Still not too lateIf we want our temples (heritage sites for the rest of the world) and our culture to flourish well beyond our time, and still provide a sense of cultural identity to the new generations, we need to act now
If you know where to look, Kathmandu Valley is teeming with ingenious stories of how our ancestors kept our culture alive, and sustained our temples and other public monuments. Seeking out this wisdom will immensely benefit the reconstruction of our temples.
Let me direct your attention to the Chitrakars of Patan, and a tradition they have continued for centuries. If you’ve marveled at, or have taken selfies in Mangal Bazaar, you might have witnessed Bhairav paintings in Mul Chowk’s gate. It’s just behind the guardian lions; standing at few feet tall, it’s hard to miss.
When I was documenting the Kartik Nach, a dance drama tradition that is performed annually in Mangal Bazaar, Suman Chitrakar shared a remarkable story. As the resident chitrakar (makeup artist, if you will), Suman puts a final dab of paint before the dancers take the stage. He said that two families were responsible for the paintings: the right side belonged to his side of the family, while their son-in-law’s side of the family was responsible for the other. Intrigued, I asked why.
“It was a wedding gift. Our side of the family maintained one Bhairav, while our son-in-law’s side of the family looked after the other,” he said. In olden times, it meant both the families enjoyed royal patronage, and had continuous work thereby ensuring that each generation had incentive to keep their vocation alive.
While many of these practices have been threatened with the way we do things now (for example decorating your door with a cheaper flex print of the Pancha Buddha or auspicious signs than have a Chitrakar paint it for you), the communities that preceded us knew a thing a two more about how to sustain our cultural tradition.
Consider guthis (community based organisations) that oversaw and cared for many of the temples and jatras we have come to identify with. All of those grand temples and public monuments, artisan communities responsible for building, rebuilding and the general upkeep of the temples were sustained by the guthis. This sustainability component was by design, and not by coincidence.
Each guthis controlled vast swath of lands, and the revenue sustained our cultural backbone. Every major temple had a guthi; and donating to the guthi was considered as a highly meritorious act. Through the guthi, the communities protected and conserved the places they prayed in. Guthis was the fulcrum around which our cultural events were centered.
This well-oiled mechanism was dismantled when the then government enacted The Guthi Corporation Act 1964. It nationalised the guthis and brought them under the Guthi Sansthan. The Sansthan was charged to perform religious rites and festivals, preserve cultural heritage, and suchlike. We all know how that worked out.
In an act the consequences of which can still be felt till date, the Sansthan decided to kill the goose that laid golden eggs for immediate gain: it sold off most of the land.
That those land provided for and helped sustain the artisan communities whose skill were crucial for the upkeep for the monuments that the Sansthan was charged to protect was not taken into consideration.
It is hardly surprising that our temples and other assorted cultural properties are in such disarray. The quake didn’t destroy our temples, our heritage sites, the symbol of our cultural identity, it was us all along. It was our greed, and our penchant to not think things through that did the trick. And we are always finding new ways to undo the traditional system.
Journalist Thomas Bell, in his piece for Al Jazeera, reports that the DoA (Department of Archaeology) has already awarded tender to reconstruct heritage sites. Bell also mentions that DoA didn’t put any qualification criteria to scrutinise the proposals. What this means is that the firm quoting the lowest possible price will probably get it. Will that translate into quality work? You tell me.
For argument’s sake, let’s consider that the DoA has awarded the contract to the highest bidders (highly unlikely). That still doesn’t cut it, I’m afraid. Even the highest bidder will not have historic and emotional connection to the temples than the artisan communities who have for centuries taken care of it.
For long, the DoA and the Guthi Sansthan has tried to fix an already well running machine with disastrous results. This is the right time for them to do a little soul searching. If we want our temples (heritage sites for the rest of the world) and our culture to flourish well beyond our time, and still provide a sense of cultural identity to the new generations, we need to act now.
The artisan communities have centuries worth of experience—they have always rebuilt our temples after every earthquake. (The history of our architecture is really the history of how our artisan community adapted after every quake.) They are the reasons we can proudly flaunt our Darbar Squares to the rest of the world. Their intangible skills are something that we need to nurture now. For long, we have boasted about tangible sites, and given less regard to the skills that sustained them or made it possible in the first place. Our fascination with the ‘hardware’ at the expense of the ‘software’ needs to stop.
We need to recalibrate our focus lest when the next earthquake strikes and wipes the floor with our temples, we won’t have anyone to build it back. It is, I understand, easier said than done. Should the government place affirmative action in this case, so that the artisan communities have to be involved before anyone lifts a finger in a heritage site? I cannot say for sure, but the first positive step should be putting a stricter benchmark and ensuring quality control protocols, not to forget rigorous monitoring.
And the onus of all this, especially the latter part rests solely with the community. It’s about time we rose up to the challenge.