Exhibition at International Photography Festival: Patis in Patan – Nodal Points of In/Tangible urban Heritage in Urban Nepal

Cluster Professor Christiane Brosius contributed to the first international photography festival Photo Kathmanduwith the exhibition Patis in Patan, in collaboration with local researchers Dikshya Karki and Rajendra Shakya as well as with artist/curator Sujan Chitrakar. The project was supported by SAI HelpNepal and the cluster research project “Ageing in a transcultural context”.

  • The Bhajan-musicians from the Maharjan Pati (no. 19 on the map). Photo: Sameer Tamrakar

Following the dramatic impact of the earthquake 2015, many of Nepal’s buildings in towns and villages collapsed. Even more than six months after the event, reconstruction lacks speed and attention, as well as financial investment. This concerns residential, business- and government-related buildings, schools, as well as buildings relevant for the spiritual and religious activities and beliefs of many Nepalis. SAI HelpNepal supports humanitarian relief work and rebuilding activities (see Charnarayan, Manimandap).

There are several reasons why SAI HelpNepal supported the exhibition project Patis in Patan. One being that the spatial environment is also a beholder, a reflection and poetic creator, of intangible cultures of the everyday, of social relations, or affective forms of belonging. To be in a place, to feel at home, is much dependent on one’s relation to the physical surroundings. Often this goes rather unnoticed, and does not require – and receive – much public and media attention. Nepal is remarkably rich of special spatial forms, and this is manifest in the UNESCO’s decision to declare several monument zones and religious ensembles in the Kathmandu Valley as “World heritage”. In the aftermath of the earthquake, many Nepalis pointed at the importance of the reconstruction of damaged temples, less for the revitalization of tourism but rather in order to allow for everyday life to be revitalized and for hope to emerge from the rubble. Temples and shrines are actively incorporated in the religious daily routine of the people. This is very much the case in a place like Patan. But there are other, muss less visible and registered, places, too, that have been important before the earthquake, but have become even more recharged with new, or old meaning after the earthquake. It is the open squares and courtyards that cover the old city like a pattern, but also the patis, public arcaded platforms (also called ‘phalcha’ in Newari language), that became shelters for the homeless, temporary ‘living-rooms’ for those whose houses were demolished. However, some of these sites, too, have been demolished and now witness an absence or silence of certain activities that were intrinsically linked to them. Such is the case with the patis.

But why is the pati so interesting for the post-earthquake situation? The pati is a unique – and yet often overseen – spatial and social ‘institution’ of the Kathmandu Valley (Nepal), revealing the interstices of Nepal’s rich intangible and tangible heritage. But as opposed to the larger temples and palaces, this is a site of the everyday, speaking of the social and cultural changes that impact the lives of those people engaging with it. Belonging to the locality and the community, positions in rituals, but also encroachment and dilapidation, demolition and reconstruction, shape the ‘language’ and presence of the web of patis that characterizes the old fabric of cities in Kathmandu Valley.

“Patis in Patan” featured a curated walk that took visitors through alleys and courtyards of Patan, connecting four main patis and eight smaller interstitial patis and their respective communities and users (see map). Audio and visual installations on each site presented the manifold facets of these unique public spaces. Be it as places for shelter and business, leisure and rituals, as places for the elderly to rest and meet, or for children and adults to play games, the different aspects of Patan’s patis were exhibited in the light of the city’s ‘biography’.

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Map of the Photokathmandu festival.
Patis in Patan numbers are: 10, 19, 20, 22 

In post-earthquake Nepal, the patis prove to be as significant as, or maybe even more important than ever. Not just as vernacular sites of intangible and tangible heritage, but also as supportive institutions, especially for less ‘visible’ and more vulnerable groups like the elderly, women, children or homeless people – for whom they are a much-needed island of momentary relief and solidarity.

The project was based on several months of research on the pati, mapping the remarkable varieties and histories thereof. It is part of a larger initiative of Heidelberg University (partly in conjunction with Kathmandu University’s Art and Design Department and with the Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust) that seeks to ‘map’ the urban fabric of Patan with respect to its past, present and possible future. We were able to draw on the previous documentation work by architecture historian Niels Gutschow and the remarkable local knowledge of architect Rohit Ranjitkar and researcher Rajendra Shakya. Interviews with members of the adjacent population were conducted in Newari language and are in the process of being translated. The material will be further used and analysed in the context of a planned publication. Many of the conversations evolved around the recent earthquake and its aftermath, and even as far back as to the earthquake of 1934. In this, the notion of the ‘safe city’, the role of architecture, and what is connected to it – such as rituals, family life, work, play a central role. We tried to highlight some of the aspects in the exhibition.

Three patis were particularly relevant in this context.

The first pati that is strongly engaging with “elderscapes” is associated with devotional music and placed next to the remains of one of the oldest monasteries of the Chabahal area destroyed by the earthquake. In fact, two days before the festival opening, the monastery Jyābahābahī was almost completely dismantled by members of the community in an attempt to secure government funding for its reconstruction. Allegedly, a trigger for the demolition was the earthquake in Afghanistan a week before that yielded fears of another such catastrophe in Nepal. The site we chose actually included two patis: one predominantly used by the Tamrakar (coppersmith) community of the locality, the other one by the Maharjans (farmers). Both patis were used intensely for devotional chanting and music until the earthquake of 2015 struck. The so-called “bhajans” are largely performed by elderly men, many of which, have been singing together at those sites since their childhood. While the Tamrakar pati was torn down by a collapsing house in May 2015, and buried musical instruments and ritual objects under it, the Maharjan pati was shaken and – though it still stands – must not be used any longer. The instruments of the first pati could be saved to some extent, and repaired, some objects vanished over night. The remains have been photographed and became part of the exhibition. The lightboxes with portraits of the Maharjan musicians were mounted in the musical pati, and recordings from the music played before the earthquake were played as visitors would try to peep through the wooden windows into the darkened space. The musicians are now witnessing the decline of this intangible heritage and have raised the issue in many conversations: young people are not willing to join the bhajan groups any more, and one member of the Maharjan community alleged to the existence of two different “worlds” and “languages” spoken by the generations. After the earthquake, they feel ‘out of balance’ and ‘out of time’ since they cannot continue what is so meaningful as structure and purpose in their individual and collective lives. The fact that they could not play any more in their known spaces since the earthquake, leaves them sad and worried: their music is also seen as ‘work’ that must be performed, for the deities, and the interruption provokes bad karma. Moreover, the musical practice was also a social act of gathering and communal activity.

For them, the exhibition was a ray of hope to regain recognition and status, and they were filled with pride about the attention given in the context of the festival. The communities want to save money and seek donations in order to reconstruct the patis since they want to return to their meetings, and the practice of bhajans.

During the festival, two bhajan events were organized in the evenings – for the first time after the earthquake, next to the rubble of the demolished monastery and the dysfunctional patis. 12-14 members of the Maharjan and the Tamrakar communities joined.

A second pati in the vibrant neighbourhood of Cyasal concentrated on the women using it for all kinds of purposes. The pati here is an extension of their ‘private’ space, since it is often more open, sunny, and engaging than many of the very small, often dark and cold houses in which people live around the squares. The core area of Cyasal might well have the largest density of patis, some of which are solely used for religious purposes. Our selection fell on the pati “Ataḥ Phalcā” (Pāṭī no 22 on the map) because it is mostly used by elderly women, who spend their early mornings and afternoons here for a few hours of talks and rejuvenation from a stressful working day. It is a space for the women – most of them traditionally belonging to the farmer’s community – to share among each other their stories of joy and sorrow, and also to reflect upon their life. The lives are often coined by familial tensions, economic challenges and include experiences of transnational migration of family members, loneliness, and a nostalgic vision of the past. Inside the pati, portraits of several women were hung who agreed to to have their pictures taken. In its direct surrounding, we chose three women to whom the researchers Dikshya Karki, Shreeti Prajapati and Rajendra Shakyacould develop a relationship by interviewing them, and even being invited into their homes. This proved to be a fruitful approach for what Hans-Werner Wahl, professor of Psychological Ageing Research at Heidelberg University, has called a “person-environmental view of ageing”, where he argues that the place-dimension of ageing, the “geography of ageing” or “aging in place” are still largely unrecognised in their complexity and relevance in the fields of psychology or gerontology  (e.g., Golant, Ageing in the Right Place, 2015; Rowles, & Bernard (Eds.), Environmental Gerontology, 2013).

The third pati became a major success among locals and by-passers. Positioned at a main road in Patan, it became a spectacular object of attention during the festival days, and many people articulated the desire to hold on to it, for it to stay beyond the festival time. Pwāḥsyaḥ Phalcā (Pāṭī) at Sundhara, was removed as early as the mid 1970s, and stood as platform since then. The Nepali art students involved in this project studied its previous form through old postcards, and conversations with locals. The aim of the reconstruction was to encourage future perspectives on the post-earthquake city, including the reference to what has been lost, but what can be gained again – and how important the ‘institution’ of the pati can be in this context. With exquisitely-carved windows and an interesting legend of the deity enshrined on the ground floor, the sataḥ (sattal) was popularly known as the Pwāḥsyāḥ Phalcā. The name came from the Pwāḥsyāḥdyaḥ – the enshrined deity for stomach ache – and people from distant villages of the Kathmandu Valley used to come and sit here for the cure for stomach ache. The sataḥ was destroyed about four decades ago, and its previous relevance is gradually fading from the people’s memory.

The project will be documented in the festival catalogue, as well as in an independent book that is currently in preparation.

For further information, see:

 the Patis-in-Patan-exhibition project: http://www.photoktm.com/exhibition/the-pati-project

Interview with Christiane Brosius on the exhibition: http://kathmandupost.ekantipur.com/printedition/news/2015-11-01/walking-through-time.html