A tale of three cities

Bhaktapur Darbar Square. Photo: AMIT MACHAMASI

Restoration of monuments damaged in the 2015 earthquake have been carried out differently in Kathmandu, Lalitpur and Bhaktapur, and this has depended a lot on the political will and community involvement to adhere to traditional building methods and materials.

The cohesiveness of the community living in the historic core of the three cities has also determined the pace and accuracy of reconstruction after the 2015 earthquake.

Since Bhaktapur and Lalitpur have retained much of the historic sense of community and have elected more accountable mayors, restoration there has gone much better than in Kathmandu.

For example, restoration work on the Trailokya-Mohan Narayan temple in Kathmandu is now complete. The plastered walls, wooden colonnade, cornices and tile roofs of the three-storey shrine on a five-stage brick plinth at Hanuman Dhoka have returned to their pre-2015 state.

However, for specialists like German architect Wolfgang Korn, the restoration is not quite what it should be. He was surprised to see that the temple had been rebuilt with unpainted plaster that is Rana-style, and not Malla-era as it should be.

“The struts in Malla-era temples are always carved, with the red dachi appa used as veneer bricks,” says historian Dinesh Raj Panta, according to whom the temple was originally built in the late 17th century by Parthivendra Malla, Pratap Malla’s son. This makes the white walls uncharacteristic.

Restoration of the nearby Maju Dega is not yet complete, and scaffolds and green net cover the construction. Korn, who made detailed measurements of the temple in the 1970s (see accompanying piece, below) fears that Maju Dega will also repeat the mistakes on the Trailokya-Mohan Narayan.

“The Department of Archaeology requires only traditional materials and methods be used in rebuilding these sites,” says Korn. “So, I ask myself why this Rana-style on a Malla-era temple? Where are the carved struts?”

Read Also: The history of heritage, Ashish Dhakal

Sanjeev Man Shrestha, who is a retired engineer with the Department of Archaeology (DoA) and was involved in the reconstruction of the Trailokya-Mohan temple, says that the verification of the rebuilt structure is in fact based on photographic evidence. And photos taken before 2015 show both temples with white plaster walls and, in the case of the Narayan temple, with some uncarved struts on the second and third tiers.

“We do not know if it was indeed renovated previously,” Shrestha adds, “but we have used all original materials in the rebuilding wherever possible, even renovating the broken and cracked timber, and replacing with replicas where necessary.”

Architect Amit Bajracharya at the Hanuman Dhoka Darbar Square Conservation Program says that 80% of the wooden windows, doors, pillars and struts were recovered after the earthquake and they have been used in the restoration.

It could be that some of the temples in Kathmandu have been restored to their pre-2015 form, but this is not necessarily what they looked like before the 1934 earthquake. This has thrown up questions of how far back we should go when restoring a monument.

Kathmandu has also seen geopolitical competition in restoration, with the Chinese helping rebuild the Hanuman Dhoka Palace, the Americans involved in the restoration of Gaddi Baithak, and the Japanese of other temples in the palace complex.

Read Also: Kathmandu's temple restoration after 1934 earthquake, Sahina Shrestha

Over in Bhaktapur, the town’s main gate was plastered white during the Rana-era. It was damaged again in 2015, but architects there have retired it to its Malla-era state with exposed bricks.

“We wanted it to look traditional, keeping with how it must have appeared when it was built,” explains architect Ram Govinda Shrestha of Bhaktapur Municipality.

Nearly all of Bhaktapur’s monuments damaged in 2015 have been restored because of active cooperation between the local communities and the municipality.

Shrestha says the municipality used three approaches for renovation: by the community, by the municipality and through DoA contractors: “In all three approaches, the community was involved in supervision. Woodworkers, masons and craftspeople were also selected by the people, and the municipality helped with finding funds.”

In Lalitpur, most renovation and rebuilding projects were undertaken through the Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust (KVPT) with active community participation.

Says KVPT’s Rohit Ranjitkar: “There was minimal bureaucracy, and the work was completed through coordination of the local government and the community. KVPT has also been working in Patan since 2008, which means that the locals trust us.”

It is different in Kathmandu because it does not have the level of expertise that the other two cities of the Valley have, and community participation is also not at the same level.

“Kathmandu lacks the skilled artisans, and therefore is dependent upon Bhaktapur,” admits Amit Bajracharya. “There is also less public participation or interest, as many locals in and around the old town have moved away.”

Ranjitkar says this has meant that the people around the heritage sites in Kathmandu are not original residents but people who rent rooms or shops. “As fewer and fewer locals remain, there is also less and less ownership and engagement,” he adds.

This has also meant that much of the rebuilding in Kathmandu is being done through the DoA’s bidding process, adding to the inaccuracy in restoration.

For instance, the medieval Chilancho Chaitya in Kirtipur which was damaged in 2015 was quickly renovated by the DoA. But just a year later, a crack appeared from the finial to the dome.

Read Also: Rebuilding Kathmandu after the 1934 quake, Alina Bajracharya

Each rebuilding and renovation is particular to the monument, as there is not one such treatment for every building: but a contractor may not be aware of this. Indeed, the lowest bidder with experience in working mostly with concrete, and building modern houses and roads are involved in Kathmandu’s heritage restoration.

“On top of lack of expertise and resources, this is also a result of a lack of forethought and patience,” explains Bharat Maharjan of Nepal Heritage Documentation Project. “Brick walls are different from concrete, sometimes it may take days between one layer and another, work may be paused because a decoration needs to be set. Each step is sensitive and significant. But when people don’t know much about heritage conservation, they don’t consider the quality of work, but only deadlines.”

Further, there are also traditional dimensions to consider in a temple, and processes that are no longer practiced in residential buildings, but integral to heritage restoration.

“With tender, it becomes overly bureaucratic, with a lot of interference,” says Bajracharya. “And the lowest bidder with no expertise in heritage conservation leads to inferior work and compromises to the structure and design.” However, he adds that workers and artisans involved in Hanuman Dhoka have been trained: “Even though it is the lowest bidder who gets the contract, we have tried to make the restoration as authentic as possible.”

Sanjeev Man Shrestha agrees, saying that the DoA has its criteria when selecting the contractor, which takes into account their experience in working with wood, bricks and other traditional materials.

But it may not always be possible to use traditional materials and practices. Korn believes that if the Malla architects had known of ways to make buildings even more structurally sound, they would have used them.

While traditional practices, designs and methods should be preserved and utilised, Rohit Ranjitkar says that architects should also be pragmatic. In a few cases, modern elements, such as steel beams, have been used in Patan just to make the structures stronger.

“We also have to think about our place in an earthquake-prone region and it is not prudent to blindly remake a structurally unsound temple or monument,” Ranjitkar adds. “We should also think about how we may improve a previously collapsed building so that more lives may be saved in time of the next disaster.”

Measuring up to Kathmandu's heritage

Restoration of monuments is made easier because of scale drawings by a German architect done 50 years ago


Wolfgang Korn leads the way up to the top floor of Lalit Heritage Hotel in Patan. Through the glass doors, the terrace opens almost like a stage for a view of Patan Darbar.

Under the grey sky, the oblique roofs, red bricks and stone temples look restful, against rows of people on benches. Among the scaffolds, spires and baked tiles, the two-tiered Char Narayan Temple stands out.

This is one of many monuments of Kathmandu Valley that Korn surveyed in 1970, producing detailed drawings.

Born in Dessau in what was then East Germany, Korn first arrived in Nepal when he was 25 in 1968. Having studied architecture, he had applied for a German Development Service project in West Africa. They asked him if he would like to go to Nepal instead.

He was fascinated by his first walk around Kathmandu past gods and goddesses, quaint brick houses along narrow streets, wood carvings and stone monuments.

Korn worked for the Physical Planning Section of the government designing the office buildings. There, he met architect Carl Pruscha who was then mapping out two Ring Roads to give Kathmandu an urban plan for future growth, and started surveying sacred sites.

“It is important to know where the heritage sites are when one plans a town,” explains Korn. “Very often, I went alone with the driver, as people in the government did not want to leave their office.”

This work brought him closer to the ancient Newa architecture of Kathmandu Valley that used wood and bricks to create a highly structured network of urban buildings and open spaces.

“I am not a historian or a researcher but a curious craftsman,” says Korn, recalling how he climbed into the shrines to measure, collect and draw cross-sections.

Once in Panauti, he had to convert to Hinduism for 17 minutes to study the damage to the Indresvar Temple.

“I was staring up at the carvings when the pujari came over and asked what I was doing,” recounts Korn. “When I explained to him my profession, he asked me my opinion regarding the topmost, third tier of the temple that was leaning to one side.”

When Korn said that he would not be able to say much from the ground, the priest brought out a copper plate with flowers, vermilion and rice grain. He then started chanting a prayer, sprinkled water and put a red tika on Korn's forehead, declaring him a temporary Hindu so he could enter the sanctorum to study it.

Keeping to the walls, Korn climbed up to the topmost tier, made some quick pencil sketches, and came down covered in dust and pigeon muck. He briefed the priest about the kind of repairs needed, after which he performed the ceremony in reverse, wiping the tika off his forehead, and restored Korn back to Christianity.

The experience at Indresvar also confirmed to Korn that the Valley's temples were historically two-tiered, and the third roof was often a later addition.

Between 1970 and 1977, Korn prepared scaled drawings of many structures, including the Indra Sattal in Bhaktapur, Kasthamandap, Lakshmi-Narayan Sattal, Chusya Baha in Kathmandu, and Char Narayan Temple in Patan.

After an extensive survey of Pujari Math in Bhaktapur in 1971 and 1972, Korn embarked solo on the Temple Catalogue Project to prepare an inventory of all tiered temples of the Valley with a photographic catalogue and typologies.

His later work with the Hanuman Dhoka Renovation Project in 1973 and private documentation of temples, monasteries, falcha, private houses, carved windows, led to the publication of the first book on Newa architecture, Traditional Architecture of the Kathmandu Valley, in 1976.

After the 2015 earthquake destroyed many historical monuments in the Valley, Korn’s detailed scale drawings of the Maju Dega, Kasthamandap, Char Narayan and Vatsala Temple have been instrumental in their accurate restoration.

Despite this, Korn is not happy about the haphazard urbanisation of Kathmandu Valley, especially post-2015. He was surprised by the restoration of the Malla-era Trailokya Mohan Narayan Temple in Kathmandu where the walls have been plastered and painted white in the Rana-era style. The same methods are being used in rebuilding Maju Dega, another Malla-era temple dating back to 1692, of which Korn had also taken detailed measurements 50 years ago.

“It looks like the contractor wanted to save money and got away with it,” Korn says, shaking his head.

He believes rebuilding heritage sites should never be given to the lowest bidder, especially when they know nothing about struts, carvings and dimensions.

“To rebuild heritage, you need architects who understand the specific materials traditionally used, such as dachi appa in Newa buildings,” he says.

These rejections of standard building practices are perhaps the reason why the Valley’s towns look the way they do today: residences, offices blocks and view towers rising in a babble of concrete and steel.

Fortunately, the dramatic transformation of the Valley has not deterred Korn’s caring and curious spirit. He has been visiting Nepal several weeks a year to work with the Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust (KVPT) on renovations at Patan Darbar Square.

He also lectures to Nepali architecture students, inspiring a new generation to care about heritage. “Because,” he adds, “you kill the past by not caring.”

Ashish Dhakal