Digging to save Nepal’s cultural heritage after quake

Smartphone app being developed to document salvaged artefacts as historians and architects work on assessing the damage.

Nepal''s heritage [Annette Ekin/Al Jazeera]
Architects, archaeologists, artists and art historians will be trained on how to assess the damage [Annette Ekin/Al Jazeera]

Bhaktapur, Nepal – Young men stood on the ruins of a temple in Bhaktapur’s old city digging vigorously in the dirt and rubble with bare hands and shovels.

Whenever they unearthed a large stone carving on Thursday afternoon, others quickly crowded around to help lift out the heavy object. One man shouted, “We love our country!” as he did this. Excavated carvings had been placed at the foot of Bhagwati Temple, which had collapsed during the quake.

As Nepal reels after the 7.8 magnitude earthquake that struck last Saturday, and with aid only now starting to reach some isolated areas, the full scale of the devastation still remains unknown. The death toll reached 6,260 on Friday .

Many of the monuments and temples in Kathmandu Valley, which was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979, for seven distinct locations, were destroyed in the earthquake.

Cultural experts and citizens like the locals unearthing carvings in Bhaktapur’s Durbar Square are now trying to save the nation’s cultural heritage. Temples in the Durbar Square of Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur were reduced to debris and rubble during the powerful shaking. Parts of Changu Narayan, a majestic ancient hilltop Hindu complex, lies in isolated ruins.

Drone flies over battered Kathmandu

According to Alok Tuladhar, a cultural heritage documentarian and an expert in the heritage of Kathmandu’s Durbar Square, an informal meeting called for by UNESCO was held on Thursday with various cultural experts, and even included a French archaeologist who happened to be doing fieldwork in Nepal during the earthquake, to discuss how to assess the destruction.

“We’ve all decided to form a national coordination unit to do a field assessment,” Tuladhar said.

Tech-driven salvage

The field assessment will be technology-driven, said Tuladhar, and a GIS expert was developing a smartphone app by Friday so that documentation and photographs of the salvaged artefacts, bricks, and timber can quickly be shared. There are immediate plans to start training the country’s young architects, archaeologists, artists and art historians on how to assess the damage.

 Temples in Kathmandu, Patan, and Bhaktapur were reduced to debris and rubble   [Annette Ekin/Al Jazeera]
Temples in Kathmandu, Patan, and Bhaktapur were reduced to debris and rubble  [Annette Ekin/Al Jazeera]

Most of the heritage sites that were destroyed date back to the medieval period, said Tuladhar, while others were built as recently as 150 years ago, and the ancient sites are as old as 4,000 years.

Nepal’s monuments are not old relics, Tuladhar pointed out, but vital centres for religious, cultural and social activities. They are tended to by priests, visited by devotees, and packed during festivals.

“The monuments that were destroyed,” he said, “are living monuments. They’re not just part of a museum where people visit”. They are “directly linked with a very vibrant, cultural, intangible heritage that we have been able to keep alive.”

The socio-cultural fallout from this destruction will be significant, he believes. And many standing structures may need to be torn down after conservation experts inspect them.

Local knowledge vital

Tuladhar said that the government and UNESCO will be prioritising World Heritage sites, but the emphasis will also be on community-based involvement and working with locals who intimately know their neighbourhood’s treasures.

The country’s cultural loss extends beyond the monuments: Many of these ruined heritage sites include people’s homes in places such as Bhaktapur.

On Thursday, the archway at Bhaktapur’s Durbar Square entrance was torn down because it had started to crumble. Wooden carvings depicting deities jutted out from the bricks.

Inside Durbar Square, temple security guards were guarding about 150 stone and wooden carvings and brass bells in a courtyard. Ram Bahadur Kumal, one of the guards, said people had been trying to take artefacts from Durbar Square, and one piece had gone missing from the courtyard.

Back at Bhagwati Temple, men used a rope to drag stone carvings off the temple’s base. The image of a Hindu deity, which is traditionally kept concealed for most of the year, lay exposed and people scrambled up the rubble to offer blessings, until somebody shooed them away.

Across Durbar Square people walked about looking at the shattered monuments. International aid workers had set up tents and were seeing patients and a Red Cross blood bank had collected so many donations that the filled pouches were piled high in iceboxes.

Many standing structures may need to be torn down after conservation experts inspect them [Annette Ekin/Al Jazeera]
Many standing structures may need to be torn down after conservation experts inspect them [Annette Ekin/Al Jazeera]

In the alleyways behind Durbar Square, Gyanendra Khaiju, 38, a chess referee wearing a Nepali national chess team tracksuit and a face mask around his neck, walked through the historic neighbourhood he had grown up in.

Khaiju had been helping some neighbours move their belongings from a house that had been damaged and now stood dangerously slanted. The neighbours had rented a room, and the other family members were going to one of the many makeshift campsites in Bhaktapur.

Khaiju picked through the streets pointing out the worst-hit places. In some alleys where a high concentration of homes had collapsed, the debris was piled high with wooden beams, concrete and bedding. There was an eerie silence all around. People picked through the detritus of fallen homes, collecting their belongings.

In one alleyway a row of houses had all fallen, and a Casio calculator, part of a VCR player, and a booklet for dhukuti, a game based on luck, lay on the debris. Two of Khaiju’s middle-aged female neighbours died here.

Khaiju pointed to one entirely intact house, built in the traditional Newari style with a brick facade and a tiled roof attic on the fourth floor. He believes it is about 300 years old.

According to Tuladhar, the reason why many traditional structures came down is because they were not being properly maintained or had been hastily modified. “We know historically there are earthquakes here, this one was very much expected,” he said. Many traditional homes were originally designed to withstand earthquakes, built based on knowledge developed over thousands of years by our ancestors, said Tuladhar.

What caused the Nepal earthquake?

Architectural styles important

The Kumari Ghar, for instance, at Kathmandu’s Durbar Square, is one traditional building that suffered little damage. The mid-18th century building is the home of the current kumari, a child “living goddess” who is believed to be an incarnation of the Hindu goddess Kali, and according to Tuladhar, she is still living there. The four wings of the house support each other, he said.

Khaiju said that over the years, his neighbours have copied the traditional architectural designs but not the techniques. Khaiju stopped at one home that he said was built in the same year as the still standing Nyatapola Temple in Durbar Square.

The lower few floors, which had been built in a traditional Newari architectural design, seemed to have sustained little damage, but the floors above that had been constructed with large concrete slabs had fallen. Four people were buried in that building, and only two were pulled out alive, he said.

Grocery store owner Dipesh Dhoubanzar, 32, sat on the steps of his uncle’s guesthouse, which was shuttered like all the other restaurants and guesthouses in Durbar Square. He estimates that businesses may reopen in one month.

“People inside the city are in total shock right now,” he said. “The main problem is the mental stress.”

Still, Dhoubanzar, whose family survived the earthquake, recognises his relative good fortune. 

As he sat on a step facing the men clearing Bhagwati Temple, he said the removal of debris provided some relief. It’s important to salvage all that can be saved, he said. “Even one brick from this temple is ours. It’s not mine, it’s not his. It’s ours. It belongs to the nation. So we must save it.”

More than 6,000 people have been confirmed dead after the quake [Annette Ekin/Al Jazeera]
More than 6,000 people have been confirmed dead after the quake [Annette Ekin/Al Jazeera]
Source: Al Jazeera