Volunteers and police personnel at work in clearing the debris at Kathmandu's Kalmochan temple.
Photo: Shubhanga Pandey
Volunteers and police personnel at work in clearing the debris at Kathmandu's Kalmochan temple. Photo: Shubhanga Pandey

Brick by brick

Citizens and authorities in Kathmandu Valley come together to salvage its historic sites.
Volunteers and police personnel clearing the debris at Kathmandu's Kalmochan temple.<br />Photo: Shubhanga Pandey
Volunteers and police personnel clearing the debris at Kathmandu's Kalmochan temple.
Photo: Shubhanga Pandey

It's eight in the morning on the 2559th anniversary of the Buddha's birth. The lower reaches of the hilltop temple of Swayambhunath in west Kathmandu, known to tourists as the Monkey Temple, are thick with devotees. But this year they won't be able to gaze upon the 13 tiered gold rings of the 5th-century stupa. While the main structure escaped unscathed in the 7.8-magnitude earthquake that shook Nepal on 25 April, many of the smaller shrines have been destroyed, and the site is off-limits. This doesn't deter the pilgrims; if anything, their prayers and prostrations seem more fervent than ever. These expressions of abiding faith in the wake of catastrophe may be confounding, but in Nepal, many believe their fates are inscribed on their foreheads. Natural disasters, even those that kill and maim tens of thousands and obliterate hundreds of thousands of homes, are not to be blamed on the gods.

Before the enormity of the human devastation became apparent, the days following the earthquake were dominated by news of the destruction of iconic monuments in the Kathmandu Valley's seven UNESCO Monument Zones. As aftershocks rippled through the temporary encampments that filled the city's shrinking open spaces, thousands thronged Kathmandu's Basantapur Square to gawk at the piles of rubble that once were temples.

These elegant exemplars of religious architecture were the legacy of Newar artisans and their erstwhile patrons – the Malla kings of the Kathmandu Valley's medieval city states. On 25 April, the three durbar squares of Kathmandu, Lalitpur and Bhaktapur, as well as several Newar villages within the Valley, lost irreplaceable cultural treasures. Kasthamandap, from which the city of Kathmandu takes its name, and the Rato Macchindranath temple of Bungamati Village, the second home of Lalitpur's rain god, were among 59 monuments across the country that simply disintegrated. Close to 200 more were damaged. Locals whose lives were woven into these sites of worship and congregation, conservationists already struggling to stem the tide of urban encroachment and art theft, and visitors charmed by Nepal's pockets of Old World splendour, all were left bereft and despairing. With so much to rebuild, and such pressing human need, how could one even dream of restoring the glory of Nepal's golden age? 

I witnessed the beginnings of an answer nearly a week after the earthquake, on my way to check on a friend in hospital who had been rescued from Lalitpur's durbar square. She was still in the intensive care unit, I learned en route, and visiting hours were restricted. As I turned my bicycle around at the intersection between Kathmandu and Lalitpur, I noticed vehicles slowing along the stretch of road overlooking the 19th-century Kalmochan temple, whose distinctive white Mughal-style dome, guarded by four ferocious griffins, had collapsed into a giant mound of rubble. Police and army personnel were silhouetted atop the ruins, and were passing bricks down, hand to dusty hand. But I could also see scores of volunteers milling about, strapping on masks and gloves. All around me, youths were stopping and entering the temple complex. Soon, the road was half blocked by parked motorcycles, their riders joining spontaneously in the clean-up of a beloved Kathmandu landmark. I locked my cycle to the railing and jumped in.

In the preceding days, I'd seen state forces clearing major sites, and locals stacking bricks at smaller temples in Lalitpur. This was on another scale altogether. Not only were youths working with state security (for most, perhaps for the first time), the Department of Archaeology was teaming up with the Society of Nepalese Architects (SONA) to salvage what they could. As the more decorative brass, copper and wood elements of the destroyed temple were unearthed, they were carefully ferried to a corner and documented by the police. There was an easy, ad hoc understanding among these groups. The volunteers gravitated toward a man handing out gloves, masks, and loudly voiced instructions to form new clusters, to move a misshapen lump of mortar and brick out of the way, to remember to drink water, to watch their heads. This was Sabin Joshi, a Basantapur local. He explained to me that what I was witnessing was as spontaneous as it looked. They had begun to clear the debris in his own neighbourhood of Basantapur, and had moved to Kalmochan once they saw how desperate young people were to do something, anything. They aimed to cover as many sites as they could (though in sites such as Swayambhu, locals were understandably wary at allowing in troupes of youngsters). "If we don't do, who will?"

Next door, residents of the Tripureshwor Mahadev temple and squatters in the tin-roofed settlements along the banks of the Bagmati lamented that no one had bothered to help in the aftermath of the quake. "But we are making sure that nothing is stolen, now that the temple compound can't be locked up," a young man declared, pointing at the collapsed eastern wall. It had buried a shopkeeper and over a dozen motorcycles outside. "Someone watches over the temple every night," he said. Around the corner, I came across SONA volunteers and Department of Archaeology staff cataloguing the shattered brass finial of the temple, painstakingly measuring, photographing and identifying each segment. The process seemed uneven. One piece was simply put down as kalatmak vastu – 'art object'.

Half an hour later, I was in the City Museum Kathmandu, receiving training with dozens of heritage enthusiasts on how to use a new smartphone app developed by Kathmandu Living Labs (KLL) to inventory the damage sustained by Nepal's innumerable religious structures. Many of the thousands of Hindu and Buddhist temples in the Kathmandu Valley are associated with smaller shrines and religious buildings. While those on UNESCO heritage lists – including the Monument Zones of the three durbar squares, the Hindu temples of Pashupatinath and Changunarayan, and the two great Buddhist stupas of Swayambhu and Boudha – are amply documented, other structures receive far less attention. KLL's software, loaded onto smartphones, allows anyone to enter a heritage site and document its condition, backed up with photos and GPS data. Joy Lynn Davis, a US artist who has spent half a decade working to document stolen religious art in Nepal, and who has used KLL's mapping technology, explained to the trainees that they were expecting the Department of Archaeology to make use of the information collected by volunteers.

The following day I joined Sabin Joshi and his crew in Bungamati, as part of the first phase of clean-up in and around the decimated village square. The centrepiece of this 6th-century Newar village several kilometres south of Lalitpur, the shikhar-style temple of the rain god Rato Machhindranath, had been reduced to a monumental pile of bricks. As volunteers busied themselves with clearing and stacking debris from smaller structures lining the square, I put KLL's software to the test. While smaller stupas had survived, a large pagoda temple on the eastern side of the square had also collapsed. The GPS coordinates loaded as I photographed the police pranging off the huge copper plates of the roof with crowbars. A man and a woman wearing masks broke away from a group of volunteers clearing bricks from a still-standing house shorn of its facade, and helped me fill in the form. It had been a temple to Bhairab, Shiva's most fearsome manifestation, they explained. Were they local, I asked, adding the temple's details to the app. "No, but this is our nephew's house," they responded with wry smiles.

Away from the square, debris had silted onto the lane between two rows of tottering residences, facades shored up precariously by wooden beams hastily scavenged from the ruins. The risk didn't faze the volunteers, many of college-going age, as they passed hundreds of bricks along to be stacked in corners. Two youths were laughing among themselves as they worked in the swirl of dust enveloping us. "I think we had better become architects now," one said. "Forget about your science degree."

Later that afternoon, we trudged out of the village past burly, bearded and immaculately uniformed rescue workers from the UAE, who must have been bewildered by what they were seeing. We paused to admire the increasingly rare Valley view of terraced fields nestling into the dark green mountains. The golden wheat swayed ripe and neglected in the breeze. Further down the road, the chariot of Rato Machhindranath, topped by a 60-foot spire of brush and wood lashed together with twine, sat lopsided. Votive offerings lay under the massive mask that heads the beam intoxicated young men use to drag the unwieldy chariot on its way. Every dozen years, the rain god travels from Bungamati to Lalitpur and back again, a journey that takes several months. This year's procession from the now-destroyed temple began two days before the earthquake. When it is time for the rain god to return to his village, he must believe, he will have a home once again. 

~Rabi Thapa is from Kathmandu, Nepal, where he is the editor of the literary magazine La.Lit (www.lalitmag.com). In 2011, he published the short story collection Nothing to Declare.

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