History mattersThere is an urgent need to initiate the task of restoring heritage sites
The April 25 earthquake triggered discussions on subjects ranging from the myopic view of Nepali geologists to the restructuring of Kathmandu and the country at large. The restoration of the cultural heritage is another topic that has been widely discussed. The tremors damaged statues, cultural spaces along narrow lanes and even the World Heritage Sites in the valley. Many of the destroyed spaces were unceremoniously cleared at the time of the crisis as it was an urgent need then. But it is now imperative that the historic sites especially in Bhaktapur be managed and protected properly. The spaces of cultural importance in Bhaktapur have been cleared indiscriminately. The damaged stones and statues seem to be have been dumped in the category of debris.
Value the past
When we talk about the promotion of Nepal’s art and architecture, it is always of the Lichchhavi, Malla, Shah and Rana periods. After them, no significant monuments have been built. Even in these politically volatile times, we must acknowledge the contributions made in the past. The patronage of art and architecture by past rulers should not be taken for granted.
All the sites have intangible and tangible values. The tangible values are markets and communication. Likewise, the scientific values enhance the psychological wellbeing of the public with the religious and ritual aspects of the temples and sacred idols. The communication value is associated with the significance of the monuments and aesthetic discussions among the public.
The monuments constructed in the past are what we ‘produce and reproduce’ for the tourists who visit these historic and cultural sites. Some examples are the Changu Narayan Temple, Pashupatinath, Swayambhu, the three Durbar Squares, Rani Pokhari and the temples on the banks of the Bagmati River. The spatial strategies of connectivity involved the attempt to translate the facts of social geography into matters of faith, belief and ultimately received experiences. These spaces provide an ideological context for the shared identity of the region.
The structural spaces, or the specific sites referred to in this article, should not be overlooked and their restoration should not be conducted haphazardly. The sites connect the citizens of our country, either religiously, architecturally or culturally. Conserving the architecture, heritage, monuments and religious spaces is as important as conserving the natural environment. These sites communicate a rich history of heritage in Nepal. So instead of forgetting them as thing of the past, we should instead relive them by turning them into vibrant spaces that evoke past memories as well as future aspirations.
These sites, along with the immediate community that live near them, function as a centre of social relations. When such spaces are scrutinised, the setting themselves are not usually considered to be important beyond their status as facilities that connect our origins and unite the people of the region. Architectural enactments, which decode the importance of reconciliation through the monuments and arts, are the witnesses of connectivity among the Nepali people. Issues of mutual cooperation and oneness cannot be understood without going through cultural memories in any form, especially monuments with a long history of cultural heritage.
Losing the dynamics of space results in cultural trauma. Every place in the present has to be in constant and silent dialogue with the past of the place. In short, it is the performativity of the space that should be in perpetual communication.
Therefore, the historical sites that were damaged in the quake are living spaces. The destruction of such spaces has resulted in the fragmentation and weakening of certain social and cultural constituencies. The places are beginning to lose their distinctive identities day by day.
New things happen when the past is recalled and understood. If the past is forgotten, we are likely to be traumatised by the loss of our shared identity and heritage that binds us. Hence, it is urgent to initiate the task of restoring heritage sites along with the rebuilding of other kinds of structures damaged by the quake.
Sadly, some people, perhaps unknowingly, seem to be exultant at the destruction of the historical sites believing that it marks the elimination of the history of dictators. My request to such people is to first carefully understand the history of those monuments and historical sites. The loss of historical objects means indeterminacy of our existence and identity. There are many examples from various parts of the world like Russia and China where people want to revive and get associated with their folk and cultural history which has been lost. I do not mean to support the autocrats and feudal rulers, but there is a need to acknowledge that they have helped the country to establish an identity in the world with the monuments they built which have become our shared heritage in due course of time.
Modernist architects too should be aware of this need to preserve historic architecture. At the same time, architects dedicated to preservation or architectural history should be involved in the introduction and development of modern techiques. We should learn from Brazil where prominent architect Lucio Costa was involved in historic preservation in collaboration with practitioners of modernist architecture and urbanism. New architects should develop a more cosmopolitan view in relation to those interested in architectural history or historic preservation. Nevertheless, the old cannot be discarded. What we need now is extensive and transparent state involvement in the administration of the maintenance of the artworks and monuments. The government needs to identify dependable experts. It should limit its focus to the upkeep of the cultural heritage and specific sites until the renovation and restoration is accomplished.
Adhikari is a faculty member of the Central Department of Management, Tribhuvan University