Ever since the first Westerners stepped into Nepal in the 18th century, the capital, Kathmandu, has long been known as the ‘City of Temples’; almost every street has a temple or shrine dedicated to some deity. Yet, after the disastrous 7.8 magnitude earthquake that hit Nepal on 25th April 2015, there was a huge loss of human lives, infrastructure and also culture. Culture in the form of temples, monuments and pagodas were damaged or lay ruins. What once attracted and awed foreigners, both past and present, were no more. Monuments collapsed in Kathmandu, Patan, and Bhaktapur, where they wait to be restored to their former glory to lure people of all kinds to its splendour.
But what makes Kathmandu Valley’s heritage unique is the coexistence of Hinduism and Buddhism which is reflected in the distinct pagoda-style architecture of the Newars. Newars are a socio-linguistic group, who during the pre-Shah era (16th century), lived in and around Kathmandu Valley before the unification of modern-day Nepal. This one-of-a-kind, architecturally explicit fusion of Hinduism and Buddhism, is what inscribed Kathmandu Valley as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979.
In Kathmandu Valley alone, UNESCO list seven groups of monuments as showcasing the full extent of Nepal’s rich and unique history and culture. They include the Durbar Squares of Hanuman Dhoka (Kathmandu), Patan and Bhaktapur, the Hindu temples of Pashupati and Changu Narayan and the Buddhist stupas of Swayambhu and Bauddhanath.
Moreover, it is not only the monuments themselves that are the definitive aspects of Nepali culture but rather the fact that its people still continue to use and respect these sites as sacred. Even after hundreds of years, these sites are a testament of Nepal’s living heritage. It is this underlying element that has been of the main reasons resulting in several disputes over the restoration of such heritage sites around Kathmandu Valley after the latest earthquakes.
Since Nepal is in the active seismic zone V, it is prone to earthquakes and even Nepal’s ancestors realised this. Accordingly, the Guthi, an exclusive organisation among Newars, were tasked with the conservation and maintenance of heritage resources as well as other activities, such as organising festivities, teaching craftsmanship and more.
But as the nation became, and continues to develop into, a more modernised society where the government utilises Western frameworks, the Guthis role has been considerably reduced in the state’s administrative structure. Arguably, since several monuments were left without its traditional custodians prior to the 2015 earthquake, the structures suffered more disastrous damage.
Furthermore, even before the most recent earthquake, many organisations have pointed out that after a similarly devastating earthquake in 1934, heritage reconstructions under the Rana Prime Minister were carried out too hastily, meaning that these monuments were built too weakly to withstand another earthquake of that magnitude. Also, with Nepal’s Constitution only having come into effect in September 2015, the government’s poor handling of temple and monument reconstruction is coming to reveal the weaknesses of its heritage management model.
One major source of criticism lies with the government’s lack of clear and slow approval mechanisms for reconstruction projects which have led to public complaints of lack of transparency in the restoration process. Before any project can begin, it must go through several bureaucratic hoops to get the stamp of approval from the Department of Archaeology (DoA), the Ministry of Culture, the Ministry of Finance and then the National Reconstruction Authority (NRA), so is an altogether time-consuming procedure.
On top of that, since different projects are undertaken by different bodies such as municipalities, external donors, NGO’s, UNESCO or the DoA, the projects themselves can vary in quality. For instance, Bheshnarayan Dahal, Director General of the DoA (who will retire from this post on December 20th 2018) states, “As the DoA is a government institution, it needs to abide by the existing laws and regulations. According to the Procurement Act and Procurement Regulations, we need to call an open tender for any amount of construction. However, the local communities are opposing this process and demanding the work be done on a daily payment basis. As a government official, I cannot go against the existing laws. This is delaying the process of reconstruction.”
Due to this restrictive government law and limited funding, the DoA is obliged to accept the lowest bidder. Many of these low-cost contractors are not sufficiently trained in heritage restoration because, according to Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust (KVPT), any kind of contractor can place themselves in the bidding process.
It is no wonder then that there has been public outrage over the unsatisfactory conditions of some of the monument reconstructions. The bidding process itself only caters to the profit-centred contractors whose main aim is to make a profit by using the cheapest materials available and completing projects as quickly as possible; they disregard not only the traditional techniques of renovating this unique architecture, but also the safety and sustainability of the structures themselves. Such was the danger of these shoddy reconstructions that UNESCO had to stop several projects which were being built so unacceptably, UNESCO reports they would have collapsed at the slightest earthquake.
As the public learned of these interventions from UNESCO and how contractors were using low quality materials, there was growing concern that some of the World Heritage Sites in Kathmandu Valley may get delisted because of the inauthentic reconstructions of heritage monuments. However, it is not up to UNESCO themselves to delist a site, rather the World Heritage Committee. The committee is made up of twenty-one democratically elected members who sit in the committee for two years until the next elected members take over. Christian Manhart, UNESCO Representative to Nepal, explains, “This committee of 21 members they decide, also in a democratic manner, whether a site is included or delisted, therefore it is out of our hands. Actually, since the earthquake, every year we had a World Heritage Monitoring Mission here in the Kathmandu Valley and the monitoring missions each time recommended putting Kathmandu Valley on the World Heritage endangered list because they consider it in danger. But the committee did not follow the recommendation of these monitoring missions and never put Kathmandu Valley on the endangered list. One reason for this is because the World Heritage Committee has total liberty, so it can go against UNESCO’s advisory body. Also, it is quite political now, Nepal did very good lobbying there among the members and could prevent the listing. The government of Nepal thinks being on the endangered list would be a criticism of them, but we do not see that way, we see it as a tool because the site would get much more attention and more aid, I think.”
From Manhart’s statement, it seems, for the moment, Nepal can breathe a sigh of relief at not being delisted until the next World Heritage Committee is re-elected. Yet that does not retract the fact that the monitoring missions view the heritage sites in Kathmandu Valley as endangered. One of the reasons for this could be as a result of the rarity in acquiring the traditional materials needed for restoring these ancient monuments.
Insight into the lengthy and complicated work of heritage restoration
The most expensive component of reconstruction is the seasoned sal wood whose price has tripled after the latest earthquake and is needed in large sizes which is extremely rare to find nowadays. For larger timber sections, Dr Rohit Ranjitkar, the Country Director of KVPT, maintains that it can take more than a year or two to obtain such large-sized timber. Only after procuring the timber can the craftsmen begin to carve out the details and even then, more difficulties crop up in the form of the carving details themselves. Dr Ranjitkar describes the how imperative it was to collect all the carvings in the aftermath of the earthquake, “I’ve been in this field for twenty-seven years so I know the importance of those pieces, even if it’s not reusable it will be referenced to use for a new one so this is why every piece is important because every detail is different. You cannot have one detail and copy that, in our traditional architecture it is not like that, every single detail is different. Many people I come across today, they don’t think in that way, they see the existing building and think it is copied symmetrically which does not happen in our architecture here.”
“[…] Timber is the most difficult part in our work, besides that is finding the craftsmen. Because all the skill was transferred from generation to generation, you see we still don’t have any vocational school. […] In the past, craftsmen learned from watching their fathers or grandfathers work, learning by doing. To get very high quality, you cannot practise in a few years, there are people training for one or two years but having been in this field for so many years, I cannot believe you can train craftsmen in a few years. You can give the basic training but you cannot get a highly-skilled quality craftsmen, it takes years. We always have people who are learning and trainees working on site [in Patan] because we know that the numbers of skilled people are declining, so you have to train them because now. Many people in the city area, don’t want to follow this job because it does not have a high status in our society.”
Similarly, this lack of resources is also seen when it comes to obtaining special heritage bricks which are required in the restoration process. Since there are only a few heritage brick kilns that produce these particular bricks, they must be ordered up to six months in advance. Therefore, reconstruction workshops often come to a halt because they do not have sufficient materials to work with. Knowing the difficulties in procuring the vital materials and finding skilled labourers needed in heritage restoration, it is not surprising that such processes are so time-consuming.
However, this does not explain why some monuments were completed before others which have had little to no progress. When put forward to Manhart of UNESCO, he clarifies: “The reconstruction went quite fast but the preparation for it took two years. The Chinese were on this a long time before they could start the restoration [on Basantapur Durbar Square] so they had a long preparation phase. The American project for the Gaddi Baithak was exactly the same, they did a lot of research before and then when they started reconstruction it went very fast because they had done their homework before. Therefore, it looks as if the Americans had started and eight months later, they had finished but the project itself was much longer and it was the same for the Chinese. […] This takes time, it is normal that it takes time because you need these preparation phases which, of course, are not visible to the public. The public only sees when you start reconstructing.”
Clearly, this preparation phrase is no easy feat. All organisations who carry out the heritage restoration projects stress the need for careful research and planning to ensure that the best renovation is achieved at the end. As every monument is different, each one needs an individually tailored solution, therefore the preparation process is, unsurprisingly, extensive and slow; often several ideas get dismissed before coming to a resolution. At the same time, the sustainability of the monuments is also taken into account. Dr Ranjitkar illustrates why heritage structures must be both authentic and sustainable, “when we do all the rebuilding, we think about how we can make it safer because we know we are in the earthquake zone. […] In the old days, there was no tradition of using dowels or metal screws because they didn’t have them so they made do with what they had, they invented interlocking techniques with the timber. We still keep it almost the same, we don’t change the technology […] we always try to improve without changing the technical knowledge.”
“The philosophy of conservation is that you don’t change the historical detail because if you change it now maybe the next generation will improve it and it will change again, so slowly different technologies will be used in the next generations. Even though we know some of the details are very weak we don’t want to change it, we just want to do extra reinforcement. Most of the time you can’t see these reinforcements from the outside, it is in more hidden places so it does not distract.”
Other factors affecting the rate of heritage reconstruction
Not all of the responsibility for the slow pace of heritage reconstruction is down to the planning, obtaining materials, carving and rebuilding process of the monuments themselves. Various local communities and groups have protested against several renovation efforts, delaying and sometimes even completely stopping the reconstruction. For instance, according to UNESCO, the Japanese had given $3 million to the DoA for the restoration of temples in Hanuman Dhokka and posted one Japanese restoration architect to assist them. However, a few months later, the local communities sent a petition to the Parliamentary Commission on External Affairs to forbid this. They claimed that foreigners should not enter into the temple and that these holy temples should not be reconstructed with foreign money, but with Nepali money. The Parliamentary Commission on External Affairs approved this and issued an order to the DoA to stop all these projects. So now the DoA has all this Japanese money that they are unable to spend.
Similar disputes were held over Kasthamandap, a significant temple that Kathmandu is believed to be named after. Dahal from the DoA considers that the construction was delayed and only just recently began because, “As a heritage temple built in the seventh century, Kasthamandap has its own historical and cultural values. We had already prepared the drawings and design and we handed over the cost estimate of 190 million rupees for the Kathmandu Metropolitan City. However, since more than sixty different community institutions are involved, they are not listening to one another. As differences of opinion prevail, the reconstruction of Kasthamandap is also not taking the speed it should be.”
With the involvement of so many stakeholders in the restoration process of different heritage sites, it was inevitable that disputes would occur which, in turn, would delay the whole reconstruction progress. For the Nepali government, however, there is the added pressure that these monuments are still very much sacred sites that are used daily by the local communities’ and consequently, their cultural and religious wishes should be taken into high consideration as well. That is not so say that all reconstructions must be built adhering to only a religious slant. The discrepancy as seen in Hanuman Dhoka with the refusal to use Japanese funds has proven to be fruitless. Other vital issues must also be taken into account, this includes the sustainability and safety of the monuments whereby the structures themselves need to be adapted and improved to ensure that they will be more resilient during the next earthquake.
What all the organisations, the DoA, UNESCO and KVPT, that were interviewed for this story highlight, is the need for better communication and decision-making that includes all the stakeholders of whatever monument needs to be restored. Not every party concerned will be completely happy but what must be realised is that negotiations involve compromise and a willingness to strive for a common goal: restoring Nepal’s heritage sites in an authentic and sustainable way for future generations. Along with this outlook, the Nepali public should stop pointing fingers at organisations and blaming them of prolonging the reconstruction work, instead they should compel their government to improve its heritage management laws to ensure that Kathamndu’s title as the ‘City of Temples’ can be retained for many more years to come.