Ode to oldTwo cousins archive the architecture of Kathmandu Valley to catalogue and protect its heritage
In the narrow alleys of Kathmandu’s inner city, cousins Pranidhi Tuladhar and Aabhushan Man Singh Tuladhar navigate busy Saturday traffic. They are sure-footed and swift, ducking past motorcycles and making way for cars.
Their steps carry a familiarity cultivated through years of walking the same streets. They stop in front of an old house in Nardevi painted yellow with brown wooden windows and a balcony that wraps around the second floor.
They take out their cellphones and click a few photos, getting the best possible angle. They move on to other old buildings in Yetkha.
Pranidhi and Aabhushan run a page on Instagram called The Last of Kathmandu Valley, where they capture and share the slowly disappearing old architecture of Kathmandu Valley. Started in 2022, the page is an ode to old.
“We started to share our own curiosities,” explains Pranidhi. “Then we thought this is important and this should be archived somehow. The goal is to make people care about old houses. If they notice it, they will start caring about it.”
She came up with the idea for the Instagram page during one of her walks around her neighbourhood in Asan after returning from Paris where she studied fashion management and worked for three years.
In Paris, she often roamed the city photographing its architecture. Back in Kathmandu she started doing the same and fell back in love with her hometown.
When she realised that most people including her parents were not noticing these hidden gems around their own neighbourhood, she reached out to her cousin Aabhushan, and the Last of Kathmandu Valley was born.
“I find houses to be like people, here one day, gone the next. The feeling of attachment is like with humans, the page captures that,” says Aabhushan, who is an architect.
Aabhushan’s appreciation and attraction to old houses came from hearing the tales of the exquisite terrace of his mamaghar in Tanlacchi tole, near Tyauda. His mother’s family are descendants of the Lhasa Newars, traders with Tibet who had opulent houses with beautiful woodwork.
Although he did not get a chance to view it in all its glory, the photographs he saw of the house fuelled his admiration and sparked his interest in architecture.
Older of the two, Pranidhi remembers the balcony in her mamaghar well. It wrapped around the house and she used to spend winter afternoons eating grapefruit and oranges. Her interest in arts and design was the reason she came to admire Kathmandu’s old homes.
“I grew up surrounded by old houses in Asan, and I have a nostalgic attachment to them especially after I went abroad for studies,” says Pranidhi who is now a design consultant.
One of the first things she noticed after she came back from France was that buildings like the Darbar High School, that were restored after the earthquake, were in scaffolding with China Aid signs everywhere.
Parts of Bir Hospital had been rebuilt in a “refrigerator type of architecture”, and the neighbourhoods all looked different with the shop fronts and crowds. And everyone was building higher and higher, with cantilever floors that blocked the sky along narrow alleys.
“Haphazard,” is how Aabhushan describes the current architecture of Kathmandu Valley. “It is like the city does not have an identity anymore. It is neither here nor there.”
The way the Valley looked before the 1950s was shaped by influences over 2,000 years, developed through a unique cultural continuity that governed the lives of the urban dwellers which for a long while proved resilient to socio-political and historical changes.
Then the 1934 earthquake created an opportunity for the Rana rulers to remodel the city according to their notions of modernity. They introduced the European neoclassical style distinguished by stucco façades, Corinthian columns, and green and blue trim in their palaces.
The core city was rearranged, most significantly with the construction of Juddha Sadak (New Road) where old buildings and monuments were built over with columned porticos, parapets and white-plastered façades. Few families with access to India and Europe also used reconstruction to modernise their residences as well.
Although it took several decades for concrete to be used in Kathmandu, it came to symbolise modernisation with residents opting to build taller concrete houses creating a hotchpotch urbanscape.
The 2015 earthquake destroyed many of the remaining old buildings of the Valley. The few old houses that remain are dilapidated and covered in dust behind tangles of black wires.
Maintenance of the old houses is costly due to lack of skilled craftsmen, so many owners choose to rent it out cheaply instead of restoring them.
The Last of Kathmandu Valley receives many nostalgic messages from people who recognise the houses they grew up in or had spent some parts of their lives in. One question that often comes up is, ‘How do we maintain it?’
“Maybe one way to save the old houses is to introduce strict laws for maintenance as well as a stipend to do that,” says Pranidhi giving examples of Paris where strict regulations are in place to maintain the old architecture.
Another defining characteristic of Kathmandu architecture these days is the fragmented façades of buildings that are cut up like birthday cakes for inheritance. Exquisitely carved wooden windows are cut in half as parts of old houses are rebuilt from the ground up as tall, narrow structures.
In Yetkha, the two cousins had photographed a house with five carved windows. But on a recent visit two of the windows and the space behind it was completely demolished, leaving a gaping hole between the windows.
“There must be a better way to divide up the homes,” says Pranidhi, “like keep the façade intact and make changes internally.”
Many times the two cousins have also seen old houses disappear within days. There was a house in Patan, with white exterior and light blue windows they thought was beautiful, but the next day it was demolished. “I felt a heavy sense of loss,” Aabhushan laments.
But the city springs some pleasant surprises as well, like when the cousins come across a well-maintained lived-in house. “There is this blue and white house in Dhokabahal that has been freshly painted,” says Pranidhi. “It is amazing what a fresh coat of paint can do.”
With full-time jobs, the two take pictures of old houses when they are on walks. They send the photos to each other and decide on the captions and when to post them on the page. Recently they have also started doing reels, and their clip on the balcony has got over 298,000 views.
“For now, we just photograph the house, but we want to include the memories of the people who live there or have lived there, maybe the history,” says Aabhushan.
The two say that they are discovering and learning along the way and the collaboration as well as the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.
Says Pranidhi, “We did not set out for this to be big, We just want people to notice and care about the old houses, so that they will do something about it. There is so much beauty hidden in plain sight in the chok and alleys of the Valley. All you have to do is, look up.”
Sahina Shrestha is a journalist interested in digital storytelling, product management, and audience development and engagement. She covers culture, heritage, and social justice. She has a Masters in Journalism from New York University.