Building Nepal In Germany: The Nepal Himalayan Pavilion

Features Issue 25 Aug, 2010
Text by Bijay Shrestha

Acrew of eight hundred carvers, fifty master specialist carpenters, four master specialist masons, four skilled engineers, and twenty-five administrative and logistic personnel from Kathmandu, Patan, and Bhaktapur; most of them working for a minimum of eight hours a day for 1092 days, together building a stupa 23 meters high, a two-story 13-meter high pagoda-style temple, a Sattal (roofed platform built against one side of a temple with three open sides) 72 meters long and 4 meters wide, and an L-shaped pond of 150 square meters, all in a total area of 2500 square meters. Using 300 MT (Metric Tons) of Saal wood, 150 MT of stone and bricks and 50 MT of brass and copper. Sounds like the list of what went into some gigantic beautiful historical structure, which our small mythical kingdom is known for. But it may come as a shock to find out that this is no excerpt from the history books of great Nepali architecture, but the details of a recent construction project in Europe, the preparation for which was done here in Nepal using age-old traditional Nepali architectural methods. These were the details of building the Nepal Himalayan Pavilion, a masterpiece by hundreds of skilled Nepali hands that won the first prize in Expo 2000 in Hanover, in northwestern Germany.

The World Exposition, popularly known as Expo (in some places also refered to as the ‘World’s Fair’), is organized about every four years to celebrate and share the achievements made by humankind. The theme of Expo 2000 was ‘Nature, Mankind, and Technology’. 178 nations and international organizations marked the new millenium   by participating in Expo 2000. The gala event took place in Hanover from June 1 to October 31, 2000 and drew a total of 18 million visitors. A world body called ‘Bureau International des Exposition’, established in Paris in 1923, determines the dates, approves the themes, and supervises the operations of the international exhibitions.

“During the event Hanover turned into a small beautiful world, where every participant put in their utmost effort to expose the beauty of their nation. And amongst the latest technology and equipment there was our little Nepal Pavilion: authentic, beautiful, friendly, hospitable; a mystical pavilion, which charmed everyone and was regarded as the best pavilion amongst 178 countries!”expressed Amrit Ratna Shakya, Group Chairman of the Implementing Experts Group (IEG), the organization appointed by His Majesty’s Government to plan, erect and operate the Nepal Himalyan Pavilion at Expo 2000.

IEG is a consortium of entrepreneurs, professionals, and artisans  who have put together international projects about Nepal for more than thirty years. As per the contract with HMG, IEG raised all the funds required for the project and very successfully completed the assignment entrusted to it. IEG’s team of designers, engineers, and architects consisted of Group Chairman Amrit Shakya, who also visualized the concept; Subarna Shrestha, the Interior Designer of the project; Binayak Shah, Director in Charge of Marketing and Promotions; Bibhuti Man Singh, Master Architect; and Kamal Raj Shakya, Construction Supervisor and leader of the team that went to Germany. The initial concept prepared by this team of dreamers was not only approved by the Expo’s technical planning committee, but also received an excellent rating. As a result Nepal received five times more exhibition space than the area that had initially been allocated. This in itself was a great achievement for the team.

Sharing some of his many experiences, Amrit Shakya said, “The first step was choosing the stupa of Swayambunath and the pagoda-style temple of Changunarayan. Both were worshiped by Buddhists and Hindus, the two major religious groups that have lived in harmony in our country since ancient times. What could be more perfect subjects than these two shrines?” He added, “Building these two icons was a big challenge for all of us. It was difficult for us to convince our artists to take part in the project because what we were trying to do had never been done before. For example it took us more then two months just to finalize the faces that were carved into the pillars! Our initial plan was to carve all the different Nepali castes and tribes, but we did not have any artist with that skill so we decided on carving faces of Mother Earth instead. Every face is inclined at twenty-three and a half degrees - exactly the same angle that the earth faces the sun.”

Shakya, who has spent 12 years in Germany, is now known as the modern Arniko (the Nepali architect who first brought the pagoda design to China). He has not built exact replicas of Nepali architecture in this project but has made many modifications and added new designs. The Changunarayan temple built by his team features statues of Kumari (the living goddess of Kathmandu) and Shiva with Parvathi (the popular Hindu god and goddess), which are not present in the original temple, standing in two windows. “Our artist personally went to meet the Kumari, received her blessings, and carved her image. Every single pillar, window - anything we included was carefully studied and researched before construction because we had no room for any mistakes. It was the pride and honor of every Nepali that we were representing. We were not just taking part in the Expo, we were there to make the world say that we are the best; we were there to build history,” said the visionary Amrit Shakya. And what his team has created is truly historical because the carvings brought together in the Nepal Himalayan Pavilion cannot be seen in any other temple, stupa or shrine in the whole world; to be able to do that in this century is itself astounding. “Our designs are truly Nepali architecture but we have put in a lot of innovative ideas and designs while building it. We have represented both Buddhist and Hindu religious symbols in both the temple and the stupa. Some of the pillars of the temple had Kalash, the symbol of fertility in Hindu beliefs, and some had eight Buddhas, the symbol of Buddhist fertility, carved in them, thus making this temple the symbol of fertility and continuity of life. That is why we have named the temple ‘Eternity in itself’,” shared Shakya. He said, “Through this temple we tried to express our Nepalese philosophy of eternity, ‘we die but life goes on’. In one part of the temple the artist Ananta Shakya has carved a three dimensional Vishwaroop (a particular stance) of Lord Vishnu (the caretaker of the world according to Hindu beliefs). As one goes around the temple (we asked everyone to go clockwise around the temple as that is our belief) you see different carvings of cosmic dances of Hindu and Buddhist deities, with the idol of Lord Gautam Buddha at the end. The intention of having Lord Buddha there was to tell people that Buddha was born in Nepal. The  concept was loved by all,” said Shakya.

Binayak Shah, IEG Director of Marketing and Promotion shared the difficulties faced by the team. He said, “There was a major problem obtaining building permission from German authorities. Since it was a completely new structure to German building controlling authorities, they took a rather long time to check all details and test all materials in the laboratory.” He added, “Finally, the design was approved after 18 months of detailed studies by different German architects and experts. It was proved that traditional Nepali architecture is not only artistically beautifully, it is also technically good!”

The crewmembers erected the structure in 100 days in Hanover. The experience of those hundred days has its own charm. “Our workers were not used to wearing helmets, boots and other construction gear, and most of them felt uneasy wearing them, but they had to abide by the rules. Abiding by our own traditions we used to have puja and later light Bhooja (feast) after erecting a pillar or finishing a carving, and we cooked Choila (a Newar dish) and had aila (Newari Liquor). We also had German friends and workers in that feast and it felt like we were in some Newari village,” shared Amrit Shakya.

3.5 million visitors visited the Nepal Pavilion at Expo 2000 over a span of five months, making it probably the most visited single display about Nepal ever. Binayak Shah said, “Visitors were visibly happy and excited to see this fine example of oriental architecture and detailed art. Those who were familiar with Nepal as a country of brave Gorkhali soldiers and Sherpas were excited to know Nepal in a different perspective. Not only did those 3.5 million visitors get a mystical glimpse of Nepal, but also millions more Europeans were touched by the Himalayan breeze through our wide coverage on TV, radio and in print media.” He said, “We were very happy to see so many appreciative visitors and media. We were excited to realize that our labor was liked. International prestige and goodwill for Nepal increased tremendously; that was the biggest achievement for our team.”  

Sharing some of their unforgettable memories of the expo, Amrit Shakya recounted, “When we presented a thick volume of our construction details to the German authorities that were in charge of give us the building permit, they at first did not believe our mathematical details. Convincing them was the toughest part. We decided that we would make them witness our hundreds of years of architectural know-how and for that we carried a big log of saal tree (botanical name: Shorea robusta), which was used as the main pole to support the entire weight of the stupa. The entire team (from both  countries) sat with the German scientist to test the strength of the wood. The initial doubting attitude of the German scientists was soon changed into a sheepish expression of ignorance when our wood out-met their standard of bearing 16.8 kilonewtons per square millimeter of pressure. Our saal wood was approved and regarded as the toughest wood that would withstand the harsh German winter.” Another aspect that he mentioned was, “We had many Nepali and German visitors who would literally shed tears when they were in our pavilion. Many would come and spend hours admiring the beauty and they would say that they felt peace in our pavilion. We had a regular visitor, a Sri Lankan lady who was an Ayurvedic physician, who would come to our pavilion every morning and offer flowers at the feet of the huge stone Buddha’s idol there.” Another interesting experience he shared was that right next to the Nepal Himalayan Pavilion was the pavilion of an international beer manufacturing company which organized evening parties with loud music and dances, affecting the whole pavilion of peace concept of the Nepal Pavilion. The IEG members did not have to utter a word because the German crowd and media voiced such strong objections to the noise that the beer not only had to shift their party place (which had faced the Nepal Pavilion) but also were forced to build a 100-meter long sound-proof concrete wall to keep the serenity of the Nepal Pavilion intact. “We were no more alone and small; our beauty had made us a part of the German crowd!” shared smiling Shakya.

Binayak Shah remembered, “Once we had a young German mother who sat in our pavilion for hours with her newborn child. She said that she was there because she wanted to be in a peaceful place to find a name for her son.” He concluded, “The Nepalese hospitable gestures of welcoming everyone regardless of color, creed or religion and holding hands of elderly visitors  touched visitors’ hearts. That’s probably the reason we had around 20,000 to 25,000 visitors every weekend!”

They legacy does not end with the closing of Expo 2000, Hanover! IEG, with the assistance of German partner Heribert Wirth, dismantled the entire structure, transported all the pieces to Regensburg (near Munich in South Germany) and rebuilt the Pavilion there. When asked the reason for putting in all the hard work to make a permanent pavilion, Binayak Shah said, “There were strong voices from visitors and the German press that the Nepal Himalayan Pavilion should remain in Germany forever as a legacy of Expo 2000. In a short span of five months the pavilion had become a part of German society. And we thought that it would be a privilege to build a small representation of our country in Europe that would be a great example of Nepali art, architecture and culture.” He informed us that there were several parties who were interested in taking the pavilion to their respective regions including Berlin, Hamburg, and Gelchenkirchen, but the terms and conditions of Regensberg were much more favorable, so the Pavilion was built there.

In its new location, the Nepal Himalayan Pavilion was transformed into a bigger project called the Nepal Promotion Center, which runs programs during the summer months to introduce and promote Nepal. The center offers programs on Nepali culture, art, food and handicrafts as well as information on tourism and Nepal’s culture, art and architecture. It also sponsors various trade and investment activities and generally acts as a bridge between Nepal and Germany. The expanded center continues to draw many visitors. Binayak Shah commented, “At the main entrance of our Nepal Promotional Center we have built a huge bell and have named it ‘The Peace Bell’. In recent months numerous German famous personalities such as Rudy Foller, coach of the German National Football Team; Franz Bakeanbavr, the famous German footballer; Dr. Gungther Breckstein, Home Minister of Bavaria (Regensburg); and Balram Singh Malla, Nepal’s Ambassador to Germany, who visited our pavilion were asked to play the peace bell and they all enjoyed it.”