are separated by the Vidyapith, which is the focal centre of the exhibition and features a large, elaborate altar where likenesses of the Nava Durga would probably have been kept and worshipped. The room, like the gallery wings, is relatively small and brick-lined; one feels as if one has entered a Newar household to try and understand the culture that created it and the architecture that emerged out of it.

Struts (bilampu)—the slanted wooden structures that support the eaves of roofs in traditional Newari architecture, pillars, windows—and tympanums (torana)—the elaborately carved triangular or semi-circular surfaces found above important entrances—are categorically displayed with explanations just detailed enough for the layperson to understand them at the galleries.

The experience the architectural galleries afford, of getting to see structures that are placed several metres above eye-level in their original settings, adds to one’s appreciation of Newari architecture. The struts, pillars and tympanums around the palace complex become that much more accessible, and the imageries carved onto them become easier to recognise and identify with once similar designs have been viewed inside the gallery. The architecture becomes more readable, and the Durbar Square grows somewhat bigger for the ability to recognise detail which the architectural galleries lend to visitors. The golden tympanum above the Mulchowk courtyard gate, visible from the main entrance (ticket counter) gets recognised as such. Its 12 golden statuettes, all new replicas of icons that were stolen from the complex from the 1960s onwards, remain as beautiful but somehow more comprehensible.

To eyes grown weary of the bright assortment of colours that aluminium composite panel facades lend to the Capital’s newest buildings, the sheen of red brick, so ubiquitous inside the Patan Durbar Square complex is almost precious to behold. As old homes and buildings come down to make room for newer, shinier models, the past becomes that much dearer, and physical remnants of it—homes that are brick—and mud with sloped terracotta roofs and elaborate wooden windows, and white plaster buildings constructed in manners that emulate the European styles the Ranas incorporated into Kathmandu’s architecture—become distinctive markers of periods that seem much richer, architecturally at the very least, than the one we currently live in.

The Bhandarkhal Garden, which is covered in white clover at this time of year, provides respite from the noise of life humming so loud and clamorous just outside its walls. A large pond in which Malla queens are said to have bathed while their king watched from a plinth above, has become a spot to walk around and take photographs in front of. The female guards have to ward off visitors who climb up to the king’s platform sometimes, but otherwise, there is little noise here. Inside Sundari Chowk are 72 stone statues arranged in three circular tiers that lead up to a gilded stone spout. A tantric king is said to have worshipped and meditated here, and the courtyard that is Sundari Chowk still seems to reverberate with calm, pacific energy as the many dozen bells hanging from the edges of the adjoining pagoda roofs chime in the summer breeze.  

Inevitably, whenever we speak of Kathmandu’s  architectural assets, we speak the past—the Patan Durbar Square and its restored annexes, the Kathmandu and Bhaktapur Durbar Squares, the pagoda temples and the Buddhist stupas that have been admired, photographed and written about by so many over the decades. The newest telecom offices and trauma centres that are part of the city’s living architectural reality, that are part of the actual spaces in which Kathmanduites move in and out of each day,  do not fit the bill in any way. They are amongst the none-too-pleasing behemoths that make up this city at the present time. One doesn’t quite feel like raising one’s head to the sky to marvel at man’s dominion of space when confronted by them.

There is something about old structures, though—something crucial in the manner in which they have been planned, designed and constructed—that draws people to them, and makes them think about the built-environments they are walking through or passing by. And especially after visits to places such as the Patan Museum’s galleries, I always find that I am craning my neck, straining to look up, when I walk through old parts of the city. Each time, I marvel at the detailing in the carved-wood windows and the beautiful simplicity of red brick as if these are things I have never seen before.

Published: 11-04-2015 08:50

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