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Durham University

Centre for the Ethics of Cultural Heritage

Archaeological Investigations of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Pashupati, Nepal

Archaeological Investigations of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Pashupati (Nepal)

A research project of the Department of Archaeology.

Background

Cultural heritage is threatened by increasing pilgrim numbers at major religious sites around the world, especially in Asia. Pashupati, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the Kathmandu Valley (Nepal), is a microcosm of the impacts facing archaeology from these global developments, providing a case-study of heritage management for sustainable pilgrimage. A major Śaivite site, comprising temples, ashrams and ghats, Pashupati receives six million pilgrims annually, as well as being the Kathmandu Valley’s premiere cremation location, leading to tensions between development, religious practice and the protection of cultural heritage. In comparison with significant conservation of its eighteenth century temples, little has been done to evaluate Pashupati’s subsurface archaeology and as pilgrim numbers rise, pressure on infrastructure that necessitates development pose a risk to heritage protection.

Few excavations have been targeted at identifying earlier occupation at medieval sites of the Kathmandu Valley despite the very real threat to their survival by urbanisation and development. Whilst Pashupati’s medieval architecture is well documented, little is known of the presence or nature of earlier cultural phases, with a lack of archaeological research and reliable historical evidence for the site’s beginnings and early religious activities. Working with the Department of Archaeology (Government of Nepal) and the Pashupati Area Development Trust (PADT), this project aims to redress this current situation, and tackle these threats to heritage through a multi-disciplinary approach to characterise and protect Pashupati’s subsurface archaeology, guiding future development for sustainable pilgrimage, whilst also addressing questions about the date and character of the earliest phases of the site, the development of patronage, and the social, economic and administrative roles of Pashupati from its earliest occupation through to the present.

Funding

The project is funded by the following grant.

  • Mapping Pashupati: Identifying And Characterising The Early Cultural Phases Of The Unesco World Heritage Site Of Pashupati In The Kathmandu Valley (nepal) (£2950.00 from The British Academy)

Aims

The project aims to define the extent of surface and subsurface cultural material around and beyond the monumental core of the UNESCO World Heritage Site for its protection and also to understand Pashupati’s archaeological and historical development. We aim to identify evidence of the social, economic and administrative roles of Pashupati and also its role a locus of resilience in the landscape, especially in relation to past earthquakes, as brought into sharp focus recently by the 2015 Gorkha Earthquakes. We will also characterise the patronage afforded to Pashupati and understand its development within the broader archaeology of the Kathmandu Valley from the past through to the present.

Multi-disciplinary in approach the project uses non-intrusive geophysical survey to map subsurface heritage with auger cores then used to map the spread and depth of cultural material. Areas are then targeted for excavation, where we scientifically date and artefactually characterise earlier cultural sequences across the site. With colleagues at the University of Stirling, we are using geoarchaeological approaches to look at the development of Pashupati in relation to its environmental context as well as the hydrology of the site, specifically human interventions. With colleagues from the Institute of Cultural and Intellectual History of Asia, Austrian Academy of Science, Vienna, we are mapping epigraphic records across Pashupati, monitoring the development and changes in patronage over time. We are further investigating the effects of patronage and pilgrimage in the present through monitoring and evaluating current visitor/pilgrimage behaviour at Pashupati, which will inform sustainable development and heritage protection alongside Archaeological Risk Mapping, whilst also providing an ethnographic insight into pilgrimage practices and archaeological visibility of ritual in the archaeological record.

Findings

We have mapped key areas of the site and have begun to record the depth and spread of subsurface heritage through geophysical survey and augering. Geophysical survey across areas of the site, including Bhandarkahl, Kailash, and the Veda Vidhyashram School, have detected several anomalies, which possibly represent the remains of sub-surface structures and archaeological features. Auger cores across Bhadarkhal, the Veda Vidhyashram School, Kailash and inside the Deer Park have enabled the identification of the depth of cultural material and natural soil in these areas. These surveys enabled the targeting of archaeological excavations and also the guidance of management and development for the laying of infrastructure and amenities during future sustainable development.

Two seasons of excavations were conducted in an area known as Bhandarkhal in 2014 and 2016. A wooded park within the urban sprawl of Kathmandu, Bhandarkhal, meaning ‘Treasury Garden’ is a walled compound west of the main Pashupati Temple complex. It has been viewed as one of the parks and gardens created to grow flowers for devotees to offer to the gods of the Pashupati temple complex.

In the first season, excavation concentrated on the overgrown and infilled water tank towards the centre of this area. The excavations uncovered brick structures located on the edges of the water tank, behind ephemeral tank edges, constructed from brick rubble and broken tile. Though the interior of the water tank was not edged with brick facing, like those elsewhere in Kathmandu, like at Patan and Bhaktapur Durbar Squares, an earthen edge for the tank was identified. This might suggest that earlier water tanks in the Kathmandu Valley were originally earthen features, later elaborated with brick, and that Bhandarkhal’s tank fell out of use before this later phase of activity. It may also be the case that this water tank was never subject to an overhaul and continued in its original form for its entire life-span. Earlier pit-cut features were also identified in the base of the tank revealing dynamic human activity within this area of the site.

Following geophysical survey in Bhandarkhal, several possible traces of human activity were identified. In 2016, we opened a trench to the south of the tank, to identify and characterise these possible features. During excavation we identified the presence of at least three major phases of human occupation. The earliest was represented by a pit-cut feature with rich ceramic fills dug into the natural soil. These early deposits were then sealed below the construction of a brick paved platform, with an associated stone-lined drain. This had been badly robbed out in antiquity, but the distinct scatter of tile, brick and a large stone architectural element suggested that the structure had been monumental in nature. Following the deposition of silty sands over these robbed remains, the final occupation comprised the digging of large post pits after which the site was abandoned. The results of geoarchaeological analysis and scientific dating from these excavations are currently being processed.

There are many inscriptions across Pashupati, recording donors and the donations they made at Pashupati. These inscriptions were mapped into a GIS database and preliminary analysis has shown that those relating to Śiva were close to the monumental core, whilst those relating to Buddhism were peripheral, suggestive of past patterns of patronage and spatial planning at Pashupati. The database also creates a permanent record of this cultural heritage and allows for monitoring of the current preservation of the epigraphs, through photographs and rubbings. These records were deposited with the project, the National Archives Kathmandu, Department of Archaeology and PADT, forming a baseline that can be referred back to when assessing the preservation and condition of these important records of Pashupati’s past.

With the aim of examining the current interaction of people with heritage at Pashupati, visitor survey was conducted in 2014. The results of this indicated that Pashupati primarily attracts local residents from Hindu communities of Kathmandu and, secondly, Hindu pilgrims from Nepal and India. Surveys of local businesses also suggested that the tourism market is largely dominated by the residents of Kathmandu and Indian pilgrims but the proximity of Pashupati to the international airport creates a market for the transit of business people and for pilgrimage tours on their way to other sacred sites such as Kailash or Muktinath. The current level of pilgrims and forecasts of increasing numbers in the future again affirm the need for archaeology, especially subsurface heritage, to be engaged with in future management plans. 

In relation to this, the archaeological investigations at Pashupati are now aiding the development of this UNESCO World Heritage Site’s Master Plan. which will include protection of subsurface heritage, with a recommendation for continued multi-disciplinary investigations to define the extent of subsurface archaeology around and beyond the monumental core of Pashupati and aid the development of further Archaeological Risk Maps, which can guide and aid future subsurface interventions. Within the framework of the master plan the need for archaeological watching briefs, rescue excavation and also heritage impact assessments, prior to any developmental intervention that may pose a threat to earlier archaeological sequences is highlighted.

Finally, although Pashupati was not as badly affected by the destruction of the 2015 Nepal earthquakes as some other areas within the Kathmandu Valley, some monuments and structures within the World Heritage site boundaries were damaged as a result of this natural disaster. As part of post-disaster archaeological investigations at earthquake damaged sites in Kathmandu we undertook a ‘live exercise’ in post-earthquake responses to heritage at damaged and destroyed monuments. Focusing on the collapsed Guruju Sattal, adjacent to the western gate of the Pashupati Temple Complex, we developed an archaeological methodology that could be applied immediately after an earthquake, with a priority for recovering casualties from a disaster, whilst also protecting heritage during this emergency phase. For further information on this work see our webpage on post-disaster research in Kathmandu. 

Published Results

Journal Article

  • Coningham, R.A.E., Acharya, K.P., Davis, C.E., Manuel, M.J., Kunwar, R.B., Hale, D., Tremblay, J., Gautam, D. & Mirnig, N. (2016). Exploring Ancient Pashupati: Preliminary Results of Archaeological Surveys and Excavations at Bhandarkhal, Kathmandu Valley UNESCO World Heritage Property (Nepal). Ancient Nepal 191-192: 93-112.

Staff

From the Department of Archaeology

  • UNESCO Professor Robin Coningham
  • Dr Christopher Davis
  • Dr Mark Manuel

Map showing the location of Pashupati, Kathmandu