Kathmandu (Népal): Treasure trove rolls out from Hanumandhoka houses
Jewellery, utensils, statues and idols all evince claims that the last Malla king used used the houses as the nat'l treasury
Authorities unlocking parts of a sealed treasury at the Hanumandhoka palace on Thursday came upon dozens of invaluable silver bricks dating back to the Malla period (12th-18th century), formally establishing claims that the palace was once the country's national treasury.
The treasure houses in Bhandarkhal, towards the left end of the famous nine-storey temple on the palace premises, had never been unlocked after the then Rana prime minister Chandra Shumsher renovated it in 1913. Although the palace was popularly held to be the storehouse of national wealth at a time when banks did not exist, there was no solid evidence to prove this fact, as the treasuries remained locked away.
"The last Malla king of Kathmandu, Jaya Prakash Malla, is said to have used the treasury's wealth to feed his soldiers and their families during wars," said Ves Narayan Dahal, director general of the Department of Archaeology. "However, this was only a myth, as we were never certain if these houses called treasuries really contained national wealth. There were chances that the treasuries would turn up empty. Fortunately, the centuries-old understanding that they were treasuries has now come true."
Both treasure houses at Bhandarkhal were unlocked on Thursday in the presence of a 23-member sub-committee comprising representatives from all stakeholders concerned. Executing a year-long DoA plan to unlock the treasure troves, a Cabinet meeting in February had taken a decision to go ahead with it.
The unlocking and exploration took over eight hours and a lot of physical effort from Army personnel of the Shardul Jung Battalion, which guards the palace premises, including the treasure houses. The area around the entrance to the main gate of the treasury was overgrown with nettles, which the Army cleared in the morning before officials reached the site at around 10 am. The officials then tried to break the locks, which took them nearly two-and-a-half hours, as the locks were held together with several iron rods penetrating the roof and rooted underground.
"It was puzzling," said Dahal. The Army had to climb up on the roof and pull out the rods one by one, he said. "Similar networks of mortise locks were present throughout the treasury," he said. "We unchained over 15 such locks to open up just the two treasure houses."
Of the two treasuries unlocked on Thursday, the first one turned up empty. However, the second one turned out to be a treasure trove, the likes of which officials had hardly imagined. "There were dusty bricks and other utensils scattered all over," said Dahal. "It was hard for us to identify it all at first. Later, we identified the bricks as silver and other unidentified metals."
Apart from small jewellery, kitchen and temple utensils, ancient statues and idols, all of which have yet to be counted, officials recorded altogether 90 bricks, of which 48 were made of silver. The bricks measured 14x18x12 cm.
"There are 15 other large trunks and seven smaller safes in the treasure house," said Dahal. "We couldn't open them today due to time constraints but will do so very soon." According to him, the monetary value of the materials found on Thursday could go above Rs 10 million.
The trunks and safes were imported from the East India Company in Kolkata in 1913 by Chandra Shumsher while renovating the treasury, said Dahal. The process of unlocking them has been deferred until another date is set by the committee under Dahal. The Army personnel are under shoot-on-sight orders if any suspicious activity is detected.
"The two houses were used as the royal treasury until the Shah kings shifted to the Narayanhiti Palace," said Rajan Maharjan, a local Newar priest and a successor to the Newar authorities involved in the protection and management of Hanumandhoka since ancient times. "The palace itself is a mysterious treasure trove."
The Hanumandhoka palace has yielded many treasures in the past too. In 1991, over 1,000kg of gold and silver jewellery was discovered in a room beside the Gaddi Baithak (the kings' living room).
According to Maharjan, although the discovery of treasure on a scale as large as 1,000kg was recorded for the first time in 1991, old coins and idols have been frequently unearthed. In December 2012, renovation workers at the palace stumbled upon the oldest statue yet discovered of Prithvi Narayan Shah. In June 27 last year, over 200kg of antique gold and silver jewellery were again discovered by renovation workers.
The entire palace complex is spread over five acres in the heart of Kathmandu. The then royal family lived there until 1886, after which they moved to the Narayanhiti Palace.