Tag Archives: Nepal



In the first part of the October seminar Michael Willis looked at a range of archaeological and geological evidence pointing to seismic and climatic events at a number of sites in India. One example supporting a significant climatic event during the Paramāra dynasty comes from the Dandak cave in Chhattisgarh, in the Malwa region. The growth of stalagmites here points to a drought around 1051. Following research by Sinha et al. into indications of monsoon rainfall given by stalagmite growth in peninsular India that can be accurate to within a decade, the same methodology was applied at Dandak cave. The evidence from the stalagmites corroborates information given in the Nagpur inscription (c.1070-93) from the reign of king Udayāditya which reads “when the realm was overrun by floods…”

Another piece of evidence from the region comes from the Kakanmaṭh Śiva temple built by Kirtirāja c.1015-35 CE. Much of the temple is now ruined and a Sanskrit inscription from c.1393-94 CE says that the temple had been renovated around that time, though no indication is given of when the damage had occurred. Taken with the geological indicators from Dandak, and the archaeological evidence from Old Māṇḍū, there is a good body of evidence to suggest that an earthquake and its subsequent impact on the flow of waters from the river Betwā to the perennial valleys around Māṇḍū was responsible for the relocation of the capital city at some point within a decade or so of the mid-11thcentury CE.

The second part of the seminar focussed on the devasting earthquakes to hit Nepal in 2015 and archaeological findings that have resulted from post-disaster excavations. The excavations were undertaken at Hanuman Dhoka, Patan and Bhaktapur by the Nepali government’s Department of Archaeology and Durham University.

One of the most significant cultural heritage losses was the destruction of the Kasthamandap. Excavations revealed that the original mud mortar and brick core foundations of the temple were in fact highly resilient and had withstood numerous seismic events over the centuries. A dating technique known as Optically Stimulated Luminescence puts the laying of these foundations at 700 CE, some 500 years earlier than previously thought. The cause of Kasthamandap’s collapse seems in fact to have been the result of modern conservation to the building’s structure. One of the significant causal factors was a saddlestone at the northeast corner which had been tiled over during the mid-late twentieth century.

Image of the Kasthamandap site in Nepal (Photo: Durham University)

In addition to the important archaeological evidence elucidated by post-disaster excavation for the history of monuments in Kathmandu – such as the antiquity of the foundations and the fact that they appear to have been constructed as a nine-cell mandala – work like that undertaken by the UNESCO/Durham University team is also critical to improving the structural resilience of historic sites against future disasters. Given that the original mud mortar and brick building techniques had given the structure foundations which withstood many earthquakes over the centuries, it is now clear that modern conservation and restoration efforts should learn from these. While disaster relief and humanitarian efforts always take precedence in the face of such natural catastrophes, there is much to learn from archaeology in how to mitigate against the worst of damage in rebuilding.

In the final part of the seminar Janice Stargardt talked about the work she and colleagues have done in establishing the role that climatic change had played in the decline of Angkor in Cambodia and Sri Ksetra in Burma.

Central to understanding the archaeological sites and the role of climatic events over time is the development of the water management systems used to irrigate land. At Angkor, for instance, aerial photography and remote sensing reveal how phases 2 and 3 of the sites had an expanding hydraulic system used to irrigate the land. This can be considered indicative of the wealth and prosperity of the Khmer Empire at this time. By the 14thcentury however, decline was underway. Dendrology has been used to confirm that increasingly weak monsoons were experienced during this time, and this would have had a serious impact on the irrigation system which was dependent on single-season monsoons. In addition to this and its consequences for supporting the population, the weak eastern wall was a poor barrier for the reservoir and hydraulic system, but ultimately even more consequentially for military defence.

Buddhist and Hindu Practices in the Kathmandu Valley


By Gergely Hidas

At the May seminar we had two guest presenters from North America, both talking about the religious traditions of Nepal. Their research activities are based primarily on Sanskrit manuscripts along with extensive fieldwork in the Kathmandu Valley.

The first speaker, Alexander von Rospatt (UC Berkeley), discussed the importance of a work from ca. the 15th century, the Svayambhūpurāṇa, a complex text about the history of local Buddhism with a special focus on the Svayambhū Stūpa, a central landmark and pilgrimage site (tīrtha) in Kathmandu. This charter-like piece, rich in narratives, is seen as an attempt for Newar Buddhism to reinvent itself: with Nepal being the centre and India the periphery. The text starts with the famous legend of origins: the Valley was once a lake, the Stūpa stood on a lotus, and the bodhisattva of wisdom, Mañjuśrī, drained this lake by cutting a gorge into the surrounding mountain range. While the area dried up resident Nāga serpents were relocated to smaller ponds and streams with Karkoṭaka being the most important up to the present. With the course of time Svayambhū developed its many tantric connections, including links to the Yoginītantras, the deity Cakrasaṃvara and the goddesses Vajrayoginī and Guhyeśvarī.

While the Svayambhūpurāṇa is translated into Tibetan, Newari and Nepali, it still lacks a complete Western rendering and only some of its versions are edited. There are four distinct recensions with slightly different titles and the length of the metrical ones ranges from a few hundred to a couple of thousand verses. The various versions also contain prescriptions for religious observances (vrata) of the bodhisattva vow. The renovation of the Stūpa is regularly sponsored by different communities in the Valley and there are exquisite depictions of the buildings and related legends both as manuscript illuminations and mural paintings.

The second speaker, Jessica Vantine Birkenholtz (Univ. of Illinois), introduced a little researched tradition, the Hindu Svasthānīvratakathā or ‘The Story of the Ritual Vow to the Goddess Svasthānī’ from the 16th century. This ritual of high-caste Hinduism focusses on the performance of the Svasthānī vow, the succesful completion of which results in prosperity. Though this goddess is little known in other sources, a copy is kept in most Hindu households, and the text is recited in these households every winter in the month of Magh (January-February). The text survives in more than 700 manuscripts, the oldest dating to 1573 CE. From the 18th century onwards the Svasthānīvratakathā underwent a ‘Purāṇicisation’ process and became an established text along with other ones like the Paśupatipurāṇa or the Nepālmahātmya. The main religious observance (vrata) takes place primarily in the ancient town of Sankhu not too far from Kathmandu. An interesting point for comparison with the observance of the bodhisattva vow at Svayambhū is that it is overwhelmingly female lay devotees who participate in both kinds of ritual.