Diversity is the word often thrown around when talking about Nepal. Diversity in geography, diversity in ethnicity, in language, in religion, and the list goes on. One term often neglected in this list is architecture, which is not surprising because for many people the word ‘architecture’ is synonymous with complex artistic structures, intensive planning, and formal methods.
They are indeed important parts of architecture but it is not all what architecture is about. Sure, architecture employs planning, designing, and construction but the lines separating these elements may not always be precise. Simply, architecture is the art of designing structures and the so-called structures may be anything from a skyscraper to a religious monument, or wooden huts.
Every style of architecture has an identity associated with it, which is often tied to people who use it, their culture, and lifestyle. From traditional Newari houses with their ma appa and dachi appa bricks, aakhijhyal, and chowks in the valley to stone and timber houses decorated with prayer flags in the in the north, these pieces of architecture in turn become the identity of a place.
The Durbar squares are synonymous with Kathmandu Valley, whereas Janaki Temple of Janakpur speaks for the Maithili community of Nepal. Before the invasion of concrete, bricks and aluminum, one could almost accurately guess the place by its architecture.
Outside the valley, the hills were and still are in some places dotted with mud and wooden houses with their tilted roofs. Thatched sometimes with Khari, sometimes with straw and if the family is well of – with zinc panels.
Moving south one would be greeted with the sight of small mud huts with roofs of straw and often-colorful art on the walls and moving north, wooden houses would gradually give way to stone and timber houses with colorful prayer flags. These styles of architecture that evolved with need and availability of resources at local level are known are vernacular architecture.
Vernacular architecture aside, to understand the true capability of our ancestors – in terms of architecture – we would have to turn towards thousands of religious monuments scattered throughout Nepal.
Religious beliefs and gods have always played an important role in the lifestyle, art, and culture of people and architecture is no different. If one pays attention, the design aesthetics, principles, and attention to details found in these religious monuments can be pretty astonishing. Among the defining ancient architectural styles of Nepal are the pagodas, the stupas and the Shikhara styles.
Almost all of us are familiar with the story of Araniko, the key contributor of the Pagoda style, who went to China to build a golden stupa and made the style famous. Different countries have used the style with their own variations. However, its distinctive feature is the multi-tiered structures and in the Nepali Pagoda style, the tiers gradually get smaller and smaller finally ending in a gajur (pinnacle). Pagoda style is the most common of them all and the go to style in Nepal for building Hindu temples. It is evident in monuments like Pashupatinath temple, Taleju temple, and Nyatapola temple among others.
Often considered the predecessor to the Pagoda style, stupas are unique with its dome-shaped base and a conical spire that rises from the dome. Stupas are primarily regarded as the Buddhist place of worship in Nepal. Swayambhunath and Boudhanath, with their ever-watchful eyes, are some examples of the stupa style.
Although, relatively less popular than pagodas and stupas, the uniqueness of this style makes Shikhara style an important feature of Nepali architecture. Evident in the famous Krishna Mandir of Patan, which is built entirely out of stone, Shikhara style consists of a mountain-shaped roof over pillared halls.
The Janaki Mandir, however, is one of its kind in Nepal dedicated to Goddess Sita and takes inspiration from the Mughal as well as the Koiri architectural style.
Shifting focus from the religious monuments, one of the most famous buildings of Nepal, Singha Durbar is a fine example of mixture of different styles borrowed mainly from Europe like Palladian, Baroque, Corinthian and Neoclassical architecture.
Like Singha Durbar, many other Rana palaces in Nepal were built incorporating these styles. Many of these palaces have been damaged or destroyed due to natural calamities like earthquakes or due to sheer negligence and the ones that remain have been remodeled as luxury hotels or government offices.