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Heidelberg University

The Nepal Heritage Documentation Project

€775,000; 2018-2020

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The Nepal Heritage Documentation Project aims to create a register of endangered built heritage across the country. The project is a cooperation between Heidelberg University, the Heidelberg Academy of Sciences and Humanities, and cultural heritage institutions in Nepal. Starting with the Kathmandu Valley, it is documenting monuments and their use. All material, including descriptions, images and architectural drawings, is made freely available through the project’s database, the Digital Archive of Nepalese Arts and Monuments (DANAM).

Patan Darbar Square, post-earthquake reconstruction, March 2019 (photograph: Christiane Brosius)

Whilst the three dynasties and clans that ruled Nepal from the 13th century – the Malla, Shah and Rana – were Hindu, the local Newar population worshipped both Hindu and Buddhist deities.

The religions merged in many aspects, with strong folk religious strands, and shaped a unique religious intangible and tangible heritage. Thus, alongside the rulers‘ impressive palaces and Hindu temples, the three historical centres of the Kathmandu Valley – Kathmandu, Bhaktapur and Patan (Lalitpur) – also preserve numerous Buddhist monuments, stupas and monasteries.

Rapid urbanization and demographic change have put the Valley’s built heritage under threat. In the aftermath of the devastating earthquakes in April and May 2015, the urgent need to document these traditional structures became evident. A lack of accurate records severely hampered efforts to rebuild and still causes difficulties in restoration work.

The project will document monuments and the objects they contain, aiming to record 400 sites in the Kathmandu Valley in the project’s first two years. Using historical data – maps, photographs, inscriptions – and contemporary photography, as well as interviews with local people, the team aims to create a comprehensive record of this fragile heritage.

Historian and heritage expert Ravi Shakya cleaning and preparing an inscription for photographing in Patan (photograph: Nashib Kafle)

Weekly NHDP staff roundtable at the Nepal office in Patan, with members of the Heidelberg team, October 2018 (photograph: Christiane Brosius)

Among the buildings that the project is documenting are the unique arcaded rest houses (Nevārī phalcā). Phalcās remain an important part of Newar social and ritual life, as places of gatherings, devotional music and processions. This architectural type often consists of one floor and contains multiple carved bays with inscriptions and sculptures. Rest houses have become vulnerable due to urban transformation and lack of resources for communities in the neighbourhood to sustain them, yet they receive little attention from architects, heritage experts and historians. This project is the first comprehensive effort to document them. It has already mapped more than 250 Phalcās in Patan.

Nārāṃhiṭī Phalcā in Patan, the restored version of 2018 (photograph 2018: Nutan Sharma)

One of those is Nārāṃhiṭī, the largest of almost 20 Phalcās in the Cyāsal city quarter. It was built in 1751 and is made up of two separate arcaded rest houses, dedicated to deities of two different castes. Its ritual significance is connected to the statue of Gajalakṣmī, the goddess Lakshmi with elephants – one of the oldest statues in the Kathmandu Valley, from the second century BC. The statue is located at the bottom of a stepwell, still used by the neighbourhood.

Gajalakṣmī at Nāyahiṭī, Patan (2nd century BC). The iron rods protect it from theft. (photograph: Yogesh Budathoki, 2019)

Nārāṃhiṭī is a gathering place during annual festivals, when devotional songs (bhajan) are performed. In the 2015 earthquakes, the Phalcā collapsed. It was restored in 2018, though the reconstruction reused only a few historical fragments and changed the form of the Phalcās, in keeping with the new needs of the community.

The monastery Yākaḥ Bāhāḥ in Patan, 2019 (photograph: Yogesh Budathoki)

Few Buddhist monk communities exist in the Valley, but the old monastic structures are still visible. More than 200 monastic compounds – Bāhāḥs – are preserved in Patan (Lalitpur). Today, these are mostly residential courtyards of the Newar population with a temple or god-house (kvāpadyāḥ). Many collapsed in 2015, and though the more prominent monasteries are maintained and slowly restored, the smaller Bāhāḥs are in poor condition. In 2019, the project documented one such Bāhāḥ, the Yākāḥ Bāhāḥ or Dharmarāja Vihāra. It was built in the late 17th or early 18th century. Yākā Bāhāḥ was used for initiation ceremonies, where young boys were introduced into the community and became ‘monks’ for a few days. The roof of the main two-storeyed building had collapsed, and thick vegetation now covers its courtyard. A stone image of Akṣobhya, a common representation of the Buddha, was stolen from the sanctum, and other ritual objects – a small caitya (a mound-like building symbolizing the Buddha and his teachings), shrines with Buddhist deities, and two stone inscriptions – have all disappeared. They may be still under the debris. After 2015, all rituals in the Yākāḥ Bāhāḥ stopped, and it may be that the old monument will not be preserved. In such cases, the project’s documentation will often provide the only detailed and lasting record of the monuments.

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