The replacement of lost wood-work as part of the restoration of the Ratneswara Temple in Kathmandu using the skills of traditional Nepali craftsmen, in breach of the Eurocentric norms that govern the preservation of monuments, highlights the paradoxes of globalisation and.” the need to adopt indigenous, culture-specific norms in the conservation of heritage.
One of globalisation’s paradoxes is that even as it imposes trans-national values and processes on local cultures, it simultaneously gives them a ‘presence’ they never had before. The more globalisation disrupts and displaces local traditions, the more the significance of what is being lost stands out. The interdisciplinary and intercultural scholarship encouraged by globalization has unearthed the existence and logic of hitherto obscure indigenous knowledge systems and practices. This scholarship creates provocative voices of dissent which question the very premises underlying globalisation, and provides the raison d’etre to resist—or at least influence—its further progress. The Sulima strut story exemplifies this process.
This is the story of the restoration of the 13th century Ratneswara Temple in Sulima Tole of Patan town in Kathmandu Valley, undertaken by the Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust (KVPT), an internationally funded group involved in architectural conservation. The issue is about the replacement of lost carved timber elements as part of the restoration work. These replacements were carved by contemporary craftsmen on the tiered temple at Sulima Tole and purport to be “authentic” equivalents of the original.
Such a restoration challenges the hallowed principles of conservation, which prohibit any form of replication of lost architectural elements. The orthodoxy of conservation practice requires that ancient buildings be kept in roughly the same state that they were found, as stabilised ruins. In this view, “good” conservation procedure means minimal intervention to maintain the original integrity and authenticity of the remaining fabric of the building or ruin.
In the Ratneswara Temple project however, a ruin was completely restored to its ‘original’ state by the KVPT. There is little evidence of the “golden stain of time” or the possibility of distinguishing between the old and the new parts of the building in the restored monument. Indeed, much of what one sees is not “original”, and John Ruskin, whose views were to significantly influence conservation practice, would certainly have reason to call the building “a lie”. Nevertheless, the heresy of the KVPT restoration project merits serious consideration, not only because it questions the authority of supposedly universal conventions in the context of Kathmandu Valley, but also because it provides compelling rationale to conserve a ‘living tradition’ that is facing extinction.
The attitudes that govern the conservation of cultural heritage ought to be culture specific. But in practice this is not so, because the world over, “official” values governing conservation practice are imbued with the ideals established by Ruskin and colleagues in England during the last century and, consequently, reflect a thoroughly Eurocentric point of view. These ideals are disseminated through various charters of UNESCO, most notably the “The International Charter for the Conservation and Restoration of Monuments and Sites”, otherwise known as the “Venetian Charter” (1964). The principles of conservation have, of course, broadened in more recent times to acknowledge other imperatives, including those of “living cultures”, but the orthodoxy defined by the Venice Charter nevertheless prevails and influences official conservation policies.
In many Third World countries, where traditional skills and practices still survive, the implications of this are profound, because the universalisation of conservation policy fails to account for the continuity of indigenous traditions. Eurocentric norms are inimical to indigenous practices of conserving (or not conserving) ancient buildings because they make the traditional craftsmen and their skills redundant. This impoverishes local cultures and destroys the organic bond that existed among traditional knowledge, traditional practices and the monument. The stabilized ruin idealised in European cultures, holds little meaning in traditional societies.
Yet, when these societies set about conserving their monuments, they tried to adopt Eurocentric norms. The need for international financial assistance to undertake conservation works and the aura surrounding the UNESCO stamp of approval, ensures the adoption of these norms even when viable traditional alternatives are still available. What UNESCO propagates represents the “modern” and “progressive” principles of conservation, and the desire to align with them is a potent force in the Third World. It is not surprising, therefore, to find the Archaeological Survey of India or the Department of Archaeology of His Majesty’s Government of Nepal, or their counterparts elsewhere in the Third World, turning their backs on centuries-old traditions and diligently emulating the precepts enshrined in the Venice Charter. Its allure is the power of globalisation.
But globalisation contains its own critique. Within the homogenizing influence of globalisation— indeed, often as a result of it— the efficacy of traditional local practices get highlighted. The critique of Eurocentric conservation comes from the very agents of these practices—foreign experts working in the field. Familiarity with local tradition exposes the limitations of universalist principles more clearly to such experts, who are in an unique position to appreciate and articulate the difference. Thus, in places like Nepal, the outsider is
both the agent of change and also the one who questions change.
The new visibility of traditional practices also ensures that they get reappropriated by the local society. This process of “going back to the future” can be seen at work in Patan as well as in Bhaktapur town where conservation work was initiated two decades earlier. These works undertaken by foreign experts, even as they stayed within the bounds of Eurocentric orthodoxy, tested its limits, as in the case of the complete reconstruction of the Cyasilin Mandap of Bhaktapur in 1987.
In the Ratneswara Temple however, the boundaries have been breached. Here it is outright apostasy. Considering the heritage value of the monument, this order and extent of restoration work would not have been “officially” permitted elsewhere. It is for this reason that the work is significant at one level and remains problematic at another.
Local, foreign and official
There is, of course, the dominant role of the foreign expert and the source of funding to consider while evaluating the polemic context of this and other significant conservation projects in Nepal. Why is it necessary to rely upon foreign expertise and funds in order to restore valuable traditional heritage? Has this heritage lost meaning in local society, but gained meaning outside? Is ‘sovereignty’ an issue in the global marketplace of conservation? In earlier times, a feudal elite constructed and maintained temples such as the Ratneswara. There was a concordance between the aspiration and activities of different classes in that society because the culture within which they operated was homogenous. The process of modernisation has long since eroded the organic relationship that had existed earlier among patrons, craftsmen and the pervasive sociocultural ideals. The government bureaucrat has replaced the feudal patron in matters of heritage management. As a consequence, there is today a widespread indifference to conserving architectural heritage.
Traditional knowledge and skills are still available, but are not put to use. The state is unable to remedy this situation because it has neither the will nor the imagination to tackle the problem. Its agenda of urgent concerns does not include heritage, thus setting in motion the familiar pattern of attrition of ancient monuments. This leaves the field open for the entry of foreign expertise and funding. Though Nepal has undoubtedly benefited from such interventions, the role of an external agency with altruistic intent raises uncomfortable questions, especially from a post-colonial perspective. The focus of these questions gets shar-per when the ideology of conservation is “subversive”, as it is with the decision to replace the wood struts at Sulima.
One must evaluate the role of the ‘foreigner’ in mediating local cultures— both ‘official’ and otherwise. In the Rat-neswara project the ‘foreign’ and the ‘local’ have coalesced with a common purpose, not unlike the manner in which the ‘foreign’ and the ‘official’ invariably align in the process of modernisation and globalisation. However, there is an ethical distinction to be made between the two situations. By relying on local traditions and skills one enriches local cultures, while the other, by relying on Eurocentric norms of conservation, one does not. Both have the propensity to distort future developments because the ‘local’ lacks a voice. This is the problem with the conservation work undertaken by foreigners.in Nepal.
The only safeguard to this propensity is a sensitivity of analysis and action on the part of the external agent, who must evaluate the relevance of both the Eurocentric as well as local traditions in conservation. The Nepali experience should not be used to extract local
allegories of western theoretical preoccupations: this is the classical trap of Orientalism. On the other hand, it would be wrong to debunk all Western claims by harping on the uniqueness of Nepali culture: this is the trap of cultural essentialism. What is compelling in the Sulima strut story is the exemplary manner in which these issues have been mediated.
In order to understand this reading of the story, the issues must be considered in the context of contemporary Nepal. The possibilities can be represented in a diagrammatic form.
In this diagram, both society and the monument in question are, in the beginning, located at point A, sometime in the distant past. The X-axis represents time. The Y-axis calibrates movement in two directions: upwards, to indicated the modernisation of society, and downwards, to indicate the deterioration of the monument. The X-axis also represents the idealized “steady-state” condition of the monument, had it not deteriorated over time, or if it had been continuously maintained and upgraded over the years. Obviously, this did not happen and in the diagram the ruined monument is located at point B, well below the “steadystate” condition.
When conservation is initiated, while the condition of the monument is at point B, the level of modernisation of society is at point D. In a parallel trajectory, the condition of the skilled craftsman or shilpakar is at point C: still a living practice, but declining.
Given these conditions, the future of the monument at point B has three possibilities. If nothing is done, then it will move towards B1, that is, continue its trajectory of deterioration. If one applies Eurocentric principles of conservation, then (as an ideal possibility) one would move towards B2, roughly parallel to the X-axis but below it. The building would then be a stabilised ruin. It would also have little meaning in the local community. But the strategy employed in the restoration of the Ratneswara temple moves the monument to point B3, closer to the X-axis, that is, closer to its original form.
The determining criterion should be the appropriateness of the strategy to the Nepali context, rather than its conformity with UNESCO guidelines. This will be influenced by whether the local constituency prefers to have a resurrected temple, a stabilised ruin or a deteriorating monument. The Sulima strut story hinges on the assumption that the local people prefer the resurrected temple.
In making the decision, the role of the shilpakars must also be brought into focus. If no initiative is taken to improve their prospects and social status, the gap between C and D will widen, and the shilpakars will drop to point C1. However, the strategy to take the monument to B3 introduces a contingent possibility of taking the shilpakars to point C2, thereby reducing the gap between C and D. Many development Professionals would agree that this is a worthwhile objective to pursue.
Eurocentric practices, focussing as they do on the monument rather than the shilpakar, foreclose this possibility. The distinction between conserving the monument and conserving the skills that built them must be polemicised into a critical culture of conservation wherever traditional practices still survive. The KVVF’s complete restoration of the Sulima temple brings out these issues in forcefully.
This is the significance of the Sulima strut story, but there is also great irony in its message: such critical thinking would not have been possible without the outsider or foreign funds. When the implication of this message sinks in, we will find it salutary and tragic at the same time. Did the Western conservationists do right in completely restoring an ancient temple to its ‘original’ state?