Building back a beyul in Tsum

wooden frame if the new school in bihi
The school in Bihi that was destroyed in the 2015 earthquake being reconstructed using traditional building methods and designs. Photos: Sonam Lama

I was born and raised in Tsum Nubri’s Chhokangparo village in Upper Gorkha, the holy valley famous for its Kyiumolung pilgrimage. From when I was in primary school, we used to look up to the mountain above us that we called Lombo.

It was only after I came to the city for my higher studies, that I realised the peak above my village is also visible from Kathmandu where people call it Ganesh Himal.

From Kathmandu I went on to study architecture in Germany and graduated from the School of Architecture at the Technische Universität Darmstadt in Germany, and at the Universitat Internacional de Catalunya in Spain.  

I returned not just to Nepal, but to the land of my birth—drawn by a spiritual connection to the holy beyul valley where every monastery, mani wall, khanyi carries a centuries of history and culture.

The Guru Rimpoche is said to have visited Tsum and there is even a cave where the Mila Repa meditated in the caves of Pirenphug. Tsum is truly a beyul, a hidden valley of such tranquility and beauty that it makes mortals contemplate eternity and transcend to a higher spiritual plane.


The 120km sacred Kyiumolung circumambulation in Nepal and Tibet of Siringi Himal is now not possible because of the difficulties in travelling to China, but pilgrims still do the partial trek on the Nepal side.

Since returning, I have campaigned to preserve the culture and heritage of the Tsum and Nubri valleys, actively trying to shelve plans to build a road that I felt would destroy our traditional way of life and everything that is precious to us. 

Haphazard highways are causing irreversible damage to the culture, nature, and economy of Nepal’s remote valleys. Driven by greed and graft, roads are being built where one already exists, and where they destroy the region’s culture and tourism prospects. The Tsum road will bulldoze chortens, mani walls and settlements because the alignment would have to follow the foot trails along the narrow valley. 

Our way of life, language, culture is different from other parts of Nepal. It has been passed down to us through generations by our ancestors and we are duty bound to protect them. We are just temporary custodians of this heritage. We may not be able to improve on what they left us, but we have to at least try to protect it.

I have travelled across the world, and am convinced that Tsum Valley is unique in many respects, and not because my family is from there. As an architect, for instance, I can see that the method of construction of old houses here is suited to local conditions, uses materials such as stone, bamboo, timber and blends with the high-Himalayan environment. 

All this richness lay in ruins after the 25 April 2015 earthquake. I was in Kathmandu then, and immediately set off on the four-day walk to Tsum along trails that had been wiped out by huge rockfalls. I was devastated, but was determined to do what I could towards reconstruction and rehabilitation.

First, I trekked across the valley to assess the damage to the houses, monasteries, trails and bridges. I talked to local builders about their traditional construction methods which had been passed down from the generation before them.

I met village elders, and took their advice about seismic resistant construction methods. The challenge was to try to preserve traditional building methods and designs, while making the structures strong enough to withstand future shocks.

This was not as easy as it sounded. For example, the new plans had to conform to the government’s 17 listed designs for reconstruction to be eligible for the Rs300,000 grant. None of the designs were suitable for Tsum Valley, neither in terms of material, nor of traditional space requirements. This made my job even more complicated. 

We concentrated on rebuilding schools and health posts first using designs that matched local architectural traditions, while being earthquake resistant. 

Delays due to the government bureaucracy was expected, and it was a given. Even after the designs for the Bihi school reconstruction was completed, for example, it took a year for approval from Kathmandu. 

We had adhered to every parameter laid down by the government and sourced local materials. We chiseled stones in the traditional way, used the lighter and softer ones  for walls, using longer stones for the middle of the wall sections, known as kyangur or jakkhuyuk.

In other places we used overlapping stones called noljyak, and employed only experienced masons. We raised the walls 0.8m above the ground and used treated wooden bands at the plinth, sill, lintel and roof levels, trying them at the corners to wooden members called nas. We changed the gable end walls to timber to lighten the structure.

The other areas where we departed from traditional design were in the roof timber trusses. Traditional flagstone and slate roofs were heavy and required thick beams and rafters to support them, which made them unstable during quakes. We also secured the truss by gabion wire to the foundation so the light corrugated metal roofing stays safe from winter snowstorms.

We also used traditional technique of seismic resistant construction with timber-only design for schools which has a wooden frame inside stone masonry envelope called nang che. In 2015, the timber frame prevented the complete collapse of a building in Shya La in Nubri even though the outer stone walls fell down.

Since the classrooms also had to be acoustically sealed, in the Bihi school we filled the gap between wooden wall panels with sawdust to reduce noise, and also insulate the rooms from the cold. 

By using local materials we were not just preserving traditional architecture, village artisans and carpenters also got jobs, and nearly forgotten building techniques were revived.  

Interns from my universities in Germany and Spain have travelled to Tsum and Nubri to see for themselves what we built, and learnt about local Nepali culture as well as the reconstruction process.

Despite obstacles we have now handed over the schools and health post buildings in Bihi and Chumling to local communities. 

Sonam Lama is a native of Tsum Valley and an architect currently pursuing Hubert H Humphrey Fellowship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the United States.