Nepal’s temples still lie in ruins

King Mall Column ruins Kathmandu Durbar Square
King Malla's statue lies in ruins on the ground
King Malla’s column still lies on the ground in Kathmandu Durbar Square surrounded by rubble and is being used as an unofficial public toilet.

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.

Scaffolding and scattered brick still in the main tourist attraction of Kathmandu Durbar Square (Basantapur)
Scaffolding and scattered brick still in the main tourist attraction of Kathmandu Durbar Square (Basantapur)

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.

Meanwhile the former Director of Nepal’s Department of Arachnology puts things a lot more bluntly.

“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.

A wall about to collapse along Hanuman Dolka
Where did all the architectural designs disappear to? Some say they were destroyed in the 1934 earthquake other say they simply don’t know.

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.

A metal joint used in the Chyasilin Mandap
A metal joint used in the Chyasilin Mandap reconstruction in the 1990’s – it survived the 2015 earthquake with no damage yet some people want concrete instead.

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)

Reconstruction of a small shrine in Bhaktapur
Reconstruction of a small shrine in Bhaktapur that was not effected by the earthquake using regular funding.

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.

Patan’s rebuilding

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.

Rohit Ranjitkar from the Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust
Rohit Ranjitkar from the Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust

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.

Austrian archaeology students restoring a copper lion in Patan
Austrian archaeology students restoring a copper lion in Patan

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.

Mul Chowk being restored by the Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust
Mul Chowk being restored by the Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust

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.

Taxis park in the historic durbar square while people sit among the bricks around the collapsed Trailokyan Mohan Temple
Taxis park in the historic durbar square while people sit among the bricks around the collapsed Trailokya Mohan Temple

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?

Trailokya Mohan and a temporary press box is built where the temple once stood.
Fresh concrete is poured over the ruins in front of Trailokya Mohan and a temporary press box is built where the temple once stood for Indra Jatra.

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.

The entranceway to the closed palace
The entranceway to the closed palace where Nepalese people can still walk in while tourists get barked at by a guard to stay clear – after paying an increased entrance fee of 1000 rupees.

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.

Ugly galvanised steel solar lights around Durbar Square
Ugly galvanised steel solar lights have somehow managed to be dug in around temples in Durbar square – the same ones which have known faults

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.

Balkumari Temple on the outskirts of Patan
The magnificent and one of a kind Balkumari Temple on the outskirts of Patan. What will happen if it is destroyed in another earthquake or burned to the ground in a fire? With no architectural plans or diagrams perhaps its fate will be the same as the temples destroyed in the 2015 earthquake. Only it’s not a popular tourist spot so a more likely scenario is that it will never be seen again.

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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31 Replies to “Nepal’s temples still lie in ruins”

  1. Humanitarian aid comes first. But I’m in shock that the blockade is not reaching world headlines.

  2. Interesting. I wonder when these committee’s are formed how long it will take them?

    1. I imagine 6 months before they actually come up with the first plans. Then it will be reject by the opposition. Then there will be a new election then they’ll have to start all over again. The actual 12 month anniversary of the earthquake may given some hope.

  3. Thanks for highlight this. We’ve been so caught up in humanitarian aid it’s hard to remember that there’s cultural aid needed too.

  4. It’s so sad that everywhere in the world people seem to have forgotten about our past.

  5. Don’t archaeology students volunteer to help our on this sites? At least for clean ups?

  6. I’d like to see more from international agencies like UNESCO to actually lend a hand instead of just talking. I don’t think I’ve ever seen them active anywhere other than when there’s tourism around.

  7. It’s shocking to see bricks still scattered all over the streets like that? Are these not part of ancient temples? I also see no barricades? Is it dangerous to be so close.

  8. If I remember correctly some temples from the 1934 earthquake have not been restored yet. Doesn’t bode well for the 2015 “cultural victims”.

  9. So sad to see this happening. I thought when the sites were opened again to the public that work had already begun. Good to see the KVPT at least doing something.

  10. You left out that with the current India blockade we cannot import the raw materials to begin reconstruction.

  11. I volunteered after the earthquake. My first time ever in Nepal. It’s true about tomorrow, tomorrow. This attitude really needs to go. We worked so hard while so many people always said they’d do something later or tomorrow and never did.

  12. Hi! Really good article highlighting the current situation of the heritage buildings. I visited Kathmandu to witness the disaster myself in December. It is so sad to look at the heritage being ignored, leave alone the religious aspect of these temples, but they also contribute immensely to the spatial value of the public space, and right now its completely empty.
    I strongly feel rebuilding the collapsed should not be the first priority but the authorities should concentrate first on the partially collapsed and damaged buildings which are somehow standing with the help of external timber supports. Even the slightest movement of the earth will bring these structures to the ground.

  13. How does the destruction of ancient temples in Nepal change the history (besides the physical ruins of the buildings)? How can we rebuild the buildings while holding on the the rich history located in the buildings?

    1. It changes history as what once stood is no more other than in the books. It reiterates that perhaps the Malla empire (one of many), respected the past much more than we of today do. If the buildings are not there then where is our reminder or pride of what we have accomplished. If they are gone and not rebuilt as they were once intended is it no a reflection on our current society?

      Rebuilding with traditional artistry yet with modern techniques will hold and improve the legacy of these monuments.

  14. Dave,I’m out of subject, but this is the only way to communicate with you. Are you going to live there for ever,or some considerable numbers of years?Have you found your “Home”? I lost the very beginning of your travelling, where you explained why your birthplace could never be your”home”,even if I read all the other subjects, of course I’am more interested in Europe,even if you avoyed my Country,too topics anyway on it to be interesting to write again,from Goethe foreward.Ask becouse I’ll never be able to go and visit places you have been writing about since many years.Ciao.

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