The Bhaidega temple dedicated to Lord Shiva was built more than 350 years ago, but after it was destroyed in 1934, it was rebuilt with a much smaller Moghul style dome. Two months after work began in February 2015 to rebuild it in the original style, the earthquake destroyed much of Patan Durbar Square.
The 2015 quake killed nearly 10,000 people, and many of the temple, monuments, and homes of Kathmandu Valley’s historic towns were destroyed. For the following two years, as priorities shifted, the reconstruction of Bhaidega was suspended so that the other temples could be restored first.
“When the earthquake struck, the focus and priorities changed. There was an urgent need to rebuild the temples and monuments brought down by the earthquake,” recalls Rohit Ranjitkar of Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust (KVPT), which was leading the restoration of the temple. “So, Bhaidega took a back seat.”
Six years after the 2015 quake, while the temples around it have come out of their scaffolding, the work on the Bhaidega is stalled because money has run out.
The timeline for the reconstruction of Bhaidega is proof that restoration of quake-damaged monuments take a long time in Nepal, and tend to overlap each other.
But earthquakes in Nepal also provide an opportunity to rediscover traditional seismic resistant construction methods, so they can be built back better, and revive ancient craftsmanship.
What sets Bhaidega apart is that unlike the other temples of the Patan Darbar which were built by the Malla kings, it was put up by a commoner, Bharo Bhagirath Bhaiya in 1678. Historians believe Bhagirath Bhaiya was probably the first person in the Subcontinent to dedicate a temple to Vishweshwar after the desecration of the original shrine in Banaras nine years earlier.
The Kashi Vishwanath temple in Banaras was destroyed on orders of Moghul emperor Aurangezeb. Ironically, after the 1934 earthquake, Bhaidega was rebuilt in the Moghul stucco dome architectural style that the rulers of Nepal copied.
“In the past, people did not really have a concept of conservation. The priority was to have a roof over the idol of the deity,” says Ranjitkar. “So, they rebuilt it anyhow, but it was important to rebuild in the original form.”
Restoration work actually had begun early as 2011 when well-wishers, conservation architects, historians, and community activists started to collect photos of Bhaidega taken eighty years before and traced to the collection of Felix Brandt in Germany. The photos show only partial facets of the original Bhaidega but was vital in estimating the size and outline of the temple.
Detailed water color of the woodwork of the first-floor struts, cornices, and pillars made by Henry Ambrose Oldfield in 1853 were discovered in the British Museum. More importantly, carved wooden struts 4m tall, subsidiary struts, and pillars of the temple were discovered in the Patan Museum storeroom.
All these provide clues for the reconstruction and designs for the missing wood carvings. With additional research, restoration architects could then draw up sketches of what the restored temple would look like.
“When you look at the photos that are available, you can see that the carvings in Bhaidega are one of the best in the city if not the country,” says Indra Prasad Shilpakar, one of the master carvers working on the temple. “It showed us that we were on the right track, and it makes us proud that we are helping revive a part of Nepali art and history that was almost forgotten.”
Rebuilding slowed after the 2015 earthquake because other temples were also destroyed or damaged, but the interruption was also an opportunity to build back better.
“The earthquake gave us a chance to look at the foundation of Bhaidega which would not have happened if the earthquake had not hit,” says Ranjitkar.
The plan was to rebuild on the original plinth, but upon inspection the team found that the foundation of the temple was weaker than what they had anticipated. Not only was it shallower but some of the stones used were round.
“Rounder uncarved stones move around easily and are not structurally safe. This meant that we had to spend a lot of time and money to reinforce the foundation and make it stronger,” explains Ranjitkar.
After 2015, funds and expertise were diverted to other monuments in the Valley as the country went into an emergency response mode. On the heritage front, Nepal faced a crisis of skilled artisans to rebuild and restore collapsed and damaged monuments. This led to an increase in the cost of workers’ wages, timber, bricks, and other building materials.
In 2012, the preliminary cost estimate for the Bhaidega restoration was about Rs40 million. Within seven years, it had more than doubled to Rs. 90 million.
Another temple in the Patan Darbar Square, the Harishankar shrine, similar in size to the original Bhaidega did not cost as much to restore because 80% of its carved wooden columns, struts, eaves were retrieved after the temple collapsed.
In the case of Bhaidega, much of the wood carvings need to be replicated and built anew, which takes up the bulk of the expense, expertise, and time. Additionally, Bhaidega also needs extensive bricklaying, roof tiles, terracotta, and repairs and gilding of the original pinnacle.
Because of the overwhelming need to rebuild other temples and monuments destroyed in 2015, Bhaidega was not a priority for donors and the government.
“We approached the government for timber at the official rate, but the Forest Ministry did not even grant us that,” says Prithvi Pande, who is the chair of the Cultural Heritage Preservation Group, a citizen’s group. “The government talks about importance of heritage and tourism but can’t even provide wood to rebuild our temples.”
A big part of the rebuilding cost has been borne by Pande and his colleagues. Before the earthquake, the Norwegian Embassy contributed to the shortfall in the initial cost estimate. After the earthquake, other private citizens and the Lalitpur Municipality also supported the cause. But funds have now dried up, while prices have skyrocketed.
Ranjitkar of KVPT says the work on restoration has slowed, and there is a budget shortfall of more than Rs30 million.
To ensure that the restoration makes up for lost time, the KVPT team worked through the pandemic, following safety protocols. Only the first floor has so far been completed and work is ongoing on the second tier.
Most of the wood carving work for the doors, windows, columns, including the lower cornices have been completed.
Says Ranjitkar, “If we get the required amount, we can finish rebuilding in 10-12 months. But it is going to get more expensive the longer it takes.”
Who was Bhagirath Bhaiya?
Bhagirath Bhaiya was a commoner who served as prime minister of the kingdom of Patan for 16 years during the reign of King Srinivas Malla. Known for his philanthropy, he was a reputed military commander and fought in battles in Makwanpur and elsewhere.
He donated much land, upgraded the town’s facilities, and repaired temples in Patan and Pharping. In 1678, he built the Bhaidega temple replicating a Shiva lingam at the Kashi Vishwanath in Banaras which was destroyed nine years earlier.
For the inauguration of the temple, he also built the pavilion of Lampati that still stands today across the street south of Bhaidega. It was from here that invited Kings and nobility watched the consecration of the temple. The guests included the royalty of Patan, Bhaktapur King Jitamitra and his brother Ugra Malla, King of Kathmandu Nripendra Malla and his brothers Mahipatindra and Parthivendra. Even the king of Tanahu Bhaiya Rudra Sen was invited.
King Srinivas held Bhagirath Bhaiya in great esteem, and this is evident in an inscription dating 1674 at Matsyendranāth Temple, where he asks the public ‘to make no distinction between him and me’.
But the elevation of Bhagirath Bhaiya did not sit well with some members of the nobility, especially Yoganarendra Malla who was envious of the former. Having consolidated power in the court, they stripped him of his position in 1685. There are written records that Bhagirath Bhaiya was ‘dragged all the way from his residence (to the palace)’.
A year later, King Yoganarendra Malla usurped power from his father, and had Bhagirath Bhaiya killed.
By Sahina Shrestha in Nepali Times – October 2, 2021