Rebuilding better than beforeRohit Ranjitkar’s book is a pictorial documentation of the restoration of Kathmandu’s monuments after the 2015 earthquake
Who better than Rohit Ranjitkar, Nepal’s foremost heritage architect, to put together this voluminous documentation of the repair, restoration and rebuilding of Kathmandu Valley’s monuments after the 2015 earthquake.
Monuments of the Kathmandu Valley: Before & After the 2015 Earthquake is a sort of post mortem of how the historic temples, shrines, monasteries, stupas, rest houses and Rana palaces were rebuilt from the ground up – with both good and bad examples.
But it is a tribute to Ranjitkar and his colleagues that restoration has been sensitively done, reusing salvaged material, and employing modern items only when necessary for structural purposes. Cement was not used, and stainless steel dowels only inserted inside stone columns to make them safe.
Ranjitkar is director of the Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust (KVPT), and within minutes of the earthquake at 11:56 on 25 April 2015, he was out on Patan Darbar Square, helping rescue not just those trapped under the rubble but also mobilising Patan’s community to carry valuable stone carvings, wooden columns and fallen bronze idols for safekeeping in the nearby Patan Museum.
In the week after the earthquake, he stopped Nepal Army bulldozers from clearing the debris from the 12th century Hari Shankar temple and the 400-year-old Char Narayan temple so items could be retrieved.
Many of these were classified and restored to the exact place on the temples. In the store room of Patan Museum were artifacts from the 1934 earthquake which were also put back in their right places.
Destructive earthquakes happen every 80 years or so in Nepal and this allows the skills, craft and knowledge of restoration to pass from one generation to the next. This book is a part of that tradition.
Ranjitkar provides numerous examples of damaged wooden struts and tympanum that were replaced, repaired, and missing pieces recarved from scratch.
The 625-page volume is lavishly illustrated with photographs and drawings of the reconstruction process. This makes the book itself a treasure house of information.
High on top of the Taleju in Patan, KVPT did not just rebuild the titled cupola but corrected faulty reconstruction after 1934.
The book includes details of the rebuilding of the Machindranath Temple in Bungmati, the Indrayani Temple (below) built in 1792, Kasthamandap, Boudhanath stupa.
In Bhaktapur, Ranjitkar shows how a watercolour painting by Henry Ambrose Oldfield in 1853 was used to restore the west façade of the Malati Chok not only to pre-2015, not even pre-1934 but to its original design in the 19th century.
Monuments of the Kathmandu Valley does not just feature the restoration of Malla-era structures, but also former Rana palaces that now serve as government buildings like Singha Darbar, Rastra Bank, Harihar Bhavan or Keshar Mahal.
Ranjitkar gives examples of mistakes like the 1832 Lagan Silkhana that was demolished after damage. We are sure there are many other examples of how restoration could have been done better, but this book is mostly about the ones well done.
Restoration of a King
The cover of Monuments of the Kathmandu Valley: Before & After the 2015 Earthquake has the dramatic and hitherto unpublished photograph (right) of Patan Darbar Square while the temple structures were coming down in a cloud of brown dust.
The image was taken by James Kirk at exactly 11:56 on 25 April 2015, and shows the 350-year-old bronze statue of King Yognarendra Malla falling from its pedestal as flocks of frightened pigeons circle above the dust cloud.
Kirk took another photo at 12:33. By then the dust has settled, and the statue is lying on its side, with a ‘top-less’ South Taleju in the background. There is already someone trying to dig through the rubble of the Hari Narayan temple to rescue people trapped underneath.
King Yognarendra Malla’s statue was damaged, but looks as if it is kneeling in prayer. The face did not even have a scratch.
The king and his consorts were repaired and consecrated on top of the column in 2017. Even the gilded copper bird finial, which was lost and miraculously found was replaced on top of the serpent.
The Charnarayan temple built in 1566 in Patan Darbar Square collapsed in a cloud of dust.
The first photograph by Suresh Lakhe taken at 12:01 shows the square engulfed in dust. Five minutes later, people are standing at the centre of the square as the ground swayed, and structures collapsed around them. Pigeons wheeled overhead.
The last photo taken in 2019 shows the temple meticulously restored by KVPT from the foundation up, using local material like yellow mud mortar, and traditional building techniques.
The book was launched on 21 July in Yalamaya Kendra, Patan Dhoka.