Eighty-year old Purna Lal Maharjan was elated to come to sit alongside his wife on the Lũchẽ Nani phalcā (wayside public shelter with arcaded platform that is also called pāṭī in Nepali) at Jyābābahī. Also, a member of the bhajan (religious hymn) singing team, Purna Lal was happy that he could finally sit on the phalcā and spend his day observing the city life. “It’s really wonderful now. I can enjoy the view of the street and also of the courtyard,” said the octogenarian bhajan performer.
Although the primary function of a phalcā is to serve as a rest-house for the passersby, it is also a place for the elderly people to sit and enjoy their time during the daytime. The performance of bhajans early in the mornings and evenings is another use of such phalcās. Even if a phalcā stands in an excellent condition, it’s life in the real sense rests on the use of phalcā by the community, especially the elderly people, for performing bhajans and spending their afternoons sitting there and observing the city life. After the devastating earthquake of spring 2015, the phalcā at Lũchẽ Nani was badly damaged, hindering the regular performances of the bhajans as well as its other social uses. And the bhajan performers were the worst sufferers by the damages, as their time at the phalcā while performing hymns had become a key source of their happiness and also an integral part of their life itself. And they needed the phalcā to be there in its former state.
“The phalcā has to be there. It is indispensable. We have to perform bhajans there. It is very essential. It should not be made to vanish,” said Dev Lal Maharjan, 75, who is also a key member of the bhajan team. “It’s reciting the (names of) gods. It’s all about remembering the gods. We have the scriptures. There are names of the gods given in them. Those who know the lines by heart do not need to refer to the scriptures. Others refer to it while singing,” Dev Lal said. Talking about his feelings after the earthquake damaged the phalcā, Dev Lal said, “It’s boring when you stop doing something that has to be done. It’s just like the feeling of still wanting to eat something when your stomach is already full.”
The bhajan culture is one of the core entities of the Newar society that had to be dismissed due to the earthquake. As an attempt to draw attention to this fascinating socio-cultural musical institution, Dr. Christiane Brosius, with the support of SAI Help Nepal (Heidelberg University) and a generous donation from the Barbara and Wilfried Mohr Foundation in Hamburg, managed to organize the reconstruction of the phalcā. It was carried out under the competent supervision of architect Padma Sundar Maharjan as well as Bijay Basukala. Both Padma and Bijay, experts in traditional Newar architecture, agree that the conservation of these monuments in their traditional forms is a challenge. “The value of traditional Newar architecture is both aesthetics and strength. We only lacked proper maintenance,” said Bijay, who also prepared the designs of the Jyābahābahī phalcā for reconstruction. Bijay used his experience of around three decades to design the pillars of the phalcā with its earliest record dating back to 1668 AD. “It has to be strong too. There is no point in just preserving the old structure without making it strong. On top of that, we have to be very serious in case of the structural elements that chiefly carry the load,” Bijay stressed.
Smaller monuments like phalcās have, unfortunately, received less attention for renovation and reconstruction in post-earthquake reconstruction drive. It is due to more focus on the larger monuments like temples, monasteries and palace buildings. “I think it’s mainly due to the lack of interest from the Nepal Government,” Padma said, “Foreign agencies also prefer to support visible monuments like a palace building. But if any country supports the reconstruction of a phalcā, for instance, it does not get highlighted much. So, there is less support for these monuments.”
A phalcā is more culturally and socially attached to the community than a temple. The responses from the bhajan performers at the Jyābābahī phalcā also state it clearly. It is, therefore, Dr. Brosius, whose untiring efforts made the reconstruction possible, stressed on the continuation of the bhajan culture to keep the phalcā alive, as she spoke at the handover celebration. And indeed, the bhajans have continued, and so has the use of the phalcā by the elderlies to pass their daytime. And there are happy faces of the bhajan performers.
Bhajan singers: The bhajan performers pose for a photo on the Jyābābahī phalcā with happy faces (Photo by Padma Sundar Maharjan)
Bhajan: The bhajan performance on the phalcā
DSC08866: Dev Lal Maharjan sits alongside another bhajan performer Purna Bahadur Maharjan (Photo by Rajendra Shakya)
Jyababahi Phalcā: The ladies of the community sit and enjoy their leisure time on the phalcā (Photo by Padma Sundar Maharjan)
Purna Lal: Purna Lal Maharjan shares a light moment with his wife as they come to sit on the phalcā (Photo by Rajendra Shakya)