As Kathmandu's concrete jungle spreads, some of its inhabitants are going back to their roots and using building materials that reflect their cultural heritage. Examples of this terra cotta renaissance can be seen in various aspects of life but none as visibly as in the bricks used to build houses.
Almost two decades ago, Tirtha Lal Maharjan decided to produce traditional dachhi-appa bricks (literally: bricks beaten into size). It was a big gamble and in those days, it felt like Maharjan was decades ahead of his time. But Maharjan was patient and the market steadily picked up.
Dachhi-appas are an essential part of Nepal's heritage and Maharjan has transformed them into a more ornamental style with carvings and figures that were found only on stone and wood. Initially, the market for these bricks was limited and Maharjan would have suffered major loss if it hadn't been for Dwarika Das Shrestha, who bought all his unsold bricks to build the award-winning heritage hotel, Dwarika, in Battisputali.
Dwarika's wife, Ambika Shrestha supported his move and gave Maharjan the exposure and reputation he needed to get more orders and run a viable business. Dachhi-appas are mostly used for decorative purposes and Maharjan has almost 400 different designs and styles to choose from. He also produces bricks according to client specifications and has special designers such as Narayan Bahadur Maharjan and Rabi Bahadur Jonchhe.
Each brick has its specific use such as nagol or kasima for base and the jashi for the middle. The jashi uses the nag belt or flower patterns, which also strengthens the house against earthquakes. The borders of doors and windows have layers of animals, birds or eyebrow patterns.
Using these bricks as ornaments means understanding the style of the house. As architect Sarosh Pradhan says, "It is important to feel the spirit of the place and know the purpose of the building, then balance it with the right aesthetics."
These designs are more than just decorative. According to Nepali mythology, when a house is completed, a special puja with tantric rituals are held to give the inanimate designs a spirit. It is believed that in times of need, these animals will come to life and protect the house and its inhabitants.
The son of a farmer, Tirtha Lal Maharjan made bricks in a factory. His family faced many hardships before his mentor Ramesh J Thapa helped him get a job at the national metal crafts museum in the Lalitpur. Here he became a mukhiya and realised the potential need for traditional ornamental bricks. He noticed that foreign guests who visited heritage sites inspected old architecture.
Renovation works were being done in a haphazard manner without proper material. Maharjan came to the conclusion that opening a traditional brick factory would not only be a commercial enterprise, it would also help protect Nepali culture and heritage.
Dachhi-appas was one way of doing this and as architect Pradhan says, "With the advancement of new materials, technology and environmental concerns, we must explore new solutions in architecture and design."
Maharjan has opened the first brick showroom in Nepal at Baneswor. He has launched a trend among urban dwellers of Kathmandu, Bhaktapur and Patan making traditional glamorous. This means when an old house is torn down these days, it is not replaced by a soulless concrete and glass box but a modern building with a traditional brick fa?ade that is in harmony with its surroundings.
Luckily, Kathmandu is full of copycats and this return to traditional architecture is spreading along the Valley's gallis and bahals