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Good as old after two earthquakes

Patan’s historic temple is not just being rebuilt, but restored to its pre-1934 look

When an 8.3 magnitude earthquake struck Kathmandu Valley on 15 January 1934, killing more than 10,000 people, among the destroyed structures was the 17th-century Bhaidega temple in Patan. The three-tier pagoda temple was quickly rebuilt, but in the Moghul stucco dome style.

Eighty-one years later, the Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust (KVPT), with support from the Norwegian Embassy, had just started restoring Bhaidega in its original tri-pyramid design when the 25 April 2015 earthquake hit. Four temples nearby went down.

Reconstruction of temples that were destroyed in both 1934 and 2015 are now simultaneously nearing completion in Patan,  drawing attention to how damage from the two earthquakes often overlap in Kathmandu Valley.

“There was so much destruction here in 1934 that many of temples were quickly rebuilt in the Moghul style, but finally Bhaidega is being restored to its original glory,” says Rohit Ranjitkar of KVPT.

Architecture is much more than the sum of its structural elements, and nowhere is this more true than in Kathmandu Valley’s historic monuments. The structures go well beyond physical materials like wood, stone and bricks, and include intangibles that give them inter-generational continuity. After 2015 devotees continued to worship their gods amidst the ruins of destroyed temples.

Located at the western edge of Patan Square, the  three-storey Bhaidega was supported by exquisitely carved wooden struts and capped by a golden pinnacle. After 1934, Nepal’s Rana rulers rebuilt it to less than half its size using the cut-and-paste Moghul dome design like other damaged structures in the Valley.

Luckily, many carved eaves, columns and stone carvings at the base were preserved, and have  featured in Bhaidega restoration. Nearly 20 artisans from Bhaktapur and Patan are hard at work at the site re-carving the missing pieces.

The temple is named after its creator, Bhagirath Bhaiya, a commoner who rose to prominence in Patan and built the structure in 1687, dedicating it to the Bishwanath form of Lord Shiva. It is the only temple in Darbar Square not commissioned by a king.

“It was a travesty that such an important monument was not rebuilt in its original design after 1934,” says Ranjitkar.

Fortunately, there were some grainy black-and-white photographs taken before 1934 as well as meticulous sketches by Henry Ambrose Oldfield, a surgeon at the British Residency in Lazimpat in the 1850s, which showed the original form of the temple.

“Without Oldfield’s drawings, we might not have known what the original looked like or that it had been altered,” explains Ranjitkar.

Based on these early records, restoration work began in January 2015 with a ritual Chhyama Puja performed by tantrik priests. But within three months, the 7.8 magnitude quake struck, destroying many of the temples that had survived 1934. The priority shifted to rebuilding the other Patan temples and work on Bhaidega was delayed.

KVPT has tried to salvage as much of the original material as possible for the reconstruction, but for new wooden columns and struts the right kind of timber was needed and artisans with carving skills had to be located. 

Earthquakes have actually helped keep the ancient craftsmanship of Kathmandu alive because of the need to rebuild temples and monuments. However, Ranjitkar is worried that the traditional skills required are disappearing and it will be difficult to find expertise in future.

Reconstruction of Bhaidega is expected to be completed by November 2020, with support from Lalitpur Municipality and Prithvi B Pande of Nepal Investment Bank.  KVPT is also involved in rebuilding nearby Char Narayan, Hari Shankar and Krishna Mandir temples and other monuments like Mul Chok and Sundari Chok.

KVPT believes in transparency in its projects – quite literally. The artisans crafting pieces for Bhaidega work behind a see-through plastic fence so passersby can observe the skill and devotion needed to build these ancient temples.

There are other structures in Patan Darbar Square that were also rebuilt after 1934 with stucco domes and need to be rebuilt in the original shikhara or pagoda styles. The Mangal Bazar police station itself is where a large shikhara temple once stood.

Says Ranjitkar: “Our immediate focus was on Bhaidega as there were sketches and photographs of the original structures. Earthquakes happen once in a generation, and what matters is how we rebuild after each. If we fail to maintain our tangible heritage, we will weaken our intangible heritage.”  

By Kabita Maharjan in Nepali Times - May 10, 2019

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