I was first introduced to Panauti by John Sanday, the British conservation architect, who was in charge in the 1970s of the restoration of Hanuman Dhoka palace at the center of Kathmandu by UNESCO and has resided in the Nepali capital from that time on.
It was in 1976. I was already familiar with Nepal and the Kathmandu Valley. I had been the cultural attaché at the French Embassy in 1970-71, and afterward spent nearly one year in the remote Newar village of Pyangaun in Lalitpur district, a village inhabited by Jyapu paddy-cultivators. These farmers were also at that time makers of bamboo boxes for measuring grains (rice, wheat), pyang in Nepal Bhasha. They used to exchange these boxes against food grains at several localities of the Kathmandu Valley in winter. Subsequently, I prepared and passed a PhD dissertation in the field of social anthropology (Paris University) on that village and joined the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), the main public organization for research in France, in 1975. I had learned local languages with students and teachers and was quite fluent at that time in Newari.
I remember very well my first time in Panauti with John Sanday. We were looking for a house to rent. The authorities of the locality guided us toward a Karmacharya family inhabiting in the lower part of the town, toward the sacred confluence of the Rosi and Punyamati rivers. The gharpatini, mistress of the house, and her daughter welcomed us. They offered us some food with very strong ayela (rice alcohol) and rented me a house nearby, with a very nice view of Indreshwar Mahadev temple and the Jangam math, the religious establishment where the priests of the Shaivite three-storied temple were inhabiting. The ground floor was used by a health post and a small vegetable garden was attached. It was an ideal place to work. It was decided that three young French architects would join me to undertake a full basic research work on Panauti. During our common period of fieldwork, we would focus on space and architecture. One of these architects, Vincent Barré, was already my friend. He came some years before to Pyangaun to help me draw a map of the village.
I moved to Panauti in the rainy season. I came on foot from Godavari with my cook and porter Sarkiman, crossing the range and descending on the other side of the mountain. We didn’t know the way exactly and got lost in the clouds. It was raining. We had to spend a night on the way in a Tamang house. We arrived at our destination the next morning. My three friends, who came by bus from Kathmandu the day before, were already there. We started the work immediately. Some inhabitants from Panauti joined us to draw a detailed map of the locality, which at that time didn’t exist. We set up three teams with local people for this topographical survey. It took us about 10 days to complete the preliminary job with double decameter ropes. All corners of the city were mapped. It must be said that from the very beginning Panauti inhabitants proved to be very friendly and cooperative with us. This assistance continued in all phases of the research. Perhaps they guessed that their locality would derive some benefits out of this research.
This happened to be true: some years later, in the 1990s, the cultural branch of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs started renovating the main temples of the city, that were in a sorry condition, under the supervision of the Nepali Department of Archaeology. Several other projects focused on more secular matters, especially schools, platforms alongside the streets and an underground pipe system were also launched and implemented. In addition, some grants were allocated to the local youths in the field of technology. Robert Le Foll, a former member of the French Parliament, has been very active in this regard. Panauti became a symbol of French and Nepali cooperation.
Three persons from Panauti collaborated with us in a very important and fruitful manner: Ananta Madhikarmi, Chandeshwari Buddhacharya (Shakya), Shiva Jangam, who at the time was the priest of Indreshwar Mahadev temple, and Bisunath Tamrakar. I remember that I surveyed with Ananta Madhikarmi all the houses of the small city, collecting data on the population, as well as on economic data of every family, for instance the surface area (in ropani) of their paddy-fields whether privately owned or just labored as tenants. The French architects stayed for about three months in Panauti and went back to Paris where they were running a private architect enterprise. For my own part, I concentrated the following years almost entirely on Panauti city, its social and religious organization. My rented house was very convenient. I could invite some guests and friends from Kathmandu for lunch or for the weekend. It was also an appropriate place to work with my different local informants and offer them some tea. During the daytime, I used to spend time in the various tea stalls discussing with people on different subjects. And every night, I took a tour of the city along the river and within the market area. I made fantastic day trips with Ananta in the surrounding villages and religious places.
Altogether, I spent nearly one year on the spot, from 1977 till 1980. At the end, I offered a bhoj (a feast) to all the persons, Newars and Jangams mostly, who worked with me in the community. I had to sacrifice a goat to the nearby Ganesh on that occasion. Afterward, I presented my ethnographical materials in the Paris University in 1982 and obtained a second more elaborate PhD, after the first one obtained thanks to my study of Pyangaun. We call this superior type of Doctorate “Doctorat d’Etat” in French (this type of Doctorate disappeared from the university courses a little later). With the French architects, our common book written in French language was finally published in 1981 in Paris: Panauti, uneville au Népal (Panauti, a Town in Nepal). It is focused on history, social organization, use of space, domestic and religious architecture. A facsimile edition has been published recently in Kathmandu by Vajra Publications. Unfortunately, this book has not yet been translated in English or Nepali.
In 1976, Panauti, a multi-caste locality, counted around 2,900 inhabitants, among which the vast majority were Newars (97%). It was a small historic city with an important market hub and a great number of pasals (shops) where the surrounding villagers could buy nearly all the items they needed. The market extension at the entrance of the locality, near the Maneshwari (Varahi) temple, already existed in its primary form. It developed dramatically in the following years, destabilizing the life of the small city and redirecting the market activities from the center to the periphery.
In my views, the small town of Panauti can be analyzed through two main different paradigms: the mandalic (or cosmological) model and the socioeconomic change paradigm. I had already recently published a book with a number of photographs on the second aspect: Panauti: Past and present (1976-2020). Let me focus here on the mandalic structure.
At first, the triangular shape of the city is clear. Panauti lies at the confluence of two rivers: the Punyamati to the north, and the Rosikhola to the south. The top of the triangle is pointed to the east. It is believed that a third river—subterranean, invisible river—supposedly flowing from the north under the Brahmayani three-storied temple, meets there. This third hidden river conveys a high sacral aura to the spot. The ritual place, called triveni (confluence of three rivers), is located at this junction and contains many religious monuments. This important religious confluence is visited by religious people every morning and evening. The inhabitants of the surrounding villages come there for cremation.
This triveni confluence gives to Panauti the status of a famous pilgrimage site, known all over central Nepal and even in Northern India. Every 12 years, the Makar Mela (fair) is celebrated on that very place, in the solar month of Magh (January-February). On that occasion, thousands of pilgrims wash away their sins by bathing at the confluence of the three rivers. I described this festival in a long article published 10 years ago in a volume called Sin and Sinners (Brill, 2012). According to the inhabitants, the city has a form of a fish. The main temple of Indreshwar Mahadev, originally built in the 13th century by a Newar princess named Birma Devi and run by Jangam (Lingayat) priests, is related to this religious confluence. The outer impressive struts, which decorate the religious monument with eminent figures of Hindu mythology, are a testimony of the antiquity of the temple. In 1977, we asked the children of Panauti to draw a map of their city, as they imagined. All represented their locality in a triangular form, the triveni oriented upward, to the north, giving to the city the form of a mountain (except one who placed the apex of the triangle downward).
Yet, this structure is not enough to understand the city. In the 1970s, the urban zone of Panauti was still clearly separated from the outside by an outer circle of eight goddesses’ temples, dedicated to the Ashta (eight) Matrika of the Hindu-Buddhist Tantric tradition. A specific direction in space corresponds to each of these goddesses. They protect the city against diseases and evil spirits and are regularly worshipped on specific days of the lunar calendar. The temple of Brahmayani, is the most important of these religious monuments. It faces the confluence of the rivers, on the opposite bank of the city.
This outer religious ring is centered on a large esplanade located at the epicenter of the old city, which is called layku, royal palace, by the local people. Located nearby, a small altar is dedicated to the ancient divinity and guardian deity of the Newar Malla kings, the Taleju goddess. Offerings are made there every year, during Dashain festival (mostly in October). This zone is presently under archaeological investigation by the Nepali Department of Archaeology. As a matter of fact, during a temporary period of the medieval age, Panauti had been the seat of a small independent or semi-independent kingdom/principality. In addition, as all Newar settlements, Panauti is divided between an upper part (thane) and a lower part, (kwane) according to the direction for the nearby river. This division passes through the “royal” center of the city.
This geometrical spatial structure, a center surrounded by eight temples supposedly located in the eight directions of the universe, gives to Panauti the form of a mandala religious diagram, a micro-representation of the universe. The Karmacharyas who are presently the Tantric priests of these goddesses’ sanctuaries, still have a clear vision of this cosmic configuration. It was applied to Panauti during the Malla medieval time to convey to the locality a royal status and to give her a prestigious microcosmic image of the universe. In this regard, Panauti can be considered as a reduced form of the neighboring larger Hindu city of Bhaktapur, where the German researchers (Kölver and Gutschow) have uncovered a similar layout, associated with identical religious representations. As I showed in my research works, the mandalic structure of the city still dominates the religious life of Panauti and comes in full light during the main religious festival celebrated there, particularly during Dashain celebrations and the main jatra (festival, procession) of the city, in the month of May, just before the rainy season: the Jyaa Punhi festival.
(The author is Emeritus Research Director at CNRS)