Located on the trade routes between India, Tibet and China, Nepal’s architecture shows influences from all three cultures and is a strong symbol of the country’s heritage. The three medieval city-states of the Kathmandu Valley – Kathmandu, Bhaktapur and Patan – exhibit some of the most spectacular ancient Nepal architecture in its temples, palaces and monasteries, many of which suffered extensive damage during the 2015 earthquake.
In a country with such a rich architectural legacy, rebuilding efforts need to take into consideration both indigenous and historic styles, not only in religious structures but also residential housing and public buildings in the surrounding towns and villages.
Nepal Architectural: Prominent Styles
Nepal architecture can roughly be divided into three groups – the Pagoda style, the Stupa style and the Shikhara style – together with indigenous elements from the Newari people.
The Stupa Style
Originating in ancient India, stupas are Buddhist in their concept and execution, designed as a tomb-like structure to house sacred relics. They have since spread across Asia and into Nepal, evolving into different forms and incorporating elements specific to different regions.
The shape of a stupa is representative of Buddha, with the top of the spire symbolizing his crown, while his head is the square at the spire’s base and his body the hemispherical dome shape. His legs are represented by the four steps on the lower terrace at the base of his throne, while the four sides of the square base (harmika) are often painted with pairs of “all seeing” eyes. The design is also believed to represent the five Buddhist elements – Earth (the square base), Water (the hemispherical dome), Fire (the conical spire), Air (the upper lotus parasol), Space (the sun and the dissolving point).
Among Nepal’s finest examples of the stupa style is Swayambhu which sits atop a hill in the Kathmandu Valley and is considered the most sacred pilgrimage site for Newar Buddhists. Also of note is the Boudhanath stupa on the outskirts of Kathmandu. This ancient UNESCO World Heritage-listed stupa is one of the largest in the world and particularly sacred to Tibetan Buddhists due to its position along an ancient trade route from the Kathmandu Valley to Tibet.
Dating back to 250BC, the stupas built in Patan by King Ashoka are also of historic importance, designed to mark the four corners of the city and being among the oldest stupas to remain standing today in Nepal.
The Pagoda Style
The pagoda features prominently in Nepalese temples, with multi-roofed structures and wide eaves which are supported by beautifully carved wooden struts. The roof is often topped by triangular spires which enclose an inverted bell, while projecting windows are either latticed or grilled.
Pagoda style of Nepal architecture evolved from the dome-shaped stupa which was used to store sacred relics and became a distinctive feature of Newari architecture. It was adopted across East and Southeast Asia and, over time, blended with the architecture of Chinese towers and pavilions into what became known as pagoda style. In the 13th century, the young Nepali architect Araniko led a delegation to China at the invitation of Emperor Kublai Khan, spreading the pagoda architectural style across the region.
The Kasthamandap wooden pagoda for which Kathmandu is named is one of the most impressive examples of the pagoda style, built during the Malla period. Other notable examples include the Basantpur Palace which was built by King Prithvi Narayan Shah, as well as the Pashupati, Taleju and Changu Narayan temples.
The Shikhara Style
A prominent feature of Nepal’s Hindu temple architecture is Shikhara – a tall curvilinear or pyramidal tower. It translates from Sanskrit as “mountain peak” and usually exhibits a highly ornate exterior. Shikhara were designed over the sanctum sanctorum where the presiding deities were enshrined and topped by a bell-shaped “alasha”, or sacred brass receptacle.
The most impressive example of Shikhara style of Nepal architecture in the Kathmandu Valley can be seen in Patan’s Krishna Temple which was built in 1637 by Siddhi Narsimha Malla. It merges a Gupta Shikhara style with an open, multi-storied Moghul architectural style. It was built as a copy of a Hindu temple dedicated to Lord Krishna in Mathura, India, with elaborate stone carvings of gods and goddesses.
The Kathmandu Valley is also noted for its Newa style of Nepal architecture, an indigenous style which has long been used by the Newari people in building everything from residential housing to chaitya monastery buildings. It is marked by impressive brickwork and wooden carvings, with the architect Arniko influential in its export across Asia.
Traditional Newari houses were generally three-storied, with pitched roofs and a small courtyard or chowk. They normally featured narrow windows exhibiting fine wooden latticework and entrance doors barred with large wooden planks.
Today a new generation of Nepali architects are combining traditional styles and textures with modern comforts and aesthetics. Not only does it honor and conserve the country’s rich architectural heritage, but addresses the need for structurally strong buildings that will weather any future earthquakes.
Rebuilding Nepal Architecture After the Earthquake
While many of the cultural landmarks within the Kathmandu Valley suffered extensive damage during the 2015 earthquake, the rural villages in the surrounding Himalaya were also badly affected. Building methods here have remained largely unchanged throughout the centuries, with brick and mud mortar the most readily-available materials, complete with doors and window frames made of wood.
The remote location of many of the affected villages has made access to supplies and labor difficult, which is where volunteer organizations like Build Abroad come in. Participants in Build Abroad programs in Nepal will have the opportunity to experience this dramatic and spectacular part of the world while trekking to remote Himalayan villages and supporting the rebuilding of homes and schools.
Reconstruction efforts require careful planning and guidelines to ensure strong and resilient structures are built. It’s also vital that building codes are implemented properly to help minimize the loss of life and property which resulted from the earthquake. Creating safe and secure homes using sustainable construction methods is essential to ensure people are removed from unsafe shanty towns and can live in dignity.