Saturday Features

Pilachhen’s resolve to create model from rubble

  • Two and a half years after the 2015 earthquake, the ancient settlement of Pilachhen in Patan is transforming pain into hope and emerging as a model project for reconstruction and cultural promotion
- Prawash Gautam

Dec 9, 2017-My husband died of shock during the earthquake,” says middle-aged Sanu Maya Maharjan, as her eyes begin to brim. Beside her, Thulo Sanu Maya, whose eyes are also welling up, wipes her tears with the tip of her scarf. Several other women, most of them elderly, are sitting in a falchha—a traditional communal resting place—recalling their earthquake traumas.

On their right, about 50 metres away, a dilapidated house, in which the women say, a grandmother and her grandchild were crushed by falling debris, stands as a testimony to the destruction that befell Pilachhen on April 25, 2015.

Pilachhen, an ancient Newar settlement that is a 15-minute walk to the east of the Patan Durbar Square, was one of the settlements worst-hit by the earthquake in Lalitpur’s core. In addition to the three deaths, 82 of its 110 houses were severely damaged, rendering most of its residents homeless.

Memories of those that perished and the loss of property will perhaps continue to bring tears in the eyes of the locals here. But two and a half years after the 7.8 magnitude earthquake wrecked havoc in Nepal, the locals of this settlement are transforming the pain and fear caused by the disaster into an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to bring meaningful change in their community. In the process, they are setting up a model of collective engagement of locals and larger outside community in planning, financing, preserving and promoting culture and tourism, fostering ownership, and creating resilient and sustainable communities.

The Pilachhen Reconstruction and Tourism Promotion Project blends together the reconstruction and conservation of Pilachhen, its religious and cultural landmarks, revival and preservation of the rich culture and lifestyles of the Jyapu—a Newar sub-caste that makes up the settlement’s residents--and the promotion of tourism. 

“I can’t tell if this settlement didn’t sustain the damage that it did during the earthquake if we would have ever begun this project,” says Ramesh Maharjan, former resident of Pilachhen and chairman of the Maya Foundation, the promoter of the project.

Like him, many of the residents now are able to look past the physical losses they incurred during the quakes. In front of the falchha that they are chatting in, a newly-constructed building is rising anew from the rubble as workers place bricks to enclose walls around its concrete pillars. Of the 84 houses that will be rebuilt as part of the project, 22 are almost ready.

The exterior facades of the houses—all four-storied with an attic-like structure on top—are being laid out in the original Newar style. As part of the master design, four buildings then come together to form an enclosed open public space, or a chowk, with a shrine in the middle.

The women, among them 88-year-old Nanu Maya Maharjan and 93-year-old Laxmi Maya Maharjan, say that the construction of the new structures and the planned initiatives to preserve the community’s culture and identity give them some comfort about what they will be leaving behind for their children and grandchildren.

All these women grew up in farming lifestyles. But the traditional Jyapu farming culture has slowly eroded as rapid urbanisation has led many to sell their lands, rendering the little that is left no longer fit for agriculture. And as the community begins to shift away from agriculture, the women say, their entire lifestyles are also being overhauled.

“Every household had its own dhiki [manual wooden thresher], jaanto [stone grinder] and they husked their own rice and beaten rice. Back then, every household spun their own clothes as well,” explains Madan Raj Maharjan, manager of the Project, in his office above the falchha. “But all these facets of the Jyapu culture are slowly disappearing.”

One major objective of the Pilachhen project is to revive this culture. The ground floor of the newly-constructed houses will serve as a cultural compartment where the family, or the renter of that floor, will put up exhibitions of Jyapu culture, including farming equipment, pottery, traditional clothes and musical instruments—investments that the residents hope will add to the traditional aura of the settlement. Further, each house being built under the project incorporates a home-stay facility for tourists to generate income and ensure sustainability.

Nhuchhe Lal Maharjan, a tall, well-built 72-year-old homeowner, grew up when the traditional Jyapu culture was still very much alive in Pilachhen. “Every household raised cattle along with owning vast paddy fields in the vicinity,” he remembers, “ So, there is no way we can preserve that way of life. But we can help salvage what is left and help give it continuity.”

Nhucche Lal believes that while building a cultural compartment in every house in Pilachhen will come off as commodification and exhibitionism of the Jyapu culture, he accepts it as a necessary bargain if the community is to save what remains.”You can’t urge the younger, educated generation to go back to farming,” he says, “We have to start from where we are, not where we once were.”

Ramesh Maharjan too believes that a certain amount of commodification is vital if one is to preserve the cultural heritage and the lifestyle at Pilachhen, given how daily rituals, festivals and jatras are getting more expensive to keep up with. 

“It’s no longer like the old days when our forbearers were sustainable in their lifestyle. Today, some families are even compelled to sell their land to keep up with cultural practices and rituals. What they need is a sustainable source of income to 

preserve their culture and rituals for generations to come,” he says.

Therefore, the planned home-stay facilities and exhibition spaces were designed to generate income to achieve this sustainability. Moreover, Ramesh says, depending upon the time of their visit, guests can observe and participate in different rituals and festivals that take place in the community, and the city beyond it.

When it comes to the buildings though, compromises have been made in terms of embodying the true spirit of Newar architecture. The houses are concrete with flat roofs while traditional Newar architecture mostly uses wood and bricks and have intricately carved latticed doors and windows and tiled pitched roof. Today, only the facades of the houses can be vaguely likened to the buildings that stood at Pilachhen before the earthquakes.

Many residents like Nhuchhe Lal would have preferred the houses to be more in tune to Newar architecture, but it is a factor they are willing to overlook, considering the collective benefits the project will bring to the community.

“Although the cost factor and the deeply-engrained belief that newer structures are more earthquake-resistant necessitated having concrete buildings, the outer spatial architecture still retains the original essence and we will have the interiors designed with traditional sensibilities as far as feasible,” Ramesh says.

Yet, despite the admitted shortcomings on the traditional architectural front, the project does seem to have some potential of actually reviving Pilachhen’s eroding culture. With the project’s determination to become as self-sustained as possible, innovative ideas are being incorporated to encourage youth to pursue tradition alongside modern lifestyles. Madan Raj, as one example, says that the project is encouraging youths to try their hand at organic farming, which is both sustainable and environment-friendly and can integrate traditional farming methods of the Jyapu community.

Today, as the two-and-half-year-long project begins to take shape, the residents are happy to gloat over how Pilachhen will look in a year’s time. But when Ramesh Maharjan first shared the project concept with the locals, most felt that he was merely rekindling their pain. The project would require enormous financial resources that were not readily available to the community and it was only after much convincing, according to Nhucche Lal, that the locals gave an initially reluctant go-ahead.

Aware about the crucial role of the feeling of ownership among locals for its success and sustainability, the project has been incorporating strategies to inculcate this feeling right from the start, with the entire planning, designing, and construction process being led by the community. The project’s financing model too requires the owner of the house to bear 25 percent of the cost and the community members to donate labour time to cover another 25 percent, while the remaining 50 percent is raised from outside funding. 

As a result, volunteers from several local clubs and organisations have been important pillars driving the project ahead. Once completed, the original house owners will retain rights over the house while decisions affecting the overall settlement, as well as issues such as renting the ground floor to others, fall under the purview of the project management committee.

The enthusiasm over Pilachhen’s renewal, however, is not limited to its residents alone. Once the reconstruction plans began to take shape, support, in kind and cash, has flooded in. The National Reconstruction Authority in 2015 selected Pilachhen as a pilot project for model urban renewal project. While, Nepal’s noted eye surgeon and director of Tilganga Institute of Ophthalmology Dr Sanduk Ruit, announced that Global Friends of Tilganga would contribute Rs 40 million to the project. Other organisations, like Choice Nepal who donated Rs 5 million, chipped in as well. Fifty percent of the total estimated cost of Rs 460 million was sought through institutions like these.

“We had a dream to develop Pilachhen as a traditional Newar settlement and make it a model of cultural preservation,” says Ramesh Maharjan, “Today this dream is being fulfilled.”

Community rebuilding projects might be complicated and daunting, but they aren’t impossible. Pilachhen stands testament to what a devastated community can achieve, if they all pull towards the same direction. If once the residents were skeptical if the plans would ever come to fruition, they are now hopeful that once the project is completed, Pilachhen will not only be clean of debris, but full of life and new prospects.

For now, this inspiring community is set to become an important cornerstone in showcasing that communities are, after all, built from within. And with so many other devastated communities around the country looking to pick up what the earthquakes brought down, Pilachhen will undoubtedly serve as a beacon of hope. 

Published: 09-12-2017 09:33

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