Over the centuries, successive dynasties that ruled Kathmandu Valley left behind a legacy of palace complexes and temples, of which many from the Malla era are still standing. But very little is known about the earlier phases of Kathmandu’s history, especially subsurface archeological heritage.
Recent excavations in Lumbini have uncovered pre-brick structures below standing remains, which suggest that before the development of non-durable buildings there were already structures with non-fired bricks present.
Experts say that is also likely in Kathmandu Valley with its historical settlements and the presence of inscriptions dating back to the 4th century CE. Historical chronicles also state that sites like Pashupati were built as far back as the 3rd century, suggesting that there may be more to uncover below these ancient sites. But unplanned and haphazard urbanisation in Kathmandu, and the lack of political and community will are destroying our past.
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In his travelogue, An Account of Tibet The Travels of Ippolito Desideri of Pistoia, S.J. 1712- 1727, Italian Jesuit Ippolito Desideri who visited Kathmandu in 1721, mentions a plain stretching two miles (believed to be Tundikhel) near a pond. He writes, ‘There are many pyramids, or towers … dedicated to their Gods.’
If it is indeed Tundikhel that Desideri describes, there are only two of the ‘many’ temples remaining in the vicinity, the Bhadrakali temple in the eastern side and the Mahankal temple on the western edge. Others may have been destroyed or buried over the years, the remains of which may still be around.
“Ground levels in cities rise overtime as new structures are built over the rubble of older ones that have collapsed or been abandoned due to various reasons like fire or in case of Kathmandu Valley, earthquakes,” explains Rohit Ranjitkar of the Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust (KVPT), who did his PhD in heritage restoration.
The Pantheon in Rome was built on the site of another structure built around 27 BCE, but was destroyed in a fire. It was restored around 80 CE, but was again burnt to the ground after being struck by lightning 30 years later. It was later restored in 128 CE. Much of this information is found through painstaking archaeological work and historical records.
The centres of other European cities like Athens and Pompeii also have carefully preserved sites for archaeological digs.
In Kathmandu, the dabali across the Nautale Darbar, Basantapur has two chaitya more than 1m below current ground level. In front of the Kumari Ghar in Kathmandu Darbar Square, workers came across the finial of a chiba while building a road 15 years ago. This finial is still visible and the area has been encased in metal bars. These sites have also shown how the ground level has risen in Kathmandu over the centuries after being built over.
Ranjitkar says the dabali was actually a part of the palace before the 1934 earthquake. The houses there were damaged, but instead of repairing them, the palace complex was restructured, leaving the area open to make it easier for Prime Minister Judda Shamsher to manoeuvre his car. There were other subtle and not-so-subtle changes to the Darbar Squares after the 1934 earthquake.
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Kathmandu Valley has a history of earthquakes every 60-70 years. Early history of the Valley has been known from textual sources like inscriptions from 4th century CE onwards, manuscript colophons after 8th century CE, and archives like the Gopālarājavaṃśāvalī.
These chronicles provide a regular recording of earthquakes including those in 1224, 1255, 1260, 1344, 1408, 1618, 1767, 1823, 1833, 1834, 1869, 1916 and 1934 – and prove the contention of seismologists about the Himalayan tectonics. While the accounts of earlier earthquakes are generalised, there are more details available for the earthquakes of 1833 and 1934.
After the 1934 earthquake, the Bhandarkhal garden in the backyard of Patan Darbar was used to deposit debris from the palace complex and nearby areas. For years, no one cared to clean up the rubble and the garden lay dilapidated as the palace itself was used for government offices.
When KVPT was working to restore the Bhandarkhal pond in Patan Darbar Square in 2009, it discovered that the ground level of the area before the 1934 earthquake was much lower. The pond was in a dilapidated condition. There was a brick wall on the upper level that was built after the 1934 earthquake to contain the debris deposited in the garden. While working on the pond the team discovered the original base of the outer wall of the pond.
“This gave us an idea of the historic pre-1934 ground level, so we cleared up the entire garden to preserve that,” says Ranjitkar. One can see how high the ground was after the 1934 earthquake by looking at the trees. The team built a substructure to support and preserve the trees that had grown over the raised area. While clearing up the debris, they also discovered ancient stone artefacts currently kept in the Patan Museum garden.
Even after the restoration of pre-1934 level, one can see more layers underneath which could contain relics of debris from previous earthquakes. Says Ranjitkar: “When we excavated in Bhandarkhal garden, we found pockets of structure made of stone that were bigger than the ones that were in use at the time. This shows that there is a lot to learn about Kathmandu’s subsurface heritage.”
After the 2015 earthquake, a team from Durham University in coordination with UNESCO and the Nepal government, conducted Ground Penetrating Radar Survey and geo-archaeological analysis of the three Darbar Square areas of Kathmandu Valley. It was determined that Kasthamandap which was thought to be a 12th century structure was actually built in the 7th century. The team also found that in all three palaces the subsurface level had been intruded by modern utilities like water, sewage and electric cables.
The team has produced a provisional risk map of all three palace complexes highlighting possible archeological sites. The report has highlighted some areas in red as High Risk where there should be no intrusive development whatsoever. Yellow areas are Moderate Risk where construction should be avoided if possible, and Low Risk where development can take place but should be as non-intrusive as possible and fully reversible (see box).