Who is heritage for?Nobody cried when Shanta Bhawan was taken down and turned into an event venue
Having lived in Kathmandu on and off for the last 12 years, one of my favourite things to do is show people the hidden corners of the city—places where they would not have thought of going. One consistent comment I hear is, “There’s a temple on every corner!” And in many places, it does seem that way.
The discussion over the preservation of heritage spaces spans unresolved past conflicts between social groups and the renewed nationalistic fervour that holds together a country left in a vacuum by an unforthcoming government. Kathmandu, being an entity quite separate from the rest of the country, is searching for answers to the existential question: What are we? And this is the question that has disrupted productive social discourse probably since forever.
This time, the need for an answer among Kathmanduites has come from the inevitable desire to rebuild ‘heritage spaces’ after the earthquake. It’s been three years, and the fact
that progress has been so slow has been interpreted as a lack of interest or competence on behalf of the government after it cashed in so much foreign money in its Earthquake Relief Fund. Even then, the work that has been done has been through foreign efforts.
In their current state, these ‘heritage spaces’ tell the story of Kathmandu. Life goes on, despite the ruins. Sometimes I wish I could take Kathmanduites to places, even quite close to the Valley, where communities are done waiting for the government and foreign agencies. Money is pooled together to carve roads out of the hills. Collaboration is the way that communities have sustained themselves no matter what the nation’s political status is. But then again, the Kathmanduite mentality is fickle, and they argue that these efforts are not being done in the ‘proper’ way. And the proper way is to wait for some outside expertise or assistance.
Nobody cried when Shanta Bhawan, which housed the Gyanodaya School in Sanepa, was taken down and replaced with a high-class event venue. Perhaps no one realised that a Rana palace, the precursor to Patan Hospital, and the campus of a 40-year-old school were all lost through that single event. Would anybody care if the older buildings at the College of Nursing and Midwifery or Paropakar Maternity and Women’s Hospital at Thapathali were replaced? This is dubbed ‘improving facilities’. All of these institutions were established by entrepreneurial Nepalis seeking to provide better, more democratic social services to the country in the 20th century. But development and gentrification don’t care about heritage when it isn’t something that can be shown off to the outsider.
Don’t worry, those on the side of the pristine preservation of specific heritage areas are not the only ones guilty of prioritising spaces that fit a performative narrative for the outsider. The government has played this game for many years. It accepted Austrian aid to refurbish Keshar Mahal into The Garden of Dreams. More historically and among many others, Phora Durbar was demolished and turned into a country club for Americans in the 1960s. And Agni Bhawan was turned into Hotel Shankar in 1964. All these spaces became profit-making enterprises, and all play their part in making Kathmandu a destination hospitable to the outsider’s needs.
Given this tradition, it is no wonder that the government has taken up plans to rearrange the landscape of certain heritage spaces. The National Reconstruction Authority plans to acquire land from the General Post Office and National Mint, also historic buildings of the 20th century, in order to fulfil the government’s plan for a new Dharahara. Has there been any guarantee that this 22-storey building will be earthquake-proof? The government has caught on how to sell refurbishing the city to preservationists and tourists alike—promise a museum. An earthquake museum on the first floor of this bigger, and therefore better, Dharahara. What will the rest of it be used for? We wonder. Remove the historic General Post Office and make a coin museum.
When visitors say “There are temples everywhere!”, it is because much of the cultural inheritance is still alive and perfectly integrated into the physio-social mélange of Kathmandu. Frequently, the manifestation of the deities being worshipped has been worn down by human touch into seemingly insignificant stone shapes. But the visage is not what matters. Gods do not die until people stop believing in them.
Benham is an English as a Second Language (ESL) content developer and instructor.