Against all oddsOne man’s struggle to preserve his family home tugs at a larger struggle to conserve privately-owned traditional homes of Kathmandu
When the April earthquakes rumbled through the nation last year, Kanchan Pandey, a tourism entrepreneur, was finalising plans to remodel his neo-classical family home into a boutique hotel that not just created a historic and cultural space for travellers to live in but also preserved his family’s deep-rooted ties to the neighbourhood. Nestled inside an unsuspecting alleyway in Chettrapati, the sprawling building was originally built by late Bada Guruju Heramba Raj Pandey by fusing neo-classical elements of the Rana period with the architectural innovations he witnessed while on a trip to Benaras, India. “This house is unique for various reasons,” says Pandey, “it is said that when the house was designed, it was not done through drawing the plans on paper but rather by building a scaled wooden prototype that served as the marker for the builders.” The most interesting feature, however, as Pandey points out, is that the house has a central courtyard on the first floor rather than the ground floor—an anomaly even for the experimental architecture of the Rana era.
That courtyard, in its heyday, bustled with activity and was used by the family for a variety of purposes—from mundane daily chores to sacred pujas and ceremonies. Had the plans to renovate the building come to fruition, it might have even served as a quaint historic cafe for visitors to dine and muse in. Yet today, a year after last April’s seismic catastrophe, like many historic private homes in the Valley, this private quarters of the Bada Guruju—the only person in Nepali history to be given the honorific Shree 6 title—lies in a state of unkempt disrepair, and in the palpable danger of disappearing altogether.
Kathmandu today is home to seven Unesco World Heritage sites; they serve not just as remnants of the Valley’s historic past but also as markers that help identify the cultural and architectural evolution of its inhabitants. The core areas of Kathmandu with its amalgamation of old and new buildings, narrow alleyways, temples and bahals, fused with the frenzied hustle and bustle create a cultural ambiance and experience that is rare in a rapidly urbanising world. So much so, a major pull for travellers who descend to Kathmandu is rightly not just the centuries-old edifices but rather the everyday life of its inhabitants that transform these spaces into heritage that remain relevant and alive.
If the early morning temple bells, the fervently celebrated jatras and manifold public rituals bring the city alive and bind together its residents, the traditional private homes that are peppered across the city provide architectural and cultural backdrops for the culture to be interpreted. They provide residents, tourists and future generations with context for Kathmandu’s traditions to be understood by and though perhaps not immediately accessible to modernity-tinted glasses they help create a cultural eco-system that is central to the Valley’s historic appeal.
Once these traditional homes have been demolished and replaced by concrete match-box structures, as has been the trend for a generation, the heritage sites slowly lose their context, leaving them as insulated museums that have little or no connection to the larger society. As Joni Mitchell once crooned, “You cut all the trees and put them in a tree museum... and charge the people a dollar and a half to see them,” these private homes that serve as bridges between individuals and families with the larger public sphere are being demolished at an alarming rate. And once gone, the loss is, more often than not, irreversible.
A generation in the making
Even if last year’s earthquakes, structurally weakened, if not brought down, a significant share of the Valley’s historic private homes, their gradual loss has in fact seen a generation in the making. Once home to large extended joint families, these often sprawling houses served as multi-purpose complexes meant to accommodate its large number of residents. But with the rapid urbanisation and the growing appeal of independent nuclear families, these traditional homes have fast been eroding. Furthermore, as the ownership of the property keep getting further divided with subsequent generations, the efforts towards its restoration need a wider consensus among the many stakeholders—an obstacle that is oftentimes insurmountable.
It is a challenge that Kanchan Pandey is well aware of. Even as the historic building as a whole was built by his grandfather, only a third of it was part of his inheritance; the rest was passed down to other descendants—second and third cousins, who were getting more distant with the passing years. “I put a lot of time and effort trying to convince my extended family to conserve our family legacy,” says Pandey, “but to no avail.” Eventually, he was able to buy another third of the ownership of the building, but could not convince the side of the family who owned the last third.
After the earthquake, initial assessment by representatives of the regional ward office gave the house a red sticker—deeming it structurally unsafe for further habitation. That assessment spurned his cousins to promptly tear down their share of the property with the intention of erecting a commercial concrete building in its stead. Yet as that demolition was taking place, it became increasingly obvious to Pandey that the house was still structurally sound and, with well thought-out restoration, could have been restored to its past glory. “The immediacy of the earthquakes were, understandably, chaotic times. Everybody was scrambling to ascertain whether the houses were safe or not,” he muses, “and for those who were already planning to knock down their traditional homes, the quakes probably was a blessing in disguise. It gave them a reason to pull down the houses without further delay and put up concrete structures in their place.” Before the second or third assessments of the house’s structural integrity could take place, a third of it was demolished. Once the wrecking ball is in motion, its havoc can seldom be arrested.
Eleven months since the devastating quakes, the assessment of private homes damaged by the quakes continues to proceed at a snail’s pace. Officials from the Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS), the government arm responsible for leading the detailed damage assessment, have announced that around 80 percent of the re-verification of private residences have been completed in 11 of the 14 districts worst-hit by the quakes. The most recent statistics show that 602,257 houses were destroyed completely by the quakes, while 285,099 houses were structurally damaged. These surveys were conducted in districts excluding the three in Kathmandu Valley, and were done primarily to curb the sharp rise in false-claims for reconstruction relief schemes planned by the government. The survey is highly unlikely to help ascertain how many of these houses were of historic relevance.
That information, even before the earthquakes, was largely cryptic. Even as the Ancient Preservation Monument Act, the bylaws that govern historic homes, classify houses that are over a 100 years old as historically significant—prohibiting their demolition—these laws, oftentimes, are ineffective. The problem is further exacerbated by the fact that the government currently does not have a centralised database of the houses that merit the classification. And even when classified, the government lends little support to homeowners who want to renovate or restore these houses. Thus, once tagged as a historic home, the homeowners are caught in a difficult conundrum; they are neither allowed to legally erect modern structures, nor provided with options to renovate these homes so that they can accommodate the modern lifestyle.
In the months before the earthquake, in March and April of 2015, Impact! Production, a production house that produces documentaries, literature, photographic documentation and multimedia content for national and international audiences, privately initiated an effort to document traditional homes in the core-areas of the Kathmandu district for posterity. In this citizenry-led survey that eventually pulled in members of Kathmandu Metropolitan City’s (KMC) Sampada Ma Yubaa group, senior urban planners, architects and conservationists, trained young enthused volunteers who were dispatched to visit every single street and courtyard in the core area of Kathmandu and came up with 1,100 residential houses that were identified as buildings that need to be preserved. After the earthquakes, a survey, Traditional Buildings Inventory, a similar but less-detailed survey, was carried out in over 50 traditional settlements all over Kathmandu Valley by another group of volunteer group of architects and students. That effort was again initiated privately by citizens.
A way forward
Caught in between government policies that are vague at their best, debilitating at their worst, and an extended family that is less than cooperative, Kanchan Pandey is facing an uphill battle to preserve his family’s heritage that also ties in with Kathmandu’s history and evolution at large. Had it been left to its own devices, the house, like many others after the quake, would have disappeared already. It is only Pandey’s unshakeable resolve to see his ancestral home restored to its past glory that is supporting the crumbling foundations of this historic house, which in a parallel well-functioning world would have been promptly conserved and its architectural accomplishments venerated.
For Pandey and many others who are caught between a rock and hard place, a recent conservation drive led privately by the citizenry to restore old homes and repurpose them for modern functions are undoubtedly the light at the end of a long, dark tunnel. The masterfully renovated and award-winning Namuna Ghar in Bhaktapur and the refurbished Swotha tolle in Patan serve as guiding markers for those looking to conserve their heritage, while still making room for modern amenities and sensibilities.
The road may be long and the government’s apathy alarming, but if Kanchan’s enthusiasm and perseverance is anything to go by, there is hope yet for Kathmandu’s fast disappearing privately-owned heritage.