Nepali Times
Polishing up the past

On 21 July, the auspicious day of Guru Purnima, four gilded gajurs were installed on the ridge of the Agam Chhen shrine, marking the completion of the restoration of the south and west wings of Itumbaha Monastery in the heart of Kathmandu. The third project under Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust's Buddhist Kathmandu Campaign, the restoration was begun in 2002 with the support of the Federal Government of Germany.

The Buddhist Kathmandu Campaign focuses on restoring and documenting the city's Buddhist heritage sites, such as bahas, bahis and shrines. Itumbaha is one of the five principal monasteries in the capital, especially important for its ritualistic significance in Newari Buddhism and for its woodcarvings, some from the 13th century. Its courtyard is dotted with votive structures and chaityas of great artistic and religious significance.

In the monastery's north wing are four copper plates that tell the legend of Gurumapa and the establishment of Itumbaha. A man named Keshab Chandra is said to have built the monastery after the premature death of his son but first he had to get control of the land, which was occupied by the demon Gurumapa. Chandra struck a bargain with the demon: if he could have the land, Gurumapa could devour the dead bodies of children.

The deal was made but soon parents appealed to Chandra to reverse the agreement and he banished the demon to Tundikhel, promising him that no one would ever build on his new home. Even today, Gurumapa is said to live near a tree on the east side and every year on the day after Holi, boiled rice and buffalo meat are left there as offerings. When exasperated, parents still scare their children by saying Gurumapa will gobble them up.

The restoration of Itumbaha could also serve as a model for other heritage sites. Of around 83 Buddhist monasteries in the city only three preserve their original architectural style. Many lost their charm when modern concrete buildings were built onto them. Others have been destroyed to make space for modern encroachment.

Vehicles have been denied access in and around the outer courtyards of Itumbaha, guaranteeing an appropriate atmosphere and respite from urban Kathmandu. Restoration work was carried out carefully, using some of the best craftsmen in the Valley. Of the team, Bijay Basukala meticulously surveyed and documented the building and managed construction work. Indra Kaji Shilpakar repaired damaged struts and carved pillars, and Rajendra Chitrakar cleaned and retouched the painted struts.

Itumbaha housed some of Nepal's finest religious paintings. Three of these, dating from the 15th and 18th centuries, were stolen in 1979. Only last year they surfaced at an exhibit in Chicago and are now in the hands of a New York collector. The Itumbaha Guthi plans to bring back the paintings and develop an area in the monastery with the help of Eco Himal, an Austrian NGO, to display such valuable Newari art and artefacts.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)