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Traditional Newari House - journey through centuries

Karna Bahadur Maharjan

Change is the only permanent phenomenon that can be observed throughout the centuries. Nothing can be exception to this process including the architectural development of Kathmandu valley over the time. The question is only about the intensity, pace and trend of the change that take place over the time and obviously the change agents which make the thing change. This article attempts to give a brief scenario of the changing trend of traditional architecture of Newari house over the centuries, from Medieval period to post 1934 earthquake.

The oldest architectural structure that stands till today in Kathmandu valley is obviously of early medieval period. This period is considered as golden era of elaborate development of Newari architecture that flourished highly sophisticated massive architectural edifices. However, there are hoards of stone fragments of different shape and size with varieties of motifs scattered in different parts of Kathmandu eg. Deopatan, Jayavagesvari, Hadigaon, are the few to name, which might be structural remaining of Lichchhavi edifices.

The early medieval architectural edifices that stand till today are namely the Kasthmandapa, popularly known as Maru sattal and the Indreswor temple of Panauti, temples of Pashupatinath and Changunarayana which prefigures the Lichchhavi architecture. These early medieval architectural monuments show a well-defined architectural style of that period, which was continued in the succeeding centuries without any substantial changes in terms of structural design or use of construction materials and construction techniques. The continuation of customary practices of building constructions from socio-cultural and religious perspectives without any disruption until now to some extent and till medieval period to greater extent further confirm the philosophy and architectural design of vernacular houses of Kathmandu valley were not much different from Lichchhavi period to succeeding periods namely Malla and Shah.

The vernacular houses of medieval period were constructed in rectangular plan either in the rows or in quadrangular style forming courtyards. The central load bearing wall divide two parallel longitudinal bays locally called dyā. Thick load-bearing walls were made of mainly baked brick or specially backed dachi-appā at façade and sun-dried bricks in the interior leaves of the wall held together with mud mortar. This ensures low heat transfer to render houses cool in summer and warm in winter. The houses built in along side main streets and trade routes have multiple opening double framed doors commonly known as dalān at the façade, which is generally used as workshop or shop depending on the occupation of the inhabitants. Any irregularities in the ground floor façade due to a door or row of columns are not repeated in the upper storey, which are arranged independently in symmetry.

During Malla period people never built their houses higher than the temples in the neibourhood, even the three royal palaces of Kathmandu valley were never taller than the temples of Taleju of their respective court. But, the trend has been changed over the time and construction of taller houses was later on considered as status symbol. About 200 years ago the

latticed windows were elongated vertically, probably for more light and ventilation, and the sanjhyās were simpler and less ornate. By the turn of the century, to introduce more light, the lattice windows and sanjhyās were replaced by narrow almost full-length windows with railing and shutters (Korn, 1998:12).

From the beginning of the 19th century, the royal court began to keep frequent contact with North India, which has resulted in the influx of new architectural forms in the country. In the beginning, traditional details were abundantly used, which was later became flat design and structural element were reduced (Gutschow, et al 1987:203). By the beginning of 19 th century, the decorative outer frame of the window structure was frequently omitted. The secondary jamb of the door or windows were constructed flush with the wall and the protruding ends of the bearing lintel were often hidden behind the facing bricks, where the secondary lintel lost its decorative and gained a bearing functions, stressed by a capital (metha) design (Ibid, :204). This trend clearly showed that the intricately carved doors and windows are being replaced by less ornate doors and windows over the time.

Shah period (1769 - 1846): Broadly speaking most of the houses of early this period were built in Malla period style i.e. traditional Newari style, but enlarging in proportion. The need for more space to accommodate ever-growing family size led to further rise in height of the houses. Thus this period witnessed, fourth or fifth storey buildings exclusive of attic. The older houses often increase an additional new floor in other words a fourth storey would be built onto the existing three storey classical houses. This clearly illustrates the vertical permutation of style. Besides that, new taller buildings arose which indicates a new concept of town-house, both in its construction and design, as well as in the form of its façade and projected use (Scheibler, 1982:63). The construction of Nautalle Darbar in quadrangular style within the Hanumandhoka premises said to be constructed by Prithvinarayana Shah in 1826 BS, immediately after taking control over Kathmandu represents the continuation of the traditional architecture of Malla period except one Burja at North-East which is built in Rajput style of the quadrangular building structure consisting four Burjas at four different corners (Regmi, 2033BS:55). However, this must be the first building that had exceeded the height limit of traditional building code that the dwelling house should not exceed the height of the temple in surrounding area, which was strictly followed during the Malla period.

After Bhimsen Thapa came into power (1812-1818 AD), he constructed a huge palace in Neo-classical Roman style, which was the first deliberate step that replaces the traditional architectural style with Neo-classical architectural style by the rulers of Nepal. By the middle of this period, there was greater influence of Roman and Mughal architecture, which may have introduced stucco plaster in the valley for the first time.

However, the commoners of Kathmandu still follow the traditional architectural style with minor changes in construction materials and façade finishing. Gradually the typical ornate squared latticed windows started to change into more rectangular vertically upright, but lattice work retained intact. The most obvious changes took place during this period was emergence of less ornate sanjhyā, which were nominally projected or no projection at all, but still maintained symmetry on the façade. Later buildings were more of homogeneous openings called as tasbirjhyā as the double frame gives a look of picture-frame like usually tall about 4.5' to 5' and 30" width, however the diminishing lintels remain intact. The elongated ends of sill and lintel are

hidden under the layer of bricks. The sill flushed with the wall surface and the visible cross-tie and quite often carved ends with animal or human faces were later on abolished leaving a section of cross-tie visible without any carvings. Similarly, yet another obvious change occurred by the end of 19th century was the changes in motif of wood carvings, eg. the Surdyojhyā, circular opening and Kalasa designs, flecked by celestial figures (pari) or dragons (malah) were most common on the apron planks of 'picture like' windows with the protruding end of lintel and sill were gradually lost. By 1920, even the grillwork and apron planks had replaced with vertical hung shutter and railing of iron rods. (Gutschow, et al 1987:215). A tremendous change of architectural value took place during the 19th century. New types of building with rendered wall were introduced during this time. By the second half of the 20th century, Nepalese architecture again witnessed the introduction of new building types and materials.

Rana period (1846 - 1934): Unlike the Malla palaces, the residential houses of the leading Ranas, commonly known as Mahal or Darbar were built in a Neo-classical style that conveys an image of grandeur and sophistication right from the emerge of Jang Bahadur Rana as defacto ruler of Nepal. He made two huge palaces in neo-classical style, one for himself in Thapathali and the other one for his brother Ranodwipa in Narayanhiti, both at the outskirts of core Kathmandu city (Hutt, 1995:63). This was yet another milestone in changing scenario of architectural design in Kathmandu valley over the time, which had eventually marginalized the traditional architecture because the succeeding Rana rulers, royal courtiers and aristocrats were fascinated by neo-classical building. Most of the external influence along with Neo-classical style and Mughal style architecture entered in the valley during this period of time and the white- washed stucco plaster had been symbolized power and status (Regmi, 2033:56).

Despite the popularity of the Neo-classical and Mughal style architecture amongst the rulers, royal courtiers and aristocrats the common people of Kathmandu valley, still follow traditional architectural style with minor changes in construction materials and façade finishing. Even the houses built in traditional Newari style preferred lighter, larger and simple windows commonly known as tapajhyā or tasbirajhya instead of highly carved ornate windows such as sanjhyā, vimanjhyās, chhapajhyas and tikijhyās. These windows (tapajhyā or tasbirajhya) are vertical in proportion, sized about 2.5’x5’ normally have two layer of frames outside which looks like photo-frame is interconnected with inner frame duchu through angatāh along wooden pegs at four sides. Though these less ornamented windows replace the intricately carved sanjhyās, however, triple openings give a kind of appearance of sanjhyā to some extent. Although houses took on a vertical extension, but odd number of windows per storey were maintained as far as possible. In between, Bardali, a projected veranda on the second floor appeared replacing the sanjhyā if not the tapajhyā with single or triple openings.

The use of natural renewable construction materials are always better for human beings than many modern materials, not only environmental conservation perspective but also for human comfort and climate sensitivity, which was continued during this period as well. However, at the turn of 20th century, the trend was towards lighter and larger windows, latticework was omitted and iron railings and shutters were introduced to close the now predominantly vertical style of windows.

Post 1934 Earthquake: The great earthquake of 1934 brought tremendous changes in Nepalese architecture in general and the traditional architecture of Kathmandu valley in

particular. An expert from British-India, J B Aden, a geologist and engineer was called on to conducted an investigative study to look into the causes and effects of the devastation of the 1934 Earthquake in the month of Chaitra 1991 BS. He came up with series of architectural pit falls that contributed devastating consequences of the earthquake. At the same time, he had highlighted the things to be considered while constructing new houses and/or reconstruction of the affected houses. The expert had categorically emphasized on structural design, building materials and building techniques which eventually introduced modern structural design with hollow damp proofing, new building materials such as iron beams and bars, lime mortar, CG sheets, Belaity tile (British), imported fixings, etc. and building techniques (Rana, 1991 BS: 67-


The recommendation made by the expert was published on the Gorkhapatra, the national newspaper, which includes: need for solid foundation depending on the quality of soil, use of good quality bricks with walls interconnecting each other, have lesser number of openings with enough space in between windows and doors, use of lesser cornice and avoid unnecessary ornaments, use iron beam where possible, use of lime to strength the walls, use of wooden column, avoid use of gumbaja, arches wherever possible, instead use wooden lintels above the doors and windows, use regular or proportional building design - length to breath 1:2 proportion and height of house made with brick should not exceed 34 haat (51 fts), use light roofing, CG sheets might be good option, have re-enforced concrete building if affordable otherwise construct house with lower floor height and have light roofs, fill walls with bricks instead of brick bats and use the wall bands. (Ibid.).

Consequently, the houses constructed after the earthquake of 1934 were quite often four, five or even six storied height. Similarly the floor height have significantly raised in some cases over- extended, from the original room-height. Subsequently new building styles crept in, mostly modern elements from Indian architectural styles which often differs significantly from traditional building style, especially in the number of floors, the more generous storey height and in the new Indian style architectural elements (Scheibler, 1982:63). Similarly, this period witnessed houses with simple tapājhyas with wooden or iron railings. In some cases there exist partial lime plaster around the windows, cornice or fully lime plastered façade along with human figures engraved on the different parts of the facade mostly the houses belongs to Rana courtiers and novelties.


Due to natural disasters such devastating earthquakes and some deliberate forces brought tremendous changes in cityscape of Kathmandu valley over the centuries. Introduction of Rajput style Burja at the north-west corner of quadrangular Nautalle Darbar which was claimed to be built by Prithvinarayana Shah within Hanuman Dhoka premises was the first deliberate effort to bring in the foreign architectural style. Yet another episode in change of architectural style was the construction of Bag Darbar in Neo-classical style by Bhimsen Thapa. This was a big blow to the traditional architecture of Kathmandu valley as it had displaced several traditional houses in the core area of Kathmandu city. From dawn of Rana regime, almost all the Rana ruler, royal courtiers, and aristocrats were fascinated by the neo-classical architectural style that pre- dominantly replaced the traditional architecture of Kathmandu. Due to power structure, no commoners dare to construct building in neo-classical style and they stacked in traditional

architectural style with slightly changes in design and materials. The 1934 Earthquake hit yet another blow to traditional cityscape of Kathmandu valley, which collapsed numerous traditional monuments including vernacular houses. Though, many temples and historical buildings were restored in traditional style, most of the houses of royal courtiers, business communities, aristocrats and wealthier reconstructed their houses in Neo-classical style. The common people followed the traditional style except obvious changes façade finish including materials, shape, size and motif of the windows and roofing materials.


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