Khokana and Bungamati strive to save heritage

The 2015 earthquake forced the twin towns to balance tradition with modernity as they rebuild

Earthquakes wreck lives, and destroy towns. And when they are rebuilt, nothing is the same again.

Five years after the ancient Newa towns of Khokana and Bungamati were nearly razed to the ground in the 2015 earthquake, amidst new concrete pillars are still piles of bricks of collapsed buildings.

Because most of the temples and homes collapsed and reinforced concrete buildings survived, there is a belief in Kathmandu Valley that cement is stronger and will withstand the next quake. Khokana and Bungamati wards tried to protect the urban ambience of the town by issuing guidelines about how even homes rebuilt with concrete beams should have brick facades, tile roofs and reflect traditional design elements.

Alas, these guidelines have rarely been followed. The gradual destruction of the traditional silhouettes of Kathmandu Valley began long before the earthquake, but the disaster hastened the process. Pressure of urbanisation, the demand for rental rooms, and a quest for safety have forced families to build box-like concrete high rises.

Ironically, the town that protested the alignment of the Kathmandu-Tarai expressway construction because it destroyed the town’s heritage, has not been able to preserve the traditional architecture that gave Bungamati its uniqueness.

“The rebuilding guidelines say houses should be made in traditional style with sloped tile roof and should not be more than 10 metres high,” explained Krishna Gopal Maharjan, junior engineer at Bungmati’s ward office. “If a house is made without following the guidelines we do not issue the construction completion certificate. But the rule has been flouted.”

There is pressure from local families to rebuild damaged or destroyed homes in any way they see fit, since it is their property. “People have ignored the ward’s guideline because they think it is impractical, they believe a three-story house cannot accommodate the whole family hence they tend to build a four-story or even a five-story house,” explains Jay Krishna Maharjan, 35.

The most contentious issue seems to be the height limitation. In both Khokana and Bungamati, a majority of the homes that have been rebuilt has traditional brick facades, but they say limiting homes to two floors is unrealistic.

“At first they were even unwilling to use bricks in outside walls, but at least they agreed to that,” says Chandra Shobha Dangol, social mobiliser at Khokana’s ward office who admits that the height limit has been difficult to enforce.

To be sure, a house with traditional design is costlier to build than a cement house, and this is why many of the families have not even started rebuilding even five years after the earthquake.

The house of 77-year-old Asta Maya Maharjan was completely destroyed by the earthquake, and she has been living in her relative’s house for the past five years. She says: “Those who have money build houses, we do not have enough money to build a house, let alone a house in the traditional style.”

The government’s Rs300,000 grant does not pay for even a room, and this is why rubble from the earthquake five years ago still lies strewn across both towns. Those who can afford it, have built gleaming 5-6 storey buildings that dwarf nearby shrines.

 “People who have money are building homes, people without money cannot build them. It is just the way it is,” says Gyan Bahadur Maharjan, 81, in a tone of resignation as he basked in the sun in front of his family’s new house.

Ashakaji Shakya, 64, whose house in Bungmati was damaged in 2015 agrees that the guidelines are too rigid, and although he admits that saving the culture is important, a safe shelter is even more important. Indeed, it seems the older generation of these twin towns have made peace with the fact that the towns of their childhood can never be brought back.

Shakya asks: “Say I have a family of five sons, each son would need at least one flat for himself, and on top of that if there is an old mother the house goes up to six floors. How can one accommodate such family in a three-storey house?”

Bungamati also lost its most important temple, the shrine of Rato Machindranath from where the god of rain is transported in a chariot every year through the streets of Patan. Once in 12 years the chariot is taken from Bungamati itself, an event that draws devotees from all over the Valley.

This year, the chariot festival has been scaled down to just worshipping at the shrine. Restoration of the temple was given to a construction company with the financial support from the Sri Lankan government. But after delays, the contract was dismissed by the National Reconstruction Authority (NRA) which then handed over the project to a local committee.

Jit Bahadur Maharjan, 74, of Khokana remembers growing up as a little boy. Things were simpler then, he says, houses had thatch roofs, there was always the smell of mustard from the town famous for its oil presses. He says: “The word ‘culture’ exists, but no one knows what it means anymore. We are trying to save our culture, but if you look around, there is nothing left to save.”

Indeed, the transformation of the architectural grammar of a town seems to change everything: its festivals, its traditional trade, craftsmanship, and the lifestyle of the inhabitants.

Says Suresh Suras Shrestha at Department of Archaeology: “When the look of the houses along a street changes, a town loses its identity. Khokana no longer remains Khokana,”

Mixing old with new

Jaa Dangol’s ancestral home was destroyed by the 2015 earthquake, he decided to build back better. He wanted not just a home, but a source of income as well.

At a time when his neighbours were moving away from traditional occupations and homes after the earthquake, Dangol saw an opportunity in going back to Newa cuisine, craftsmanship and restore his building into a traditional homestay that would give visitors an authentic experience.

Indeed, until the coronavirus lockdown destroyed business, Dangol was providing tourists with local food in a traditional ambience in his restaurant called ‘Laachi’, which means a place for local foods and products.

 “I reused 70% of the traditional materials from the house that brought down by the earthquake,” says Dangol, who says that if others in Khokana were to follow the same model they would not just augment family income, but also protect the town’s heritage.

Indeed, despite the destruction and the changes of the past five years, Khokana still retains its old world charm with a pervasive smell of the mustard oil presses, women spinning cotton and weaving carpets in sidewalk shops.