Nepal | September 28, 2020

Reconstruction drive: Artisans’ role

Sabitri Dhakal
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artisan reconstructionKathmandu

Several cultural heritage sites and tangible heritage turned to rubble in the earthquake on April 25, 2015 and the resulting aftershocks. The fate of Patan Durbar Square was no different. Char Narayan and Harishankar temples located within this Square collapsed then. However, the remains of these temples such as the doors and windows, wooden frames were salvaged from the rubble and kept in the Bhandarkhal Garden as were those from Manimandap and Bishweshwor temples. These carved items are a legacy of a bygone craftsmanship, and hence a tangible heritage of the country’s rich cultural and religious history.

With an aim to preserve these items of historical, religious and cultural importance, a group of carvers are working each day to restore the beauty of these items under the aegis of the Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust (KVPT) in conjunction with the Department of Archaeology.

The salvaged wood items are arranged neatly inside a temporary room inside the Bhandarkhal Garden. These items were collected immediately after the earthquake. “We separated all the items and catalogued them so that they can be placed easily in their original places during the reconstruction of the temples. All these items have been photographed,” informed Bijay Basukala, Conservation Architect at KVPT.

As one walks around the Bhandarkhal Garden in Patan Durbar Square, one can see a group of wood carvers busy working with their carving tools on pieces of wood, while an old man sporting a pair of glasses is working on stone at the Krishna Mandir premises. All these artisans are working in the reconstruction of this cultural heritage site damaged in the earthquake.

Demand for carvers

After the earthquake two years ago, the demand for stone and wood carvers shot up. Those working here today had been carrying on with their ancestral profession and hence, this reconstruction campaign became an opportunity to show their skills to best preserve the ages old art, culture and history of the country.

Wood carvers and wood carvings at Bhandarkhal Garden in Patan Durbar Square. Photo: Balkrishna Thapa Chettri

Many of the wooden items such as the tudals, thaam (pillars), bim, toran, gaj were damaged in the earthquake. The carvers are working to restore and replicate the original designs by engraving on new wooden pieces. However, there is a “scarcity of people who know how to work on wood. Only a few know the technique. Most of the people only know how to cut and make simple holes. It is difficult to find people who know how to carve as those who know the work prefer doing so in their local areas. Plus they are busy carrying on carving as a business of their own,” shared Basukala.

Passing on the legacy

Parents play a great role in a child’s learning. The artisans working here have learnt the skills from their fathers. “I learnt woodcarving from my father and uncles. It’s our ancestral profession,” shared Tirtharam Shilpakar, aged 38.

Narayan Sundar Shilpakar, 39, is another such artisan who was busy working inside the garden. Like Tirtharam, he
too has learnt the skills from his ancestors.

Besides wood carving, in the vicinity of Krishna Mandir, Aasha Bahadur Ranjitkar, 66, and Surya Bahadur Ranjitkar, 36, the father-son duo were working together carving designs on stones. “I learnt the skill at home and
also taught my son,” shared Aasha Bahadur.

Limited skill a hindrance

As the skills and knowledge have been passed down from one generation to another in their own homes, the knowledge that these artisans have is minimum. “The designs and art carved on the wood are quite difficult to copy. We need to pay a lot of attention,” shared Krishna Ram Shilpakar, 42, who was trying to copy the design from an old piece of wood by his side on to a new wooden piece.

“It is difficult to copy the exact design. One needs to use his brains to get the exact copy,” added Krishna Ram.

Before carving the designs on the wooden pieces, they are drawn on the wood to be carved with pencils. “We cannot carve the designs immediately. So we make the designs with pencils first,” Krishna Ram shared about the process.

Similar is the case with stone carving. Before the final shaping, the designs are traced out with pencils. “It is easier to carve once we make the designs with pencils,” shared Surya Bahadur.

Iconography challenges

The new carvings are being done of those items that were damaged completely in the earthquake. Those that were not damaged in the quake will be used as it is. “We brought salla from around the country for the work as it is believed to be one of the strongest wood. Yet this wood is scarce. Despite finishing 75-80 per cent of the wooden work, there are problems. In addition to lack of skilled manpower and availability of wood, we are facing problems in iconography. The interpretation of the content of images, the subjects depicted and the details used are difficult to understand. As the designs contain several such images, details, symbols and they should be placed in sequences, we have a challenge to do so. There are very few people who know about the symbols and designs. Besides that, the images of deities should be designed very accurately. But we lack people who actually know about all these,” revealed Basukala.

Good source of income

reconstruction artisan

Wood carvers and wood carvings at Bhandarkhal Garden, in Patan Durbar Square. Photo: Balkrishna Thapa Chettri

Whatever their knowledge, this has become a good source of income for those with skills.

“Many of my friends have gone abroad to work, but as I am earning pretty well here, I don’t feel like going to a foreign land for employment. There is so much demand for us (artisans) nowadays that I am unable to go everywhere that I am called,” shared Surya Bahadur.

And looking at the demand for persons with such skills in the country, he wants his child too to learn the skills but also feels that the child should profess an interest in it.

Opportunity to learn

These artisans aren’t only showing their skills but are also learning at the same time. As they learnt the skills from their ancestors they knew only about the designs that were in demand in the market, but working here has given them the opportunity to see and understand what the ancient art and craftsmanship were all about. “We are learning new designs and patterns as we are working. If we don’t know how to copy the designs, as a team we share our ideas and learn. We are also learning to carve the faces of deities which was quite difficult as they have different styles and details in them,” shared Krishna Ram.

Surya Bahadur, the stone carver, too is happy working in the restoration campaign. “I came to know about how the stones are attached with clips,” he added.

And learning of these skills is “sure to help in the days to come”, said Krishna Ram.

A version of this article appears in print on April 30, 2017 of The Himalayan Times.

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