Building back better

  • Much of our national heritage has been damaged in the Great Earthquake, but it is imperative that we rebuild
- Megharaj Adhikari
Building back better

Apr 30, 2015-

Saturday’s Great Earthquake has left us pained. The loss of thousands of people and the damage to five out of our seven Unesco World Heritage Sites inspire much misery and desolation. People living under tents are still terrorised due the subsequent aftershocks, which could still be felt days after the initial big quake.

Nepal is in a state of national mourning. The damage to heritage sites like the three Durbar Squares in Basantapur, Patan, and Bhaktapur, the Buddhist stupa of Swayambhu, the Changu Narayan temple, the landmark Dharahara causes heartache. The most important thing for now is to save the remnants, like the statues, tudals, idols, and all the historically important artefacts from being stolen and lost. All conscious citizens must be involved in this process.

All that we lost

All of the three damaged Durbar Squares were constructed during the Malla period and are famous for their Newar architecture. Basantapur Durbar Square is the space that marks Nepal’s transition from ‘medieval’ to ‘modern’, a dynamic transition effected in 1768-69 with the Nepali Shah conquest of the Kathmandu Valley, and the wresting of political control from the Malla dynasty. However, Swayambhu and Changu Narayan temple are believed to have existed since the third century AD. A stone pillar with an inscription inside the Changu Narayan temple is the first epigraphic evidence of Nepali history. Similarly, both Buddhists and Hindus venerate Swayambhunath, although the stupa is considered Buddhist. Numerous Hindu monarchs are known to have paid homage to the temple, including king Pratap Malla, who constructed the eastern stairway in the 17th century.

The deadly earthquake damaged much of our heritage, but they are not irretrievable. That is good news for both us citizens as well as visitors. Out of all the damaged sites, Changu Narayan seems to be more vulnerable but it can be restored. Major parts of Bhaktapur Durbar Square and Swayambhunath are not ruined. What we had was the common property of the Nepal mandala and we can continue to propagate our rich culture and architecture to the world for epochs.

Rebuild we must

The news of the loss of heritage, combined with the dead and missing mountaineers, will certainly have adverse effects on our tourism industry. The question is, how will the government react to the situation? Can we even restore our lost monuments to the state they were in earlier? How long will this process take? Should our government wait for Unesco and other agencies or take initiative on its own?

As far as the restoration of our heritages is concerned, we don’t need to panic, as we have all human resource of young dexterous people with the craftsmanship of the Malla period. Rabindara Puri, an architect, started a school of traditional arts and crafts to save the legacy almost a decade ago in a village in Panauti. Similarly, we have many qualified Newar architects and artisans who can help refurbish our loss. However, what we need is dedication and honesty from every sector, including the government, the bureaucracy, and civil society.

In all of this, the enthusiasm and the concern of young people have been encouraging. Nepalis from home and abroad have shown their solidarity to the cause of rebuilding the nation. Users of social networks like Facebook and Twitter are posting pictures of the damaged sites of cultural importance and appealing for help. This is a positive sign as it shows that our citizens are aware and concerned about the great loss to the nation.

Tourists also do not need to worry. The country is safe now for at least the next 80 years, as history points to a great quake in Nepal every 80-100 years or so. The last deadly earthquake in Nepal was in 1934.

Rebuilding to last

What needs to happen eventually, after all the rescue and relief operations are done, is for the government and other cultural affairs bodies to concentrate on sustainable reconstruction of the demolished cultural structures. Remaining cultural heritages are also on the verge of damage each year due to pollution and other factors.

We have witnessed damage to unique pieces of cultural property as a result of weathering and decay, accelerated by emissions from traffic, industry, and domestic heating. In major cities, petrol and diesel traffic constitutes a threat to many historic buildings owing to emissions of sulphur dioxide and other harmful substances, according to the Council of Europe Publications on Cultural Heritage. The interest of civil society at large should guarantee the protection of the remaining and rebuilt heritage sites.

The Government of Nepal must resolve to be proactive in addressing disaster management issues through a project focussed on seismic risk mitigation and risk preparedness for the Kathmandu Valley. Kathmandu, like Turkey’s Istanbul, must prepare an Earthquake Master Plan, consisting of a comprehensive treatment of risks and mitigating measures and integrate into the plan the protection of natural and historic assets. Kathmandu, too, should opt for an internationally-recognised plan as a strategic instrument for assessing risk in mega-cities to enhance the safety and quality of life in the cities, along with the protection of centuries-old heritages.

(Adhikari is a faculty member of the Central Department of Management, Tribhuvan University)

Published: 01-05-2015 09:20

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