Post Quake Heritage Conservation

Features Issue 165 Aug, 2015
Text by Looza Mahaju / Photo: Rishi Amatya

Rebuilding lost heritage will take time. The need of the hour is how we safeguard what we have and what we have salvaged after the quake.

Like most of the Saturdays that followed that Saturday, Devendra Nath Tiwari, Executive Director of Patan Museum and Suresh Lakhe, Museum Officer were in their office. Saturday, being a public holiday, sees a large turnout at the museum. The museum team were preparing for just another busy Saturday when the entire world around them started to shake. 

“I was in my office going through some paperwork when the quake started,” says Lakhe. Windows of his office opens to Mangal Bazaar, and offers unparalleled views of the Darbar Square below. As such he was witness to the destruction the quake brought forth. Before his eyes, Char Narayan crumbled down, as did Hari Shankar temple and the pillar atop which sits the statue of Yog Narendra Malla. That statue is often mistaken for Siddhi Narsingh Malla, Yog Narendra’s grandfather and is glued to a fantastic myth about a past king, a gilded bird and his quest for immortality.

The quake turned hundreds of years of our cultural history to detritus. Along from the temples, the Mani Mandap, where astrologers have been converging for centuries to calculate auspicious date to start the chariot festival of Machhindranath, crumbled down into a heap at the stairs that leads down to Mangal hiti. Other structures, such as the Krishna Mandir, the Vishwanath and the Bhimsen Mandir, though standing took extensive damage. Just further down the road, in Swotha the Radha Krishna temple came down crashing, choking the road. In Sankhamul, the Jagannath temple constructed during the Rana regime was levelled. In Gabahal, another Krishna Mandir toppled. The finials (gajur) of the Degetalle temple arched slightly forward from its original position; finials of the Agam temple came down crashing, and the finials of the Taleju temple took extensive damages too.

The instance the quake stopped, the museum team and the local citizens poured into the square. Their first priority was to rescue people who were trapped in the rubbles. In addition, the museum team was immediately mobilized to rescue and store the artifacts of cultural importance. One of the first things the team, with the help from the locals, salvaged was the mangled statue of Yog Narendra Malla. The column on which the statue sits had broken in half, and the statue was badly dented upon impact with the ground. It was taken immediately to be stored in the Keshav Narayan Chowk, inside Patan Museum. 

In the days to follow, Keshav Narayan Chowk would come to store many a priceless treasures in the form of intricately carved window struts, blind windows and what have you from both the Char Narayan and the Hari Shankar temples, the columns of the Mani Mandap and many parts that were salvaged from the rubble that engulfed the Darbar Square on that day. The ones that were still scattered on ground square was guarded 24/7 by the locals and then by Nepal Police personnel’s. Undeterred by the rain that dampened the mood for few days after the quake the team worked tirelessly to collect and protect their cultural heritage. Their pace quickened when the news filtered in that the use of Bulldozer in the Basantapur Darbar Square had caused irreversible loss. They went through the detritus with a fine tooth comb to salvage everything.

Salvaging was the easy part. With all of those parts lying idly about in the Keshav Narayan Chowk, it looked like the museum team had the greatest jigsaw puzzle on their hands to solve. With the patience of a small stream that knows it will cut through the rocks to make a gorge in about a thousand years, they started to organize the items according to its type. The struts were lined on one side, the elements of the carved windows lined one corner of the courtyard, and the tympanums were lined in another. ‘Solving’ this puzzle was the expert carpenter team that had earlier worked with the Museum to renovate the building that surround the Sundari Chowk.  They were reverse engineering the elements of the temple. Needless to say, greatest care was taken on each leg of the process.

“We are working in close collaboration with the Department of Archaeology to make an inventory of all the items we have salvaged,” says Devendra Nath Tiwari, Executive Director of Patan Museum. “These are objects of great architectural importance, and we have been entrusted with the responsibility of safeguarding them. The inventory will be of invaluable help when we start to rebuild what we lost post quake.” 

Tiwari also pointed out that the work they are doing is guided in every steps by the existing national norms, namely the Ancient Monuments Act, 2013 BS and other relevant international charters. Doing so is crucial, says Suresh Man Lakhe. “For others it might be a World Heritage Site, but for local people it is their cultural identity,” he says. “The conservation effort we are undertaking is guided by that sentiment.”

Two months in, the museum team working in tandem with the Department of Archaeology, Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust and the local chamber of commerce have managed to ensure safekeeping of all the salvaged items. With the monsoon ready to pour in the coming days, they have taken extra care to not store the wooden materials out in the open. Makeshift store in the Bhandarkhal garden houses some of the items, and the old post office building, just opposite to the Police quarters in Mangal Bazaar has also been converted into a storehouse of sorts.

Needless to say, security is not something they are taking lightly. Concerned authorities have increased security in all three Darbar Squares in the valley. Priceless statues (for example of the Hari Shankar temple) are well guarded and cared for inside the Patan museum. Similar arrangements have been made in Bhaktapur and Kathmandu Darbar squares. They sites have since been opened to public and tourists. Not the museums now, but they will follow shortly after renovation efforts are completed. 

Reconstruction will be some time in the coming, and the task at hand now is to safeguard what we have and what we have salvaged. Inventory making has already begun in full swings and when the time finally comes, each responsible team in three Squares will have all the pieces lined up perfectly to reinvigorate our heritage. And what a glorious day it shall be.