From Changu to Sankhu the youth are pitching in to help rebuild Kathmandu Valley's historic towns
1. CHANGU NARAYAN
Stone inscriptions at Changu Narayan reveal that this hilltop shrine is the oldest known settlement in Kathmandu Valley. With a history going back to the Lichhavi Period more than 1,000 years ago, archaeologists say the settlement is built upon several layers of ruins of buildings destroyed in previous earthquakes.
The latest quake this year once more damaged one of Kathmandu’s holiest, most historic sites. The main temple is now propped up by wooden beams. Weakened by aftershocks, the temple’s corners are crumbling and the walls have cracks.
Photos: Gopen Rai
“Although the earthquake did not destroy the main temple completely, a lot of damage was done. But before we begin to renovate the temple, we must take precautions to ensure that the structure is not further damaged,” says Aruna Nakarmi of Department of Archaeology.
The plan now is to analyse the soil, strengthen the slopes below the temple to prevent landslides, study the impact of vibration from a nearby road, and only then carry out the renovation, she adds. However, some urgent repair work is being carried out on the outer walls to make the temple complex safe for visitors in future.
“Rebuilding the temple from scratch is not feasible. At the moment, we are focusing on the structure’s stability so that further renovation can be done on the outside in the near future,” Nakarmi told Nepali Times.
Around the temple, the four sattals housing the recently-opened Living Traditions Museum has been razed to the ground by the Nepal Army which is guarding the temple complex round the clock. Artefacts from the temple and the museum is currently being housed separately.
“There are plans to rebuild the south section of the museum so that historical objects can all be stored there,” says Sunita Bhadel of the Living Traditions Museum. The army, police and local volunteers have been helping out to clear and sort the debris, but with the rice planting season around the corner help is in short supply.
A Changu resident who lost his family home sums up the mood here: “The earthquake destroyed our houses, but at least the temple is still standing and that gives us some solace.”
Changu Narayan, Stéphane Huët
Return of the past, Lawrence Miller
Historic and safe
The ancient settlement of Sankhu in the eastern edge of Kathmandu Valley was being considered by UNESCO for inclusion into its list of World Heritage Sites. In January 2008, the Department of Archaeology submitted its application for Sankhu. Then came the 25 April earthquake and the historic Newar town lost most of its ancient temples and houses.
Photo: Anuj Shrestha
The people of Sankhu are proud of their heritage and started picking up the pieces soon after the quake. They cleared the debris themselves, and are now trying to see if they can raise money for rebuilding.
“Waiting for the government isn’t a solution,” said Suresh Pradhan, a social worker who founded the Sankhu Reconstruction Committee. “We will rebuild ourselves.”
The assessment was initiated two weeks after the earthquake by Sakwo Vintuna Pucha, a youth organisation founded in 2013 to preserve and promote the cultural traditions of Sankhu. There are now 20 volunteers between 18-26 years old protecting the artefacts, bricks and timber in the ruined town.
Some 55 historical houses, many more than 100 years old, have been damaged in the earthquake. Amrit Shrestha, 23, a civil engineering student has been inspecting the buildings and deciding whether some of them are safe enough to be repaired, or have to be torn down. Volunteers are also collecting artefacts from damaged buildings to store safely.
However, Sakwo Vintuna Pucha is facing challenges, some locals have already sold their sajhyas, the intricately carved wooden windows. “People need money to rebuild their houses,” Shrestha said. “But we have to explain to why they shouldn’t sell them.”
In a meeting with social workers, English teacher Birendra Prasad insisted that safety was more important than preserving old buildings. “We want houses that are resistant,” he said.
Christian Manhart, Director of UNESCO Nepal, who was at the meeting, explained that houses could be rebuilt in traditional style and still be safe. “Living in a historic city and being safe from earthquakes isn’t a contradiction,” he added.
Archaeologist David Andolfatto accompanied Manhart to Sankhu earlier this week and he was impressed by the work already achieved by Sakwo Vintuna Pucha, especially because they hadn’t been trained in heritage conservation.
Two volunteers of Sakwo Vintuna Pucha trained by the International Council of Museums (ICOM) have been sifting carefully through the ruins. Manhart also suggested they could learn how to use KLL Collect app to transmit information on status of damaged monuments.
The Sankhu Reconstruction Committee carried out an inventory of all the historic buildings in the town 10 years ago. But Pradhan says: “The plan isn’t a problem,
we need a rebuilding policy to ensure the style and safety of our houses”.
From afar, visitors could be forgiven for mistaking the ridge-top village of Bungamati with its russet brick houses and a scenic backdrop of rolling hills as one of those historic towns in Tuscany.
Indeed, Bungamati’s charm lies in its architecture, its vibrant festivals and a close-knit Newar community that is proud of its heritage. A large part of that cultural wealth is related to the Machindranath temple and the chariot festival of the rain god. This April, the festival was an important 12-year event and the people of Bungamati were in the midst of celebrating the jatra when the earthquake struck.
Many of the historic mud and brick houses went down along with the large white sikhara-style temple of the red rain god. The chariot had already been pulled up to Chasikot where it stopped on its tracks. And that is where it still is, leaning to one side.
Relief workers reached Bungamati immediately with food and shelter but many villagers are worried about the rains. Two months after the quake, the locals have cleared a lot of the debris and have built temporary shelters. But many damaged houses still need to be demolished.
“We want to bring down our house and clear up the space but the road up ahead has been blocked by the houses that collapsed, so the pick-ups to transport the debris cannot reach this place,” says Amar Raj Shakya who has been living with his family in a temporary shelter.
As elsewhere in Kathmandu Valley, Bungamati’s youth have stepped in. Every morning for the past few days members of Bhintuna Pucha have started clearing the rubble in collaboration with the house owners and the community. The group is getting help from the Ganesh Man Singh Foundation and Umesh Shrestha, chairman of Prime Bank.
Naresh Man Shakya of Bhintuna Pucha said: “With the monsoon approaching, it became clear we needed to act urgently. The challenge is to involve the community while working on houses that are not their own.” The group members are given Rs 200 as incentive, even though they are volunteers.
For people like Sakali Mali (pic, above), whose three-storey house went down the youngsters are a big help. “We didn’t know where to start but with their help we are almost done in a week,” she says.
Under the shadow
After the 25 April earthquake brought down 90 per cent of the houses in Harsiddhi, locals using tarpaulin sheets and bamboo poles, built a big makeshift tent at Tafa Khala (pic), the town’s largest open space. More than 150 residents camped in this communal tent in the first ten days after the quake.
Photo: Stéphane Huët
Two months later, Tafa Khala is filled with dozens of similar looking shelters. Some families have set up tents, others have built shelters using corrugated zinc sheets while 80 remain in the original makeshift tent.
“More people came to Tafa Khala after 12 May as 15 additional houses collapsed in the aftershock,” says Ajay Maharjan, 31, from Jyako Tole who lost his house in the first quake. “Two elderly men also died that day.”
An open kitchen has been set up at the open grounds where every day a group of five prepare meals for the 250 people living there. Food is not much of a problem for locals, most of who work as farmers. What they need they say are safer shelters that will protect them from the rain and wind.
“Few of the shelters have already been damaged by the rains this week,” says Maharjan who is a teacher.
As devotees head to the Trishakti Bhawani Temple at the break of dawn, things look pretty normal in Harsiddhi. But walk down 20m and the sight of uncleared debris greet you.
“Some are traumatised by this scenery and are afraid to leave their shelters,” says temple priest, Dhana Bahadur. “We need vehicles to transport these rubble away.”
Harsiddhi residents are thinking of reconstruction, but they want to ensure it is planned properly. After the earthquake, locals realised the alleys were too narrow for ambulances to drive through. “More lives could have been saved had the lanes been wider,” says Maharjan. “The plan now is to make the alleys three feet wider.”
Adds Maharjan: “Even if we are close to Kathmandu, we haven’t received aid from the government. We have fallen under the shadow of the light as a saying in Nepali goes.”
As remote as Kathmandu