Raise it Up, Let's Build it Again

Heritage Issue 190 Sep, 2017
Text by Evangeline Neve / Photo: Umesh Basnet


Raise it Up, Let’s Build it Again

 Recently, I had the pleasure of speaking at length with Mani Lama, a descendent of the original Chinia Lama, whose family has been, for years, the guardians and caretakers of the epic Boudhanath Stupa.

In last month’s issue (ECS 189, August 2017), we covered the portions of his interview that dealt with the fascinating history of his family and their bond to this holy site. There’s more to the story, though, that comes out when we start to speak of the April 2015 earthquake; I had asked about the fact that it seemed that Boudha had a more organized or effective rebuilding process when compared to some other monuments and holy places in the city. Did he think that was true also, and if so, why? As soon as the conversation turned to this topic, there was a distinct wistfulness in the air.

“When the earthquake hit Boudha—Kathmandu, I was here, in the area,” Mani Lama began. “I was so shocked. Usually, I take photos all the time, but then when this happened, I am so attached to the stupa, that I was so shocked I was just looking around and seeing the damages…” It was only when friends began to contact him from other parts of the world that he began to do what he is so well known for—take pictures. He began to record both the damage and the subsequent rebuilding efforts. His work in documenting the renovation of the stupa is forming the basis of a book he is working on with several other friends, which is slated to come out at the end of the year, including not only photos, but also legends and stories that refer to both the Tibetan and Nepali side of its history.

But, back to the day of the quake. “During the big earthquake of 1934, so many buildings and structures and temples in Kathmandu were flattened and destroyed, but here, Boudha was always strong. Back then, everyone came out of their houses and sat looking up, they said the stupa was shaking, but nothing happened, there was no damage,” Mani Lama explains.

But, this time, you could see the crack below the gazur on top. The stupa was okay, though it was damaged, but it was so well made that the copper plates were holding each other up, and essentially their strength was keeping it together. But then, it started falling slowly, the very strength and weight of the plates pulling it down, so all the committee members decided it needed to be dismantled and restored. The Kagyupa Monastery said they wanted to help and very quickly. Within a month after the committee was formed, Tai Sito, head of the Kagyupa Monastery, said that they would provide gold to rebuild it, and also provide money if needed, “In the end, thirty crores and about thirty kilos of gold, I think, and not only that, but there were thousands of people, everyone that came during that time, Buddhists in Nepal and from many other countries who were so generous with their giving,” he told me.

Listening to him explaining, it certainly seems that that this very generosity and the passion and feeling that this holy place inspires in both those who live in its shadow, as well as those who visit, were key factors in why it was so quickly rebuilt.

In 1990, Mani Lama explains, the government formed a committee, the Boudha Development Committee, which is chaired by whichever party is in power at the time. They are the ones that collect the entry fees, and look after the infrastructure. The Chinia Lama Guthi still does manage certain religious and other ceremonial duties, but the bulk of the practicalities are generally in the hands of the Boudha Development Committee. “Do they work together?” I asked. “When it’s needed, they do,” he replied.

The reconstruction team, now with the needed money in hand, hired a team of craftsmen, carpenters, masons, metalworkers, and many volunteers, who just came and did whatever they were told to do. It speaks of the community, as well; this was important to them in a very visceral way. The success seems to be both that, Boudha feels, in a way, more autonomous, and also, the generosity displayed in the funding.

The reconstructing committee was thereby formed in a way that wasn’t dependent on the government, though of course, they built under the supervision of a Department of Archeology engineer, and according to the UNESCO guidelines, as required.

As the team dismantled the top of the stupa, long hidden, and in many cases, forgotten innards of the holy structure were brought once again into the light of day. Inside the stupa were nineteen boxes of old relics. At the time of its construction, all those years ago, a pilgrim might buy a relic, have it blessed and put inside—a statue, a ring, a stone, a coin—which all, of course, had to be returned to their places once the rebuilding was completed, the boxes replaced in the correct way so it was balanced, and that’s where the engineer from the Archeology Department factored in. Also inside were lots of heavy, flat rocks, particularly along the steps.

One of the controversial issues faced was whether to use cement and concrete or not, something which was obviously not originally used, in the dome. The stupa’s original building materials were bricks and what they call masala, which is lime powder, brick powder, molasses, and soya bean powder; apparently, when you mix all that together, it’s stronger than cement—not as solid, but it holds better and lasts longer, fifty-hundred years, or more. They were able to use these same materials in parts of the rebuilding, because fortunately, there are descendants of the original masons, craftsmen who still retain these skills who helped in the rebuilding.

Though they did use these traditional materials, more modern methods were employed in a square thirty by thirty feet at the stupa’s center, where they dug three feet down to see if there were any cracks, and kept going until they found no more broken bricks, before laying metal rods and pouring in concrete, cement. The Archeology Department and UNESCO weren’t thrilled, but there you go. And on the dome cracks, they used Dr. Fix!

They used the same stones as they went, and there’s no doubt that the end result is a really good job that all are hopeful will withstand whatever the forces of nature might throw at it next. The rebuilding concluded with a consecration attended by lamas from all the four sects—or five, depending on how you count. You name it, everyone was there. Monks came from all around the world for the ceremony, a well-deserved celebration of pomp and joy.

The greatest celebration for me, though, is the joy I feel now looking up at a piece of the country’s invaluable heritage, once at risk, but now restored to full glory, a hub for the community and all who are drawn to it. And, in addition to joy, my feeling of gratefulness for all those who participated in the process to bring it to fruition.