(This article is a part of the web-exclusive series from our latest issue ‘Disaster Politics’. More from the print quarterly here.)
The very first images of the 25 April earthquake circulating on social media in Nepal were of monuments in the Kathmandu Valley, many of which collapsed spectacularly in the violent tremors. Subsequent information reflected the enormous human tragedy, but also made clear that the loss of heritage is more than just the structural failure of historic buildings. Most monuments in Nepal are an integral part of people’s living culture and the survival of this relationship will depend on the resilience of the people.
Today, millions of people have settled in the Himalaya, which was formed as a result of tectonic forces. The settlers built houses using locally available material. The resources were always scarce, but by taking into account the cultural determinants and ways of life, the settlers adapted to their physical setting. Numerous factors such as site conditions, shelter design, available material, craftsmanship and religious beliefs created the diversity of architecture along the Himalaya. It was through recurring tests of endurance throughout history that communities learnt to made adaptations to their cultural expressions and create a resilient living environment.
However, globalisation has changed these mechanisms. For example, the transition from traditional building practices to modern methods of construction has left many communities, including those in Nepal, in a perilous state. Traditional practices are being lost, while continued maintenance and renewal are neglected. Materials and methods of modern construction is often beyond the means of most people. Indeed, in many cases, it is not sustainable. This is where the question of a community’s will and resources to ensure cultural continuity becomes important.
Living with nature
The landscape is a result of geological transformations, yet we tend to see earthquakes and landslides as aberrations. We call these events ‘hazards’, and see them as threats to our lives and livelihoods. This attitude towards the environment defines us. There is a tendency towards putting all our efforts into controlling or fighting nature, even though this is a losing battle.
But lessons can be learnt from each disaster. The tsunami that followed the Tohoku earthquake that struck off the coast of Japan in March 2011 had devastating effects on numerous towns along the country’s eastern coast. The entire town of Minamisanriku, for example, was swept away. The sea walls and tidal gates provided false hopes of safety to the inhabitants. Those who immediately took refuge in the Shinto shrines located in the surrounding hills were saved. The Buddhist temples, on the other hand, built near the town to adapt to more populist considerations – forgetting the lessons of nature – were destroyed. Similarly, in Kathmandu, during the early part of the second millennium CE, the traditional buildings were first adapted to handle fire hazards by introducing a system of brick fire walls that stopped the spread of fire from one building to the next. These brick-and-timber buildings were then adapted to withstand earthquakes by inserting wooden ties and pegs to dampen the seismic forces. However, these methods were not used in the buildings constructed after the 18th century.
Most sectors of the government and the international development community have generally considered culture to be a luxury rather than a need. With sustainability, it was economic, social and environmental considerations that really seemed to matter. Culture has been the step-child that no one really knew how to deal with and was often easier to disown. In Nepal, since the restoration of multiparty democracy in 1990, the government has shunted and shifted around the ministry responsible for culture. Over the past years it has merged with ministry for Youth and Sports, Ministry of Tourism and Civil Aviation, Ministry of State Reconstructing, and Ministry for Federal Affairs, Parliamentary Affairs, and Constituent Assembly. Now it is once again fused with the Ministry of Tourism and Civil Aviation.
In recent years this has begun to change. Across the globe, people have realised that without considering culture, other aspects of development don’t function well. We now see culture being included in discussions about post-2015 millennium development goals (MDG). The importance of the cultural sector seems to be slowly acknowledged by the UN. Cultural heritage has been included in the United Nations Development Action Framework (UNDAF), in Disaster Flash Appeals and most recently in the Post Disaster Needs Assessment (PDNA). The PDNA, led by Nepal’s National Planning Commission, assesses needs to coordinate donor contribution and provide an overview of the loss and damage as well as the monetary requirements for reconstruction. The amount required for the needs of cultural heritage after the Nepal earthquake was calculated at USD 206 million. What this means for the actual conservation of cultural heritage is not clear. However, it does mean that potentially there is a lot more money around to deal with cultural issues. The commitment of donor agencies has tended to lay great importance on heritage. This will put pressure on the responsible government authorities – Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation and, in particular, Department of Archaeology.
Though funding is always a critical consideration, when dealing with conservation, there are other issues that will require priority. Monument restoration will require skilled workers and large amounts of traditional materials. At present, these are not sufficiently available. Without a coordinated approach in dealing with these issues, no amount of money will enable the restoration process to work. The numerous sources of funding and the scale of reconstruction, if not organised, will lead to duplication, dispute and fraud.
In the aftermath of the earthquake the first impulse was to save people. Many dug through the rubble with bare hands to reach those trapped underneath, much before any equipment or rescue teams could reach them. But as emergency services began to function, people turned to safeguard their heritage sites. In most instances it was the local community which stepped forward. The origins of this spontaneous reaction go back to Kathmandu Valley’s guthi system. Guthis are local kinship organisations which regulate the social, cultural and economic affairs of the community and are responsible for the maintenance and upkeep of the monuments. When they were nationalised in 1964 under the Guthi Corporation, many of the links between community and monument were severed. At the time the government undertook this step to bring the vast lands under guthi ownership under government control. The land which provided the income for the maintenance and functioning of the monuments was in many cases squandered away and the government was never really able to fully take on the responsibility as caretaker through the Guthi Corporation. However, most monuments continued to be used for religious or social functions. The community’s response to the disaster shows that though they have lost the legal ownership rights, for them these monuments are still significant. This will be a critical impetus for reconstruction.
To ensure that all stakeholders involved in the preservation of historical monuments were working together with a common approach, the first two months were declared a response phase. This meant that everything possible needed to be done to prepare the heritage sites for the onslaught of the monsoon. The main construction materials such as wood, brick, roofing tiles and stone, along with the artefacts and ornaments, which were lying in a pile of rubble needed to be salvaged and stored away. Damaged structures needed shoring and protection from the rain. It was decided that a proactive approach would be applied to the World Heritage properties, the sites on the Tentative List and the monuments on the categorised list of the Department of Archaeology.
Among the cultural World Heritage properties in Nepal, only those in Kathmandu Valley were impacted. Of the 15 sites on the Tentative List for World Heritage inscription, four were badly damaged: the traditional settlements of Sankhu and Khokana and the Palace complexes of Nuwakot and Gorkha. Listed monuments of national significance were affected across 20 districts with 95 partially collapsing, 133 collapsing and 515 damaged. The remaining monuments would need to be left to the communities and local authorities to restore, providing them with support and expertise where required. There were some monuments that, however, required special attention.
The buildings of the Hanuman Dhoka Palace Museum in Kathmandu were in a precarious state, part of the wing with the King Tribhuvan exhibits had collapsed out onto Basantapur Square. The top tiers of the adjacent nine-storey tower had also collapsed. Two thrones, a coffin and a canon were the largest exhibits located in this section of the museum. Various international teams provided recommendations on how best to prop the damaged buildings to allow for the museum artefact to be salvaged. However, we were not in any position to implement these provisions since they either required elaborate engineering or heavy equipment. We had to resort to locally available contractors, methods and security standards. Pipe scaffoldings were erected, from where trained soldiers entered and removed the artefacts. The damaged palace structures are being propped up using a similar local approach.
Swayambhu, the stupa complex on the hillock to the west of Kathmandu, was also extensively affected by the earthquake. The hemispheric dome of the main mahachaitya (the main stupa) had cracks which needed to be sealed immediately to stop rainwater seepage. The discussions on how best to accomplish this was widely discussed, inside and outside the country. The end result, though very much delayed, allowed for the cracks to be covered in a non-intrusive and reversible manner. The cracks were first filled with acrylic paste and then covered with elastic polymer membranes which needed to be carefully fixed in place to make sure that the large population of monkeys in the area does not remove them. After the rains the structure will need to be investigated in detail using the most advanced technology to allow for better understanding of the material and construction method of the mahachaitya structure.
Just to the north of the mahachaitya is the tantric temple of Shantipur which was also damaged by the earthquake. Only initiated tantric priests are allowed to enter the temple. The structure was recently renovated through an elaborate process of specially initiating a member of the priest’s family to help with the work. The internal walls had collapsed and the wall painting in the entrance chamber had partially fallen off. The response had to take into account that the inner chambers of the temple could only be viewed by the tantric priests. We managed to collect whatever remained of the fallen pieces of the wall painting. The structure itself will require an elaborate procedure of screening off the inner chambers while reconstructing the outer walls. Similar restrictions are also in place for practically all tantric temples, including Pratappur and Anantapur shikhara temples to the east of the Swayambhu Mahachaitya.
Reconstruction for whom?
Discussions on establishing guidelines for the post-earthquake response for monuments and historic structures have led to major differences in philosophies of construction. There are those who demand that the structures be made stronger to ensure safety, even if it requires the use of contemporary technology and materials. And then there are those who believe that the introduction of ‘alien’ elements would go against traditional principles of construction and destroy the significance of the monuments.
The dilemma with these discussions is that there is no clear consensus on why the monuments are being rebuilt. For some, it is because the monuments attract tourists. For others, it is more academic and they see the monuments as expressions of the local culture. The responsible authorities have a legal mandate to protect and restore the monuments: the community require these monuments for prayer, social gatherings or festivals. For the politicians it seems to be an opportunity to show their commitment to popular sentiments. There is also national pride that comes to play an increasingly important role. What is needed at such a time is a shared vision which all stakeholders approve and adopt.
Over the past decades, there has been a shift in the scope of what is understood as cultural heritage throughout the world. The earlier focus was on monuments, such as the Egyptian pyramids or the Taj Mahal. These were exclusive examples of the might, grandeur and resources of the Pharaohs and the Mughals. The understanding of heritage has now expanded to include the cultural expression of the communities, which might include settlements, industries or even agricultural landscapes. It is not only the palaces and temples and stupas that are important, but also the spaces around them, the settlements and the individual historic dwellings. This trend can also be seen in the latest World Heritage inscriptions.
With cultural heritage becoming inclusive, the profile of the custodians of this heritage has also changed from the authorities to the communities. The responsibility for the palaces and monuments lies with the authorities. However, it is only possible to safeguard the settlements, the urban fabric, the dwellings and related intangible heritage by including the community. Importantly, the community itself is undergoing change. Some monuments might have lost the community that created it, but might have been adopted by another community. The importance of certain monuments and historic spaces are often related to and reinforced through celebrations, festivals and rituals. This link between the intangible significance and the tangible expression will be an important consideration for reconstruction.
World Heritage as distraction?
Seven monument zones within the Kathmandu Valley were inscribed as a single World Heritage site in 1979. These were the three durbar squares in Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktpur, the two Buddhist stupa complexes of Swayambhu and Baudhanath, and the two Hindu temple complexes of Pashupati and Changu Narayan. The safeguarding campaigns and conservation projects brought Kathmandu Valley to the centre of the discussions on authenticity and significance of heritage. It was the criticism of the Japanese project on I Baha Bahi, the Buddhist monastery in Kathmandu, which led to the formulation of the Nara Document on Authenticity. The Japanese carried out reconstruction of the monument which was against acceptable European procedures and principles of material and structural authenticity. The discussions that ensued during the conference in Nara in 1994 underlined the importance of assessing heritage within its own cultural context. This, however, also led to the Kathmandu Valley being inscribed in 2003 on the List of World Heritage in Danger due to uncontrolled development and loss of historic fabric.
The positive outcome of being on the endangered list was that the government and the international community took serious measures to improve the conditions of heritage sites in Kathmandu. This led to the establishment of an Integrated Management Plan, adopted by the cabinet of the Government of Nepal in 2007, which allowed for Kathmandu Valley to be taken off the danger list. The Coordinative Working Committee which was subsequently established is still functioning, enabling cooperation between the seven monument zones of the World Heritage property and continued discussions on disaster preparedness. Awareness and training programmes were carried out; however more concrete steps were not implemented. This clearly is a lesson for other earthquake prone areas, such as in Bagan, Myanmar, where similar discussions were held after the 25 April Earthquake.
Since 2012, the Integrated Management Plan has been going through a participatory process of review and amendment. This process included an international symposium ‘Revisiting Kathmandu’ which focused on the linkages between authenticity, heritage management, community involvement and disaster risk reduction. With the 80th anniversary of the 1934 Nepal-Bihar Earthquake, it was clear that the countdown to the next big earthquake had started. Following this, several key government officials went for training courses on disaster risk management. Even though the question of additional strengthening of monuments might be controversial for most conservation experts, the need for maintenance and restoration was very clear. Systems and procedures for immediate response also needed to be established.
The inscription of Kathmandu Valley on the World Heritage list provided added motivation for this effort and was the focus for international funding and assistance. Some funds were clearly earmarked to be spent only on sites in the heritage list, which was unfair for the heritage under ‘lesser categories’. The badly damaged sites on the tentative list for World Heritage, such as Sankhu and Khokana, were accorded a lower priority. Only a small percentage of monuments and cultural artefacts, those considered most significant at the national level, were safeguarded by the Department of Archaeology, leaving the large majority to local officials and communities. There are plans of providing technical and possibly some financial support to those communities that come forward with specific projects to safeguard their own heritage.
When the World Heritage Committee met in Bonn, Germany for its 39th session this June-July, the draft decision to inscribe Kathmandu Valley on the List of World Heritage in Danger was submitted. The Nepali delegation from the Department of Archaeology was against such a move, since the imminent danger of earthquakes was greatly reduced. The remaining threat would be if the government was not able to bring the situation under control, and instead of safeguarding and rehabilitation, the World Heritage site fell into further ruin. The Committee agreed, and a Reactive Monitoring Mission will be sent in early December 2015 to assess the state of conservation and the condition of the Outstanding Universal Value (OUV), which was the justification for inscribing the seven monument zones of Kathmandu Valley on the World Heritage list. Should the OUV be threatened or if there is a major loss in the OUV, the property could be listed as in danger and possibly even removed from the list entirely. Depending on the interpretation of threat, the Kathmandu Valley could again be inscribed on the List of World Heritage in Danger. However, there is presently little probability of being completely removed from the World Heritage List.
The planning process for rehabilitation has begun with an initial time frame of six years. The first year will have to focus on emergency response and building capacity. Since there will not be enough skilled artisans to work on so many restoration projects, skills training will need to become a central theme of the first year plan. This would require masters from the various craft trades to be identified. They would then be provided apprentices, who could move on to work on their own, ensuring cultural continuity and resilience. Along with skills, the need for appropriate materials also needs to be considered. This has led to a heated discussion on what the approach to reconstruction should be: traditional or contemporary.
The initial discussions on establishing conservation guidelines have come up with a set of important considerations. As per legislation, the national authority responsible for safeguarding cultural heritage is the Department of Archaeology under Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation. The involvement of the community will be determined by the type of monument. If it has direct links to community activities, the community will need to be involved in the decision making process with respect to prioritising as well as the nature of reconstruction.
The conservation approach will firstly depend on parameters such as the type of structure and the extent of damage. The approach itself would need to consider the structural framework, materials, as well as reversibility and renewal and the level of available documentation to assure original design. Consideration would also need to be made on usage, be it new functions or living heritage and the necessary modern amenities. These are all questions that have been raised and for each of them there will be extensive discussions over the coming months.
Once the approach and principles of restoration have been finalised, the guidelines will need to be supported by clearly defined procedures. Each monument would need to be documented and further research might be necessary. Traditional rituals and ceremonies will have to be performed during restoration, such as the chhema puja, or the asking for forgiveness.
The reconstruction that took place after the 1934 earthquake shows that in places of ‘lesser’ importance, work was carried out hastily and the workmanship was shoddy. Many monuments were never reconstructed and if a deity needed protection, often a simple white cubical with a dome shaped roof was constructed, possibly indicating the lack of resources, in particular, timber. Even the 55-window palace in Bhaktapur was rebuilt with haphazard reuse of the same materials requiring some modifications to the design to compensate the lost pieces of timber. It was only the area around Hanuman Dhoka and Juddha Sadak, now known as New Road, in Kathmandu that major improvements were carried out, showing the power and riches of the Rana prime minister.
The critical question that needs to be answered now is in respect to allowing or opposing the use of contemporary technology and materials. After the collapse of certain monuments there is an immediate reaction demanding the historic monuments to be rebuilt stronger than before so that they can withstand the next big earthquake. This brings us back to the question of why we need to reconstruct the monument. By changing the structural system and even material, does it still retain the cultural significance? Can these historic monuments become obsolete? Do we need these structures to be maintenance free? Is it not necessary for the community to be involved in the constant use and renewal of the monuments?
Throughout history, the built heritage of the Kathmandu Valley has undergone regular destruction by the forces of nature. The living cultural heritage has persisted and become increasingly more resilient through the lesson learnt over time. The close link between the community and the environment has allowed for this system of cyclical renewal to take place. Even though in the cases of many monuments this link has been severed, it is only through the reestablishment of the community as caretaker that any feasible means of safeguarding these monuments can be ensured. As long as the community can maintain and safeguard the heritage, there is a reason for its continued existence. This ensures that the monument is maintained and undergoes regular renewal, keeping it resilient to natural hazards, weathering, rot and infestation. With most monuments there has traditionally been an annual cycle of maintenance linked to rituals and festivals that ensures constant upkeep.
The cycle of destruction and renewal must be accepted as an integral characteristic of the heritage. The value therefore does not lie purely in the material. As long as the community has the capacity and the will, their cultural heritage will be rebuilt.
~ Kai Weise is an UNESCO Consultant and Coordinator for Earthquake Response for Cultural Heritage. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
~This article is a part of the web-exclusive series from our latest issue ‘Disaster Politics’. More from the print quarterly here.