Rebuilding Kathmandu after the 1934 quake

Before 1934, the old quarter of Kathmandu was compact and densely populated. All photos: IMAGES OF THE CENTURY

The way Nepal’s Rana rulers went about rebuilding Kathmandu after the mega-earthquake on 15 January 1934 has important lessons for urban planning after 2015 as well.

Every disaster offers the opportunity to start from scratch, or to build back better. Prime Minister Juddha Shumsher Rana used the 8.3 magnitude earthquake that devastated Kathmandu to build the first planned streets in Nepal—Juddha Sadak, Sukra Path, Dharma Path and Putali Sadak.  

Known till today as ‘New Road’, the intersection of these streets became the capital’s business centre. By the 1970s, newly black-topped wide streets with footpaths, shops, banks, school, newspaper offices and a fire brigade was Kathmandu’s nerve centre.

The epicenter of the 1934 earthquake was in Okhaldhunga, 120km to the east of Kathmandu, and it killed nearly 17,000 people. Because Nepal was closed off at the time when the British were in India, the disaster is still erroneously known as the Bihar Earthquake.  

The Rana regime was autocratic, but it soon went about systematically planning, acquiring land, redistributing houses and transferring land titles, compensating and relocating original owners.

The Bhukampa Pidit Udarak Adda (Office of Earthquake Relief)’ was set up at Mahankal temple premises to draw up plans, collect funds, and to distribute loans for reconstruction.

Before 1934, the old quarter of Kathmandu was compact and densely populated, with ownership pattern much like most other parts of inner city Patan or Bhaktapur today. The narrow streets were lined with traditional brick-paved courtyards.  

Houses were two-storey, built with brick and clay mortar, and had sloping tiled roof, with large courtyards like Te Bahal and Mahankal at the edge of Tudikhel. Besides Asan, the main markets were in Makha Tole and Maru Tole.

Immediately after the disaster, Prime Minister Juddha Shumsher announced relief measures, including helping families in reconstruction, repair and maintenance. The relief office was responsible for drawing up an estimate of the building materials required for reconstruction. Architects and planners soon went to work making detailed measurements and drawings.

The office also kept records of the dead and injured, livestock lost, and started a donation campaign starting with Rana families and prominent citizens. The government also wrote to the international community, requesting relief. Donations were received from Britain, India and Japan.  

The resources were ploughed into building a straight street from what is now New Road Gate to Gaddhi Baithak. Damaged houses that stood along the way were demolished, and a wide street replaced the winding alleys of the old town. Drinking water pipelines were installed underground, and stones used for pavement were brought from Halchok to Lainchaur using a temporary ropeway.  

The façade design of each building was planned, and the new buildings laid out in such a way that they either faced an existing road, courtyard or a backyard. Whatever the size of the plot, they all had to have the same façade, whereas the internal space could be designed according to the plot owner’s will. In Sukra Path, new buildings could not be higher than 9.2m.  

The windows on the first floor were stipulated to be bigger in size compared to second floor, with about 1m in width and 1.7m in height. The windows on the second floor were 0.85m in width and 1.3m in height, much bigger than in traditional Newa homes.

The houses could be only three stories, the ground floors had wooden door panels for shops, and they all had 0.7m thick cornices and 1m high parapet walls.

There was no restriction on the design of the façade facing the inner courtyard. Individual houses were allowed to have different floor heights, and they maintained these guidelines by adjusting the sill height. Along Dharma Path, the houses could be as high as four stories, again maintaining the same details as on the adjacent street.  

Of the 18 households relocated from Indrachok and Khichapokhari area after the earthquake, 17 were Newa families and one was Marwari. The plots were redistributed to the local Newa and Marwaris and some to civil servants and generals.

The Marwari traders, who came to Nepal during the reign of Chandra Shumshere, had 32 shops in Indrachok and Makhan Tole. Seventeen of the Marwari families continue to live along Sukra Path to this day, carrying on their traditional clothing business.

To give himself credit, Juddha Shumshere also had a statue of himself erected at the intersection of the new road named after him, Juddha Sadak, and Indrachowk at Sukhra Path, and Siddhicharan Chok at Dharma Path. The statue was visible from all directions at the crossing.

Three years after the earthquake in January 1937 Nepal’s first bank, Nepal Bank Limited was established in a place where there were stables for horses. Nepal also got its first fire brigade, the Juddha Barun Yantra.

‘I want to build a fire brigade in Nepal. We need to be well prepared, fire can quickly engulf a house and can be dangerous,” Juddha Shumshere is quoted in a Gorkhapatra article in 1942. The first Maurice fire engine was carried over the Chitlang pass on the backs of hundreds of porters.  

Post-quake town planning centralised the city’s amenities along New Road. Later, the offices of Gorkhapatra Sansthan, the municipal office, Nepal’s first movie theatre Jana Sewa Hall, Utpatti Kendra textile shop, Juddhodaya Public School, Bhugol Park to commemorate the earthquake, were all located along this intersection.

The newspaper shop near the pipal tree became a hub for Nepal’s public sphere, and later also a centre for protests—much like the Mandala is now.      

After completing New Road, the government started work on Putali Sadak, cutting through fields and houses. At the time these were one of the few straight roads in the Valley, and the goal of this ‘reconstruction’ was to recover the function of society in affected areas, including restoring livelihoods, and reviving economic activity.  

Much was lost during this reconstruction, including Kathmandu’s traditional neighbourhoods, its architectural heritage and intangible assets. However, it also showed that post-disaster reconstruction and rehabilitation is a complex process that involved interaction of social, technical and economic factors.

Despite everything, New Road and Putali Sadak are examples of public participation, good governance, and well-executed short and long-term post-disaster planning. A testimony to its success is that nearly century later, the two roads are still hubs of economic activity.

Rising from the ashes

A city neighbourhood recovering from an earthquake would also need a school, so on 8 April, 1939, the Juddhodaya Public School was inaugurated housed in a 2 storey building on New Road. The school has moved several times since, and the high school is now located in Chhetrapati.  

The newly developed neighbourhood was also where the first newspaper office in Nepal was set up in 1940. Gorkhapatra Sansthan was located in the Dugam Bahi neighbourhood, and stands in the same place to this day.

While the reconstruction work was moving ahead, the government also handed out loans for private housing. More than 80% of the loans were repaid in full, and some of those who failed to pay were jailed. In September 1940, however, Prime Minister Juddha Shumsher cancelled all debts on loans.

On 23 February, 1941 a column commemorating the disaster was erected at Bhugol Park which depicted Lord Shiva sitting atop a globe (pictured above). By February 1943 the Juddha Sadak to Khichapokhari road was completed. Plots of land with demolished buildings were sold for half the price of ongoing rates and new housing conforming to government guidelines built.

In 1944, Dharma Path was completed with pedestrian sidewalks on both sides. In 1959, telephone cables were laid along New Road, and a Telecommunication Office located on the street.  

The new Sabha Griha was built on Sukra Path in the neoclassical style blended with Newa architectural elements and over-sized carved windows on the sides of the portico. This was the first city hall, and later was converted into the Jana Sewa movie theatre, which was destroyed in a fire in 1960 and the Bishal Bazar mall built in its place.

Alina Bajracharya is an architect, and this article is based on her thesis.