• Patan dhoka, Lalitpur, Nepal
  • And The Earth Shook


    Sarita Ramamoorthy

    An update from earthquake hit Kathmandu that witnessed colossal destruction of iconic buildings and the intangible cultural heritage.

    A month has passed since the devastating earthquake of April 25, 2015 hit Nepal. Scores of settlements across the country have disappeared, and several badly damaged structures gave way when the big aftershock of May 12, 2015 struck. The country is still reeling from aftershocks of varying magnitudes and the scale of humanitarian crisis continues with the rise in the death toll, the number of injured, and the loss of property. The skyline of the Kathmandu Valley, one of the most heavily affected areas, has changed. The trail of cultural losses – both tangible and intangible –is massive and irreversible in several areas, both within and outside the valley. Numerous temple structures and heritage buildings including several world heritage sites are partially or completely damaged. These buildings were not just heritage structures but were living, breathing vibrant centres for religious, cultural and social activities.

    Reduced to Rubble

    The three major Durbar Squares in Kathmandu Valley located at Bhaktapur, Patan, and Basantpur (all UNESCO World Heritage Sites) consisting of magnificent old palaces, temples, and other buildings suffered colossal damage. At Kathmandu Durbar Square, several iconic buildings survived but Kasthamandap, the very structure that gave Kathmandu its name, was reduced to rubble, amongst other temples and buildings. At Patan Darbar, the Char Narayan Temple and the Hari Shankar temple, amongst finest temples in the square, went down within seconds, while the Krishna Mandir remained almost unscathed. The rescued wood panels with intricate wood panels, valuable artefacts and other treasures are being stored at the Patan Museum, which survived the earthquake. In Bhaktapur, the main temple in the square lost its roof, while the 16th Century Vatsala Durga temple, famous for its sandstone walls and gold-topped pagodas was demolished by the quake.

    The Swayambunath Stupa, located on a hill top is partially damaged; in Tripureshwor, the Kal Mochan Ghat, was completely destroyed; and Bungamati, the ancient Newar village, saw nearly 80% of its houses destroyed. The iconic nine-storey Dharahara or Bhimsen tower that was partially damaged in the earthquake of 1934 and was subsequently rebuilt, collapsed again with just the base remaining after the 2015 earthquake.

    The Past in Peril

    While the tangible loss of these heritage structures has hit hard, what has also suffered are the various institutions, libraries, and other similar repositories that house valuable collections of art and archival material. These buildings, too, suffered varying degrees of damages, and face challenges in restoring and rescuing their collections as time is running out with impending rains that may make it difficult to rescue the treasures.

    The Nepal Academy of Fine Arts, a neo-classical building dating to the 1930s houses rare collections of both traditional and contemporary paintings, sculptures and other artworks. The building was heavily damaged, and hundreds of paintings still lay waiting to be rescued. The permanent collection, which is the only one in the country, is an imperative part of Nepal’s art heritage.

    The half-century old Tribhuvan University (TU) Central Library, Nepal’s largest, houses half a million books, 100,000 journals and periodicals, thousand-year-old precious Hindu manuscripts and rare genealogies of the country’s dynastic rulers. Following the first earthquake, the building was deemed unsafe but the employees keen to salvage the collections, had begun rearranging the bookshelves, when the second big quake hit on 12 May. TU has set up the ‘TU Reconstruction Fund’ for public donations after the earthquake devastated the university, as the TU vice-chancellor Hira Bahadur Maharjan says, “In a time of national crisis we cannot leave everything to the government alone. We want to set an example by showing that we are capable of generating resources on our own. This will lower the burden on the government.”

    Similarly, the Madan Puraskar Pustakalaya (MPP) has set up an online campaign to raise funds for its reconstruction. MPP is the largest repository of Nepali-language materials in the world that has been home to more than 35,000 books, 50,000 rare photographs, 15,000 ephemera, over 10,000 manuscripts as well as audio and audiovisuals related to Nepal, and it was severely damaged in the earthquake. Established in 1955 as a non-profit-making institution, MPP has been functioning as the principal archive for understanding the 19th and 20th century Nepal. After the earthquake of April 25, engineers advised immediate evacuation and dismantling of the building to prevent further damage to the collections and threat to human lives.

    The Kaiser Library, a century old repository near Kathmandu’s tourist district of Thamel, was also destroyed by the quake; originally, a private library housing over 28,000 books, including some of the oldest surviving in the world, it is estimated that about a third of its book collection is damaged. The Nepal National Library, hosted in a century-old palace, has been declared unsafe, too; most of the collection has been buried in the rubble and efforts are on to find a safe location to shift the library.

    Rising from the Dust

    After the devastating floods of Jammu and Kashmir, we published a blog on the loss to cultural riches in the region. We wrote about the presence of a ‘culture of preparedness’ at the policy level but the absence of policies that address ‘cultural damage’. Despite the hundreds (if not thousands) of ‘disaster management programs’, ‘strategy for disaster risk management’, ‘disaster preparedness’, nothing could prepare Nepal for the magnitude of damage it incurred the last month.

    Humanitarian assistance should be a priority but cultural recovery, especially for Nepal, where tourism plays a vital role in the economy, is both a humungous challenge and an urgent need. Along with the efforts of the Department of Archaeology, the Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust, The Government of Nepal and other organisations, the efforts of the strong-knit local communities that stepped in to help rescue and guard these heritage sites must be lauded. The cost of rebuilding heritage could run into millions of dollars, but there is a deep commitment to salvage the past, coupled with the confidence that heritage can be rebuilt.

    *Kathmandu-based Sarita Ramamoorthy is the Programme Manager, Hri

    Krishna Mandir is one of the few temples still standing in Patan Darbar Square. Photo Source: Nepali Times
    Sitamahal that houses the Nepal Academy of Fine Arts. Photographer: Bikram Rai. Photo Source: Nepali Times
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