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Unfinished business in the Himalaya

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


Kankrevihar temple, Surkhet

We are waiting for the last of the team to arrive and are still in the town of Surkhet, down at about 700m altitude in the middle of a roughly circular valley surrounded by hills. The town has got increasingly busy over the 13 years since my last visit and has a large bustling bazaar and on a sunny day like this is a great place to soak up the atmosphere of being back in Nepal.
This morning I went on a short sightseeing trip to the remains of the Buddhist Kankrevihar temple which is about 15 minutes drive outside Surkhet on a wooded hill in the centre of the valley.
View of temple platform, surrounded by carved stones
The temple had either collapsed or been destroyed at some point in the past and the site was first discovered by Nepali explorer and archaeologist Yogi Naraharinath in the 1950s and was partially excavated in 2003 by the Nepali Department of Archaeology. The decorative stonework has all been catalogued and drawn, which when you see the amount of stone lying around the temple site is certainly impressive. From the drawn records the original design of the temple has been reconstructed on paper, and the temple base, foundation (or ‘socle’) and the lowest course of the superstructure of the temple has been physically reconstructed and gives an impression of the size and scale of the temple. There has been talk of reconstructing the entire temple –reinforcing rods are visible in the corners of the rebuilt superstructure, although that would clearly be a literally monumental undertaking. As part of the Surkhet Valley Project Cambridge Archaeological Unit staff carried out a further survey of the temple in 2010.
Intricately carved stone in floral motif, probably from the underside of the ceiling of the inner sanctum of the temple
The date of the temple is currently unclear and it is hoped that further work on the architectural styles will resolve whether it dates from as early as the eleventh or twelfth centuries, or the thirteenth or fourteenth century.
Surrounded by Sal trees decorated with prayer flags the decorated stones are strewn around the temple base, some are moss covered, it was a wonderfully tranquil spot today and you can walk around spotting intricate carvings amongst the trees. The best of the carvings are housed in two modern corrugated tin-roofed sheds with the best of the figurative sculpture in the Surkhet Museum.
Decorative carvings stored on site
Because the temple has collapsed you can see the individual carvings right close up, and also see how the temple was originally constructed with iron staples joining the blocks together. Similar techniques are used on the far simpler and smaller temples and monuments we will be recording from tomorrow.
Stone block with slots for iron staples, and semi-circular indents which may be for helping position the blocks

The temple complex may have been built during the rule of the Khasa Malla dynasty whose archaeology and architecture we will be recording on this visit. West Nepal, and the Malla kingdom in particular, were the cradle of Nepali culture and language before the centre of power moved to the Kathmandu Valley area in the post-medieval period. There are numerous temples, pillar stones, nauli (waterpoints or tanks) and other monuments scattered across West Nepal and we will be recording a sample of these within Dailekh district which contains the summer capital of the Malla kingdom at Dullu. The Malla monuments have a distinctive regional style which combines elements of Tibetan and Indian, Buddhist and Hindu architecture and we will be working towards recording and understanding the Malla school of architecture.

Gateway to site with conjectured reconstruction of the temple

originally posted on the Urban Archaeology blog, © Urban Archaeology 2013 All rights reserved

Animated fly-through of Khasa Malla nauli

‘I’ve just finished processing some of the record shots from the recent fieldwork in Nepal. I’m using Autodesk 123D Catch to stitch digital photographs and create 3-D photogrammetric models of a sample of the monuments so we can see if this is a viable way of recording monuments quickly and accurately. An added advantage is you can easily create animated fly-throughs of the models that give a 3-D impression of the actual monument which is great and has lots of potential uses within a project that aims to help enable heritage tourism.

This 3-D model was created using standard archaeological record shots, for a full 3-D model we’d have needed to take many more photos to cover all the angles, still it gives a good idea of what is possible given a bit of time and a digital camera.

The featured monument is a nauli or waterpoint at Bhurti in Dailekh, West Nepal. It is 20 yards or so from the major Khasa Malla temple site of Bhurti, which has 22 intact temples, plus the remains of potentially many more. I’ll add some more fly-throughs as and when I get them processed.’

originally posted on the Urban Archaeology blog, © Urban Archaeology 2013 All rights reserved