Kathmandu's Architectural Heritage

Features Issue 22 Aug, 2010
Text by Keshab Poudel

The written history of Kathmandu Valley is only two centuries old, but its civilization is much older at least around 2000 years old. Historically, Kathmandu appeared on the political map of South Asia in the middle of the 5th century AD, under the Lichhavi rulers. (The history of Kathmandu before the Lichhavis is blurry, but chronicles and legends speak of many ruling dynasties like the Gopalas, Mahisapalas and Kiratis.) By this time, the Lichhavis had already established their dynasty and ruled the valley with great success for 600 years. (Lichhavi and  Thakuris ruled for 900 years between 300 and 1200 AD.) In general, the architectural heritage of the Valley can be thought of as it was developed by each successive ruling group.

The written history and existing monuments show that the Lichhavis were the pioneers who introduced the pagoda style of architecture in the Valley. Lichhavi King Mandev, who built the famous Changu Narayan temple, 13 kilometers east of Kathmandu, laid the foundation of Kathmandu’s architecture and much of its culture. The writings of Chinese scholars who visited the valley in the 7th century recorded a well-built town

and settlements, describing Pashupatinath Temple, the beautiful palaces and other major buildings.

During the rule of another Lichhavi ruler, Amsuvarma, in the 7th century, Nepal established contact with Tibet.  This increased the frequencies of contact with the people living beyond the Himalayas, and their influence was felt in the architecture as well.  In between the Lichhavi rulers and the rise of the Malla dynasty in the middle of 14th century, the Valley saw many dynasties who carried on developing the city in their own ways.

The Malla dynasty, which ruled the country for about six hundred years (1200-1769 AD), contributed many monuments, temples and palaces which earned Kathmandu the reputation of  being ‘the city of gods’.  During this period, the Valley experienced a renaissance as the many creative Malla kings preserved the traditional Newari architecture and added new structures. Most of Nepal’s proud architectural heritage comes from the efforts of the Mallas. Malla rulers also followed the pagoda style in famous temples like Nyatopola at Bhaktapur and Taleju in Kathmandu. Siddhinarshing Malla blended Nepali and Indian forms in the Patan Shikhara style to build the Radha-Krishna Temple (popularly known as Krishna Mandir).

The early Shah Kings found a little time to add new architecture to the valley. King Prithivi Narayan Shah built a nine-story pagoda-style palace at Basantapur and later added buildings at the South of Hanuman Dhoka mixing neoclassic with the traditional designs.

The rise of Bhimsen Thapa, a soldier turned prime minister, was very significant in the development of Nepal’s architecture. He introduced Mughal architecture (from North India) in his famous Bag Mahal and constructed eleven storied fountains (Dharahara).
Although Thapa introduced the new architecture in the valley, the credit to combine Mughal and neoclassical architecture goes to the Ranas. After the rise of Jung Bahadur Rana, Nepali palaces were a mixture of these two architectural styles. In the 104-year rule of the Ranas, many palaces and mansions were constructed adopting neoclassic styles. Among thirty-eight Rana palaces, Singh Durbar is one of the largest and best examples of neoclassical architecture, which is still preserved on its front portion.
After his participation in the Sipoy mutiny in Lukhnow, Jung Bahadur Rana built his Thapathali palace based on Mughal architecture. Bir Shamsher used a few neoclassic elements in his Lal Durbar and Phora Durbar, but it was Chandra Shamsher Rana who concentrated purely on the neoclassic approach.  Rana’s palace not only adopted neoclassic architecture but also changed the traditional Newari pattern of building palaces inside the city. The Ranas destroyed many fertile fields of the Valley to erect their palaces outside the core city. Today’s urban areas circling the center of the city:  Kupondole, Sanepa, Thapathali, Baneshwor, Maharajgunj, Jawalakhel, Lagankhel, Kalimati Bishalnagar, Tahachal and Lazimpat, were once occupied by Rana Palaces. 
During the Ranas’ rule, the houses were built on the basis of different castes and official positions. The untouchable and lower classes could not build two story houses. The kajis (senior officials), Rana relatives and purohits (priests) also had different building structures than the ordinary citizens. In modern architectural preservation, the focus has been only on palaces and temples, not on these houses and the aspects of history they represent. 

A description of Kathmandu streets in the 1800s reads, “The houses are of brick and tile, wit-pitched or pen-roof; towards the street, they have frequently enclosed wooden balconies of open carved work, and of a singular fashion, the front piece instead of rising perpendicularly, projecting in a sloping direction towards the eaves of the roof. They are of two, three, and four stories, and almost without a single exception, of a mean appearance; even the Raja’s house being but a sorry building and claiming no particular notice. The streets are excessively narrow and nearly as filthy as those of Benaras.” Some houses matching these descriptions, in ill repair, can still be seen around the Indra Chowk/Ason area.

Urban Settlements and Their Architectural Growth
In many Purans (Hindu mythology) and analogues, the physical state of the Valley describes the swords of gods touching down where the settlements were built. (Swords also play a role in the legends of the origin of Kathmandu- see box.) The excavation at Handigaun shows that the Valley’s urban civilization started with the rise of the Lichhavi Kings. The written artifacts found in Handigaun reveal that the old settlement of the Kathmandu extended from Handigaun, Bishalnagar and Maligaun areas. After the devastation of the city by fire, the settlement was shifted and scattered to the present core areas of the Valley -today’s main cities.

Fire, earthquakes and other such natural calamities have frequently destroyed the Valley’s major urban settlements, but they also helped to introduce new kinds of architecture and start new settlements. After every calamity, the city emerged in different forms. “The Valley’s settlements flourished in every natural disaster and calamity. The natural calamities not only destroyed the old architectures but also helped to rejuvenate the urban settlement,” said Padma Sundar Joshi, an architectural engineer. “You can see all three different phase of architectural growth taken place with either a shift in dynasty or the natural calamities.” As rulers and dynasties changed, the settlements adopted new styles of architecture and centers of power while keeping some of the old buildings intact.
In the 1850s, British historian Ambrose Oldfield visited Nepal. “The streets through the different cities are mostly narrow, crooked and dirty. Two or three of the principal streets radiate from some of the gateways on the circumference of the city towards the durbar (the Royal Palace), through some of the small squares (or toles) with which each capital abounds. The limits of each city are, however, still strictly marked along the line where the ancient walls stood and no Hindu but those good castes are allowed to dwell within its precincts. In each city the largest and most important building is the royal palace. It is situated in a central part of the city.”

Oldfield was glimpsing the spatial order of the late Malla cities after seventy years of decay. Along with developing the settlements in the core areas, the Mallas also encouraged people to develop small towns on the outskirts of the main cities. The construction of village towns was ancient and similar to that of the other South Asian countries.  There were more than twenty smaller and middle settlements outside the main core city of Kathmandu, which was much smaller then. Some of these towns have become connected in the recent period; for example, just twenty years ago the town of Boudha was still surrounded by fields. Further out, Sankhu, Thimi and Kirtipur were developed as larger settlements with population of more than 5,000 each, whereas the settlements in Chapagaun, Pharping, Harisiddhi, Luvu, Shanagaun, Bungamati, Khokana and Satungal were developed as smaller villages. 

Preservation Efforts
Despite its importance in world history, Kathmandu’s architecture and heritage sites are gradually losing their traditional charm as they fall into neglect and decay. Although the Kathmandu Valley has seven UNESCO World Heritage sites, more than any other in the world, the sites are at risk of being taken off the list because of lack of follow-through on some of the government’s commitments to UNESCO requirements.
The sudden fire which recently gutted the ancient Pratappur temple (built some 300 years ago by King Pratap Malla) in the Swayambhunath area has highlighted the vulnerabilities of  Kathmandu’s other heritage sites. Boudanath and other heritage sites including Kathmandu Durbar square are gradually being overshadowed by modern concrete building complexes, and may also be difficult to protect in emergencies. Bhaktapur is an exception where the local municipality is strictly enforcing preservation policies, and actually received First Honorable Mention for  conservation efforts from UNESCO in 1999.

In addition to the problems of the heritage sites, many old palaces, other temples and private houses built during the Malla and Rana period are gradually disappearing from the valley.

“We are losing everything in the course of so called process modernization. People are dismantling the old houses and erecting new ones. This is a great tragedy that we are unable to preserve our heritage,” said Dr. Safalya Amatya. “The settlements of the valleys have a long history of passing different phases under different rulers.” We don’t understand the treasures hidden in these architectures.

Individuals, government organizations and nongovernmental organizations have been making efforts to renovate and preserve the old heritage sites and monuments, but they are inadequate and incomplete. Previously, it was the rulers who restored Kathmandu after natural disasters. For example, Prime Minister Juddha Shamsher Rana rebuilt the devastated Valley following the earthquake of 1934, including building earthquake-proof houses on New Road.

GTZ, a German Aid Agency in the old Palace of Shantabhawan, has made an immense contribution to renovating the monuments of Bhaktapur. After the end of GTZ’s involvement, Bhaktapur Municipality has taken over continuing preservation efforts. The Municipality collects entry fees from visitors to carry out the preservation work.
Austria based Eco-Himal has taken on many preservation projects in the valley, including the renovation of Kesharmahal Garden.  Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust, a U.S.-based INGO, has also been doing preservation work. “We have raised funds to renovate monuments. We have already renovated sixteen smaller and middle level monuments and palaces in Lalitpur. We are currently renovating a monument in Hanuman Dhoka Palace,” said Rohit Shrestha, an architecture engineer with the project. The Nepal Heritage Society has also been playing a major role in raising awareness about the heritage of the Valley. And the national government is also carrying out a few projects to preserve sites.

Preservation by Private Parties
With the opening of Nepal for foreigners, tourists started to visit Nepal in the 1960s. To provide lodging facilities to the tourists, some of the old Rana Palaces and houses of other wealthy people were turned into hotels.

Although the Boris Listavitch is the first person in Nepal who opened a renovated palace (formerly belonging to Bir Shamsher) as a hotel, many others followed his course. Boris, a Russian national brought  to Nepal by late King Tribhuwan from Calcutta (present Kolkota), opened the Yak and Yeti Hotel at Lal Durbar.

Yak and Yeti Hotel still keeps certain portions of Lal Durbar. Shanker hotel has also preserved the front face of another Rana Mansion, and the Summit Hotel is running a restaurant in Patan Durbar Square.

With an aim to promote and preserve traditional architectures, Ambika Shrestha, owner of Dwarika’s Hotel, constructed the hotel using all the traditional materials in a typical Newari Style. “Our aim was to promote Nepali architecture and styles,” says Shrestha. “We can change the present situation by encouraging traditional architecture. Dwarika’s has already shown that Nepali architecture can compete with other architecture.’
Gautam SJB Rana, with his work on Babar Mahal Revisited, has added to the evidence that renovation of an old palace can have economic benefit as well as making a contribution to conservation. Bhojan Griha and Bhancha Ghar are also promoting and profiting from Nepali traditions with restaurants in preserved buildings.