Nepali patience and heritage conservationWhat is being violated is the shared cultural heritage of Kathmandu. Every person that calls Kathmandu his or her home should be outraged
We Nepalis are a very patient people. The seemingly unending series of earthquakes last year ravaged our cities, villages, our very souls. We lost almost nine thousand of our brothers and sisters. Some of our natural heritage sites, monuments of unparalleled beauty and irreplaceable value were completely obliterated. Due to our infinite reservoir of patience, we shrugged it all off. What’s more, we grew comfortable with the interminable aftershocks. Uuu, arko aayo was the most we said a few months afterwards, when another tremor rumbled through the country.
Then came respite... in fact, pure giddy excitement, for the new constitution that seemed to be just a few technicalities away. But the jubilation was abruptly cut short by the Tarai unrests and political interference from our friendly neighbour. We flexed our muscles, thumped our chests, and the friendly neighbour responded in kind. Fuel and supplies dried up. The poorest among us, still recovering from the physical blows of the earthquakes, suffered more, and some perished, for want of medicine and food.
The rest of us adjusted to the new reality of black market prices and moved on. Our patience continued to pour forth like an eternal stream. We waited for fuel in long lines of parallel-stacked motorcycles wound twice around large city blocks. And at the end of the third day, when the petrol pump turned us all away, never even having opened its gates once, our surplus of patience made us smile, shake our heads, and inform our friends through mobile phones: Aaja pani paiyena. Kya bore!
We grew accustomed to absurdly long periods of power blackouts. Even that did not drain our reservoir of patience. Instead we chuckled in the darkness as little boys and girls showed off their math smarts: Thirteen hours. That’s more hours without batti in a day than with!
Now a very small new development has occurred. Within a few hours on February 3, 2016, all of the earthquake-ravaged monuments and heritage sites around Kathmandu Durbar Square were further damaged and desecrated with active human intervention. Numerous large holes were dug around the perimeter of these sites, into which concrete was poured, and thick metal beams about seven feet high were erected. The final result: the venerable Kasthamandap, Taleju Bhawani, Maju Dega, Trailokya Mohan, all parts of a Unesco World Heritage Site, are now surrounded by ugly construction grade metal poles sticking out on all sides, as if mocking the remains of the elegant national treasures that were hand-crafted by our own ancestors long ago with devotion and love.
It appears the Kathmandu Metropolitan City (KMC) authorised the work via a contractor. The purpose of this callous act remains unclear. The stated outlandish reason given was that “locals expressed concern that the damaged temples, if left unprotected, could suffer further damage.” But what is this protection against? Our temples and monuments never needed fenced-off premises to ensure security. As living heritage, they are an integral part of our daily lives, and we will always need easy, open access, at least to the exterior of these buildings. Alternately, is the KMC building temporary safety shields to protect passers-by from reconstruction activities? If so, safe and secure temporary wooden/bamboo structures can be constructed using local know-how, rather than resorting to digging up and scarring a precious world heritage site with lumps of concrete. Further, the sub-surface heritage already damaged by the earthquakes might have suffered additional damage due to the digging. Did anyone pay attention to the Unesco report from last December warning of post-earthquake human-caused damage to sub-surface heritage sites in Kathmandu?
What is being violated is the shared cultural heritage of Kathmandu. Every person that calls Kathmandu his or her home should be outraged.
In addition, for a large portion of our valley population, these sites are much more than just cultural heritage. They are temples housing our gods and goddesses, places that give solace to the soul and provide mere mortals access to the divine immortal within their hallowed sanctums. While many of the temples were completely destroyed in the earthquakes, the sites themselves continue to serve as places of worship, for the devotees know that it is not the temple structure, but the consecrated space itself, that is sacred. And now these sacred spaces, abodes of our gods and goddesses, have been violated with concrete blocks and ugly metal rods. This will very likely be followed by corrugated iron sheets that will not only bar access to the interiors, but also prevent devotees from even offering darshan to the temples from afar.
Finally, in an era where the government touts its online presence and web savvy, no advance notice was provided for any of this activity. There was no announcement through official news outlets, no press release. Even a simple tweet or a Facebook post from an official KMC account would have gone a long way towards informing the public of what was happening, and why. But there was no prior communication whatsoever.
And yet our patience shows no signs of drying up.
A bona-fide institution now exists to lead the entire post-earthquake reconstruction initiative: the Nepal Reconstruction Authority, complete with a Reconstruction Czar who in theory has overarching authority to approve and direct all reconstruction activities in Nepal, including those at heritage sites. Where was the Reconstruction Authority while the digging was going on? Did the Authority even know? Going forward, how is the Authority going to coordinate efforts with the erstwhile institutions responsible for heritage conservation: The Department of Archaeology and KMC? How is it going to loop in the local guthis which are also involved in various aspects of heritage management? The Reconstruction Authority must show strong leadership, assigning clear roles and responsibilities, effective chains of command, and efficient coordination between all relevant groups. They must deliver a transparent plan of action that is available online for all to see, and update it periodically with milestone achievements. For now, it appears the Authority is completely out of the picture. It is worth noting that all employees of the Reconstruction Authority, the Department of Archaeology, and KMC are public workers whose sole purpose is to serve us, the taxpaying public. Old-timers have a habit of saying they are “in the Service” if they have government jobs. The full phrase is actually “in the service of the people”. We the people pay their salaries and we need to demand accountability from them, and return on our investment. Right now these institutions are utterly failing at their duties. They are not only stalling on rebuilding activities, but actively destroying what remains, or blissfully unaware of what is going on.
But ... in our enthusiasm, we seem to have said too much. On second thought, we are probably blowing things way out of proportion. We Nepalis have been so patient for so long about so much. This little construction gaffe at Kathmandu Durbar Square seems trivial in comparison. Yes, we understand there is a point to be made here... we even sympathise a little. But life, after all, has to go on.
There are families to take care of and offices to get to. So, like so many times before, we dip into our eternal reserve of patience, shrug our shoulders, sigh, and say: ke garney?