Ambassadors Fund helping preserve historic building complex – Patan Durbar

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08 April 2010

Protecting the Past: The Patan Royal Palace in Nepal

Ambassadors Fund helping preserve historic building complex

Ornate building on street busy with people and vehicles (AFCP)
The Patan Royal Palace complex in Kathmandu is undergoing a lengthy and careful restoration.
The Patan Royal Palace complex in Kathmandu is undergoing a lengthy and careful restoration.

By Howard Cincotta
Special Correspondent

Washington — Good intentions sometimes can be dangerous, especially in the case of historic preservation. Take the case of Nepal’s Patan Royal Palace, built by the long-reigning Malla dynasty (1200–1768) and considered one of the finest intact groupings of royal buildings and temples in South Asia.

Earlier restorers installed a roof that was inappropriate to the style and materials used in the original construction. Other attempts at improving appearances failed to halt the site’s overall deterioration, and the palace complex suffered severe earthquake damage in 1833 and 1934 that was repaired only partially.

Today, however, the Patan Palace’s restoration prospects have improved considerably. The recent successes of the palace’s restoration and conservation project are the result of a broad partnership encompassing the United States, the citizens and government of Nepal, the highly respected Nepalese preservation organization the Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust, and a number of international cultural organizations, foundations and foreign governments.

The U.S. Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation (AFCP), which has supported hundreds of similar projects through U.S. diplomatic missions around the world, is helping fund the Nepal project. Most AFCP grants are in the $10,000 to $100,000 range, but for a large-scale restoration project such as the Patan Palace, the fund has awarded $900,000.


The Patan Royal Palace was built at a time historians consider the flowering of indigenous Newar (Kathmandu Valley) culture in the 17th and 18th centuries. AFCP records state, “The palace dominates the east side of the Royal Square, whose Malla period temples and other earlier features underscore the historical importance of Patan as an urban crossroads from as early as the 2nd century AD.”

When Prithi Narayan Shah unified the three kingdoms of Patan, Kathmandu and Bhaktapur in 1768 and moved the capital to Kathmandu, Patan ceased to be a royal residence. The Shah dynasty continued to use offices in the complex, but active expansion and major repair work ceased. The government civil service withdrew from the complex permanently in 1993.

Most of the palace complex is closed to the public, both for safety reasons and to secure the large number of abandoned buildings.


The structures within the Royal Palace compound are distinguished by architectural features and building techniques unique to Nepal, notably the use of bricks and elaborately hand-carved woodwork around windows, doors and cornices.

As described by British architectural author Lucinda Lambton, “In Newar carving, layer upon writhing layer of gods dance, godlets ride elephants, horses leap forth, birds perch, yaks’ tails swish, snakes twist, swords are brandished, lions sit staring, tigers are hunted, and a great many strangely stylized crocodiles lurk. A thousand skulls are carved into the pillars framing one doorway; 10,000 leaves and flowers are carved into another. … Nothing is ever repeated.”

Brick building with ornate, arched doorway (AFCP)
Newar culture from the 17th- and 18th-century Kathmandu Valley is demonstrated in the intricate carvings throughout the palace.
Newar culture from the 17th- and 18th-century Kathmandu Valley is demonstrated in the intricate carvings throughout the palace.

The sharply angled layout of the palace’s courtyards and living quarters reflect traditional building practices of the region, but as the AFCP report on the project states, these features are “amplified in size, scale, complexity and ornamentation to suit the palace’s royal status.”

In many cases, today’s Nepalese craftsmen and restorers are from the same families that donated and built the original structures; many of the priests are descended from the original temple priests as well.

“There is a spiritual authenticity here that has been going on for 2,000 years,” American architect Erich Theophile told Lambton in a 2008 Vanity Fair magazine article.

The AFCP’s chief partner on the project is the well-respected Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust, which has been working to protect monuments and historic sites in Nepal since the early 1990s. The trust reports that it has rescued more than two dozen significant monuments countrywide over the past 15 years, including successful restorations of 16 buildings in the Patan area.

Among the other key partners in the Patan Royal Palace project are Nepalese corporations, investment banks from Nepal and Japan, the World Monuments Fund, the Prince of Wales Charities, and the government of Germany.

The Royal Palace and Square, along with the adjoining Bhandarkhal Garden, comprise the Patan Darbar Square Monument Zone, which, in turn, forms part of the Kathmandu Valley World Heritage Site, an official UNESCO designation received in 1979.

“There can be few other places in the world today where literally thousands of sacred structures, including pagodas, temples, stupas, shrines, monasteries, votive pillars, fountains and wells, are still vibrantly alive with their original cultural and spiritual significance,” Lambton observed.

The current phase of the project focuses on four structures within the palace complex:

• The Mul Cok, a 17th-century courtyard with much of its original carved wooden ornamentation intact.
• The Stone Gates, intricately carved portals that were incompletely reassembled after the 1934 earthquake.
• An early-19th-century rest house for pilgrims, the Kot Pati, which borders the noted Bhandarkhal Garden.
• A three-story European-style brick building, the Bahadur Shah Palace, which will become a museum and home to Harvard University’s Nepal Architecture Archive.


In 2009, the AFCP gave a grant for the restoration of water fountains and stone sculptures in the palace complex that are considered outstanding examples of 17th-century water architecture.

Before the Patan Royal Palace initiative, the United States had committed approximately $355,500 for the country’s cultural sites, underscoring U.S. friendship with the Nepali people and its commitment to preserving Nepal’s unique cultural heritage.

Among the projects: cleaning and restoration of three Buddhist monuments, or chhortens; restoration of the Machali Pati, a traditional rest house for pilgrims associated with the Hindu faith; and restoration of Nag Bahal Hiti, an ancient water supply system in the Kathmandu Valley and part of the Patan World Heritage site.

Worldwide, the fund, established by the U.S. Congress in 2001, has provided grants for more than 500 restoration and preservation projects in 100 countries, for a total contribution of more than $20 million.

(This is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site:



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