PICS: KUNDA DIXIT
Siddhi Narsingh Malla was a devout king, so when he had a new palace designed in Patan he got his architects to plan a shrine to all the gods in the main courtyard.
When it was built in 1642, Tusa Hiti must have impressed everyone who visited. More than 50 stone carvings of deities adorned the stepwell into which crystal clear spring water gushed out of a shiny bronze spout guarded by figures of Laxmi Narayan and Garud. Above it all was a miniature stone temple that pre-dated the nearby Krishna Mandir, and is now thought to be an architectural model for it.
More than 360 years later, and having survived at least five major earthquakes, Tusa Hiti still impresses devotees and visitors. The pantheon of exquisitely carved gods is regarded as the crown jewel of Kathmandu Valley's Malla period.
Contrary to what the tour guides will tell you, the Sundari Chok was not a 'royal bath'. To take a bath in a sanctum sanctorum so densely packed with divinities would be considered sacrilege.
The Patan Royal Palace Complex, of which Tusa Hiti and Bhandarkhal Archaeological Garden form a part, is currently being renovated by the Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust (KVPT), which has been involved in two decades of heritage conservation work in Nepal. KVPT received the UNESCO Heritage Award in 2005. KVPT's Nepal director, Rohit Ranjitkar, says: "This is the most important heritage conservation currently taking place in Kathmandu because of its religious and archaeological significance." When finished in three years time, the Patan Darbar Complex will be integrated with the Patan Museum, and the archaeological garden will open to the public as an inner-city park. The garden is an archaeological treasure trove because it was the dumping ground for debris after successive earthquakes. KVPT has already unearthed the foundations there of a building dating back to the 12th century.
In the picture, Ranjitkar is looking at a catalogue of photographs of the original Sundari Chok and directing a stoneworker from Panga as he delicately applies traditional clay and lime mortar to fix the figurines to the stepwell.
"This picture was taken 110 years ago, and this one was by the art historian Mary Slusser in 1968," says Ranjitkar, pointing to two photographs that he is using to assist the restoration. Two nag kanyas seen in the first photograph are already missing in Slusser's picture.
The stone figures are still intact, but a bronze Durga went missing 40 years ago. Then, one night in January this year, someone made off with the Laxmi Narayan and Garuda figures on top of the water spout.
"We have now come to the point in Nepal where we should keep only replicas of the 100 most valuable religious figures, and lock up the originals in museums. It's just not worth the risk anymore," says Ranjitkar. Important carvings could also be fixed to temple walls with concealed chains, as KVPT did with a priceless 9th century torana at Yethka Bahal in Kathmandu.
Upstairs, the entire structure of the third floor is being refurbished and made earthquake-proof. The Bhandarkhal Pokhari, with its pavilion and stone carvings, is being painstakingly restored too. Sundari Chok originally got its water from a natural spring in Lagankhel through an underground canal. This is being cleaned and restored after centuries of neglect.
Says Ranjitkar: "I just can't wait to see Sundari Chok looking like the day it was built, with clear spring water flowing out."
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