Preserving Nepal’s heritageVarious types of cultural heritage are the backdrops of our lives and tell the story of where we come from
Alaina B. Teplitz
Nepal’s rich cultural heritage is woven into the fabric of everyday life. From the temples and palaces in Patan Durbar Square to the small alcoves holding devotional statues nested on busy streets all over Kathmandu, Nepal’s unique architectural and cultural heritage is recognised worldwide. This remarkable heritage is not only part of what makes Nepal a popular travel destination, but also something that needs to be properly protected, maintained and preserved, so that future generations can enjoy it as much as we do today.
For over two decades the United States has actively supported efforts to preserve cultural heritage sites across Nepal by restoring and reinforcing them, and in the process, mitigating the impact of potential natural disasters and contributing to the tourism potential as well as the sustainment of livelihoods based in traditional crafts such as stone carving and wood working. The United States Government’s Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation (AFCP) has already invested over $2.2 million in 19 different projects. These efforts include seismic strengthening of major cultural heritage sites throughout Nepal, including sections of the Patan Royal Palace which survived the 2015 earthquakes largely intact. This strengthening proved effective, and presents a way forward for better protection of Nepal’s cultural heritage sites.
The United States Embassy is pleased to have forged a unique partnership with Miyamoto Global Disaster Relief—a US-based nonprofit organisation, to implement our latest Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation project. The $700,000 grant will repair the Gaddi Baithak in Kathmandu Durbar Square and improve the palace’s structural safety and resilience to earthquakes. The Gaddi Baithak is a location of cultural significance for Nepalis and a symbol of Nepal to the world. I am proud that we will be a part of its restoration and hope that it serves as a symbol of our commitment to continue cultural preservation in Nepal.
As the earthquake damage to historic monuments in Nepal demonstrated, cultural heritage needs a place within every nation’s and every community’s integrated emergency preparedness and response plans, where it is often overlooked. Over the past several decades, communities and governments worldwide made progress in developing preparedness and response plans for public health and safety emergencies and myriad natural disasters, including earthquakes. Historic buildings and other types of cultural heritage are the backdrops of our lives and tell the story of where we come from. They must be a part of the plan.
Architects, engineers, and seismologists are looking directly into the damaged and ruined historic buildings in order to understand why certain buildings survived the earthquakes and others collapsed. In their search for answers, they have made important discoveries and expanded our knowledge of the structural strengths and limitations of traditional Newari and other architecture indigenous to the region. What they have learned promises to be of great benefit as restoration and reconstruction efforts shift into high gear.
Even under the best of circumstances, the restoration of historic buildings takes time. With the help of volunteers from Nepal and around the world, Nepal’s Department of Archaeology was able to assess the nature and extent of damage to the Kathmandu Valley’s registered historic monuments soon after the earthquakes. Meanwhile, NGOs and professional organisations such as the Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust, the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), and the Washington-based Smithsonian Institution mobilised teams on the ground. These teams stabilised damaged buildings and recovered, recorded and stored historic statues and architectural elements in secure locations for eventual reuse in restoration and reconstruction.
In addition to historic community structures, many private homes in historic areas were damaged in the earthquakes. These homes have unique historic architecture, and it is important to prioritise reconstruction in a manner that allows those communities to retain these important cultural elements. This is harder to do because no one is paying homeowners to rebuild with cultural integrity. However, it is possible to build back safer using some traditional techniques and architectural elements that will preserve the historic image of Nepal. The wood banding in many traditional homes, for example, makes a building seismically safer. This is often seen from the outside as a carved snake, a perceived decoration, when the real purpose was to knit a building’s walls together.
Good business sense too
Protecting and preserving Nepal’s cultural heritage sites also makes good business sense. For example, when I travelled to Mustang this past June, I saw chortens, monasteries, and intricate paintings unlike anything I have seen anywhere in the world. Unfortunately, many of these incredible cultural sites were in disrepair. If these important relics can be preserved and upgraded, I believe that Mustang could become an international tourist destination. Attracting more tourists to Mustang—or even just to Nepal—will require a concerted effort to improve infrastructure. It is encouraging that the government is taking steps to improve airports in Pokhara and Bhairahawa, two important tourist hubs, and I hope work continues to improve roads throughout the country so more people can access and appreciate Nepal’s incredible cultural heritage.
As we continue restoring and constructing Nepal’s cultural heritage sites, there should also be an emphasis on constructing appropriate physical infrastructures so that the monuments and cultural heritage sites are accessible for all people, regardless of their physical limitations, disabilities and age. Nepal has an opportunity to use traditional materials and construction methods to incorporate accessibility during restorations. Nepal can attract new customers and increase tourism revenue by making sites accessible to all, as tourists with disabilities are becoming a growing part of the market. Accessibility will also allow all people of Nepal, including those with disabilities, to better explore their heritage.
Tourists from all over the world travel to Nepal—including 50,000 from the United States in 2015. Some come to Nepal for trekking, but others come to experience Nepal’s diverse mixture of religions, ethnic groups, and cultures reflected in its architecture, traditions and festivals. According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, tourism contributed $1.7 billion dollars to Nepal’s economy in 2015, about 9 percent of the country’s GDP. However, there is ample room for improvement. Approximately 550,000 tourists visited Nepal in 2015, but other Asian countries saw many more—1.8 million in Sri Lanka, 3.5 million in Laos, 4.7 million in Myanmar, 4.8 million in Cambodia and more than 25 million in Malaysia, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organisation. Preserving and restoring Nepal’s monuments and traditions—as well as creating the infrastructure needed to reach them—can attract tourists to visit Nepal. Furthermore, by investing in cultural heritage, Nepal will train more traditional craftspeople—keeping these traditions alive and creating new jobs. Nepal’s history can serve as a foundation for its future prosperity.
Teplitz is US Ambassador to Nepal