Soulless in abandonment

Features Issue 147 Feb, 2014
Text by Ujeena Rana

Patan’s old, deserted houses are but a shadow of once bustling neighborhoods. Unless efforts are made to bring them back to life, these traditional residences are in danger of going to waste forever.

There’s no laughter, no children hurrying to school, no clothes hung out to dry. The floors are not mopped, no activity in the kitchen. The god in the courtyard waits to be worshipped. There’s no television, no radio blaring. There is nothing but silence. 

A house is to be lived in. A house tells stories of struggles and success. A house is one of the basics of human life. A house is an entity, it witnesses the lifetime of its dwellers. With no dwellers, a house loses its soul. Why then are houses left empty? Why do people abandon their old, ancestral homes? This is a story of such soulless houses. Though the focus is on the deserted quarters at Dhakhwa Chowk in Akibahal, Nagbahal, Patan, most of the questions raised and issues discussed in the article are broad-ranging.

Comings and Goings in Patan
We do not need national statistics to confirm that Patan, although still a predominantly Newari city, is now flooded with people of varying castes and creeds from across the country. Internal migration has affected Patan to a great degree. It now celebrates heterogeneity. At the same time, there has been an outward flow of people too. Many residents of Patan have relocated, specifically those from Dhakhwa Chowk. “The Dhakhwas moved away because of the property division case, some because they bought houses elsewhere and preferred to live there, some because they went abroad and some because they could not live in an old house with no modern amenities,” says Prakash Dhakhwa, a resident of Dhakhwa Chowk.

The Dhakhwa House
Prakash Dhakhwa, who rents out his renovated century-old house to foreigners, is dumbfounded at the state of the old houses that remain unoccupied. “It’s a pity seeing these quarters lose their identity, like they are waiting for those in the ‘state of perpetual exile’,” he says. “It’s waste of prospects.” It was Prakash Dhakhwa who took me on a tour of the said area. Prakash has named his refurbished residence ‘The Dhakhwa House,’ which he hopes serves as an example to his neighbors on what can be done. He believes he has taught the locals that good things can come out of old, discarded things. 

Dealing with Questions
Should old houses be broken down? Should they be abandoned? Should they be given a facelift? Or should these houses be rented out to tourists? According to Shiva Rijal, a professor at Tribhuvan University and an expert on Newari architecture, this is a feature of the post-capital era. “Old images are reproduced and sold at the highest prices. Tourists and foreigners do not like modern spaces, they are tired of them,” he says. Does that mean traditional houses should be turned into restaurants and lodges, catering to the tastes of tourists? Is that the price Patan has to pay to survive? Will the tourists desire Patan as a touristy residential area, which it is fast becoming, or should it retain its pure form? The answer lies with the residents of the city - do they want an exhibitionist Patan or a Patan that sustains itself? Since they created the problem, it’s up to them to find the solution as well. 

Whether one rents out or not, the bottom line is that old houses need rebuilding or renovation.  

Rebuilding Vs. Renovation
Deconstruction can be practiced while breaking down the house to erect a new structure in its place. However, care should be taken while disassembling a building so that its materials - everything from door frames to wooden planks - can be reused in the new construction. The rest may be recycled. “Old houses can be given a new lease of life not only through renovation but also by constructing new modern residences out of the repertoire of traditional architecture,” says Rijal. Whether you deconstruct or renovate the place entirely depends on your budget. If the old place is not in a dilapidated condition, if it is not in a compromising situation, if it can be treated, why destroy it? “That is exactly what we did while working on ‘The Dhakhwa House,” says Jitendra Shrestha, a freelance designer who was involved in the renovation project. They left the structure of the two-storey building intact, although the height of the floors were increased and modern amenities were added to make it more livable and tenant friendly. 

The yesteryears
67 year-old Bodhi Gyan Ratna Dhakhwa has been living in his ancestral home his entire life. Like many in the neighborhood, the house too is old and in a poor state. “There are water problems and no facilities,” he complains. “Earlier the entire tole was filled with cousins and uncles. Everyone was a Dhakhwa. It was so much fun growing up here. But now, almost all have left the place, leaving behind the empty houses.” He too wants his residence to be renovated like Prakash’s but money is a problem.

The exhausting case of finance
“One of the things I discovered while working on my house was that the government’s policy is against the preservation and maintenance of old, traditional residences. The banks don’t provide loans unless you are building a new structure,” says Prakash Dhakhwa. Still, this might not be the case with every financial institution. Take, for example, Laxmi Bank. “We absolutely do not have provisions that reject loan applications for the renovation of traditional houses. As in any loan request, the amount, of course, depends on the value of the property and the income source of the loan seeker,” says Euden Koirala, Head of Operations, Laxmi Bank. According to Rijal, the state should hold responsibility. “They should relax taxes on old houses and provide people soft loans to renovate such buildings. The government should also encourage people to construct their houses according to paramparik or traditional architecture.”

It’s not that Patan Municipality hasn’t taken affirmative action in the conservation and preservation of traditional houses. They claim to have allocated a certain budget to people wanting to renovate their traditional homes. However, according to them, in the 4-5 years of the project’s operation, only one person came forward to claim the provision. Others could not meet the criteria issued by the municipal office. Jitendra Shrestha refutes this claim and blames the tedious and lengthy procedures that stopped people from applying for the grant. Many aren’t even aware of such a provision existing.

Old and traditional houses need to be preserved because they are part of our culture and heritage. In Shrestha’s view, the switch towards modernity and the disposal of one’s tradition has a strong role to play in this. But, despite the derelict condition of the houses, with proper know-how and expert consultation, these historical residences can be made livable once again.

A Strange Case
1. “The owners of the vacant houses don’t rent them out because they don’t trust migrant tenants. In any case, rents don’t yield much, so they would rather keep them unoccupied,” says Prakash Dhakhwa.
2. Old houses do not attract many potential buyers.

3.The owners can’t sell the houses either because these are their ancestral homes. “Newars live in a tightly knit community. The guthi, which establishes a camaraderie and sense of belonging amongst its members, directly or indirectly pressurize the owners to organize functions at their ancestral houses. This is also why they are compelled to keep the old house. If they sell it, they are estranged from their community,” explains Shrestha, in what can only be seen as a controversial statement. Putting more insight into the matter is Gerard Toffin who in ‘Newar Society - City, Village and Periphery’ writes: “Basically, guthis regulate several aspects of Newar social and religious life, and even possess economic function in some limited cases. They are vital for the status of an individual, and reinforce in many ways social relations within the community. In every Newar locality and caste, there is an extensive network of such associations.”