Cross-walls at Kasthamandap

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.

The cross-walls forming the nine-celled mandala uncovered at the Kasthamandap

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.



Cross-walls forming part of a possible nine-celled mandala, at the centre of 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!


Puja held outside the Kasthamandap on the 19/12/16, with the cross-walls and foundations of the monument visible



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Debriefing meeting at Hanuman Dhoka Palace


2016 Team Photo






Excavations at Jagganath and Gopinath Temples continue

One of the main aims of our project is to provide archaeological assessments that can help inform architects and engineers in the reconstruction and conservation of earthquake damaged monuments. Recently, a team of experts from the National Research Institute for Cultural Properties in Tokyo undertook architectural evaluations of the two-tiered Jagannath Temple within Hanuman Dhoka. Dedicated to Vishnu, the temple is famed for its erotic carvings, and is thought to date to 1563 AD, based on an inscription of King Mahendra Malla located on its eastern plinth.

Now the focus of work by architects and engineers sponsored by a Japanese-Funds-in-Trust-for-UNESCO project, UNESCO is also sponsoring our archaeological team to undertake exploratory excavations of the foundations of the Jagganath Temple, as well as the Gopinath Temple, which is located to its north.

From our work to date, we have identified that the current dimensions of the platforms of the two temples are later adaptations, and that earlier pavements and platforms run underneath the footprints of the monuments we see today. We will continue to excavate to identify the depth of the foundations and also whether there were earlier phases of human activity and occupation in this area of Hanuman Dhoka. Working alongside architects and engineers, the excavations will provide a full view of these monuments, from their foundations below the ground to their architectural superstructures, helping aid their future renovation and rehabilitation.

Excavating the plinths between the Jagganath and Gopinath Temples


Post-earthquake archaeological response training at Pashupati

Though spared much of the destruction from the 2015 earthquake, the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Pashupati, a major Shaivite pilgrimage centre in South Asia, and Kathmandu’s premier cremation site, some monuments did sustain damage. One of these monuments was the Gurujyu Sattal, located next to the western entrance of the Pashupati Temple Complex.



We are approaching this site as a training exercise in immediate responses to heritage monuments that have collapsed after an earthquake. Funded by the Pashupati Area Development Trust, the exercise involves participants from the Department of Archaeology, Government of Nepal, Pashupati Area Development Trust as well as police and military officers and recruits. This will aid the capacity building of heritage professionals as well as first responders who encounter collapsed buildings after earthquakes.

We have gridded out the monument and this has allowed us to locate where rubble is located. This is then moved to a replicated grid close to the monument where the material is taken for processing. This allows for the mapping of where structural and architectural elements as well as artefacts were located, whilst also allowing for quick clearing, recovery and emergency responses. To replicate the emergency response, all the photographs are taken on mobile phones, and a shovel is used as a scale, allowing for quick recording to be conducted without expensive or technical equipment.

Removing rubble within a grid-square as part of the excavations


Replicated grid squares near the site for artefact processing



As we undertake this work, we will continue to refine our methods and practices to provide a toolkit for the protection of cultural heritage in post-disaster responses to natural disasters.   

Uncovering the ‘missing’ saddlestone

During the last week we have been busy removing the twentieth century floor levels across the footprint of the Kasthamandap. Not only have we identified a succession of modern repairs and elaborations of the monument, we have also identified that some of the floor surfaces incorporated architectural fragments, reused from other structures.

Reused stone elements in one of the floor surfaces of the Kasthamandap

We have now also peeled off all the tiled surface within the interior of the monument. Removing the tile, we identified the ‘missing’ northeast saddlestone, located exactly where we had postulated, sealed below the most recent paved surface of the Kasthamandap. Therefore, this saddlestone was present, but was not used and was covered by tile. This means that one of the main timbers of the monument’s superstructure was not linked and locked into the resilient  foundations of the Kasthamandap when the earthquake of the 25th April 2015 occurred – a major structural weakness, which may have contributed to its collapse.

The tiled surface of the Kasthamandap in November 2015, with the northeast saddlestone not visible.


Sunita carefully cleans the rediscovered northeast saddlestone below the tile paving.




The four saddlestones visible around the central Gorakhnath shrine



We will now uncover the foundations of the monument and see if we can trace the mandala pattern of cross-walls within the large foundation, linked to all the saddlestones that have now been identified. We will also continue to assess damage to the foundations from seismic events and human interventions.  Indeed, it is clear from our excavations so far, that most damage to the foundations of the Kasthamandap occurred in the emergency response. This year we have identified that the southeast corner of the monument is particularly badly damaged with a huge portion of the foundations dug away by bulldozers and JCBs.

Damage to the southeast corner of the main foundation of the Kasthamandap, caused by bulldozers and JCBs.





The continuity of intangible heritage

During the last week or so, we have removed the rubble over the tiled surface of the Kasthamandap and have now begun peeling back the various layers of twentieth century conservation, before uncovering the original foundations of the monument below.

Whilst we have been undertaking the excavations we have noted that, though collapsed, the Kasthamandap is still a focus of daily activity and ritual in Kathmandu. The footprint of the monument continues to be used as a market, with garlands of marigolds, as well as fruit and vegetables sold and traded. Ritual ceremonies also continue to be conducted, with mandalas created on the surviving paved surfaces of the monument.

These economic and ritual activities again highlight the intangible value of the Kasthamandap, even after its collapse, and the importance of this location in the daily rhythms of the city and in the vibrant social dynamics of Kathmandu today.

A Pandit on the surviving tiled paving of the Kasthamandap
A ritual ceremony conducted adjacent to one of the damaged Ganesh shrines on the platform of the Kasthmandap. 

Damaged tile surface exposed

We have now removed all the rubble off the surviving tile paving from the renovation of the Kasthamandap in the 1960s. From our excavations, it has now become clear that a large portion of the monument was destroyed in the immediate post-disaster response, with large portions of the eastern, western southern edges of the paved surface badly damaged or completely removed.

Removing rubble onto the surviving tile on the current surface of the Kasthamandap

We have also partially emptied the backfill from last year’s excavations to show the outline of the foundation wall, brick pier and cross-walls that we uncovered last year. We will now link up these features identified in 2015 to the surviving foundations across the monument. The next phase of work involves carefully removing the tiled floor onto surfaces below, which from last year’s excavations, includes repairs and floor settings of brick and cement. This will allow us to fully expose the foundations and see if the mandala pattern of cross-walls, that we have postulated, is present throughout the monument. We will also see if the northeast saddlestone is missing, or sealed below the tile paving. It will also provide evidence as to  whether the foundations across the monument were as resilient to seismic events as the results from last year suggested.

View down onto the surviving 1960s tile surface of the Kasthamandap

Visitors to Site

Over the last couple of days, we have continued to expose what remains of the tiled floor dating to the 1960s and we have identified further areas where damage was caused in the post-earthquake emergency response. We are also emptying the backfill from our excavations last year and are beginning to expose some of the saddlestones, cross-walls and foundations that we had previously identified.

Robin Coningham and Bhesh Narayan Dahal, Director-General of Archaeology, Government of Nepal, talk to the press at Kasthamandap

Now that excavations are under way we have had many visitors to the site. As well as interest from the local media we have also been visited by several well-known faces of Nepal. On Sunday, we had the visit of Baikuntha Manandhar, a legendary Nepali marathon runner who won three consecutive gold medals at the South Asian Games in 1984, 1985 and 1987.

Kosh Prasad Acharya and Baikuntha Manandhar at the Kasthamandap

Anjali Maskey, a ‘Universal Sister’ also visited the site today. During Tihar, the New Year and festival of light in Nepal, Anjali acts as a surrogate sister on the day of Bhai Tika, providing Tika to men who do not have a sister. She has conducted this ceremony at the Kasthamandap since 1998, and has continued these rituals even after the collapse of the structure last year. This shows the continued spiritual focus at the monument and the importance of this location in Kathmandu, even though the building no longer stands.

We look forward to more visits in the coming days and weeks!

Recieving garlands from Anjali Maskey at Kasthamandap