In the last couple of weeks, we have been busy finishing the excavation and recording of all the sites we have been working on. We will post preliminary results from these sites over the next few days and weeks but, in this entry, we will look at the recent discoveries at the core focus of our season – the Kasthamandap.
A major research aim at the Kasthmandap was to identify whether the cross-walls uncovered in the smaller trench from November 2015, formed a nine-celled mandala pattern within the original foundations of the monument. We also wanted to find out whether the brick pier below the ‘missing’ northeast saddlestone was still in place and whether it damaged by the 2015 earthquake, or by previous seismic events.
During the last few weeks, we had carefully removed several levels of tile, cement and brick paving, relating to twentieth century renovations, which formed the interior surface of the Kasthamandap. Finally, we were able to remove the last stone and brick paving to reveal that the nine-celled mandala was in fact present. Formed by bricks laid in single rows running north-south and east-west between the four large central saddelstones and 12 square metre foundation wall, the existence of these cross-walls suggests that they were created to form a symbolic mandala.
This mandala most-likely formed a microcosm of the universe within the Kasthamandap, which was linked to elaborate construction rituals. With the cross-walls uncovered in 2015 dated to around 900 AD using Optically Stimulated Luminescence dating, it is postulated that this mandala design was constructed some 200 years after the initial building of the foundation walls, suggesting that this sacred layout was created during a major renovation of the Kasthamandap. We also recognise that the mandala also enhanced the strength of the monument as the cross-walls braced the four free-standing brick piers to each other and the massive surrounding 2 metre deep and 1 metre wide foundations walls.
We also excavated within the central cell of the mandala, adjacent to the central Gorakhnath shrine and the rediscovered northeast saddlestone in order to identify whether the brick pier on which the latter stood on was in any way damaged. We hoped to gain as well an understanding of the cultural sequence at the central point of the mandala formed by the cross-walls.
The upper levels of the northeast brick pier below the northeast saddlestone, showed no visible signs of earthquake damage. As we excavated lower, it became clear that the brick pier was not damaged, but towards its base we suddenly encountered three walls. Again, formed from bricks laid in single rows, these appeared to suggest the presence of another, smaller mandala design at the heart of the monument and its foundations.
We now believe that the monument was constructed with a nine-celled mandala present within the central cell of a larger nine-celled mandala, further strengthening the idea that the Kasthamandap was built to symbolically represent the universe, and further indicating the complex sacred rituals linked to its construction and renovation. We have taken OSL dates from below these walls, and in the next year we will be able to date when this central mandala was created and link it to the other construction and renovation episodes we have so far discovered at the Kasthamandap.
At the end of our successful field season, we have managed to further show that the damage to the foundations of the Kasthamandap was mainly due to post-earthquake interventions and that the below surface remains of the monument were undamaged by the 2015 earthquakes and earlier shocks. We have also highlighted that twentieth century maintenance and conservation of the Kasthamandap may have contributed to its collapse last year, with issues between the linking of the superstructure to these resilient foundations. We have also further identified the symbolic use of space within the monument’s foundations, and have recovered scientific samples, which will in the future provide more evidence for when these sacred designs were constructed at the Kasthamandap.
On our last day in Kathmandu, we witnessed a Bajrayana community puja celebrating and venerating the discovery of the nine-celled mandalas and presented our preliminary findings to stakeholders and community leaders, local Members of Parliament and the Joint Secretary of the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation and the Director-General of Archaeology. Finally, we would like to say a huge thank you to all those who worked on and supported the recent excavations, including the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council; the Department of Archaeology, Government of Nepal; National Geographic; and UNESCO. All your assistance and hard work has contributed to a fantastic field season with some amazing results!