Roots of monuments

Kathmandu

The official number of monuments in Bagan Archaeological Site and Monuments is 3,122. This number is probably not correct since there still isn’t a clear and detailed inventory. According to the official numbers, there are 1,745 temples and stupas, 431 brick monasteries and 54 miscellaneous monuments such as caves and ordination halls. It is interesting to note that the remaining 892 of the total number are ancient mounds, the remains of monuments.

Tragically most of these ancient mounds were haphazardly rebuilt on pure conjecture between 1998 and 2011. This was highly criticised by experts and UNESCO as loss of authenticity and a main concern for World Heritage nomination. It must, however, also be noted that the ancient foundations were maintained. Theoretically the reversal of the recent construction activities is possible which could lead to rehabilitation, research and dating of foundations.

This brings us to a very important point in discussing post-earthquake rehabilitation of heritage sites. In earthquake-prone regions, monuments are known to get damaged or even collapse. The monuments usually have seismic detailing; however the detailing is mainly to prevent buildings from collapsing. The damage is easily fixed with different elements being replaced. Material deterioration due to damp, weathering or infestation is also a reason for materials to be replaced.

In Kathmandu Valley it is clear that buildings have been damaged and regularly rebuilt in the past. Each earthquake has been the cause of some degree of change. Damaged structures were rebuilt in a slightly different manner using salvaged materials. It is known that many buildings have wooden elements that are much older than the building. The discussion has however never included the foundations. The foundations and plinth are the parts of the monument that have generally survived the disasters, kept material authenticity and therefore retain the identity of the monuments. This is where the memories of the monument are stored, accessed through careful reading.

Most restoration projects have only dealt with the parts of the monument above the ground. Documentation of monuments generally doesn’t show the foundations. The issue of conserving the foundations has not been seriously discussed since there seemed to be a traditional taboo on unearthing where special ritual objects were buried during the initial stone-laying ceremony.

An early example of breaking from tradition would have been the 1990 German reconstruction project of Chyasalin Mandap in Bhaktapur. The monument that had been totally damaged in the 1934 earthquake was rebuilt based on photo documentation. Very little original material remained. In very literal interpretation of conservation practice of differentiating old from new, cement concrete foundation base and steel frame structure was used. The original foundations were fully removed. The roots of the original monument were removed, that which would have retained information on its origins and identity. In contrast to the ancient mounts in Bagan that are covered with inappropriate and badly constructed monuments in cement mortar, this highly prized reconstruction project eradicated all traces of original fabric.

The importance of researching foundations was clearly demonstrated with the archaeological investigations carried out on Kastamandap. The outcome of the research provided detailed documentation of the foundations which were in perfect condition, even though certain experts insisted on their inadequacy. Furthermore dating of the foundations provided results that will change our understanding of the history of Kathmandu Valley. The massive brick foundations are from the 7th Century, three centuries earlier than expected.

Following events after the 2015 Gorkha Earthquake, the trend of removing original foundations and plinths has resurfaced. Plinths and foundations of prominent monuments such as the Machhendranath in Bungamati, Anantapur in Swoyambhu and Tunal Devi in Handigaun have been removed and rebuilt. Many of the collapsed

monuments are awaiting a similar fate. This is a criminal offence and must be stopped.

The author is an architect and can be reached at paharnepal@hotmail.com