25 Nov - 1 Dec 2016 #834

Pencilling in Kathmandu

Rajman Singh’s exquisite drawings of Kathmandu Valley in the mid-19th century are being exhibited in Nepal for the first time
Niels Gutschow

Rajman Singh worked for the British Resident in Kathmandu, Brian Houghton Hodgson, from 1828-1844. But it took another 150 years to make his work known to the world, when Raymond Head 20 years ago published five of his 50 exquisite pencil drawings in the Royal Asiatic Society in London. 

These are very different from the water colours produced by Rajman’s contemporary, Henry Ambrose Oldfield, who was posted as surgeon at the British Residency in 1850 and who himself produced some 75 paintings which are now in the British Library and the Royal Geographic Society. When two of Oldfield's paintings were published in the Illustrated London News in 1855 they were the first images to make Kathmandu Valley known to the world.

Some of Rajman’s 50 drawings from the Asiatic Society are being shown at a rare exhibition in Kathmandu at the Taragaon Museum till 16 December. In 2004, the former curator at the British Library Jeremiah Losty wrote on Rajman Singh's diverse drawings of which a few were published by Hodgson. 

Losty observed that these drawings ‘grew increasingly skilful and confident in the European manner’ and was sure that Rajman saw ‘drawings in the picturesque manner’ produced by the Calcutta School of painters. He is also sure that Rajman used the camera lucida, an optical device which allows a view to be traced in perspective.

I met Jeremiah Losty at the British Library and David Waterhouse at the Royal Asiatic Society in 2000. I was able to see them handle Rajman's original pencil drawings and was overwhelmed, and was determined to raise money to digitise them for an exhibition in Nepal.

Rajman was from the Chitrakar family of Patan, and was representing the temples of the Newar cities at a time when photography was arriving in the subcontinent. His drawing of the Nyatapola Temple in Bhaktapur chooses to place the pinnacle of the temple into the central axis.

The temple is framed by bringing in the top view of the Aisamadu, what is today the Nyatapola Cafe and a tall building to the left which never existed. Rajman intentionally composed his views. His drawing of the Dattatreya Temple captures the background in detail but the sheet of paper was large enough to add a stele with four representations of the Buddha which were never there. 

Rajman not only presented picturesque views, but also documented a few ground plans of temples, albeit without any scale. He does this at a very early time, more than 100 years before Wolfgang Korn produced the first professional measured drawings of Kathmandu’s temples in 1968 and which are now kept at the Nepal Architecture Archive.   

Stamp of History: No one really knows what Rajman Singh looked like, but this is how Madan Chitrakar imagined him for a postage stamp in 2012.

Rajman presented the Lakshmi-Narayan and Mahadeva temples at Hatka just opposite the Ibabahi monastery in plan and as a picturesque view. We learn from this drawing that the Mahadeva temple once had a triple-tiered roof, which was replaced after the 1934 earthquake by a clumsy dome. To turn the drawing of the two temples into a picturesque view, he added a palm tree in the foreground which probably stood somewhere in a courtyard but certainly not in the narrow road leading to Ukubaha.

There is also a rather strange composition bringing three temples of the Patan Darbar Square together. The central one is the Char Narayan, identified by Rajman Singh as Tavadeva Narayan. It is seen in a deplorable state, on the verge of total collapse, but the portals of the ground floor and most of the windows of the upper tiers in place. It was obviously damaged by the earthquake in 1833 and exposed to the rains for a couple of years. The temple was restored and survived the 1934 earthquake, but not the one in 2015. 

The Char Narayan Temple needs to be restored, but the question is how? The Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust (KVPT) salvaged the smallest fragments of the ruin and is now putting together the portals so that as much of the original wooden elements as possible are used. This has never been done in historical times. After earlier earthquakes, what was left of destroyed temples would have been used as firewood, new portals would have been carved. The KVPT is using modern material techniques such as highly sophisticated screws, nut bolts and even stainless steel pins.

Unfortunately, heritage conservation is entangled in a rather dogmatic debate based on belief systems. Indeed, conservation itself represents a belief system. There are many ways to restore and reconstruct a building lost in an earthquake, and no one has a monopoly on the truth.

Rajman Singh Exhibition

Taragaon Museum, Hyatt Hotel

22 November to 16 December

Read also

Resurrecting Kasthamandap, Sarthak Mani Sharma

The rebirth of Bhaktapur, Lukas Grimm

Before and after, Kunda Dixit