Nothing can compare to the great loss in lives and property due to the April 25 earthquake and its aftershocks, but the destruction of many priceless heritage monuments has also been a terrible blow to the country. It has been all the more severe in Kathmandu Valley, which is a world heritage site because of its seven world heritage monuments, namely: the three Durbar Squares of Kathmandu, Lalitpur, and Bhaktapur; the two stupas of Swoyambhunath and Boudhanath; and the two temples of Pashupatinath and Changunarayan.
Sad to say, except for Pashupatinath, all the others suffered substantial damages due to the quake. Reportedly, Changunarayan, the oldest temple in the valley, suffered the greatest damage, while a number of ancient temples and other monuments in all the three durbar squares were either reduced to rubble, or were damaged to some extent. Similar was the case in the Swoyambhunath Stupa complex.
At the same time, it is fortunate that the three durbar squares, as well as the stupa and temple complexes, have many heritage monuments and shrines that have remained unscathed. In other words, there’s still much to see at the world heritage monument zones, and that is the reason that immediately after clearing the debris and ensuring safeguard of the salvaged artifacts, they have been declared open for the public, including tourists. It’s worth repeating: there are still a lot of wonderful things to see and be wondrous about at these sites.
At the same time, the destroyed and damaged monuments have to be restored to their original glory, for they are part of the country’ proud heritage besides, of course, being important to world heritage monument zones. Restoration is the watchword today, and thankfully, there are some experienced individuals who have been busy in this field for at least the last couple of decades, or to be more exact, from the early 1970s. That was the time when the concept of restoration was introduced to the country, with UNESCO’s help being sought to get Hanuman Dhoka ready for what would be the first truly international event in Nepal’s history—the coronation of Crown Prince Birendra.
Since then, there have been many restoration projects undertaken in the valley by both local and international experts, the pioneers and those in the limelight being prominent architects such as Eduard F. Sekler, John Sanday, Gotz Hagmuller, Eric G. Theophile, Prof. Sudarshan Tiwari, Dr. Rohit Ranjitkar, Rabindra Puri, etc. Sanday was the first of the consultants appointed by UNESCO to do restoration of some projects, including Hanuman Dhoka and Swoyambhunath Stupa. Hagmuller’s masterpieces are undoubtedly the Patan Museum and the Garden of Dreams, while Theophile and Ranjitkar work under the auspices of Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust, a New York headquartered organization that is responsible for many restorations in Kathmandu Valley. Prof. Tiwari’s particular area of focus is the locality of Handigaon in Kathmandu that was once an independent kingdom, and his book “The Brick and the Bull” details architectural aspects of the area. Rabindra Puri came into prominence with his restoration of a cow shed into what is now famous as “Namuna Ghar” in Dattareya Square of Bhaktapur, a striking example of what is possible in the field of restoration.
These, and others similarly experienced architects, are the kind of individuals that the valley is looking forward to now to restore the original glory of many of its priceless monuments. It promises to be a long-drawn out effort, since restoration is an extremely time consuming affair. In fact, since most of the attention will be on the world heritage monument zones, one can also expect there to be some debate on the best way to go about the painstaking task. This is because there are differences in opinion even among experts about what is true restoration and what is not.
For purists, the restored site has to be an exact replica of what it was before, but also, the very same materials have to be used, and exactly the same methods. It is understandable for somebody to question whether this is wise since it will mean that the site might be vulnerable in the event of a future disaster. A case in point: the Dharahara tower fell for the second time on April 25; the first time was during the great earthquake of 1934. So, should it be restored in the very same way? Or should it be reinforced with modern material and methods?
Perhaps in the case of many destroyed/damaged monuments, some compromise is possible, but what about UNESCO designated sites? One hears that they have pretty strict rules governing such things. One gets the feeling that some monuments in world heritage monument zones may no longer be eligible to be called a part of world heritage if there is even a hint that material and methods other than prescribed have been used in their restoration.
The now universal agreement that Kathmandu Valley is prone to regular earthquakes complicates the matter, because if the purist way is taken, who can guarantee that the restored monuments will not fall again due to an earthquake of large magnitude? And, wouldn’t it be a great pity to see all that painstaking and time consuming work being reduced to rubble once again? Perhaps the experts will find out a means to an end where the priceless heritage monuments of Kathmandu Valley are restored to their original glory without the danger of them being destroyed again in the future due to another earthquake. Therein lies a great challenge.