Memory in a time of forgetfulnessOn April 25, 2015, the great Gorkha earthquake caused a massive chunk of Langtang Lirung to break off and fall, striking a glacier, releasing tons of debris and burying an entire village under 100 metres of rock, ice and mud. In a matter of seconds, Langtang, which had once been a thriving, picturesque village of more than 100 homes, ceased to exist. Over 300 people lost their lives.
On April 25, 2015, the great Gorkha earthquake caused a massive chunk of Langtang Lirung to break off and fall, striking a glacier, releasing tons of debris and burying an entire village under 100 metres of rock, ice and mud. In a matter of seconds, Langtang, which had once been a thriving, picturesque village of more than 100 homes, ceased to exist. Over 300 people lost their lives.
When Gyalpo Lama visited Langtang after the earthquake, there wasn’t much to recognise. He kept his head down, unable to look around the devastation and the unimaginable change wrought to the place he had called home. In a few terrifying seconds, Gyalpo had lost his home and almost his entire family.
In the aftermath of the disaster, residents and well-wishers attempted to make sense of the tragedy—given the almost total destruction of a place that so many had called home, how would it be possible to move forward while preserving and remembering the past? “Sempa tserah,” say the Langtangpas—Our hearts and minds are not in a good place, something is missing.
Out of the disaster was born the Langtang Memory Project, an attempt to preserve the memory of a place that once was, collecting photographs, written material and oral history. In the years since the 2015 earthquake, the Project has collected many different kinds of documentation and materials, a selection of which makes up the exhibition Sempa Tserah, Kipu Sho, currently on display at the Chhaya Centre in Thamel, as part of Photo Kathmandu 2018.
“Understanding that one requires a healing period, we waited a long time to talk about what’s important to Langtangpas and their families,” says Jennifer Bradley, one of the curators of the exhibition and a facilitator for the Langtang Memory Project. “When we first shared a few clips, the Langtangpas kept watching them on a loop, getting nostalgic and reconnecting to all they had lost. This made us want to collaborate with them and help preserve their culture and memories for the future.”
In the atrium of the Chhaya Centre, two large prints of the same photograph stand next to each other, one is tattered and bruised while the other is pristine. The photographs show five women, two sisters and three children, posing for a family portrait in a photo studio. The two sisters each took one print of the photograph; the elder lived in Langtang while the younger in Kyanjin Gompa. The damaged photograph was amidst the debris. One young daughter, sitting to the left of the photograph, died in the disaster.
The Langtang Memory Project is emotionally rich. It resounds with the stories of those who died and those left behind. It is a fitting tribute to a land and a people—an attempt to preserve the past, as well as make sense of it and come to terms with it for the future. “My friends and I all lost at least one of our parents,” says Norcho Lama, another curator. “But it isn’t just us who have gone through hard times. There are others who might give up during such times so it’s important for us to let them know that we can get through it.”
The exhibition displays photographs that range from the late 60s to the present, an ongoing collaborative effort to maintain a history. It also includes three video narratives, each of a woman Langtangpa telling her story. A short film made collaboratively this past July called A Time for Singing Again shows the Langtangpas finally singing and dancing, after mourning for three years. The exhibition instills a sense of emptiness in the viewer, a profound feeling of loss, even though you might not know any of the people in the photographs. The exhibition provides viewers who might not have had any connection with Langtang with an emotional point of reference, through belongings collected from the debris and albums containing the names of the deceased. It is almost impossible for one to not feel sorrow while glancing at one tiny forlorn slipper.
“The people coming to see this exhibition are interacting with these materials in many different ways,” says Austin Lord, an anthropologist who was in Langtang at the time of the earthquake and who has maintained a long and deep connection with Langtang as a facilitator of the Langtang Memory Project. “We appreciate the ways in which they are trying to connect the dots and create an understanding for themselves. Some recall their own experiences of the earthquake, while others relate to the Langtangpa culture. In doing so, they circulate empathy through their words and actions.”
The Langtang Memory Project has many takeaways for visitors, but one important lesson it imparts is how it isn’t just buildings that make up a place, but the people who live there and those keep the place, and its memory, alive. “This place/exhibition is heartwarming because everyone here has died but their soul can still live on here,” wrote one 10-year old visitor in the exhibition guest book.
“Although what occurred was terrible and we can never get over it, it has inspired us in several ways,”says Gyalpo. “My home is not the same but what I have now is what I’ve built on everything I’ve gone through since then—memories, love and other emotions. I have learned that we need to move on and if we stay happy here, those who died will also be happy for us.”
“Kipu sho,” Gyalpo seems to be saying—We invite happiness and well-being back to us.
“Sempa Tserah, Kipu Sho”: Memory and Post-Disaster Recovery in the Langtang Valley, curated by Austin Lord, Jennifer Bradley, Tsering Lama, Norcho Lama, Gyalpo Lama and Prasiit Sthapit, is currently on display at the Chhaya Centre, Thamel, from 11am-7pm, until November 16, as part of Photo Kathmandu 2018.