In our culture, a door is a medium to let God enter. But what about our windows? Is it something that is more than just an opening to let sunlight shine in our living spaces? Our culture and heritage is something we need to learn more about. Nepal is known to produce intricate and detailed handicrafts, and one such skill is that of constructing detailed wooden windows commonly known as akhijhyal. These intricate beauties can be seen all over the valley, as well as some locations outside also. Particularly in old parts of town, houses are filled with these akhijhyals. The amount of detail put into these windows makes you wonder how and where did this skill generate from and how long ago did this practice begin.
The most common understanding is that this skill generated in the Licchavi Era, also known as the Golden Age in Nepali history due to the increasing acceptance of art and architecture, culture and language and socio-economic structure slowly seeping in, creating a collective civilization. However some scholars believe that this skills predates the Golden Age. Chandra Bahadur Joshi, a renowned engineer and a preserver of these windows says, “There is no exact moment in our history where we can pinpoint the birth of this skill. It has been seen on buildings that predate the Licchavi Era.” These traditional handcrafted windows are a pinnacle of Nepalese art and architecture. They are intricately beautiful as well as useful.
According to Jeevan Acharya, an international consultant and collector and restorer of old Newari windows for over two decades, says that when visiting other cultures he has not ever seen designs as complex yet beautiful as these windows. They are made completely by interlocking carved pieces of wood; apart from a few nails here and there, the whole structure is built and held together by interlocking the wood at different angles. “The amount of skill that goes into making these is tremendous. Not to mention the tools that are used cannot be found these days,” says Jeevan Acharya. Each window is made differently. The design on the windows found in Patan will not be same as that on the windows in Bhaktapur or other areas. The reason for this is because the rich and powerful would commission the woodworkers to make unique designs for them, pertaining to their interest. “There was a strong rivalry between powerful people of different regions. Rumor has it, kings and aristocrats would marry off their daughters to skilled akhijhyal makers as a way to commission them to make the windows,” explains Chandra Bahadur Joshi. The laborers who worked on these were primarily from the Newar community. Though during those times they were not in good terms with the rulers, their skills were sought after and highly prized.
There are many different types of wooden windows found in in traditional houses, palaces and shrines, each with their function and purposes. One is the classic Sanjhyā; generally a three-part window in the middle of the building. Another window type is the Tikijhyā, a second floor window that consists of a wooden grid, letting in fresh air and light but not the curious passing gaze! Others are the Gājhyā and Pāsukhā Jhyā, the latter, usually located in monasteries, has five sections that stand for the Pancha Buddha (Five Buddhas). Each window that is made serves a particular purpose. Locals also say that these windows were created as a way for women to communicate with the outside world at a time when they were mostly confined to their houses.
Traditional windows are found all over the valley but the most famous and monumental of them all is known as Desay Madhu Jhyā, located in the Basantapur area of Kathmandu, which means “window without equal.” This wooden carved masterpiece is without doubt a national treasure, a fantastic work of art. When seen, it looks like a three dimensional piece, similar to the shutter of a camera. It is an iconic functional artwork that defines the craftsmanship of Nepalese architecture. Another amazing example is the Mhaykhā Jhyā design, which depicts a fan-tailed peacock; the most prominent example of this can be seen in Bhaktapur. This piece with its detailed and complex design is beautiful. The thought process that it took to create this and the inspiration beaconing from this is fundamental in terms of hammering down our place in human history. Each akhijhyal is different, in both design and construction, depending on the artisan and the origin.
Nowadays, this skill is dwindling and less refined. Preservation and research are needed to ensure that this great art form continues on into the future. What Dwarika Das Shrestha did in terms of preserving such artifacts was colossal, and the legacy of his efforts to preserve our heritage and culture is something we should hold close. In the future, these carvings could define who we were as a civilization. All these windows have a significance attached to them. Jeevan Acharya says, “There is a need for us to preserve our heritage; younger people are not interested and the older generation who have these skills are slowly passing away. What will happen when the last skilled laborer passes away? Then what?”
We are a culmination of years of tremendous knowledge that has been passed down through generations. These are our assets and we should be proud of our capabilities. We need to value our skills and continue producing such beautiful artifacts. As Nepalis, we have a tremendous responsibility: carrying this tradition and expertise into the future. There is so much more that needs to be done to protect and cherish artifacts or skills or knowledge that are slowly diminishing. With each coming generation, the need to educate them about our culture, our history and the ethos of our ancestors is becoming more crucial. We are proud that such skills rest in the hands of Nepali craftsman and is the pinnacle of Nepalese architectural excellence.