Heritage under the sun

Heritage Issue 122 Jan, 2012
Text by Nimma Adhikari / Photo: ECS Media

One of the longest standing monuments in Nepal, Kasthamandap has witnessed the rise and fall of several dynasties and cultures in Kathmandu valley.

Kasthamandap, meaning wooden pavilion is rumored to have been built out of a single tree. The tree, as the story follows, provided enough material not only for the structure of Kasthamandap but also for the Singha sattal and a bihara near the monument as well. There are no records that directly point to the date of the construction of the building but one of the tamrapatras inside the monument dates back to the 14th century Bikram Sambat (Nepali calendar). Some claim it to be the largest and the oldest building in Nepal.

There are several legends that speak about how the monument of Kasthamandap came to be. Saraswati Singh, the Executive Director of Hanuman Dhoka Durbar Museum Development Committee, shares the most popular legend. In the time of King Laxmi Narsingha, when the Matsyendranath rath yatra was in procession in Kathmandu valley, Kalpabrikshya took human form and came to the valley to witness the procession. One of the priests in the procession recognized Kalpabrikshya and captured him. When Kalpabriksha vowed that he would provide materials for the construction of a monument, he was freed. He then sent a large sal tree, the one used to build Kasthamandap.

Although there are variations of this legend, the only consistency remains with the concept of a single tree being used for its construction. The legend dates back to the 17th century but there are evidences suggesting otherwise. Apart from a tamrapatra inside the building dating back to 14th century, reference of Kasthamandap can be found in other handwritten historical documents dating back to as early as 12th century in 1143. “Kasthamandap’s purpose might have been more social than religious, even though the monument is surrounded by different avatars of Ganesh on each corner and a statue of Gorakhnath in the front,” says Dr. Rohit Ranjitkar, the Nepal Program Director of Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust “If the ground floor is open, i.e. not closed with brick walls, then we categorize it as a mandap or sattal,” he adds. The entire structure rests on huge wooden pillars that certainly are not found anywhere near Kathmandu. There are porches in the building and Dr. Ranjitkar believes that they must have been used as a place to lodge travelers.

Singh and Dr. Ranjitkar agree that one of the reasons behind the monument’s popularity is the because the capital city got its name from the monument. This piece of information backs the claim that the construction of Kasthamandap was completed much earlier than the 17th century. Historians claim that the city got its name some 500 years before the legend of the priest and Kalpabriksha circulated during the rule of Laxmi Narsingha.

Singh explains the other important feature of the monument. There are only three images of Gorakhnath in Nepal. The Gorakhnath being referred to is the same ascetic associated with King Prithvi Narayan Shah who had blessed him with victory over any land he stepped on. Gorakhnath is usually symbolized with a pair of feet but Kasthamandap actually enshrines a statue of him making the monument even more notable and extraordinary. Kasthamandap is also one of the largest and oldest wooden buildings and that too, a social building. That gives it a reason to be a topic of interest for people.

Heavy detailed carvings characteristic to Malla period architecture is absent here, allowing experts to date it to the early days of the same period. Dr. Ranjitkar believes that the monument has endured at least 8 to 10 major earthquakes and the monument we see today may or may not be the original design of the centuries-old Kasthamandap.