On the night of 19 January, the main building and courtyard of the Tengboche monastery in the Khumbu region caught fire and burned to the ground. The fire had begun as the result of an electrical malfunction or accident, no one is certain which, associated with the small hydro facility commissioned less than a year ago.
Had the disaster occurred 30 years ago, it would have remained a strictly local affair, an event of importance only to the Sherpa people of Khumbu. But ever since Edmund Hillary stopped there on his way to the first ascent of Everest, Tengboche has become an increasingly important international landmark, and, until last month, perhaps the world’s best known and best loved functioning monastery.
While exactly what set of circumstances caused the fire will perhaps never be known, it was natural for all with ties to Tengboche to try to draw lessons from the event. They have tried to evaluate the wisdom and propriety of bringing electricity there. Was the technology appropriate? Did the project follow principles of sound community development? Is electricity there necessary, ecological and useful or is it cosmetic and extravagant?
This article, reported from New York City using the telephone, is an attempt to describe what was consumed by fire; to reveal frictions within the universe of care and concern that is focused on Tengboche; and to inform the process of rebuilding which will soon be getting underway.
Materially, the damage was severe. The structure was a beautiful example of classic Sherpa monastic architecture, adorned with skillfully executed frescoes. Although the holy relics of the previous incarnate abbot of the monastery were rescued, the majority of Tengboche’s texts and artifacts did not survive the fire. Included in this irreplaceable inventory were costumes used in the performance of a sacred dance drama during Mani Rimdu, the most important festival of the Sherpa calendar. Some of these had come from Rongbuk monastery in Tibet, just north of Everest.
No lives were lost to the fire. The abbot, and all the monks but one, were in Kathmandu to receive the body of Dudjom Rimpoche who had died in France. Tourists who were at Tengboche helped rescue what they could, but with little water available, all were helpless in the night and could only wait for the fire to burn itself out.
Tengboche plays a very important and spiritual role in Sherpa society. Originally built in 1912, it was the first celibate monastery of the Sherpas. Destroyed by the earthquake of 1934, it was rebuilt in 1936. It has always been a pivotal institution enjoying the highest prestige, and with the decline in the number of village lamas in recent decades, the services of Tengboche’s monks have been more in demand than ever. Like the monasteries of Chiwong and Thami, Tengboche was founded at the behest of the lama of Rongbuk monastery.
The intention of its founders was to keep Tengboche isolated. No one knew that this remote spot overlooking over the Imja Khola would be the stopping point for thousands of climbers and trekkers making the pilgrimage to the Everest Base Camp. “In recent years, Tengboche has been facing a challenge,” says Richard Kohn, an anthropologist who has studied Sherpa culture. “How to maintain its goals as a monastic institution in the face of increased exposure to outsiders.”
Tengboche is arguably one of the most beautiful spots in the world, surrounded on all sides by towering snow-covered peaks: Khumbila, Kangtega, Thamserku, Ama Dablam and, of course, Lhotse and Everest. Pictures of Tengboche photographed with Ama Dablam in the background provide the most popular tourist imagery associated with Nepal. Visitors of all kinds have developed great affection for the spot. Some return again and again, and many try to give something back in return.
The Rimpoche, or “Precious One”, as the abbot is known, has been responsible for guiding Tengboche through the uncharted waters of Western inundation, and he has coordinated many development efforts previous to the electricity project. The American Peace Corps helped him and his monks install a water system. The Canadian Government paid for the installation of latrines. Cultural Survival, a group from Boston, raised money for a cultural center and additional monk quarters. And twice, the Rimpoche took his monks to Japan to perform Mani Rimdu there.
And now the Rimpoche is without a monastery.
The advent of electricity was celebrated with great hoopla on 27 April. The main power plant cost more than U$ 100,000 to install and generate 22 kilowatt of electricity for the monks of Tengboche. The project was funded by the American Himalayan Foundation of San Francisco and had the support of the King Mahendra Trust for Nature Conservation.
How was the hydro station built? The American Himalayan Foundation, which says it acted expressly upon the wishes of the Rimpoche. “His Eminence asked Richard Blum for it,” says Peggy Day, special projects coordinator of the Foundation. But Day’s statement is contradicted by Blum, who is chairman of the Foundation and an investment banker. In an article he wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle after the lights went on, Blum wrote, “We had come a long way from that day in San Francisco when, only 10 months before, Dianne, my wife and the mayor, had conceived the idea of the power project.”
Dianne Feinstein, former mayor of San Francisco, is currently running for governor for the state of California. Blum, himself a popular figure in San Francisco, was the driving force behind the Tengboche project. He arranged the financing and building of the project in an impressively short period of time.
Blum created a scheme whereby donors of U$ 5,000 or more would be given a VIP trip to Tengboche to be present for when the lights were switched on. Two weeks before the planned inauguration day, a telex was sent from Kathmandu confirming that everything was on schedule. The day before the VIPs were to arrive, the system had not yet been tested. No one knew whether it would work. Two portable Honda generators were put in the powerhouse in case anything went wrong.
The 13 VIPs who had paid for the project arrived by helicopter before 8 a.m. The system worked and the Philips light bulbs burned brightly. Speeches were made. Tea and biscuits were served. Sherpas danced in the courtyard. The VIPs helicoptered out.
FIRE IN THE GUMBA
The speculation as to the cause of the Tengboche fire is that something was left unattended on a heater. No one knows for sure. Brat Coburn, who designed the electrical distribution of the system, said it was impossible that the fire was caused by faulty wiring. On every line were sealed, untamperable, extremely reliable and sensitive circuit breakers that would cut off power if anything went wrong.
“An incredibly small short circuit would throw backup circuitbreakers within thousandths of a second,” Coburn says. “I’m not worried about my conscience. I’m worried about my reputation.”
Few are criticising Coburn’s abilities as an electrician, but many are critical of the electricity project as a whole. In the aftermath of the fire, they ask whether the effort was not misguided, inappropriate and culturally insensitive. The technological and ecological merits of the hydro facility are also points of debate.
One major justification for the project was that it would save fuelwood in a heavily deforested region. Yet when working at capacity, the system would generate enough electricity to power just a few woodstoves and heaters. The American Himalaya Foundation had promised in its letter soliciting funds, “… open hearths will disappear to be replaced by electric ovens and electric light…
However, a visitor reported last fall that power for cooking and heating units were not working at all, and that lights were burning throughout the night. As people stayed up later, the use of firewood is said to have increased. A technical problem had developed during the monsoon season, and was finally repaired in the second week of December. A month or so later, the fire started.
Already, the donations for rebuilding the monastery are flowing in. The Nepali authorities have made clear that the rebuilding of their lost treasure should be done only with the agreement of the monks of Tengboche and their Rimpoche. An architect from Bhutan is reportedly being considered to design the new monastery, but building cannot commence until next year because the present one is a black year on the Tibetan calendar.
But before the timber is cut and the stones are laid, a whole year is available to reflect upon what went up in flames, and what can be learnt from the ashes of Tengboche.
(This article is printed here courtesy the Himalayan Research Bulletin.)