Heritage in Danger

  • From Chyasilin Mandap to Mani Mandap, experts wrench the guts out of Newar architecture
- Sudarshan Raj Tiwari

Nov 12, 2016-In Patan Durbar, a perimeter fence has gone up around Mani Mandap for its reconstruction. Soon the navakunda traditional foundation of this important representative of the sixteen pillared mandap buildings will be expunged and replaced by a steel-grillage footing. Its timber posts will be fixed to the base stones directly using steel bolts, discarding the lakasi grid interface--traditionally used to connect the pillars in such open-pillared buildings--thereby demeaning and killing the structural sense of the traditional construction system. The timber joinery, developed by the Newar craftsmen with over thousands of years of experience in detailing to absorb earthquakes--such as wedged mortise and tenon, chukul, and dowels so excellently brought together in the construction of its lakasi-tham-meth-nina system frame--will be rendered toothless and rigidified with a set of bolted-through steel cleat plates! This three pronged stake is ready to be driven cruelly into the very heart of Newar traditions of materials, technology and architecture of the illustrious mandap style heralded by the seventh century Kashthamandap, which gave name to Nepal valley itself! 

This attack on our heritage by the saviours of the modern era is not a new thing. Foreign experts have always had their say in similar ‘conservation’ solutions for Nepali heritage. With no alternative to foreign aid for reconstruction after the 2015 earthquake, the foreign expertise slap will probably go on. This started even before our heritage was inscribed by UNESCO as Kathmandu Valley World Heritage: UNESCO gave a grant gift to Nepal on the coronation of King Birendra for the restoration of Lohn Chowk of Hanumandhoka Durbar and its tower. It came with the expertise also. The experts decided that the Lohn Chowk needed Reinforced Concrete Ring beams all round its terrace and a set of RCC beans to strengthen the corner supports of Basantapur tower at its south-west. These modern materials and technology intrusions were argued as the way to improve the performance of  defective material and technology system components in our architecture despite calls, albeit from other foreigners too, to stop the use of cement. How much this intrusion of expunging the timber sense of traditional Newar construction practice cost the nine-storey Basantapur Tower and the terraces of Lohn Chowk in the Gorkha Earthquake is there for us all to see.  The force of earthquake collected by the rigidity and asymmetry introduced through the use of incompatible and ‘strong’ modern material and technology hammered even harder at Basantpur Tower, inflicting damage greater than what the earthquake would have otherwise done.

And, when a reconstruction gift made by Germany was implemented, the river-boulder-mat foundation of Chyasilin Mandap (1988) was taken out and replaced with a concrete grid mat, four of its sixteen timber pillars making the core of the sohrakhutte mandap was replaced with steel encased in concrete and lime plaster, and used steel frames and trusses to throw away our very own flexible structural system and timber joinery in the floor and roofs. There were no ears to heed to the calls for use of local materials and methods. The reconstruction’s audacious design aiming to ‘pay tribute to the modern era’ had turned, the prayer pavilion of Queen Lalmati, celebrated by King Jitamitra Malla with a poem inscribed in stone therein, into a Kohl monument, to borrow the term Bhaktapur heritage community loved to use in private. It had hurt the cultural sentiments of Bhaktapur so badly that the municipality vowed to reconstruct the 55 Windowed Palace differently. Of course, this is now history made in fifteen years of continuously struggling to put traditional materials and methods in priority for the reconstruction and shed off the international expertise that sought to put steel frames and concrete diaphragms into the palace as another tribute to modern engineering. The restoration of 55 Windowed Palace was completed in 2008 by Nepali professionals staying within the Newar architectural, structural and crafts vocabulary and with Nepali money. The response of this building to the 2015 Gorkha earthquake proves beyond doubt that our ancestors were not so dumb and the conservation work is a tribute to the Newar prowess in building earthquake absorbent structures. 

But the power of money and expertise of this kind were exercised more forcefully elsewhere and we ‘reconstructed’ the east wing of Keshav Narayan Chowk of the Patan Durbar as if the grand architecture of Yognarendra Malla was more worthy of contempt and reprimand and a flaunting of post-Victorian  Neo-classicism was the order of the modern day there. Steel columns replaced timber posts and steel trusses replaced our roof structure. When the issues were raised in an international meeting called by UNESCO to review the same, our very own archaeology department, charged with the authority of the state party for heritage conservation, expunged even the mention of it from its declaration. Overnight the powers that had rewritten the declaration of the conference into a floral tribute to the expertise! A visit to the closed-off second floor of the Patan Museum, which is what Keshav Narayan Chowk is after fully erasing Yog Narendra Malla’s memory, will show to anyone what happened with 2015 earthquake at the joint between the rigidity of the industrial knowledge and the flexible natural materials and structural system of Newar architecture.  

Between Chyasilin Mandap and Mani Mandap, there is Kashthamandap. This reconstruction promised to be different, in that its announcement as a ‘national prestige project’ brought an outpouring of community interest: as many as 131 representatives thronged into an early meeting called to develop a coordinated approach. The restoration design, which initially used laminated timber with steel ties and cement mortar in the superstructure and sought to introduce timber piles to strengthen its navakunda foundations; met with strong objections primarily from the affected ethnic community. Several crowded uproarious meetings later, a revised reconstruction plan conforming to the DOA guidelines and the principle of priority use of traditional materials and methods of construction was agreed to and has since been entrusted to Kathmandu Metropolitan City government for execution. Although KMC is still grappling to realise the reconstruction, at least, when it will finally come up, it will use a traditional timber plinth and floor system of lakasi-tham-meth-nina, sufficiently absorbent of energy released in earthquakes with chukuls and flexible joinery without steel cleats, and the central core of four timber posts of the mandap will continue to be cushioned in gold plated foils lining the Ilohn recess. 

In 1984, Prof Sekler, the founding chairman of Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust, had stood alone at Mangalbazar of Patan protesting the demolition of Mangal Pati to demand respect for traditional materials, methods and surviving sections: he could not save it from destruction then. It had taken a dogged fifteen year long struggle to bring the restoration of the 55 Windowed Palace in line with traditional materials and methods. That was already 2003. In 2016, citizens of Kathmandu picketed at Ranipokhari against the use of concrete in the reconstruction and they forced a halt to it. Today, community pressure is on to ensure that the reconstruction of Kashthamandap prioritises the use of traditional materials and technology.

But the sacrilege continues at the throne pavilion of the Mallas of Patan. Worse, the wrenching of the guts of Mani Mandap is proposed by KVPT, the organisation Prof Sekler created, while the Department of Archeology prefers to look the other way. Now, it is for the rest of the community to quickly get out of this cultural amnesia to demand that all reconstructions respect the values of Newar culture, including those embedded in conservation traditions, technologies and natural materials. After all, we are children of the civilisation that noted, agreed and set up its’ own guiding principles of heritage conservation: 

Having observed the time torn state of the coat of arms of Lord Vishnu, I restored as truthfully to its original as guided by its remaining traces, for the benefit the world. 

—Mahasamanta Amshuverma at Changu, 607 AD

And rise we must and in time, before Newar architecture is reduced to a cut and paste wood carvings job on a steel and concrete carcass! 

The author is a conservation architect, author of books on Nepali history, and a former dean of the Institute of Engineering, Department of Architecture.

Published: 12-11-2016 09:28

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