Nepal – the country of the Buddha and the Mt. Everest

Peace comes from within. Do not seek it without – Buddha


Posted by Ram Kumar Shrestha on December 27, 2012

he historic city of Patan is the setting for an extraordinary range of arts and architecture, which flourish during the Malla period. Recently much of the inner city surrounding the Patan Durbar Square has been designed a Protected Monument zone by the Department of Archaeology. His Majesty's government of he worse. If this current trend continues, there is a strong possibility of us loosing one of the high points in the medieval architecture and urban form forever.

A typical Malla period Newar house consisted of a narrow brick-walled rectangle, usually 6 metres wide and of variable length divided by a central bearing wall. Typically it was of 3 stories topped by a ½ storey attic with tiled double-pitched saddle roof, however, inner city houses close to the center had 4 or 5 storeys while poorer sections at the outskirts had only two storeys. The vertical floor addition was necessitated by the need to conserve limited irrigated agricultural land. Along with bricks, timber formed the structural elements and was used for doors and windows. Houses were joined end to end and built around a courtyard. Monotony was avoided by variations in height, length and treatment of facades. This form of compact settlement was followed even in the rural houses, giving credence to the belief that Newars were more inclined towards trading and considered agriculture a necessary but secondary occupation (Korn, 1976).


The courtyards around which housing units were built had a multipurpose function, providing both utilitarian as well as social communal space. It was used as a children’s playground, area for washing, grinding grains, sitting in the sun, feasts etc. Access to the courtyard from the street was through a narrow door. Staircases at the corners provided access to the individual housing units. They were narrow with trap door shutters, probably a relic of the earlier days when it was necessitated by defense requirements.

Foundations were shallow and constructed of crushed rocks or river stones. Plinths of finished bricks or dressed stones were common but these were not bonded to the foundations. Walls rose from the foundation and were of handmade bricks, kiln burnt for exterior walls, often sun-dried bricks for interior walls, laid with clay mortar. When facing bricks were used, they were not well bonded nor tied at the corners. Thus lower level bricks tended to erode, fall out or bulge out and develop cracks under heavy stress or tremors. Because walls were poorly bonded, they were at least 15 –24 inches thick.

The houses were normally set on a raised podium, generally of stone or brick. The podium acted as an intermediary zone which separated the street from the house, the private from the public. It acted as a semi-private space shared by neighbors, where men and women worked and children often played. Steps to the house were either recessed in the podium or projected out in the street. A stone vedi in the shape of a lotus was inscribed on the pavement in front of the steps which was worshipped each morning. This point referred to as pikhalakhu marked the interface between the house and the street. Pikhalakhu ( pin-outside, kha-door, lamkhu-stream) symbolized the street as a stream of flowing humans coming out of individual houses.

Often a part of the ground floor facing the street or courtyard was left as open porch with double row wooden columns and capitals replacing walls. Otherwise openings were kept at a minimum in the lower walls for structural purposes as well as privacy. The ground floor was otherwise rarely used as living areas because of dampness. Only the shops had well ventilated wooden floors, otherwise they were either covered with clay or brick tiles.

Doors were narrow and low (5 ft height) but had corbelled lintels and divergent walls. Double hinged swing doors were bolted by wooden bars. Doors sometimes had framing bands. There were few windows in the ground floor. Sometime there were blind windows or tikijhyasTikijhyas were common on the next floor for reasons of privacy and structural strength in walls. Corbelled lintels and divergent walls helped to spread light to the interior. The number of windows on each floor were generally kept as odd numbers for reasons of symmetry.

A slightly protruding brick course demarcated floors and the top row often served as bracing cornice for tunalas. Outside walls were decorated through symmetry of elevation and carved doors and windows. Interior walls were left unfinished or were plastered and whitewashed.

Normally the top floor (traditionally the third but could be the fourth or fifth floor) had large windows, the sajhyas (windows to be opened). Sajhyas were large windows with moveable vertical swinging latticed shutters and wide interior window seats. The sajhyas were intricately carved and formed the primary design element of the façade. It was either set flush with the walls, slightly projected (Gajhya)or supported on short brackets and leaning forward as an angular bay window (Vimanjhya). Vimanjhyas were especially designed to view the many processions taking place in the streets below.

The interior of the house was divided lengthwise by the load bearing walls to form long narrow rooms which were further partitioned breadth-wise to form smaller rooms. In the third or top-most room the middle wall was replaced by wooden column to form a large hall. Because of the sajhyas the room was bright, large and airy and was used for working or living purposes.

Each floor was supported on closely spaced wooden joists overlaid with wooden planks or later with brick and covered with a thick layer of clay which was kept smooth and hard by daily scrubbing with a mixture of water, clay and cow-dung. Sometimes small unglazed square tiles were laid over the floor but this was done primarily in the corridors. The joists were kept exposed outside just below the projecting layer of bricks and kept flush with the wall.

The roofs were low, generally less than 6 ft., and consisted of a framework of wooden beams, rafters, trusses and posts pegged together. Wooden planks, split bamboo or laths were laid over the rafters over which a thick layer of clay was laid and small interlocking tiles (jhigatis) were pressed into it. Longer tiles were used at joints and curved corner tiles (kumpa) were laid at roof ends. One or two small openings were made in the roof for light and ventilation, known as cat windows (bhauvajhya), protected by specially shaped tiles. Sometimes small dormer windows were also used to light the attic. Roofs were normally sloped at 30-40 degrees but more recent constructions have reduced slopes of about 20 degrees. Roofs with wide projecting eaves tended to be heavy so wooden brackets (tunalas) were used to support the projecting roofs. They were set at 45 degrees and were supported on brick cornices or slightly projected beam ends.

Vertical division of floors were as follows:

Chelli or ground floor

–          farmers used it for barn, stable, tool shed, storage of wood and manure

–          craftsmen used it as a workshop

–          merchants used it as a store

–          street facing columned porches served as a shop

–          in well to do families, a segment was used as guardroom or reception (phalaca)

Mata or middle floor

–          sleeping quarters in smaller cubicles

Chota or top floor

–          all purpose room devoted to work, recreation, storage, entertaining, drying space for farm products

Baiga or attic (half storey)

–          kitchen and dining area

–          family chapel (agama) usually housed in a small separate attic room kept closed and locked. Wealthy families may build a full-scale temple called agamachem. Strangers or low caste people were not allowed access to the top floor because of the family shrine.

–          storeroom for precious things

 Symmetry was maintained in the façade around a central axis. As far as possible odd number of windows were placed on each floor. Each floor was arranged independently in symmetric fashion and if any asymmetrical element existed on the ground floor, it was not repeated in the upper floors. Earlier, the typical windows were square latticed tikijhyas and sajhyas were heavily carved. About 200 years ago the latticed windows were elongated vertically, probably for more light and ventilation, and the sajhyas were simpler and less ornate. By the turn of the century, to introduce more light, the lattice windows and sajhyas were replaced by narrow almost full-length windows with railing and shutters ( Korn, 1976).

Water was collected from private wells or from public wells or recessed fountains nearby. Washing and bathing was done around the wells and fountains, in courtyards, roof terraces or even in the street.

Latrines were considered unclean and so were not attached to the house. Children used the streets or open spaces while adults sought segregated public toilets hidden behind alley walls or used the riverside. Latrines were later constructed in the ground floors.


VIHARAS : Bahas and Bahis

During the time of Buddha, monks had no permanent residence, leading nomadic lives, staying under trees and caves. During the monsoon, because of the incessant rain and the dilemma about trampling and killing newly sprouted plants, they were required to stay within a prescribed area. Resting places called aramas were built all over to serve the monks and the period of the rainy season became for them a time of retreat and introspection. In course of time, these resting places came to be called viharas or residences (Rajesh & Kelly, 1998). The modern Indian state of Bihar was so named because of its vast number of viharas. With the spread of Buddhism among the laity and with their support, viharas became permanent institutions. With plenty of time at their disposal, the monks and nuns engaged in creative activities such as philosophy, literature, medicinal texts, grammatology etc.

Vihara thus became a Buddhist monastery where presumably celibate monks (bhikshus) and nuns (bhikshunis) lived. The community of the monks or nuns was known as the sangha. Initially, in India, viharas were purely residential units and chaitya-grihas were the prayer halls. With the advent of Mahayana, the viharas were transformed into both a place of residence as well as a place of worship. This is evident in the rock architecture of Ajanta and Ellora. This transformation of the viharas led to the extinction of chaitya-grihas (Flon, 1994).

In India, with the passage of time, viharas became mahaviharas. The prefix “maha” is used to imply grandeur. Apart from being larger, consisting of a cluster of viharas or a large vihara which had many branches, a qualitative change had occurred. The mahaviharas became primarily focussed on education and advanced learning and came to be recognized more as monastic universities or doctrinal colleges (Rajesh & Kelly, 1998). Great mahaviharas were established in as far north as Taxila and Orgyan to as far east as Magadha and Bengal. Great monastic universities of Nalanda, Vikramashila and Odantapuri were filled with scholars and students from many Asian countries.

In Nepal the term is loosely used for all types of viharas, even small ones. The basic design of the Nepali viharas is quite similar and can be broadly categorized into three types: i) bahas ii) bahis and iii) baha-bahis. Gellner, however, believes that the baha-bahi is not a separate type of vihara but a branch baha with a verandah, which forms part of the living quarters. Father Locke (Locke, 1985) defines a baha or bahi as a Newar Buddhist institution with a consecrated Buddha (kwapa-dya) shrine and agama to which a sangha of initiated Bare are attached. The Nepali word bahal is a corruption of the Sanskrit term vihara, changing from vihara to vahara to bahara to bahala to bahal and finally to the Newari term baha. Similarly bahil is derived from the Sanskrit term bahiri which means outside. From bahiri the word changed to bahira-bahil– and the Newari term of bahi.

Viharas evidently existed during the Lichchavi period, as there are references to some 15 monasteries of that period. There is little information between the Lichchavi period till the 12th century when the Malla period began. After the Malla period there is an abundance of information but a significant change had taken place. The viharas were still inhabited by the Buddhist sangha but those who referred to themselves as bhikshus were, in fact, married. Even before the Malla period, by N.S.213, there are references about some inhabitants of viharas who were Vajracharyas (vajra masters) and who were presumably married. By the end of the Malla period it seems clear that there were no more celibate monks. Some of the inhabitants of bahis in Patan called themselves brahmacharya bhikshus but there are numerous examples about their wives and children.

Today the viharas are looked after by a sangha of Sakyabhikshus and Vajracharyas, called Bare, and their families. After the time of Jayasthitimalla, the Bare became a caste and the sangha became a patrilineal descent group, i.e. the son joined the sangha of his father. The monasteries were no longer open communities, which accepted anyone who wanted to lead a life of a bhikshu.

Viharas are most numerous in Patan and Kathmandu but relatively few in Bhaktapur. They are also found scattered in other towns and villages of the valley. In 1985 John K. Locke had estimated that in Patan there were 141 bahas (18 main and 123 branches) and 25 bahis, in Kathmandu there were 90 bahas and 16 bahis while in Bhaktapur there were 20 bahas and 3 bahis (Locke, 1985).

The basic plan of the viharas have remained unchanged for over 2000 years as the layouts are very similar to the cave monasteries of earlier times which in turn were probably based on the single storey house of the Indus Valley civilization built around an atrium (Korn, 1976). In India viharas gradually disappeared after the Muslim conquest while in Nepal their function as monasteries also declined and the term came to be associated with Buddhist buildings, not monasticism.


Bahas were founded as establishments for communities of married Bares but not all bahas were former viharas. It is not certain whether at a certain in history all monks married and became householder monks or the custom of marriage was introduced and gradually became more acceptable until celibacy in monks died out altogether. It is difficult to say with confidence whether bahis existed earlier than bahas, although bahis practiced an older form of Buddhism. There are no confirmed dates for existing bahis earlier than 1200 A.D. Many bahis were founded in the time of Jayasthitimalla and Yaksha Malla such as Uba Bahi and Iba Bahi in Patan, Nhaykan Bahi and Syangu Bahi in Kathmandu. Also Buddhist manuscripts were not copied in bahis except in a few exceptions. Manuscripts were usually copied by Vajracharyas in bahas. It is the contention of Father Locke that bahas and bahis co-existed since the earliest times. Because of the ascendancy of the Vajracharyas and Tantric Buddhism, the celibate monks succumbed to the dominant institution and gradually became married monks. This led to a slow decline in the tradition of the bahis.

Each baha has its own sangha which is a closed and self-sufficient unit looking after the affairs of the bahas. In contrast the bahis belong to one large overall organization (sarva-sangha) and the elder of each bahi must be present at all bahi initiations. Many bahas have branches. Kwa-baha (Bhaskaradeva Samskarita Hiranyavarna Mahavihara), also known as the golden temple, was probably built during the reign of Bhaskaradeva N.S.165-67. It has 7 official branches and the largest sangha comprising of 1400 Sakyas and 350 Vajracharyas (Locke, 1985). Similarly, Uku-baha (Sivadevavarma Samskrita Rudravarma Mahavihara) has the largest number of branches, 29, and the second largest sangha.

 The bahas were set on a low plinth and consisted of a quadrangle with wings built around a central sunken courtyard. The courtyard was paved with tiles and had a passage all around it. The buildings were normally 2 storeys high, constructed of brick structural walls, wood and tile. They were closed in and generally unobtrusive from the outside, presenting a bleak and shuttered exterior to the secular world outside. The ground floor walls were windowless or fitted with a few blind windows or tikijhyas flanking the entrance. Entry was through a single door in the main façade, guarded by lions. The doorway was surmounted by a torana and flanked by the guardian images of Ganesh and Mahankal, one a Hindu and the other a Buddhist tantric deity (Slusser, 1982).

 The phalca was situated at the entrance with platforms or low benches, designed as an assembly for singing devotional songs. The vihara shrine was placed on the opposite side of the entrance facing the entry. The Buddhist image on the ground floor was a non-tantric deity known as kwapa-dya (guardian deity). The agama deity on the upper floor comprised of a pair of tantric deities where access was restricted. The kwapa-dya was mainly the image of Sakya Muni Buddha and sometimes of Akshobya. The kwapa-dya was open to the public but only the initiated members of the sangha were permitted to enter the shrine. The shrine was designed to be taller than the rest of the structure, either through the addition of a roof or placement of gajurs.

The wings were divided by masonry walls to provide rooms for storage and quarters for married monks. Staircases were provided at each end of the wings which led to three roomed apartments which were not interconnected. These apartments were occupied by the families of the Bare. Colonnaded bays were provided on the ground floors at the center of the side wings. Light and ventilation to the upper rooms was provided by tikijhyas. The space above the phalca usually had a sajhya and served as a common room. The space below the roof was generally unused.

The design of the external façade was symmetrical and sections of the walls were projected and recessed in relation to the width of the wings. The exterior bricks were of better quality and the entrance and the shrine doors were decorated. Interior walls were plastered and white washed.

Today many of the bahas have not maintained the earlier traditional architecture and have undergone many changes at different times. The shrines have become much more elaborate and modified into multi-roofed temples built into the complex of buildings around the courtyard. Because viharas were houses of gods, the decorations sometimes surpassed even that of the palace, with carved wooden members, decorative moldings, carved brackets etc. Exquisite toranas were placed above the entrance of the bahas and baha-bahis. Gild metal was extensively used particularly in the roof and façade, including doors. Kwa-baha is a good example of such a shrine.

The sunken courtyard was considered a sacred area and was filled with lotus, agnishala, chaityas, shrines, images of gods and donors, pillars, bells, inscriptions, mandalas etc., often aligned along the central axis.  Mandalas usually faced the entrance door and were raised on a pedestal with the symbolic thunderbolt, the bajra.


Korn (Korn, 1976) has suggested that bahis were generally built outside the settlements and were founded by a single patron such as a king or a celebrated monk. It was designed as a place for training, teaching, preaching epics and to give shelter and food to visiting monks. With the growing popularity of Vajrayana in which marriage was allowed, the monks desirous of marriage had to leave the bahi and had to found or join a baha where family accommodations were possible and monks lived as grihastha bhikshus. Because of the families, the bahas were located within the cities. There seems to be an underlying presumption that bahis preceded the bahas and were inhabited by celibate monks and nuns. Records have shown that members of bahis who referred to themselves as brahmacharya bhikshus were actually married and that many bahis were established during Malla period (Locke, 1985). Thus as Father Locke has suggested, the two probably co-existed since early times and celibacy in bahis gradually disappeared as tantric Buddhism gained popularity. Initially the bahis tried to preserve their tradition, which was quite different from that of the bahas. Their efforts were doomed, however, as they were trying to maintain the tradition of celibate monks whereas they were not celibate themselves. Vajracharya priests had to be arranged to perform many of their family rituals since their studies did not cover family rituals.

It has also been suggested that bahis housed celibate monks and served as schools of dharma where Buddhists from bahas came to learn the basics of dharma. After learning the basics the students went back to the baha for further study and training to become a Vajracharya. Members of bahis were considered to be of slightly lower status than those of the bahas, thereby suggesting that bahis were a lower form of Buddhist institution than the bahas. Although there were tantric agama gods, there were no consecrated tantric priests who usually had to be called in for family or occasional rituals. Families of the bahis were usually poorer and getting smaller. As a consequence bahis were usually in a state of disrepair and more closely retained their traditional architectural features. As bahas were more prosperous they have made continuous improvements and markedly changed the original physical appearance. On the other hand once the bahi building collapsed, it was not rebuilt and disappeared altogether.

The bahis were situated on a knoll (Pulchowk) or were raised on stepped plinth so that entry was gained through stairway. Another distinguishing feature was that there was often an imposing balcony over the entrance so there was no space for setting up the toranas. The guardian lions were not installed at the entrance. This, however, was not always the case as some bahis did have stone lions and toranas, e.g. Iba-bahi and I-bahi.  Another feature was the small square shrine with a narrow circumambulatory, set in the wing facing the entrance. The shrine normally contained the image of Sakyamuni Buddha. It had a dark room on the first floor for the agama deity above the shrine and had a temple structure protruding beyond the roof.

In the bahis, except for the outer wall and the shrine which were constructed of brick, the rest of the building was generally of timber construction. The external wall in the ground floor had no opening except for the entry door with its flanking blind windows. Much of both the ground and the first floor were open colonnade. This type of open construction did not lend itself easily as family quarters, which probably was the intention during the time of occupancy by celibate monks. In the upper storey the floor joists were extended over the courtyard, passing even in front of the agama and were screened with lattice. Unlike the bahas which had staircases at each corner leading to family quarters, the bahis had a single flight of broad masonry stairs.

The façade was symmetrical and left plain and without any decorative brickwork or projecting sections. The upper floor normally had 3 or 5 lattice windows except for the rear façade which had 2 or 4 as the section behind the shrine was left blank. The windows were too small to provide adequate light and ventilation. This was obtained from the courtyard side which was banked with lattice screen.

The third type of vihara, the baha-bahi, was a combination of the baha and the bahi. Two floors were built in the form of a baha while the third floor consisted of open colonnade like that of the bahi with sajhyas in each wing, outward leaning windows or even a continuous latticed balcony. Gellner, however, considers the baha-bahi to be a branch baha, not a separate category of monastery.

Apart from the above three categories there were family bahas, great bahas and temple bahas. The family bahas or modern bahas, all built within the past 150 years, consisted of family quarters built around a courtyard with a small shrine inserted into one wing. Sometimes the shrine was free-standing and placed at the centre of the courtyard or set against one wall of the courtyard building. This was often a reflection of the deteriorating economic condition of the baha community. The great bahas were large squares surrounded by residential quarters with at least one shrine built into one side. The square could contain other shrines and chaityas. Tebaha, Yatka Bahal and Itum Bahal of Kathmandu and Bu-baha of Patan are typical examples. In the temple baha, an important temple was placed in the centre of a square surrounded by residential or rest houses such as in Machendra Bahal.


Mathas were the Hindu equivalent of the viharas but are now mostly defunct. They had no well defined plans/elevations and served mainly as quarters for a group of male Hindu ascetics gathered around a religious leader (mahanta ). They served as centres for teaching and learning Hindu philosophy and study of appropriate manuscripts. There are 17 major mathas in the three cities of the Valley.

Because they had no distinct design or orientation, they normally resembled the standard dwelling units. They were only distinguishable because of their superior wood carving and extravagant decoration. Because Bhaktapur was the most Hindu city during the Malla period, it contains the largest number of mathas with the biggest concentration around Dattatreya temple at Tachapal Tol in eastern Bhaktapur.

The ground floor was generally used as stables, stores, servants’ quarters. The upper floors were used as grain stores, guestrooms, meeting halls and bedrooms. The kitchen was located in the top floor or the attic. There were one or more courtyards around which ghars were built whose size and arrangement varied considerably. The façade was symmetrical with the main door and the upper floor windows set about a central axis.


The term multi-storied for Nepali temples is a misnomer because only in a few cases where a shrine occurs on the upper floor, the temples have multi-tiered roofs without the intervening floors. The space above the cella is wastage space and even the windows on the upper floors are blind windows for visual purposes only. The space above the roofs has been deliberately left open so as to keep open the vertical axis for the easy movement of the gods to heaven.

There is no clear indication of when the style began but it seems to have been existent during the time of the Lichchavis as indicated by their inscriptions. That the style was a novelty to the Chinese can be ascertained from their description of the Nepali tiered system. The temple designs seem to have evolved over the different periods; the existing temples have been renovated or reconstructed at various times and so do not mirror the actual original designs.

The origin of many of the oldest temples are surrounded in legends and because of the continuous renovations, it is difficult to confirm their original dates. According to legends, one of the oldest temples the Pasupati is believed to have been built by the first Lichchavi king Supuspadeva while another Lichchavi king Haridattavarmen is said to have built the four Narayan temples. The kings cannot be historically confirmed but the temples exist, albeit the structures of today are a result of several renovations and re-constructions. The respect for the tradition and practice of reconstructing temples according to the original guidelines probably prevented innovations in construction and style and despite many renovations and reconstruction, it is believed the temples have faithfully retained as much of the original character as possible.

Despite its mass and weight the Nepali temple is not an aesthetically heavy building. The decreasing size of the tiered roofs point upwards; the curved tiles or birds ready to take flight at the roof edges carry one’s view skywards instead of following the downward roof line. The swaying bells and leaves lend lightness while the flags, birds, perforated borders and cloth banners lend delicacy to the structure. The temple is, however, tied to the earth by the red brick and timber which belong to the earth and whose harmonious combination is responsible for the pleasing aesthetics.

A paved area around the temple demarcates the sacred ground and shoes are often taken out when entering this area. It is paved with small square tiles or stone. The temple is usually set upon one or more plinths of diminishing pattern which helps to raise the temple and give it prominence and symbolic value. The plinth also has practical value to protect the building against damp and raise it above the muddy street level and away from the activities of children and animals.

The composition of the plinths is not known as undertaking any kind of excavations would be considered sacrilegious. According to Indian manuals, plinths were made of unbaked bricks or stone rubble with shallow foundations. Nepali temples probably followed the same method. However, it is not known whether the temple walls rest on the plinths or have separate walls with the intervening space filled with various materials. The visible portion of the plinth is covered with brick and the edge of each step is topped with stone paving. Ornamental molded bricks are set below the stone slabs. Secondary shrines are sometimes built at the corners of the raised plinths. The stairways are guarded by stone lions, guardian beasts, minor deities etc. and each successive guardian is supposed to have multifold powers.

The number of steps of the platform often correspond to the number of roofs, however, the steps sometimes are completely different as in the case of Maju-deval. Nyatapola is 27”6” square in plan and has a platform height of 23 ft. The Taleju temple of Kathmandu is raised on a platform of 20 ft. Temples, primarily of Taleju, were sometimes positioned on top of a storied building as was normal in the valley palaces.

Bricks were extensively used in the main supporting structures. As brick does not lend itself easily to decoration, wood was used as a complementary material and was heavily carved. Bands of timber at various levels such as at cornice level, roof support level and cross ties provided additional structural strength to the walls.

The most common plan is the square, the perfect absolute figure full of cosmic symbolism. Rectangles are also common, however, a few octagonal or circular plans exist, more as exotic structures. Kathmandu temples were based on an odd number of squares: 1,9,25,49,81,121,..981. The most commonly used was the square of 81 ,i.e. 9×9 (Tiwari, 1989).

The form of the temple is associated with the god within:

Square – Siva, Vishnu, Ganesh, Mother Goddess alone

Rectangle – Bhairav, Bhimsen, Mother Goddess, ensemble of mother goddesses

Octagon – Krishna, although Krishna can have other plans

Another variation in the plan is the type of sanctum:

–          Sanctums are exposed for Mother Goddesses and Ganesha although complex superstructures may exist. The open sanctum is closely related to the hypaethral (open roofless) shrines that preceded them.

–          Sanctums can be a simple room entered by a single door with the image facing the door and set at the rear wall.

–          The square temple can be a mandala where the sovereign of the mandala occupies the centre of the sanctum. The image is then placed in the centre and the sanctum is pierced by four doors at the centre of each façade. This form of temple is appropriate for worship of Sivalinga, chaturvyuha Vishnu or four-faced Brahma which are meant to be viewed from all sides. Other manifestations of these gods would be placed in a different type of sanctum.

–          Some gods prefer having an upper floor, particularly Bhimasena, agama gods of viharas, some Bhairavs and some Mother Goddesses. In free standing temples, the sanctum is a small partitioned space on the upper floor and the surrounding hall like space is used by the guthiars for religious functions.

–          Some temples have second outer wall so the space between the inner walls serves as a circumambulatory space. However, this space is rarely accessible to the public and is used primarily by the priests.

–          In many temples the outer wall is replaced by columns so that the space becomes public and is used for circumambulation.

–          Some temples were built on top of other buildings. Common among these are the temples built on some of the courtyard wings of the palaces such as Taleju temples or Degutale. Rich families also often built agamchen temples on their houses.

The rectangular temples are never placed on high bases or on top of buildings. Unlike the square temples, the rectangular temples attempt to have an orientation with the entrance façade heightened.

The Bhairavnatha temple of Bhaktapur was built as a small structure of only one storey by king Jagat Jyoti Malla (1614-1637) and was later restored and enlarged by Bhupatindra Malla in 1718 with the addition of two more tiered roofs. It has an unusual feature of three small gajuras and metal flags protruding from the centre of the lowest roof. This probably indicates the original pinnacle of the one storey temple. The temple was destroyed in the 1934 earthquake but was rebuilt in its original form along with the Nyatapola. The temple has a striking entrance facing the square which is false. The actual entry to the temple is from the back through a small back door and the god is in an upper floor cella.

Distinct feature of the temple is its tiered hipped roof which number from 1-5. Most roofs are square or rectangular corresponding to the plan but there are few examples of round or octagonal roofs over square plans.

The first stage of a multi roof is supported by the cell wall (in case of a single enclosure) or outer enclosing wall (in case of double enclosure) or colonnade (in case colonnade surrounding the main enclosure). For the next stage, in case of single enclosure wooden beams support the inner walls which support the upper roof. In case of double enclosure or outer colonnade, the inner wall supports the upper roof. If there are more roofs, timber beams support the recessed walls which support the roofs.

A thick layer of clay was laid over the roof to delay percolation and prevent leakage. However, the disadvantage was that the moisture was often absorbed by the clay which came in contact with the wooden members, causing their decay. This has caused temples to require extensive repairs from time to time. The heavy roofs were supported on slanted carved brackets which rested on wooden or brick cornices. The end brackets were longer and larger and supported the larger projection of the roof. The roof rafters were closely spaced and laid in a fan shape pattern at the corners and on the topmost roof. Erotic scenes were often carved on the brackets on the belief that it would avert the evil or shy eyes of the thunderbolt, who was conceived of as a maiden and would be abashed by the carvings. The lowermost roof was sometimes covered with wooden latticework aligned to the sloping supporting roof struts which were exquisitely carved.

Some temples were gifted with a gilded roof. The sheets were laid over wooden boards and overlaps were placed over wooden beads (runners). The ends were covered by carved metal images. The eaves were carved with intricate motifs and had hanging leaves. Birds on the verge of taking flight were placed on the four corners of the roofs.

A special feature of the tiered temples was a band of stringed cornices supporting the struts of each roof tier. The lowermost layer of the cornice band was composed of lotus petals followed by a band of nagapasa, a symbolic representation of snakes tying the temple together, then by a string with lion faces called simhamvah and other decorative courses. The layers of wooden cornices in fact acted as horizontal ties providing structural strength to the temples. Wooden ties were also provided at various levels for structural support. Just above the simhamvah level, at the four corners, the cornices were projected out as two layers of flat rectangular pieces with curved ends, supported on cantilevered wooden projections.

Exquisitely carved doors, often covered in gilded repouse metal or silver, were special features of the temples. The doors had toranas, extended heads and bases, carved flanges and in the case of larger temples, additional panels.

The number of roof tiers are determined by the god within (Tiwari, 1989).

– 1 or (7)          Guru, Ganesh, Siddhi, Buddhi, Chaitanya

– 2 or (6)          Brahma, Agni, Savitri, Susumni

– 3 or (5)          Bishnu, Jeeb, Avidhya, Laxmi

– 4                    Rudra, Uma

Thus a Siva temple could be 3,4 or 5 tiered. The two existing 4 tiered temples are Bhagawati at Nala and Harisiddhi Bhawani, both dedicated to Uma. The Uma-Maheshwora temple at Kirtipur was once believed to have been 4 tiered but was damaged in 1934 and later rebuilt with 3 tiers. Of the two 5 tiered temples, the Kumbeshwara is dedicated to Siva and the Nyatapola to a tantric goddess, probably Bhairavi.

Temples were of varying sizes and opulence. The largest plan is that of Changu Narayan with 32 ft. sides. The Indreswara Mahadev at Panuati (1294-earliest known Newar style temple) has a plan dimension of 30 ft. Cornices around temples were decorative as well as functional and symbolic (circle of protection such as Nagpasa) and support roof brackets. The end  bracket at the corners are larger and exquisitely carved with the figure of Vyala, a winged horse-like aquatic creature, symbolizing water.

Of the two known five tiered temples, the Kumbeshwara dates from 1392 (1390?) while the Nyatapola was built in 1708. A rich man called Jaya Bhima (Tiwari suggests Jayasthitimalla built the temple in 1390) built Kumbeshwara with two tiers in 1392 (Slusser, 1982) while Srinivas Malla added three more tiers in 1670. The Nyatapola was built in 1708 by Bhupatindra Malla. The shrine is never opened, except to tantric priests, and it is believed to be dedicated to a secret tantric goddess, possibly Siddhi Laxmi or Bhairavi which was established to control the nearby Bhairav. Two four tiered temples exist: Harisiddhi Bhawani at Harisiddhi and Nala Bhagawati at Nala village.

Quadrangle incorporated temples of viharas were later concepts as earlier viharas had no image to worship.


The shikhara temple style was developed by the Guptas in the 6th century. Thereafter, it was introduced by the Lichchavi and continued into the later period. This style was used for both Hindu and Buddhist temples.

The shikhara temples were normally of dressed stones but were often of brick construction as well. They consist of a square cell with tapering tower, symbolizing the cave and the mountain (Mt.Meru). Temples were usually set on stepped plinth, followed by molded courses. This was done to protect the temple from damp and to give it respectability. The cella and the tower ends in a flattened ribbed disc known as the amalaka. The amalaka is often surmounted by a gajur. Entrance to the cella is through one or four porticos. The Nepali shikhara temples have been found to have a wooden frame of posts and beams enclosed within the walls to give it added structural strength and resilience.

Nepali shikhara temples lack the additional ardhamandappa and mandappas of the Indian temple designs as worship in Nepal tends to be more personal, rather then congregational. (Korn, 1976) They also lack the rich embellishment of the Indian temples.

The octagonal shikhara temple in Patan dedicated to Krishna is an exception. The Krishna Mandir and Mahaboudhha in Patan are examples of elaborately ornamented shikhara temples. The Mahabouddha, whose design was based on the Bodhgaya temple design, was started by Abhaya Raj in 1565 but was completed by his grandsons and great-grandsons only in 1601. It is covered with tiles bearing the image of Buddha and was included in the World Heritage list. It was withdrawn from the list after the government failed to restrict development in the surroundings, despite repeated warnings.

Towards the end of the Malla period, the shikhara shrines adopted a different outline, that of the shape of an inverted flower bud. These became popular due to ease of construction.

Domed temples were influenced by Mughal architecture and are believed to be Rana imports. Actually, they were introduced during the Malla period. Domed temples were favored by the Shah and Rana rulers and were built around Kathmandu. Bhimsen Thapa built the domed temples of Bhimeswara and Ranamukteshwara. The Jagannath temple near the jail built by Rana Bahadur Shah and the Kalomochana (Vishnu temple) and Vishwaroop at Pashupati constructed by Jung Bahadur Rana in 1874 are other examples of domed temples in Nepal. The temples are plastered and whitewashed, an imitation of the white marble used in the Indian structures. Recessed niches with arches flank the doors on the four sides and bands of floral motifs are used at the base of the dome and upper part of the structure supporting the dome, typical of Muslim architecture. Small pavilions are also built at the four corners in imitation of the Indian buildings. The encircling sattals are, however, done in traditional style.


The principal function of the dharamsala was to provide a shelter, place to rest, work and socialize for wayfarers. It was customary to pair this with a water source. Dharamshalas were common in India since ancient times and Nepali version was probably derived from them.

Lichchavi inscription make mention of public rest houses, however, there are no surviving examples of the period. Nevertheless, it is believed that the typical pati and the mandapa have not changed much since the early times.

The most basic structure was the pati. The pati is raised on a platform with wooden floor and is normally a free-standing structure or attached to an existing building as a lean-to. It is a post and lintel construction structure with a rear brick wall. It can be found everywhere, not only in towns and villages, but also along roads, water sources and temples.

The mandapa is probably the oldest form of public shelter. The mandapa was usually a free standing pavilion of square or rectangular plan, with roof supported by 16 columns. It was designed for gathering people within or around it and was always found within settlements. The mandapa served many functions besides shelter such as town hall, market etc. Of the two mandapas situated at the north end of Patan durbar, the southern mandapa was used as a municipal weighing house and the place to fix market prices while the more recent northern structure was used for coronation by Patan kings and by priests and astrologers to determine favorable dates for the festival of Machendranath.

Sattals were multi-storied patis or mandapasSattals were designed for longer stays by gurus and sadhus besides transient travelers so it had additional floor and shrine over a pati type structure. The upper floor was screened for privacy. Thus they were half shelter half shrine. The most famous is the 11-12th century Kasthamandap which is roughly 18.7 m. square in plan and 16.3 m. in height. Despite it being referred to as a sattal for Siva ascetics, it served as a meeting place or town hall. Legend has it that it was constructed from a single tree. It consists of 3 large halls on top of each other without any divisions. In contrast to normal temples, it has wide stairs leading to the first floor. Loads are carried by brick walls and large wooden pillars. The brickwork is plastered and whitewashed and the roof is tiled.

The chapa is a community hall of guthi association. It is not intended for longer stays. It is typically a long rectangular two storey building whose rear is divided by masonry walls into storerooms for guthiars’ affairs while the front serves as a pati. The colonnaded upper hall serves as a hall for guthiar’s feasts and communal activities.


Stupas were probably derivatives of the practice of raising a circular tumulus over skeletal remains and demarcated with a circle of stones. This practice of raising a tumulus over tombs is evident even in the western world since pre-historic times. Slusser believes the Patan stupas to be of similar origin. According to tradition there were 6 previous Buddhas while other traditions speak of 23 previous Buddhas. Thus the tradition of corporeal stupas probably existed long before Buddha’s time.

Stupas are supposed to contain relics of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas or saints. Ashoka is believed to have broken up the original eight stupas over the remains of Buddha and distributed the remains to construct over 84000 stupas in India. Nepali stupas are distinguished as: i) dhatu stupa (mortal remains of Buddha) ii) paribhog stupa (things belonging to Buddha such as garments, bowl etc.) iii) dharma stupa (text of his teachings) and iv) udeshya stupa (amulets, mantras, jewel etc)

The elements of the Nepali stupa are:

–     The original mound is represented by the egg (anda), womb (garbha) and pot (kumbha). The stupa consists of a drum pedestal (medhi), the drum and the finial. The drum or medhi is indistinguishable consisting simply of a drum of varying height slightly larger in diameter than the mound it supports. The drum is set in a modest circular platform or sometimes on a square platform composed of a number of superimposed terraces (Pimbahal, Chilancho of Kirtipur and Bouddhanath).

–          The anda or dome is of varying shape, hemispherical in the early times to vertical or flattened dome during the transitional and early Malla period.

–          According to Oldfield the construction of stupa commenced with the construction of square masonry chamber of 9 equal parts in the centre of the medhi (Slusser, 1982).. Precious wood, grains, images and scenes from Buddha’s life and human relics if so designed were placed in the outer 8 chambers. The central 9th chamber served as a mortise for the yasti, a great central timber mast piercing the stupa and to which the finial is attached. The chambers were filled after the ceremony, over it a mound of brick, earth and clay was constructed. The outer rounded surface was faced with bricks, plastered and whitewashed. Four chapels facing the four cardinal points were then joined to the dome. These contained the images of Dhyani Buddhas (Akshobhya-E, Amitabha-W, Amogsiddhi-N and Ratnasambhawa-S representing the different aspects of the activities of Buddha). The fifth was called Vairochana and was thought to reside in the centre of the stupa, represented by the eyes of the harmika. The painting of the eyes is a unique Nepali practice and began during the Malla period after the 15th century.

–          The design of the finial varies but consists of 3 principal parts: i) the cube ii) the tapered mid-section and iii) the crowning parasol. The cube or the harmika is derived from the pavilion that surmounted the early Indian stupas which was supposed to be the home of the gods. The tapering 13 stages symbolizes the 13 stages to perfection or the 13 Buddhists heavens and is capped by the parasol. The 13 stages became standard during the transitional period after the 11th century. The conical or pyramidal spire is known as “Chura Mani”. In the earliest Indian stupas, these consisted of flattened stone discs, 3-7 in numbers, attached to the yasti symbolizing the parasol provided to respected personages. The eyes of the harmikas were the eyes of the Adibuddha but were sometimes believed to represent the Lokpalas who survey the quarter of the universe accorded to them. The finial is either simple or elaborately gilded along with the parasol.

Vrisadeva is credited with the construction of Svayambhu, one of the earliest stupas. The stupa has been repaired and extensively changed during the later renovations so that it has become difficult to imagine the earlier structure. The hemisphere is constructed of brick, plastered and whitewashed. The dome is flattened at the top and the harmika is elongated to correct for this shape. The harmika would have been a cube if the dome had followed its regular curve. Gilded toranas are placed over the eyes of the harmika while the 13 layers of the finial are made of circular metal discs supported on the timber pole, the yasti. Above it is the decorative parasol and the gajur. At the circumambulatory level the dome has chapels with images of the four Adibuddhas in the four cardinal points and four Taras in the diagonals. An additional chapel dedicated to the vajra is built in the east and a mandala with a vajra is placed in front of it. All the chapels are believed to have been added during the Malla period.


  • Ghats with stepped or circular platforms were built at river edges for ritual bathing and cremation.
  • Pokharis were large brick lined tanks eg. Rani Pokhara, Tawa Pokhari and Siddhapokhari of Bhaktapur. They were used for commercial and household purposes such as dyeing and washing.
  • Ghaidharas (gahiti) or deep sunken pit taps were provided for larger community uses.
  • Tutedharas consisted of tanks filled with water and drawn out through stoppered spigots.
  • Inars or brick lined wells were built primarily for private use but also served communal function.



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