Rebuilding Sankhu

Features Issue 173 Apr, 2016
Text by Krisha Shakya

Sankhu, perhaps, suffered the most devastation when the earth shook violently in April 2015. Restoration and rebuilding will undoubtedly be a long term prospect.  

Located about 17 km away from Kathmandu, Sankhu (also known as Sakwa) is an ancient town predominated by Newars. Famous for its rich cultural heritage and traditional architecture and sculptures, it is home to time-honored temples such as the Vajrayogini and Mahadev temples. Shaped like a conch, the oldest inscription to be found in Sankhu dates back to A.D. 538.

Vajrayogini Temple, believed to be more than 300 years old, is a prominent landmark of Sankhu. Legend has it that King Mandev used to meditate in the Gun Bihar arena (now called Sankhu). The oldest of the four tantric goddesses, Vajrayogini has a red face and three eyes. She holds a sword in her right hand, which is embellished with precious ornaments. The temple is said to be older than Swoyambhu Chaitya. Similarly, Mahadev Temple is an ancient pagoda decorated with Newari architecture. Established more than a thousand years ago, the temple has sculptures of all the Hindu deities, from Brahma and Chandra to Ganga and Vishnu. Nepalis who have lost their fathers usually visit this temple during Gokarna Aunsi, which also falls on Father’s Day of the Nepali calendar.

After the devastating 7.8 Richter scale earthquake shook Nepal on April 25, the centuries-old town of Sankhu bears a deserted look. Even after several months, piles of debris and rubble cover the area, and people are compelled to live in temporary shelters. INGO reports claim that 90% of the buildings are damaged, and 6,238 houses have been reduced to rubble. The town, once bejeweled with unique monuments and courtyards, now looks crumbled and disintegrated, almost like a scene from a post-apocalyptic movie. Schools, houses, and health centers look torn apart, while locals go about their daily business wearing masks. Some temples and monasteries are on the brink of collapsing, and immediate efforts are needed to restore them. 

Despite the desolation and wreckage, the locals have not given up, and remain resilient and determined to build Sankhu again. “With the help of some volunteers, we cleared the rubble ourselves. Those of us who had saved some food and clothes shared with others. We risked our lives to go inside the damaged houses to retrieve important belongings. There is no use being scared. The more we remain silent, the more it will harm us mentally and physically,” says Mizla Maharjan, a local from Salkha tole. 

Various institutions and organizations have offered a helping hand to rebuild Sankhu. Relief material such as tarpaulins, blankets, medicines, and jackets have been distributed, while food items such as rice, lentil, and mineral water have also been allocated accordingly. Rural Education and Environment Center (REED) has been providing psycho-social counseling and post trauma counseling and training to locals on how to cope with the stress and trauma. “The aftermath has left people very uncertain and worried. Aftershocks and tremors are frequently occurring, so people are still living in a nightmare. They have lost very important people and possessions, so it is vital to give them not only tangible relief items, but emotional support as well,” explains Meghnath Sharma, Secretary, REED.

Similarly, many schools, such as Shree Bandevi Lower Secondary School, have gotten new earthquake-resistant buildings. Schools had to be shut down indefinitely, as the conditions were terrible, and the infrastructure was weak. Youth Action Nepal, along with the students and teachers of Shree Bandevi Lower Secondary School, built three one storied buildings, so that students can continue with their education. The money was raised through donations and charity events.

Sankhu Reconstruction Committee and Friends of Sankhu are both local teams which have been looking after restoration, preservation, and rebuilding activities. Members have been given a variety of responsibilities, such as collecting artifacts, timber, sanjhyas (decorated wooden windows), and personal belongings. The earthquake provided unnecessary and unavoidable destruction; temples, ponds, pagodas, and buildings were demolished. According to Suresh Pradhan, founder of Sankhu Reconstruction Committee, it is more feasible to reconstruct buildings by yourself rather than waiting for others to do it for you. “It is unfruitful just to wait for relief materials and help from the government. It is not guaranteed that the government will help, or if the help will reach us on time. It is important to remake your community by yourself, no matter how little the contribution is. That way, we can be independent and self-regulating.”

Similarly, Friends of Sankhu emphasizes on community development initiated by the locals. They have been trying to collect money through donors and sponsors so that they can start the rebuilding process. Even before the earthquake occurred, they had been looking after restoration and heritage conservation projects of Vajrayogini and Mahadev temples, phalchas (rest places), stupas, monuments, and sculptures. Prashant Shrestha, an active member of Friends of Sankhu, says that it is difficult to operate, as aftershocks and bad weather keep hampering the renovation process. “Once, when we were clearing the rubble, we felt two tremors back-to-back, so we had to stop immediately. We need to be vigilant and alert at all times, and wear protective gears such as masks, gloves, and helmets too. During summer, it was extremely hard to work, as it was scorching hot. Thankfully, the locals quenched our thirst with water and food.”

Despite the disturbing aftermath of the earthquake, the people of Sankhu have remained calm and resilient. They know that better days are coming, and are patiently waiting for the day when Sankhu returns to its former glory. With joint efforts, government assistance, and community participation, it is no doubt that Sankhu will rise up once again.