In 1998 I spent two months walking across Nepal from the southern Terai to the mountains and valleys north of Jumla. Logistically the expedition was totally self-supporting (bar the odd bit of spinach) and worked its slow way across a changing landscape from the flat plains of the Terai through arid foothills, across alpine meadows to wide gravel valleys with braided rivers, lush terrace systems and dense forested slopes. The aim was to carry out a reconnaissance of surviving monuments along a ‘royal road’ between the Summer and Winter capitals of a medieval kingdom that helped shape modern Nepal: the Khasa Malla.
Camp at contemporary temple site at Dullu
The project had its origins a few years earlier, Tim Harward –my father- had photographed a series of monuments during a visit to Lake Rara in west Nepal to investigate potential new trekking routes. I encouraged him to talk to archaeologists who had worked in Nepal, leading to talks with Chris Evans of the Cambridge Archaeology Unit, and Tim Williams of the Institute of Archaeology, UCL, and grant funding from National Geographic for a reconnaissance expedition in 1998.
We were partly following in the footsteps of the Fascist Italian archaeologist Guiseppi Tucci, but largely we were on our own -following leads from villagers as to the whereabouts of temples, dharamsala (guest houses), waterpoints and tanks, and the pillar stones that the Khasa Malla used to mark battles and edicts. The pillar stones (Vir Stambha, or Hero Stones) are between 4 and 10 foot high, and are found across west Nepal and the neighbouring Indian areas of Garwahl and Kumaon. The pillar stones sometimes carry carvings of Buddhist motifs such as stupa or the sun and moon, depictions of mounted soldiers, and inscriptions including calendar dates and names and genealogies. Other pillar stones are similar to Hindu Stambha from northern India, with amalaka motifs and the geographical transition from Hindu to Buddhist motifs is one aspect that the project intended to study: two interlinked religions within one kingdom.
Pillar Stone at Tatopani with Buddhist Stupa motif
Back in 1998 the monument recording was carried out quickly – photographs and a few measurements, often a temple would be recorded in less than an hour before the march had to recommence- the journey was more important than the individual site. We were walking within an apparently troubled country, rumours of a Maoist insurgency filtered even through the language barrier, squads of armed police heading north, but for us there was little trouble beyond Keshab the cook being temporarily detained as a suspected insurgent whilst trying to buy some spinach… Two years later my next visit was during a nascent civil war: the police were about to be replaced by the army and the atmosphere on the ground was changed, and as I worked the civil war literally exploded around our camp. The work was completed however and we came away with a good understanding of the physical legacy of the Malla, and the clear potential for future work.
Temple at Parse Bada, reconstructed from field notes
Work, family and civil war have prevented my return to west Nepal for 13 years, but finally it is time to return to the kingdom of the Khasa Malla to carry out a detailed evaluation of the southern part of the kingdom: the area around the Winter capital of Dullu, and the nearby town of Dailekh. This year’s work will aim to design and create a gazetteer of the surviving sites and monuments, evaluate any damage and threats, and assess the best methodologies for recording the monuments. Detailed recording work will be carried out on a range of monuments in order to test methodologies and assess logistics, practicalities and time-scales for future work, including how local Nepali archaeologists can take on the work, and how the local populations’ interest in the Khasa Malla can be fostered.
originally posted on the Urban Archaeology blog, © Urban Archaeology 2013 All rights reserved