The road to recovery
- The wreckage of Karunamaya, along with the devastated houses and families around it, is a reflection of the loss that everyone in the country has experienced post earthquake
May 8, 2015-
Swarms of people and vehicles had lined up right outside my house two days before the Great Quake. They were on their way to Bungamati—a quaint Newar village 10 km south of the heart of Kathmandu and a 10-minute walk from my house in Bhainsepati—to observe the Rato Machhindranath festival. Nobody marking the celebration had the slightest clue of what would follow in the next couple of days.
To avoid the crowd that would build up during the day, I had embarked on an early morning walk with my mother-in-law and niece to the Rato Machhindranath Temple in Bungamati. Even at 6 am, the lane leading up to the temple was already alive with vendors selling everything from utensils, grains and trinkets to Buddhist prayer flags. Groups of people were humming their morning prayers, and throngs of visitors were circumambulating the chariot and the temple.
Perched in a corner in a courtyard, and surrounded by identical brick houses adorned with traditional Newari windows (Tiki Jyaas), was the colossal Rato Machhindranath Temple—also known as Karunamaya, Bungadyah, and Avalokiteshvara. The shikhar-styled temple bore a resemblance to the Patan Durbar Square’s Krishna Mandir. And it had been recently adorned. Dharma Ratna Shakya, the chief priest of the temple, had told me earlier that the temple had been prepared for the festival, which takes place every 12 years, with the Rs300,000 raised by the community trust (guthi).
I went on to find out more about the temple.
The 1,300-year-old temple dated back to the Licchavi period, during the time of King Narendra Dev of Bhaktapur and King Bara Dev of Patan. I was thoroughly impressed by how they had managed to build such a striking structure back then, since transporting the construction material and carving stones must have been an ordeal. The gargantuan lions—guarding either side of the entrance and carved from single boulders—and the intricate wooden door carvings—paired with prayer wheels and stone pillars—were aesthetically astounding. Right in front of the Karunamaya Temple was a pattingal, a rectangular hole in the ground with Hindu and Buddhist gods in its various layers. The priest had said that the pattingal was made with sacred water from all key pilgrimage sites across Nepal—if one couldn’t travel to those places, they could walk around the pattingal in memory of the various gods.
According to legends, Machhindranath is the god of rain who brings plentiful harvest. Probably the reason why the festivities related to this rain god have held so much importance in this once agriculture-dependent Valley. And through time, the festival has been an opportunity for people to get together and pay their respects to the gods or to witness the festivity of a 65 -feet-high chariot being pulled across the city.
On April 25, on the third day of the festival, Nepal was struck with an earthquake of 7.9 magnitude that took many lives, devastated families, houses, buildings and heritage sites—including the Machhindranath Temple. While the entire village of Bungamati was ravaged in the 1934 quake, the temple had managed to keep standing—although tilted slightly. But this time around, not even the mightly Karunamaya was spared nature’s wrath.
On my next visit, after the quake, the vast expanse of the Newari courtyard deprived of the salient Karunamaya Temple seemed desolate. Heaps of rubble stood on one end of the temple, while the other end barely managed to hold a small chunk of the structure with the tilted pillars. The Newari houses had lost their earlier uniformity; some houses were a pile of bricks with a few utensils and clothing strewn over the rubble, some were without walls, while others had huge cracks. A few houses looked intact from the outside, but rooms from the third floor of those buildings had plunged onto the ground floor, rendering them useless. The temple’s golden finial (gajur) lay forlorn on the ground, and a crowd of sad onlookers gathered to see the destruction.
Although not many visit the temple except during festivities, for the locals of Bungamati the temple was part of their everyday life. They are now determined to safeguard the priceless jewels that lie underneath the mounds of debris. A caretaker of the temple said that truckloads of jewels, gold and silver, including the famous bhoto shown during Bhoto Jatra and sculptures of King Narendra Dev, the tantrik Bandhudatt Acharya and Lalit Jyapu—who are believed to have invited lord Machhindranath to Nepal—lie beneath the rubble. The temple has been cordoned off since the disaster struck and police and army have been guarding the temple round the clock. There are plans of installing security cameras prior to removing the bricks to make sure that nothing gets stolen.
The wreckage of Karunamaya, along with the devastated houses and families around it, is a reflection of the loss that everyone in the country has experienced post earthquake. The lives lost are irreplaceable, and the houses and cultural heritage sites damaged are irreparable.
Moving on, we should not just repair these ancient structures, but rebuild them in a robust way and with a renewed sense of culture and identity. We must take time to understand why some temples survived the recent quake, which destroyed more than 57 precious monuments that encompass Nepal’s history and culture. In this process, hopefully, we will learn and will be able to share insights on why Patan’s Krishna Mandir survived two great earthquakes, while Bungamati’s Karunamaya Temple, which survived the 1934 quake, was reduced to rubble by the second one.
On our road to recovery, let’s rebuild and renovate our monuments with rigour.
Published: 09-05-2015 09:59