Culture cannot be an afterthought

Heritage and culture have been shunted from one ministry to another for 40 years, no one quite seems to know where to put them

Patan Darbar Square. Photo: NEPALI TIMES ARCHIVE

As Nepal gears up for the general election on 20 November, it is that time again to put our best bet on the same veteran patriarchs. The last time I wrote a piece of breaking news as a journalist in 2020, I remember how then-Prime Minister K P Oli pulled the best gambit ever, announcing a nationwide election in November amidst the Covid pandemic.

If only it were as easy to restart one's life like prime ministers announce elections at the drop of a hat. And while the country's finance, foreign affairs, defence, federal affairs, water supply, and so on are mentioned in every election rally, culture and heritage does not deserve that distinction.

And while 'culture' has been part of the Nepali vernacular for decades, 'heritage' is just beginning to creep into the leaders' lexicon. Hopefully, after these elections, culture and heritage will find their own meaning and importance in government policy. For now, they are lost in transition, appended to the Ministry of Civil Aviation and Tourism.

In fact the 'culture' baton has been shunted from one ministry to another for 40 years. No one quite seems to know what to do with culture. The term ‘culture’ was first used by the Council of Ministers in correlation with the Ministry of Education in 1981. The irony is that before culture was included in the ministry, the Department of Archaeology (DoA), the country's primary organisation for archaeological research and protection of cultural heritage, was established in 1952 and was administered by the Ministry of Education for 28 years.

Since then, 'culture' has been shunted around in the Ministry of Youth Sports and Culture; the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation; the Ministry of Culture and State Rebuilding; the Ministry of Federal Affairs, Constituent Assembly, Parliamentary Affairs and Culture; and finally the Ministry of Culture, Civil Aviation and Tourism again since 2011.

The Ministry of Culture, Civil Aviation and Tourism has had six ministers since 2020: Yogesh Bhattarai, Bhanu Bhakta Dhakal, Uma Shankar Arajriya, Lila Nath Shrestha, Prem Ale, and Jeevan Ram Shrestha.

These ministers are known for their one-of-a-kind personalities: from Prem Ale's video scandal, to Ale exposing Yogesh Bhattarai for alleged land extortion in Narayanhiti, while Uma Shankar Arajriya and Lila Nath Shrestha may have broken the Guinness World Record by now for the shortest tenure as Ministers of Culture.

Jeevan Ram Shrestha also had a leading role in the September 2022 episode at the VFS Global Visa Application Centre in Thamel when a security guard was arrested for requesting him to stand in the queue like everyone else for his Canadian visa biometric.

And, while Bhanu Bhakta Dhakal was not the Culture Minister at the time, he was caught picking his nose as Health Minister on national television, before he was assigned to the Ministry of Unculture.

Culture is now the step-sibling of the Ministry of Civil Aviation and Tourism. As is customary, the cream of the crop gets divided among the veteran leaders and parties, while Culture is relegated to the backburner. Let's take the annual budget as an example.

Read Also: The history of heritage, Ashish Dhakal

Minister Sharma notified in a speech on 29 June that a Mountaineering Research Centre and a museum reflecting the adventurous identity of Sherpas will be established in the Everest region, and the Himalayan Monastery Conservation Program will be implemented for the protection of Himalayan monasteries older than 500 years.

In addition, a Newa Museum will be established with Kathmandu Metropolitan City, and assistance will be provided for the implementation of the Master Plan for Indigenous Gurung Culture Preservation in Pokhara.

However, ministers in the past have repeatedly failed to set aside budgets for training and recruitment for heritage preservation and culture. Along with agriculture and tourism, culture  should also receive government subsidies and assistance. But, tourism and civil aviation always end up taking a larger chunk, leaving the scraps for culture.

If Nepal Tourism Board (NTB) has the budget to promote Janakpur's tourism, it might as well provide more resources to the promotion of the city's culture and heritage. In addition to the Janaki Temple and being the birthplace of Sita, Janakpur also houses a vibrant Mithila culture, art and cuisine. Tourists are drawn to culture, not the other way around. Tourism, Civil Aviation and Culture are all intertwined, but without culture, there is no tourism. Without tourism, what happens to civil aviation?

We live in a country where the youth is deprived of Nepal's history. For instance, there is no knowledge of the original copies of the Sugauli Treaty. Who is accountable for its loss? What is the state of the country's archives? Instead of spending money on the disastrous Yetis of Visit Nepal 2020, give resources and budget to passionate lone archivists like Santosh Khaderi, who works day-in and night in Qatar searching for Nepal's history online through newspaper clippings and museum archives abroad.

The state of our national and state museums is not much better, and the DoA with limited resources and employees is expected to manage such large institutions. The chief of the National Museum Jayaram Shrestha remarks that he has tried his best to make the Museum relevant to the nation, but, given the limited budget, their hands are tied as they are not autonomous like the Patan and Narayanhiti museums and have to seek permission from the DoA for every single detail.

Speaking of Narayanhiti, there is not a piece of land untouched by controversy and the cronies of the country.

Only during the 2015 earthquake did culture and heritage generate a stir. Now, almost eight years later, we're back to square one. The National Library of Nepal, Kaiser Mahal, Singha Durbar, Sanskrit University, and many other projects remain unfinished. The disasters of Kamal Pokhari, Rani Pokhari and Tri-Chandra College are clear examples of how the metropolitan city offices, Department of Archaeology, and Ministry of Culture have failed to respect culture.

Aside from simply rebuilding or adding wooden bars to support the walls, the government has consistently failed to preserve heritage, which includes the history, the artefacts, wall details, arts, statues, books, relics, furniture, pictures, and the legacy of the place, all on top of its structure.

Moreover, the public wants to know what books, what paintings, what artefacts remain within Singha Durbar and Kaiser Mahal. But there is scant record keeping for the future generation to get a glimpse of what Nepal once looked like.

Read Also: Restoring a piece of Nepal's history, Sahina Shrestha

Interestingly, Nepal Tourism Board website also boasts of various intangible heritage of our country, but when one browses through UNESCO's list of intangible heritage of Nepal, the list is empty. If Nepal is to promote intangible heritage as a mode of tourism, it must also take a step back and preserve it from a cultural standpoint.

It is true that often it rests on the community's shoulders to keep their practices, rituals and heritage from going extinct, but without support and incentive from the government, without the necessary research, the meaning behind the rich dances, jatra may soon be lost to time.

There is also a National Language Commission, and many of Nepal’s languages are on the verge of extinction. But what is truly missing? Budget and human resources.

In 2021, there was fake news that the Nepal government did not have the budget to repatriate a stolen Laxmi-Narayan figure from the US. The government panicked because it had never dealt with repatriation with so much media interest before.

Currently, the DoA is nearly exhausted due to the rapid homecoming of stolen devi-devta, many of which are in transit, as the Chhauni Museum prepares to return them to their communities. Despite this, the Ministry of Civil Aviation, Tourism and Culture and the rest of the government continue to only demonstrate "a keen positive interest", as shopping malls, swimming pools and apartment buildings continue to rise on public space, towering over the red roofs and golden spires of our heritage.

Citizens and communities can take ownership, but if the elected candidates do not represent us or assist us in preserving these heritages, there will no longer be the temples or the palaces that have been the emblem of our cultural and historical legacy for centuries. Even Mt Everest is now listed as ‘endangered heritage’ by UNESCO, owing to the climate crises and garbage buildup. Everyone requires resources to keep up with the expanding economy, but if Nepal does not act now, we will have nothing left to teach the next generation.

It is past time to detach Culture from Tourism and Civil Aviation. Culture and Heritage, when combined, can provide a platform for opportunities that have previously been unexplored. The sector that has borne most of the brunt of development and urbanisation has been culture. It is time to move beyond words and into deeds.

Alisha Sijapati is a former Nepali Times Culture Correspondent, and is currently pursuing a masters in Cultural Heritage Studies at the Central European University in Vienna.

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