A Portrait of the Shilpakars

  • On art & architecture
  • The skilled wood-carvers behind the on-going rebuilding of Patan’s monuments
- Sophia L Pande
With no dearth of work, even before the earthquake hit they feel differently about working on rebuilding the Char Narayan Temple from the ground up. It is a different kind of feeling to be involved with such an important temple, one that will remain for generations to come

May 14, 2017-If you go to Patan and wander around, either on your own, or even with your guests, there is a chance that you could miss the treasure that lies behind the Patan Durbar Palace Complex. Accessible to the public through the newly-restored Mul and Sundari Chowks, the twenty-five year old Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust’s (KVPT) wood carving workshop is situated in the Bhandarkhal Gardens, just at the back of the now operational, also newly-restored Bhandarkhal Tank (or pond) that is teeming with fish. Aside from Saturday, which is their day off, fifteen Shilpakars can be seen from 10 am to 5 pm every day, working on restoring and re-carving the wooden elements of the collapsed Char Narayan Temple and the Vishveshvara Temple that was badly damaged during the earthquake.

The Shilpakars, by definition are wood-carvers who date from the Malla era, their craft handed down from parents to children, generation after generation. Tirtha and Bal Krisha Shilpakar are the scions of that inheritance, recruited to work for the KVPT from their homes in Bhaktapur, their skills tapped for the delicate but rigorous work of mending, and carving the wooden aedicules, portals, tympana, struts, and other essential components of the monuments that collapsed two years ago in the earthquake and took such a toll on the houses of worship across the Valley. 

Bal Krishna and Tirtha, two wood carvers at the workshop, are both Shilpakar by name but unrelated, living in different wards in Bhaktapur. Their homes were badly damaged during the earthquake, which distressed them, but seeing the temples of Bhaktapur in ruin was almost as distressful. 

With no dearth of work, even before the earthquake hit (their own workshops are constantly providing wood carvings for private and public buildings) they feel differently about working on rebuilding the Char Narayan Temple from the ground up. It is a different kind of feeling to be involved with such an important temple, one that will remain for generations to come, that they can show to their grandchildren, pointing to specific sections that were carved with their own bare hands. 

Coming from Bhaktapur to Patan is an ordeal for the men. The road is so congested that they must allocate an hour and half each way. They wake up at 6 in the morning, eat their first main meal of the day, bhaat, and then proceed to make ready to leave for work.  These days though, Bal Krishna comes with his brother, who is also employed at the workshop, on a motorbike, Tirtha drives a motorbike as well. They come in through the gardens, relax for a few moments if they are early, and start work at 10 am sharp. 

Tirtha who heads the eleven wood workers dedicated to the Char Narayan Temple allocates the tasks. Every man steadily does his job, finishing a wooden element and then returns to Tirtha for the next step. Tirtha and all the men work, in turn, with Bijaya Basukala, who coordinates and works with the team to make sure that all pieces will be true to form, and will fit together for the crucial joining that lays out and dictates how the final structure of the temple will come together. 

Over the last two years, work has steadily progressed, the pieces of the Char Narayan temple that were salvaged by the community and KVPT have been marked, assessed, reworked, carved from scratch and soon the Shilpakars will move to the site itself to assemble the first floor of the temple which houses four intricate doors that are aligned in the cardinal directions. Once the tri-partite doors are onsite, the joins will be made by the stone workers to key the wooden doors into the base of the temple, the walls can be laid, and the brick workers can start their work. Then the even more difficult work of the roof will commence with the Shilpakars and workers perching on the precarious edges as they assemble and attach the complex struts and other wood components. 

The work of the Shilpakar is not just inherited, it requires innate skill, dedication, and focus. Bal Krishna, who is given to poetics, talks of how his work pervades his days and nights; he dreams of how to solve problems he encounters during the day, his brain running continuously even when he is at home, trying to figure out how to do things best; “Kura le kura sikauncha, kaam le kaam,” he says, meaning that the more you work the more you learn, the more you talk, the more you learn how to talk. Tirtha agrees with this statement.

The highly skilled craftsmanship they are doing here today in Patan is hallowed, they are aware of that, and it delights them, but again, in the words of Bal Krishna, as a dancer wishes to dance in front of an audience, so too do these artists feel gratification in being able to work for a public monument, in full view so that people may see the labour that leaves splinters in their hands (a pair of tweezers live permanently in Bal Krishna’s pocket), and follows them in their dreams. 

Published: 14-05-2017 08:32

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