Practical Preservation

Features Issue 196 Mar, 2018
Text by Evangeline Neve


An intelligent, pleasantly soft-spoken man, Dilendra Shrestha has done a lot in the Patan area that has been successful and is now widely emulated. I had a chance to sit down with him and ask him about it. I’m particularly interested in the movement to restore private buildings, which I’d like to learn more about.

“In 1995, we started an organization called Patan Tourism Development Organization,” he begins, “I had retired from the Karmachari Sanchaya Kosh (Employee Provident Fund), where I worked for 20 years, and started this restaurant—” that’s the Third World Restaurant, where we are sitting, looking out over Patan Durbar Square. “At that time, people used to dump the garbage here, and the municipality didn’t do anything. I got talking to the people here, saying, let us start an organization, at least this could be some sort of pressure group for the municipality. Later, what we felt was, why do tourists come to Patan? It is not only to see a few temples in the square, but the lifestyle of the people, this is very important.”

Back then, GTZ (now (GIZ) had several programs here, including paving the small lanes, and once they organized a tour to show people what they were doing in the area. This sparked the idea, and Dilendra tells me that he then realized this could be a tourism product for Patan. So, he and his organization started inner-city tours, taking tourists down alleys and into courtyards and narrow lanes, showing people’s traditional lifestyles. “It’s very interesting, if you go into the courtyards, there are still clay washing pots, sometimes we see a mother giving a mustard oil massage to a newly born baby, and this is the lifestyle. We always say, ‘Patan Durbar Square, that is not the only Patan. If you really want to see Patan, you have to go into the inner courtyards, the inner parts of the city’,” Dilendra explains.

After a while, he heard from the then Director General of the Department of Archeology that there was going to be an international donors meeting, and Dilendra was asked to come up with some ideas for project proposals to conserve monuments. But, he asked them, “Why do you go for these public monuments only? Temples and other public monuments, nobody is going to destroy them. Lack of proper maintenance, earthquakes, rain, and whatever, all natural calamities, they are the only reasons that public monuments are destroyed. But if only a few temples remain in the square, and the surrounding traditional houses are gone, nobody is going to come to Patan.

“So I said, let us have a demonstrative project, conserve some houses, and my slogan was, ‘Conserve and Earn’. You don’t need to destroy your traditional house. If you don’t want to live there, fine, you move to some other modern house, but don’t destroy this, don’t demolish this house. Rather, you can earn from this house.

“Another problem with the traditional houses is that we have a very bad system of vertical subdivision of houses and property.” At this point, he begins to sketch a traditional house on a piece of paper that is at hand, filling in floors, windows, and doors, before drawing a line straight down the middle of it, top to bottom. “Traditional houses always have odd numbers of doors and windows, so if there are two brothers, they might cut the house like this, and the middle window is divided into two!” Dilendra laughs as he finishes his illustration.

I comment that I would have thought they would have taken a floor each, but this is when I get some insight into the culture that accompanied the building of houses. “Normally, the traditional Newari houses, they are three-and-a-half stories. Maybe it’s because in the old days they didn’t have damp-proofing systems, and that is why the ground floor was always kept empty, vacant.”

But, don’t they rent out the bottom floor to shops?

“No, these houses facing the roadside—those are different, but if you go inside the courtyards, the ground floor is always kept empty to let the air to circulate, so that they don’t catch the damp. Then, the first floor is always a private place, and that is why you see these eyehole windows, where you can’t see through –” Dilendra has begun another drawing to explain the house levels to me, and he draws the windows in their appropriate places, before leaning out of the one next to where we are sitting to point out an exact specimen across the narrow galli. “You can see one there. So, the first floor was a private place—your bedroom, whatever valuables you keep there, and the second floor is a sort of living room, and then comes the kitchen on the topmost floor. Because wood was used for cooking, there was smoke.” And so, houses being divided up in this fashion further eroded the traditional architecture and look.

When he presented these ideas to the Department of Archeology, they got excited, and asked him to come up with a proposal to have some houses restored and converted into use for tourism activities, as a demonstrative project. So they identified four houses within Patan to start with, and in the proposal booklet Dilendra still has, they’re all there, with plans, drawings, and detailed proposals for each.

It took a while, as no one stepped up at the first donor meeting they attended, but finally they got a response from NFUAJ (National Federation of UNESCO Associations in Japan), who gave a partial grant for one of the houses, and later another. “I think, maybe, this was the first and last project where UNESCO has ever given a grant for a private house,” he laughs.

“We started the building, but it took a long time to complete it, because we did damp-proofing, essentially lifting up and putting it back by taking a few bricks at a time from one side, after giving support to the joists, put damp-proofing, let it settle for two weeks, then do it again from the other side for the whole house on the ground floor. So it took a long time, more than five years. One reason was this damp-proofing; the other was a shortage of funds, though of course, the house owner also put in money.”

After the first few houses, the rest happened independently—after seeing the model, others followed it, which, Dilendra explains, was exactly what he had hoped for. “In the long term, people will replicate this, we thought, and now we are very happy that at least 12 or 15 houses have been converted into tourist accommodations. At least we could save at least 15 houses.”

It’s surprising how much money is needed to really do these restoration projects properly, and many simply can’t afford it. Which is why ideas that actually generate earnings from restorations make so much sense and feel like the future; if people see that they work and bring in income, they will be inspired to follow suit.

‘Conserve and Earn’ seems like a common sense motto, but it’s actually a really important part of the whole picture, and one of the reasons why the whole effort has been successful and spread. It’s just human nature that if there’s no incentive, and people are struggling, you can’t just tell them ‘You have to conserve for history and future generations’—nobody is going to go for that. Often, outsiders just criticize people for modernizing, when perhaps they need to ask themselves, ‘Would I want to live under those circumstances?’ So, the way the movement has evolved from what Dilendra and his organization originally started is both fascinating and hopeful.

During our conversation, I can see the buzz of activity going on outside the window in Patan Durbar Square, where temples are ringed in scaffolding and people are working with purpose, and so I ask him if he has been involved in this post-earthquake reconstruction, too. Not directly, but indirectly, he replies, and then I tentatively comment that it seems that in Patan there has been less controversy in the reconstruction than on the other side of the river. “Very true,” is his answer. Does he have an opinion as to why it seems to be working here?

“One thing is that, the community is very much united, in good harmony. Immediately after the earthquake, the local people took custody of everything, the same evening, all the carved wooden pieces, which otherwise would have been lost; and the next morning we were able to take everything into the courtyards inside the museum, so nothing got stolen. In the meantime, we are very fortunate that Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust (KVPT) has its office here, and they are taking care of all the reconstruction. They found funding and donors, and the Department of Archeology gave permission. “The quality of work that is being done is really wonderful; in the next two years you will see all the temples completed,” he says happily.

Before leaving, I pose a final question: In his opinion, what it that makes Patan unique and extra special?

“I think it is because many of the original inhabitants—at least 40%, if not 60%—are still living within the community, in their old houses. The Newars live in community. So, maybe this is the reason. In Kathmandu, many have moved out.”

They were making a home, not just a box to live in, but a space to spend the rest of their lives, and that care and pride is clearly visible all around us, in each alley and stone and carving. It’s what I love about this part of town—the sense of community is so strong, and wandering the alleys, you can observe a slice of life as people carry on their daily routines and traditions as they have done for centuries.

“I used to say, ‘Look, the day will come when, for owners of those traditional houses, it will be a status symbol. Whoa, this guy has an old house.’ When everything is gone, and only a few remain,” says Dilendra.

Thanks to his efforts, we have every reason to hope that these traditional structures will be here for many years to come.