What has Bhadgaon's Old Houses got to do with Heritage?

Features Issue 173 Apr, 2016

The famous monuments of Bhaktapur are, undoubtedly, valuable heritages of the city; but similarly, its houses are too. 

Before the devastating earthquake last year, the heritage city of Bhaktapur had around 17,000 houses, most of them built in the traditional Newari style. When the ground convulsed on April 25, in just a matter of seconds, more than 5,500 homes came crashing down, while 2,500 were damaged extensively. About 160 heritage monuments were affected, among which, 20 were flattened to the ground instantly. The death toll of just the city was above two hundred. 

However, these gruesome figures are now just mere facts that we have left behind to immerse into our busy-normal lives. Memories of ‘that horrendous day’ have been swept away to the back of the mind, although now and then, we are paralyzed by little tremors that keep nudging us to remind us of the cacophony of the disaster. However, for some, the horror is still too visible and indelible, like for the people of Bhaktapur. 

On the surface, Bhaktapur (a.k.a. Bhadgaon) looks like it has moved on from its tragedy, too. The city, much like before, is alive to the resonance of traditional songs; the red mud-brick street markets are making noise again; the sound of chisels working on timber is back, and the smell of tatoh barah and chatamari can be traced again easily. Bhaktapur, on the surface, appears normal enough for an outsider to quickly assume that ‘life is back to the ordinary.’ 

But, soon, the camouflage waned for me, because as I treaded deeper into the city, my body shuddered. Hundreds of Bhadgaon’s houses are still being demolished, and a whole area has become unidentifiable because the homes are all wrecked. With the houses torn down, Bhadgaon felt to me like a ghost town. 

“I guess it’s really hard to move past what’s happened with the city. I am already saddened by what I am seeing here. How do you live here, and how are you still so optimistic?” I ask Aporna Prajapati, of Dattatreya, Bhaktapur. She and her daughter were trapped inside their own home for some time after the quake. They were on the middle floor, when the structure of the two storeys above them plunged down. Now, living in a new building (originally an art gallery) which is still under-construction, she says, “Life is much better now, but after the quake, for three months we couldn’t swing back to our normal routine. Gradually, we all had to get on with our lives. Yes, the city looks disturbingly dangerous, but people are slowly working towards the rebuilding process now.” 

Prajapati’s new art gallery home is a good example of restoration; however, it was being constructed even before the quake. Its ongoing construction is more valuable now, because they are earnestly restoring their culture and values in the building. The struts of the building bear carvings of the Tripitak and Jataka stories of Buddha that Prajapati’s husband had shared with the designer. Wooden frameworks have been installed to make the house earthquake resistant. And, on the whole, the house still breathes the nostalgia of old houses. 

Prajapati’s art gallery-cum-home, in a true sense, actually signifies that houses too are objects of heritage, because ultimately, homes are where memories reside. Therefore, it is necessary to bestow due importance to Bhadgaon’s homes. The famous monuments of Bhaktapur are, undoubtedly, valuable heritages of the city; but similarly, its houses are too. Prajapati’s new building emphasizes the understanding of houses as heritage. 

However, only a few families with resources have begun rebuilding, while others are still waiting to resolve their problems. But, it’s getting more apparent that Bhadgaon’s old image is altering gradually. 

“Is it scary to acknowledge the probability of Bhaktapur’s structural change in the rebuilding process, as it has lost whole streets of traditional houses to the disaster?” I ask Damodar Suwal, a tourist information officer, who is well versed in the rebuilding projects of Bhaktapur.

In reply, he explains, “The municipality had initially feared an increase in cement and concrete houses in the old city, but it has now regulated terms that encourage revival of the traditional houses. Almost everyone believes that Bhaktapur’s main tragedy was in losing its old traditional houses, the ancestral inheritance that bore the city’s pride, and undisputedly that is what it was.” He further adds, “The government will bear the cost of passing the construction design for any resident if they are rebuilding their house with the old techniques; but it will only provide 60% discount to those rebuilding cement houses, and just 50% to those who rebuild concrete houses.”

Suwal is a fact-machine who has not forgotten the tragedy one bit. “The municipality is giving two lakh rupees to all the earthquake victims who have lost their homes, and is arranging a loan of 25 lakh for the rebuilding process. Hopefully, things will begin soon, and actually, it has,” he says. 

“But some people seem to be frustrated. When I asked them if they were getting help for the rebuilding, they said they are all persevering, but it will take time for them to come to terms with their lives because their difficulties are only multiplying for some time now. What do you have to say on this?” I ask. 

“The municipality was providing relief to the victims for about eight months, but we stopped after a while, because we were afraid of making them too dependent. After all, we don’t want that. We want to help, but we also need to mobilize them to work hard in their own ways to help themselves. However, in the coming days, we believe Bhaktapur will regain its independence as well as its lost heritage,” says Suwal with a hopeful smile.

Independence starts from home, and perhaps, Suwal was referring to the same. Right now, more than 50 homes are still waiting to be torn down. And people are still trying to recover their losses. It’s sad. But what we cannot forget amidst this chaos is that, Bhadgaon’s homes are a large part of our heritage, because after all, home is where values are established, it is from where our culture and tradition are given continuation. It is where we make memories and histories, and these homes were what mirrored
Bhaktapur’s charm.