Saving Grace: Purusottam Dangol

Features Issue 83 Jul, 2010

Apologies for the bizarre allusion I am about to make, but immediately after America’s 110 store World Trade Center towers were razed to the ground, the American government confidently announced that if terrorists thought they had shaken the very foundation of its economic prosperity, they were wrong. The Twin Towers would be built again in no time. Sadly, Nepalese officials cannot say the same thing if any of Kathmandu’s ancient temples, far smaller in size, deteriorate or fall to the ground. The reason is that the Americans have the blueprints of their Twin Towers, but the Nepalese have virtually lost the designs of their temples. Even if the blueprints of the Twin Towers were lost, an architect could flip through his imagination and redraw the map. The same cannot be said for the Hindu temples, because they are not simply what they appear from outside.

Though the American skyscrapers were built by highly qualified architects, the knowledge designers of the ancient Nepalese temples had were far more sophisticated. “That with so much limited resource and no formal qualification they could build structures as proportionate as the temples in the valley is in itself an amazing feat,” says Purusottam Dangol. Then he adds: “It can spin the head of any architect worth the salt.”

Apart from being a qualified architect, Dangol is also the Deputy Director at the Department of Urban Development and Building Construction, and has published a book entitled Elements of Nepalese Temple Architecture.

When building a skyscraper an architect’s concerns and calculations are restricted to the land on which it is being built and its immediate surrounding. But the designer engaged in planning a Hindu temple assesses factors far beyond, depending on all but his mental radar. Among those factors there are even supernatural ones, about how the deities will react to their new abode.

A simple sentence in Dangol’s book, published after thorough research, reveals the complexity of building a Hindu temple: “Only if the temple is constructed according to a mathematical system can it be expected to function in harmony with the mathematical basis of universe. Only well executed image, satisfactory in its proportional measurements will be able to invite the deities to reside within it.”

“Though the temples built during the past few decades mimic the older ones, they do not incorporate the basic schemes of original designs in strict sense of a term,” says Dangol.

“The original temples built centuries ago, for example, use wooden wedges in place of nails that are considered inauspicious and thought to invite bad omen,” he says, “though that tradition is changing fast, as nobody can explain why wooden wedges are better than nails.”

The people hired to make the temples were great craftsmen who could have easily

forged metal nails. Metal fasteners, however, were simply not an option. But aren’t nails, more than the wooden wedges, supposed to be effective in keeping the structures steady and upright? Standing against that logic is the fact that the temples survived the great earthquake of 1990 BS (1933 AD), when other buildings that were held together by nails, and built much later, fell apart.

Indeed, some thought was given to ensure the longevity and robustness of the older edifices, Dangol suggests. For example the woods used in different parts of the temple, he says, were of varied kind. “Sal wood was used in the parts exposed to rain and direct heat, whereas the portions shielded from adverse weather tend to be made of softer varieties. But I think for all fixing and tightening purpose the woods used must be of hardest variety, like oak,” he concludes.

The resourcefulness of the craftsmen is visible in their ability to weave the religious and cultural symbolism into the architectural design. “Take the case of struts that are used to provide support to the overhanging roofs. The deities carved on them are done so beautifully that an onlooker is instantly mesmerized to think of it in the line of some essential religious symbol, and ignore the support factor,” says Dangol.

In his book he presents an in-depth study of the subject, including some interesting historical perspectives. “In most cases, the temples with deities found on the site have their sanctum sanctorum lower than the ground level on which the main structure stands,” says Dangol. One has to climb down a few inches to a few feet in order to reach the shrines of such temples. Indeed, Maitidevi temple, located north-east of Dillibazar, has its shrine at a slightly lower elevation, whereas the temple of Guheshwari, behind the Pashupatinath, requires you to descend a flight of steps to have a close look at the deity.

On the other hand, the temples built by the royals stand high above the ground with their most sacred interiors resting at the base of the topmost plinth. Patan’s Krishna Mandir (temple) and the temples in Basantapur area are the examples.

The idea to write a book on Nepal’s temple architecture first occurred to Purusottam Dangol when, as a student of architecture, he submitted a research paper on Bhaktapur’s Nyatapole temple as a part of a summer assignment. His teacher appreciated the effort and asked him to continue studying the ancient architecture and publish a book later.

He continued the work off and on over the years, then got an opportunity to dedicate himself wholly to it, though it was during a time of personal misfortune. He took nine months off from government service to take care of his ailing mother, who passed away soon after. “I could have rejoined the service, but instead I decided to finish up the pending business,” says Dangol. “Since our culture requires us to visit as many temples as possible in the first year of a death in the family, I took it as a divine intervention.”

And so he began his work in full swing. He visited temples and studied the architecture for hours on end. He visited libraries that very few have ever heard of. And he met someone he was referred to by someone who knew someone... One look at Dangol’s face and you’ll say “spare me these someone’s details, eh!”

“Getting things out of people was unnerving,” says Dangol, “but patience is the last thing you want to lose when you are out to seek help from people who have learned to trade money for information.” His persistence paid off, and today his book is a staple reading at the schools of architecture in Nepal and is found in the shelves of many libraries in the city.

Like American cities are known for their skyscrapers, Kathmandu is known to the outside world as the city of temples. Like the skyscrapers represent America’s economic prosperity, the temples stand for our cultural richness. But unlike the capability of the American’s to resurrect their foundations, Nepalese are fast losing the wherewithal to revive their precious heritages.

Dangol need not publish books for living as he is basically an architect, not a writer. He was also of officer rank with the government when he started doing the research for his book. But the fear of losing it all really pushed him on. Though he knows the book is no where near to be tagged as a complete documentation of Nepalese temple architecture, he is proud of the fact that at least those following on his footsteps will not have to sweat it out like he did.

The book is filled with elaborate descriptions, detailed sketches (by the author) and some pictures of original manuscripts that outline temple plans and the science behind them. Those manuscripts are in fact the blueprints of Nepalese temple architecture that he dug out with the help of a friend at Kaisar Library. “My friend was kind enough to sift through the dust covered stacks of books, as rarely did anyone came looking for them,” he says. “It was embarrassing to stand there and see him do all that, but I had no choice.”

Thanks to him and all those who helped, Purusottam Dangol published his book. So, perhaps, all is not lost after all. And if you found my allusion at the beginning well placed, I’ve gained what I had set out for.