By Aashish Mishra Lalitpur, Jan. 7: On December 20, 2021, workers digging the ground in front of the Bhimsen Temple, Mangalbazaar discovered a stone tablet. They were building a sewage system for Patan Durbar Square when they found the six-foot tablet, erect and intact.
The tablet was discovered to be a Lichhavi-era inscription, describing a Vihara built by King Brish Dev, the great grandfather of Mandev. Shyam Sunder Rajbanshi, the epigraphist studying the engraving, called this a great finding for Nepali history because “it is the first time any inscription has ever described a structure built by Brish Dev.”
He also informed that the etched text indicated the practice of making metal Chaityas at the time. Most Chaityas of Kathmandu Valley in existence today are made of stone. Prakash Darnal, former chief of the National Archives and a member of the team which was overseeing the excavation work in the Durbar complex when the inscription was found, told The Rising Nepal that the epigraph enriched Nepal’s history.
This enrichment, though, could have happened three and a half decades ago. According to Darnal, the inscription, dated 613 AD, had been discovered around 35 years ago by labourers working for the construction company Bhandari Builders. “They have placed the Hume pipe right in front of the tablet and have constructed drains beside it. It is impossible that they did not dig up the inscription to do this,” Darnal said, adding, “However, they kept silent and covered it up after their work was done.”
Madhu Kumar Gyawali also remembers seeing the top portion of the inscription when it was first dug up. The 54-year-old used to live in a rented room in Tangal, a 10-minute walk from Mangalbazaar, during his intermediate (I. Sc.) years in the 1980s and believes that he saw the slab one afternoon when walking around with his brother. “If only we had smartphones and social media back then, we would have made it viral,” he said jokingly.
But while Gyawali is sure he saw the inscription he is not sure of the year. “I think it was 1986 or 1987. Definitely 35/36 years ago but I do not remember the exact date.” Several Mangalbazaar residents The Rising Nepal talked to also remember hearing rumours of the inscription but were not able to provide details.
Kiran Man Pradhan was a member of Mangal Tole Development Committee in the 80s. But he said he did not hear anything about the inscription. He knows that the Bhandari Builders worked in the area but did not know that they had unearthed the engraving. Similarly, Narayan Lal Awale, chairman of Lalitpur Metropolitan City Ward No. 12, and a native of Patan, also did not know about the existence of the inscription before its rediscovery this month. “There was no chatter or news,”
Awale, who represents the ward where Patan Durbar Square is located, said. This silence, Awale opined, was because it was the era of Panchayat regime and lack of awareness among the public.
The inscription was found around 60 metres from the Patan Museum. Yet, the museum was also unaware of its existence; neither did it know that it had first been uncovered more than 30 years ago. “The Museum only opened in 1997 so the issue of the Bhandari Builders is before its time,” Suresh Man Lakhe, acting executive director of Patan Museum, said. “Had we known, we would not have let the inscription remain underground.” Asked how the museum and the community remained oblivious to such an important archaeological artefact right under their feet, Lakhe stressed that it was because of a lack of activism in the 1980s. “Only a few people like Satya Mohan Joshi and Dhan Bajra Bajracharya were aware and active in heritage conservation back then and the information may have been kept hidden from them.” Buddhi Raj Bajracharya was Pradhan Pancha of the then Lalitpur Nagar Panchayat when Bhandari Builders carried out the sewer construction around Patan Durbar. Even though he occupied a position equivalent to that of the mayor of the city, Bajracharya too said he did not receive any information about the inscription.
“The contractor [Bhandari] was mobilised and supervised by the central government, who was neither sensitive nor interested in matters of heritage preservation. The local level had no role in it,” Bajracharya said. However, he was not surprised that the Builders kept the matter under wraps. “They were not a good company. They did not do a nice job with the sewage system too,” Bajracharya said. The case with Patan’s inscription is just an example of a larger pattern of people concealing discovery of artefacts, explained Darnal. He shared an account of another Lichhavi-era inscription which stood near the Jala Droni of Manga Hiti that the people covered up while laying stones. He was told by epigraphist Rajbanshi that the locals covered the inscription out of anger because the administration did not permit them to build a water tank there.
Similarly, in 2019, remnants of a water spout were discovered on private land in Hattisar. Despite the discovery, the landowner pressed ahead with the construction of a building on it. “People do not report discovered artefacts, or worse, destroy it because they do not understand its value or feel that reporting it will get them tangled in bureaucracy and hassles,” Darnal said. Patan tourist guide Suresh Shakya, who explores and records historical elements of Kathmandu Valley, was less coy with his opinion. “People do not report monuments because they want to use the land for commercial purposes.” He added, “Some also want to sell the found item.”
“Money trumps history of civilization in modern day Kathmandu,” he said disapprovingly. Circling back to the inscription, Lakhe offered an alternative perspective for Bhandari’s actions. “Maybe people thought that removing the inscription from its location would damage it and leaving it be was a way of protecting it for the future.”
Whatever the reason, not reporting the existence of historical items to the appropriate bodies causes immeasurable loss to our history, Damodar Gautam, Director General at the Department of Archaeology (DoA), said. Gautam stated that it was the responsibility of every person to protect monuments and urged all to understand that the DoA alone could not do everything. Nevertheless, he stressed that the Department would work to conserve all archaeological objects that it came to know about. The DoA also did not know of the inscription’s existence before this month.