Lessons from conservation of Yetakha Bahal
Kathmandu is beautiful not just because of the seven monument zones that have been recognized by the government as well as United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO); but besides these, there are innumerable temples, stupas, monasteries and other heritages that are equally elegant and have cultural significance.
A notable example is Yetkha Bahal (यतखा बहाल, also called Yatakha Bahal). Located at the core of old Kathmandu, is about a five-minute walk from the Hanumandhoka Durbar Square. If you walk from Maju Dewal of Hanumandhoka to Naradevi, a small lane on your left will take you to an open quadrangle.
It is a big quadrangle — bigger than a football ground — with a giant white Buddhist stupa at the centre. Around 80 residential buildings, sporadically reconstructed, surround the brick-paved square. Originally, such quadrangles are meant to be shrines or monasteries. There must have been a temple-like construction, called Dyo-chhen (द्यःछेँ), and the rest of the surrounding two-floor buildings used to be classrooms, meditation halls or dormitories for the celibate monks.
There are around three dozen such monasteries, categorized as ‘Bahals’ or Bahils’, in Kathmandu alone but none of them today has monks studying Buddhism. By the 18th century, the Bajracharyas and Shakyas, “the masters of the thunderbolt” and “venerable ones”, who are said to be the rightful residents, forgot the essence of what they were. They got rid of monkhood and so, their titles, these days, have become mere surnames. They not only started claiming the shrine as their own property but also have dismantled the fabric of the monastery and replaced them with new constructions, throwing all the elaborate pieces away.
100-year-old-picture shows that a homogeneous row of two-story buildings, all with slopped, tiled roofs, stood there at Yetkha Bahal. But most of the buildings today are no more than 40 feet tall — all made of concrete with contrasting colours and designs.
Just opposite the entrance, across the stupa, there lies an old three-storied building — Dyo-chhen, or the “home of the god”. There is an idol of Akshyabhya Buddha on the ground floor and the upper floor contains a secret chamber where only the initiated Bajracharya priests can worship. Only a few are aware today that it is the only reminder of the original feature of the courtyard. This is a piece of architecture that has few comparisons in the whole Kathmandu Valley.
“It is unique from every angle. You can say that it is a jewel of the Newar civilization that flourished in the Kathmandu Valley from the fifth century,” says Dr. Rohit Ranjitkar, an architect and expert of the valley monuments, Kathmandu Valley Conservation Trust (KVPT).
Its “torana” (तोरण)and struts are something you cannot find elsewhere in the valley. Experts claim that parts of the original building could be seven to eight hundred years old. The un-dated torana has a motif similar to those of cave art of India. Similarly, the struts with images of Yakshinis are also equally antique. Only in Itumbahal, Okubahal and the temple of Indreshwor (Panauti) possess such struts. The gloomy sanctum of the ground floor contains a small and ordinary-looking idol, recently installed after the original one was stolen decades back.
The Dyo-chhen originally belonged to a guthi (गुथि trust) of the Tamrakars, the traditional coppersmiths. It was intact till 1968, as shown in a picture taken around that time. In around 1980, the guthi members, instead of carrying on the legacy, hired Bajracharya (priest) who performed daily rituals at the shrine daily and in return, got to live in the temple. Time passed, and the priest was found with a crafted land ownership certificate. Still, he never took pain to conserve the monument. So much so, they did not repair the shrine when the five-faced window fell to the ground in 1985. And the dilapidated condition did not bother the Tamrakars either.
After over four years, the restoration of Yetkha Bahal Dyo-chhen has been completed. It was a project jointly carried out by the KVPT, an NGO working in the restoration sector for the past one decade, and UNESCO.
According to the project officials, the venture cost around 2.7 million for restoration. For this, the Sumitomo Foundation provided $ 23,000 while KVPT collected a fund of Rs. 12,500 from various sources. The project began in April 2002 though the paperwork and preparation began as early as 1998.
It is a success story if we look at it superficially. But one wonders why the ‘guthi’ members not only refused to help but also kept hindering the process. The officials from UNESCO and KVPT selected the Dyo-chhen looking at the beauty and antiquity of the monument. But they were unaware of the problems that lay behind the beautifully carved doors. Before the project ended, the technicians expressed: “It was a mistake. A bad choice, indeed.”
The trust members did not disclose the ownership problem earlier, but as everything was ready, the fake owner refused to have the monument resorted. Finally, the project had to decide that it would buy back the monument for the restoration’s sake. Still, the guthi members provided only less than half of the total amount to buy the building for themselves, while KVPT and Katmandu Metropolitan City jointly provided the rest of the amount.
The owner just turned their back on the project and after it was completed some weeks ago, the owners went to the project office and demanded modern electric fittings be provided and the walls are painted, etc, which are against the norms of conservation. In addition, some even asked that a party be organized for the guthi members and the neighbours, and refused to take the key of the moment until their demands were fulfilled.
This is a ridiculous incident in the history of foreign assistance for conservation. Due to the similar attitude of Nepali owners, either private or the government, donors have shown little interest in providing financial assistance to us.
Undoubtedly, the sole responsibility of restoring the monument falls on the shoulders of the locals who are proud of their heritage. If the government is found indifferent in this regard, the locals, at least the Budhist families, should come forward as most of them belong to well-to-do families.
There are hundreds of monuments awaiting conservation but there is little hope from the owners that they would conserve their legacy. Is the YetkhaBahal conservation project putting a full stop to future possibilities of foreign donation for conservation programmes in collaboration with the local owners?
(Published in Chicago Newa; photos are taken from various websites; based on the author’s report published in The Himalayan Times, )