Restoration Panauti: A Cultural Studies Group Tour

Destination Issue 86 Jul, 2010
Text by Amendra Pokharel / Photo: ECS Media

Teeming with excitement, the members of Kathmandu’s Cultural Studies Group crowded around Rabindra Puri to ask questions and grasp everything he had to say. But the man who quite generously accepted to become their guide for a day and help them explore Panauti tried to calm everyone down. The Cultural Studies Group was spending a day with the noted preservation architect (and lawyer) who, in turn, was pleased to lead them on a tour of historic Panauti. “Pick any one spot,” he said, “and I can spend entire day just explaining about that one place.” That observation simply fueled the curiosity of his already inquisitive audience.

The town’s history, centuries’ old architecture, its culture and unique traditions of festivals and celebrations, in short everything about it, seemed to bestow a mythical allure to the ancient town of Panauti. And excitement in the eyes and words of the group’s guide.

It can take years of research and scouring through stacks of books to unravel the buried history of this unique and almost forgotten, indigenous  Newari town, 35 km southeast of Kathmandu. Or, you have to turn to someone like Rabindra Puri who knows the place like the back of his hand.

From the patti, where the group assembled before embarking, to a restored, multi-storey Malla era wooden house, on the last leg of the culture tour (where the group gathered for a picnic), this excursion was an enriching experience for all.

“An inscription in Khwopasi proves that Panauti was founded during the Lichhavi period, in the first century AD” said Rabindra. Then he changed the topic to the legend of the river that was flowing behind the patti.

The Rosi khola (river) originates from the Phulchowki Hill south of Kathmandu. But it wasn’t always so. “When the kings of Panauti and Patan arrived at the same time to implore Phulchowki Mai, asking water for their kingdoms,” says Rabindra (noting in an aside that Mai means ‘Mother Goddess’), “she told them that the one who offers her flowers of gold and silver will be blessed with a water source.” The king of Patan was rich and had skilled craftsmen to do the job. So he returned upbeat, assured of a victory against the king of Panauti who ruled over a handful of poor farmers. On the day of offering the flowers, however, the king of Panauti arrived before the king of Patan. He was carrying, as the folklore goes, rice and wheat grown by his farmers as representations of silver and gold flower. This impressed Phulchowki Mai very much and she promised water to the kingdom of Panauti. “Ahh…,” sighed some of the members of the cultural group, impressed. The king of Patan also arrived with flowers of gold and silver and, as was promised, the Mai (goddess) blessed him with a water source, too. Panauti is located at the confluence of the Rosi khola and the Punyamati khola, and the sources of both are at Phulchowki hill.

The group then entered a narrow lane facing the patti. The ground floor of the buildings on both sides of the lane had plain wooden doors normally seen at the shops in a Newari locality. “As a cross over for traders en route to Bhaktapur, Panauti used to be a major trading hub before the Arniko Highway rendered it defunct,” said Puri. The town was called Dhuku implying dhukuti (a place for storing wealth), and it is well known even now for bountiful harvests of rice, wheat and potatoes.

The narrow lane opened to a courtyard with a cluster of new and old, restored and decrepit houses and temples. The building on the northwestern corner had boards of municipal and other government agencies hanging from roofs and windows. That typical old Newari house had been restored with the support of the French government and turned into an office complex.

The architecture of the temple on the south was more or less similar to the ones found in Kathmandu. But the huge mirrors hung on the right façade of the temple just above the entrance to the shrine caught our attention. “What are the mirrors for?” one asked. “It is difficult to ascertain the actual reason,” Rabindra explained, “but commonly it is held that the mirrors are hung for two reasons: to see one’s forehead while putting the tika and to scare evil spirits away. Apparently they get sacred on seeing their ugly faces.”

 Leaving the courtyard we proceeded towards another smaller court through a low, mind-your-head passage way. Huddled within the small space were a cluster of houses that appeared much older. “These houses are more than 300 years old and represent pristine vestiges of Newari architecture from the Malla Era,” said Rabindra. (The Mallas ruled Kathmandu valley for 600 years immediately before the establishment of the Shah dynasty in 1768-69.) Every inch of the buildings had designs carved on it. Though the figures of deities, animals, birds and floral backdrops carved on the woods and stone have fissures and cracks from age, the group membes couldn’t help but wonder what spell the court would cast on onlookers once restored to pristine glory. “Incredible,” said one. “It gives me goose bumps to even think of the hours of hard work the carvers must have put in to create these amazing patterns,” said aother..

The next stop was the excavation site of Panauti  Durbar (‘palace’). The grime smeared relics of the  Durbar, fenced by wire mesh, were on a slightly higher ground. The  Durbar Square had several old houses and temples on its flanks and the ground on which the  Durbar once stood was separated by brick road on all sides. The temple on the right, across the road, built mimicking Mughal architecture, had multiple shikhars (pinnacles). This style of architecture is believed to have spread from India in 15th century AD.

Based on the way roofs are constructed, Rabindra said, the temples found in Nepal are of four types: open roof, pagoda, shikhar and domed. According to him the pagoda style temples originated in Nepal in 7th century AD. “Do you mean the pagodas found in China and Japan originated here?” interrupted one member. “I think so,” said Rabindra. The open roof temples are mostly dedicated to the goddess Shakti, the wife of Lord Shiva. These temples, also referred to as shakti peeth (sacred power-places), are a hub of tantric practices. “Such practice require various cosmic forces including sun, moon and stars to be in direct contact with the deity, therefore the need for an open roof,” said Rabindra.

“The next stop,” Rabindra announced, “is probably historically most important site in Panauti and by some measures more noteworthy than other places of significance in and around Kathmandu.” The site was the temple of Indreshwor, located at the end of the paved stretch between the temple complex and the Panauti Durbar square.

But the way there was, itself, no less significant considering the mélange of houses from different eras. Ornate designs of Newari architecture popular during Malla era; bloated and fancy patterns, coated in medley colors mimicking Victorian style built during Rana times; and insipid, plain buildings of modern times, made the street an open museum for the students of history and architecture.

Further down stood an old two-storied house supported by decaying wooden beams; its walls and roof made of wattle and thatch plastered in a mixture of mud and dung. What intrigued us, however, was that the beams and frames on the doors and windows were untrimmed and irregular in shape and shorn of Malla or Victorian embellishments. “This is a house of a Dalit,” said Rabindra to the collective sigh of the group as if they needed no more explanation. “Dalits were forbidden from decorating their houses. They were only allowed to chop the wood, but restrained from chiseling and carving.” The members cast a pitiful look at the forlorn house and asked if the house could be preserved, because as a part of Nepal’s medieval history it was an important structure. “I would love to do that,” Rabindra said. “But the owners of the house do not want to save it as it is reminiscent of discrimination and hatred against their community.” As we moved towards the Indreshwor temple complex the members continued discussing the plight of the Dalits and others who are discriminated against around the world. The temple of Indreshwor was massive. Built in the pagoda style, it looked like a larger version of Changunarayan and Pashupati Temple. “The temple was built in the 13th century AD, which makes it the oldest temple in Nepal,” said Rabindra. Though the Kasthamandap Temple, at the southwestern end of Basantapur Durbar Square in Kathmandu, is believed to be the oldest surviving structure, it was not built as a shrine to begin with.

“In all Malla temple architecture of the later period (15th century onwards), the hands of the deities jut out from the strut’s frame,” said Rabindra. “Since the struts supporting the roof of Indreshwor temple have the hands of the deities within the frame, you can make out that the temple belonged to early Malla period (13th–15th century).” He then climbed a few stairs of the temple, and with the forefinger of his right hand on his lips he appeared as if in deep thought, which somewhat confused his audience. Rabindra wanted to share the legend of Indreshwor, but could not, in want of a right word. Then, with an awkward expression, he began: “All our gods were playboys, and myths portray Indra, the rain god who also happens to be the king of heaven, as the most promiscuous of them all.” The crowd burst into laughter as they got the hang of Rabindra’s confusion. As the guffaw died down, Rabindra, smiling and slightly embarrassed, began to narrate the legend of Indreshwor temple. It so happens that Indra, bewitched by the beauty of a rishi’s wife decided to disguise himself as her husband and, in his absence, spend a night with her. On finding Indra on his bed next morning, the rishi (a hermit) curses him to have penises all over his body, for he believed it was the male sex organ that drew him to the despicable act.

“What a fitting curse,” exclaimed someone in the crowd amidst the laughter. The curse on Indra was absolved with the blessings of Lord Shiva, also referred by Hindus as Ishwor. “That’s how the temple got its name, combining the names of the two deities: Indra and Ishwor,” said Rabindra. The jaw-dropping carvings of different deities on the windows, doors, beams, and other parts of the Indreshwor temple exemplifies the superb nature of Newari craftsmanship.

From the temple complex the group headed towards a suspended bridge that linked to a dust-covered track on the other side. A short walk on the right side of the bridge led the group to one of the most famous places in Panauti, the site of great mela (festival) that is held here every 12 years. The carnival ground was situated at the bank of Rosi khola below a tree covered hill. Idols carved on stones and small temples are found all over the place. People from Nepal and India participate in the carnival and take a holy dip in the river. The next Barabarse Mela (12-year festival) will be held in the year 2010 in the month of Magh (January/February).

The group’s last visit was to two restored houses in different localities. Rabindra personally supervised the restoration work of both houses. One of them was located at the center of an alleyway with chowks on both ends. When Rabindra bought the house, the wall at the back was falling down and the plaster was crumbling. “I made sure that not a single brick was taken out during the restoration,” he said. The houses had all the elements of a Newari architecture: carved wooden doors and windows, a steep wooden staircase between floors, and ceilings and roofs built of wood. Rabindra also gave touches of modernity to the interiors of the house, but without interfering with the local feel. The saffron color glazed tiles on the floors were not of a fancy variety and, therefore, retained the ambience of an old Newari home. The light bulbs fitted at several places were of older designs, and though the kitchen had a modern faucet and granite slabs, the wash basins were made of brass. The bathrooms had the most exciting mix of ancient and contemporary fixtures that made you want to use them just for the the experience!

The second house, though much larger in size, was restored along more or less similar lines. Both houses were welcoming and we didn’t feel like we were in a dinosaurs den inside. “I get frequent calls from foreigners and businessmen asking if I was interested to rent out these buildings,” said Rabindra. “I restored these houses at much lesser cost than building a new one.” He said that he restored the buildings primarily to save the Newari architecture and let the coming generation appreciate the heritage.

“Except for a few pockets in Bhaktapur, you have to visit Panauti to see old Newari home architecture.” That was one of the first things Rabindra Puri told us when we first gathered at the patti before embarking on our tour of Panauti. It took us, Rabindra’s attentive audience from the Cultural Studies Group and ECS Nepal, a half day visiting the nooks and corners of old Panauti and a visit to these two restored houses to appreciate the seriousness of his claim.