Nepal’s unique cultural history is becoming a distant afterthought
Following the 2015 earthquakes in Nepal a huge humanitarian effort took place. Although over 9000 people lost their lives and thousands more were made homeless, a massive international program brought aid to the country. Priorities were in the right place.
Amazingly as people looked to help the injured or homeless they also tried to prevent Nepal’s unique heritage buildings from being looted. The Nepalese Army stood watch as did bystanders while thousand year old wooden carvings from collapsed temples were put away into safer courtyards.
In the weeks following the earthquake, the Nepalese Department of Archaeology said it would be a priority to restore Nepal’s temples and it should be done in 5-7 years (source).
So far, these monuments of Nepal’s great and unique past still lie in heaps. Slowly becoming an afterthought to Nepal’s never ending circles of crises.
The rebuilding efforts so far
Now nearly 8 months later and many temples still lie as they did after the earthquake. Some are uncovered and exposed to the elements; others just heaps of brick. Scaffolding perilously holds some together. No committee has been set up to oversee the reconstruction.
There are not even any plans to rebuild yet.
In fact, there are not even any engineering or design plans from the original buildings or any renovation work that took place over the years.
UNESCO says they have plans for Nepal’s temples and for all their heritage sites. It’s something many people doubt considering the rush to try and find “any” engineering or floor plan to the destroyed monuments.
“Of course, there are some drawings available with the Department of Archeology. However, they are not enough” Dr. Shaphalya Amatya goes on to say “German professor Niels Gutschow’s, the three volumes on Architecture of the Newars: a History of Buildings, Typologies and Details in Nepal is the only available book which details the structures of temples with drawings“
Do keep in mind that many nations have offered to rebuild and fund temples in Nepal (source).
If you’ve spent any significant amount of time in Nepal you might understand what’s happening with the following logic. In regards to Basantapur (Kathmandu Durbar Square) it was first said that they had to wait until the end of monsoons season to begin.
Monsoon season ended and then we were told the government wanted the constitution to be finalised before beginning. Then after the Nepal constitution was made we were told they had to elect a committee to oversee the project and various sub-committees to oversee individual projects. Then a new Nepalese Prime Minister had to be sworn in. Then everything had to start again. Then a new constitutional crisis emerged that resulted in a drastic fuel shortage in Nepal meaning no raw materials could be brought in. And still we wait for this “restoration committee” to be set up so they can elect sub-committee to elect planning committees to come up with just a plan.
Long-winded and painful to watch unfold. But it’s Nepal, so tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow until the next crisis reboots everything again.
The heritage department in Kathmandu
I spoke with Shriju Pradhan from the heritage department in Kathmandu about the issues involving the rebuilding efforts. Shriju is heavily involved in community projects such as KTM Walks and has a deep caring for the city’s heritage.
Nothing is officially being done beyond backroom planning. No one knows how much money the government will eventually release for the reconstruction efforts on the heritage buildings.
In the meantime there’s a brewing issue about how to even reconstruct the monuments. Should the buildings be restored using traditional methods? Or should modern engineering and structural materials be used?
There’s a huge push by some to rebuild some of the most sacred and uniquely designed buildings in concrete. As shocking as this may seem, it’s got a huge number of supporters.
I asked one engineer why? I was told because it is cheap and fast. I asked about how they were planning to future proof Nepalese temples. The answer was just as shocking. There were no plans.
Bhaktapur’s heritage waits patiently
I took my questions to the heritage department of Bhaktapur and spoke with Guatam Lashiwa and his deputy Ram. There’s a similar wait for funds in Bhaktapur. There is no earthquake affected reconstruction going on. There is however reconstruction taking place from previously allocated restoration funds.
Ram was adamant that reconstruction should happen using traditional methods. For him the main problem after funding was skilled manpower. Nepal’s “brain drain” of people leaving the country for work overseas applies to craftsmen too. There literally are very few people left in Bhaktapur who can accurately reproduce wooden carvings that are the feature on many a temple’s roof struts. (Skilled labor leaves Nepal source)
It’s a shocking revelation that doesn’t seem to be brought up in many meetings. Where will all the skilled labor come from? Bearing in mind that on the humanitarian side unskilled building labourers are now charging a staggering 1,500 rupees per pay. There simply are not enough people to do the job so those that are left can charge what they like.
I asked if tourists could help in anyway? Donations, perhaps. Yes, it was possible. By giving money to the central government fund for reconstruction. The same one that’s not even able to form a committee to make a plan. Other than that the only way to help is if you see a donation box near a temple.
I do wonder what people like Götz Hagmüller, a renowned Austrian archeologist, who helped save Bhaktapur’s Chyaslin Mandap and the Garden of Dreams in Kathmandu would think of all this? The man who helped prevent traffic entering Bhaktapur Durbar Square with its vibrations destroying temples must surely be frowning over the square now being opened to traffic post-earthquake.
I decided to avoid the officials of Lalitpur (Patan) and went straight to the country director of the Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust (KVPT). Rohit Ranjitkar oversees the non-profit NGO KVPT’s preservation work from his office in Patan overlooking Durbar Square.
My conversation with him was also filled with concern about the delays they were experiencing in the release of any funds. There’s a difference with the KVPT though in that they receive much of their funding from overseas from private donors. They have built up a great relationship with foreign diplomatic missions.
Rohit tells me that the long rigmarole in waiting for planning permission from the local authority followed by city planning permission and then building standards or health and safety departments meant a huge headache for them. The KVPT has access to funds, skilled engineers, artists and workers yet are caught in a quagmire of red tape.
Furthermore the horror of rebuilding in concrete has also reached the hallowed stone streets of Patan. Believe it or not one of the biggest pro-active voices for rebuilding in concrete are local people. They see concrete as being stronger, newer and more modern. The century old traditions belong in the past to many.
None of this is stopping the KVPT though. Patan is one of the only cities in the Kathmandu Valley where you can actively witness temples being constructed.
There’s a similar mindset in Boudhanath where local funding as expedited the reconstruction. It’s due to be finished in about 8 months.
Mul Chowk is being restored
I walked outside the KVPT office thinking about their ideas for movable slab foundations. It all seemed to be spur of the moment thoughts. Surely there were precedents in future proofing temples and buildings from earthquakes elsewhere in the world? Apparently not.
Time is of the essence to rebuild it seemed. I wondered why. Today I do not.
Nepal is a place where tomorrow is when everything happens yet tomorrow never comes.
Rohit is well aware of this. So as I walked into what is now the Patan Museum (rebuilt by the KVPT) it’s a separate part to Durbar Square yet on the grounds. It has its own entrance fee and staff. It’s also where Mohan Chowk is being restored in earnest.
That day wooden beams were being pulled up by rope. On the ground there were two teams of Austrian archaeology students helping to polish gold gilded statues. I was given access to Sundari Chowk with its dazzlingly Tushahiti step-well restored.
Now a lot of what Rohit was saying made sense. In many parts of the world this would not work. But this is Nepal where tomorrow never comes. So if you are going to do a job, get to it today.
Back to Basantapur
Basantapur (Kathmandu Durbar Square) is, or perhaps was, the central attraction of Kathmandu city. It was also one of the worst areas to be damaged by the earthquakes in terms of heritage damage.
To be quite frank, Kathmandu Durbar Square is a mess.
In my opinion it’s never been run well. There have always been taxis zipping in and out. Over ten years I’ve only seen two temples get a coat of paint. Yet at the same time I’ve watch the entrance fee go from 200 rupees to 350 (briefly), then 500 rupees, then 750 rupees and just last month it was again increased to 1,000 rupees. For a public square in the capital this has always irked me.
Kathmandu Durbar square is caught in a difficult position as the local municipality run the actual square while the Department of Archaeology run Hanuman Dolka (the palace). Perhaps as you’ve read already this can been an incredible amount of red tape, bickering and politicising. Hence nothing ever seems to get done here.
Treasure left undiscovered
This quagmire of heritage gridlock is best told by a story a few years ago when a new chest filled with treasure was found in Kathmandu Durbar Square. Thinking it was part of an intricate archeology dig I read on in the newspaper how someone actually discovered it.
One day someone decided to try a bunch of old keys on a door they could never open. Low and behold one key fit and they opened the door which contained a chest of treasure they never knew existed.
Today Kathmandu Durbar Square is left in disrespected squalor
Just before Indra Jatra, which is held in Kathmandu Durbar Square every year, I was taken aback by a man measuring an area just outside the platform of the destroyed Trailokya Mohan. Could they have been preparing for reconstruction?
Three days later I returned to watch in horror as concrete was poured over an area at the base of the temple. Then again at the top where wooden scaffolding was being placed. This was no reconstruction. This was actually being done to prepare a media area for the festival. The world’s press were going to be sitting right on top of a broken temples grave.
Elsewhere a group of men were painting wood carved window frames with black lacquer and painting thick red paint over bricks. All this for a festival. Nothing for the reconstructions.
It has also annoyed me that very little has ever been done to truly show tourists the history of the Basantapur. A temple is a hunk of brick until you know its history. Then it becomes alive and interesting. More so if there’s a story behind it. I’ve done my best in my Kathmandu city guidebook to highlight this aspect.
From bad to worse
Last month I got an excited message from someone. “They are installing solar lights in Durbar Square”. Sure enough there are now big ugly galvanized light poles dotted around Kathmandu durbar square with lights so harsh that you can no longer take a good evening time photograph of the remaining temples.
One wonders, and perhaps some hope, that these lights meet the same short lived fate of the many other solar lighting attempts in the valley (source).
I do wonder how these poles were placed next to temples considering several archaeologists have said damage was done not only by the earthquake to the foundations of many a temple but also by the heavy machinery used to remove the rubble later.
The price of a “foreigner ticket” has also risen to 1000 rupees! That’s a ticket that does not even include Hanuman Dolka as it’s too badly damaged after the earthquake to visit. Not unless you are Nepalese though in which case you can wander on it without the growls of a military guard standing outside.
Instead you can stand under the scaffolding and wonder just how those giant cracks and crumbling bricks aren’t tumbling down on top of you.
The path to restoring Nepal’s temples
While the answers should be easy there are no easy answers when it comes to Nepal at the moment. Many people are well meaning but they are not the ones who control the strings.
While a path can be found in forming a committee to oversee the reconstruction efforts if the current situation is anything to go by then it will be a long drawn out and over budgeted scenario.
Perhaps the KVPT have the right idea. They are sticking to Patan and doing their own thing. A similar notion to many Nepalese people still waiting for the USD 4.1 Billion dollars in post-earthquake aid that the government still have not distributed (source). They are not waiting. They are looking after themselves because they know tomorrow never comes in Nepal.
Protecting the past for the future in Nepal
During all my post-earthquake time in Nepal I too have stopped hoping for something to be done. I don’t have the funds nor knowledge to rebuild these destroyed temples. If I could I would because I miss them terribly.
I see history and a unique culture lost with the shadows of the present day darkening any hope for their recovery.
It’s with this in mind that I look at the remaining temples and monuments throughout Nepal and wonder about their fate. Given the current situation in Nepal it is highly likely they will fall during the next earthquake. Long before the current rebuild will be complete.
The same is true with yearly elements that surely chip and spit away at these great temples. Just as paint fades, wood rots and brick crumbles. The sands of time stop for no building.
I believe from these situations and the current horrific events happening around the world I have found a solution.
Next week I will write about a project I’ve started and have been working on here in Nepal. It’s never been done before. But I’m delighted to say it’s working well.
Tomorrow never comes in Nepal so we are saving the temples of Nepal for tomorrow, today.
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