Reconstruction of two temples in Basantapur in limbo after UN cultural agency forced to pull out of projectAs archaeology department and reconstruction authority appear non-committal, there are also concerns whether UNESCO withdrew after political pressure.
A decision of the United Nations cultural agency in July this year to pull out of a heritage restoration project in Basantapur has raised concerns among conservation campaigners whether future monument rebuilding projects will take a beating.
On July 9, UNESCO said in a statement that it was pulling out of Shree Krishna Mahavishnu (also known as Gopinath) and Jagannath temple restoration project due to continued interference from “some local groups”. The groups reportedly wanted an exclusive right to restore the temples, said to be from the Malla era, without any international assistance.
The two temples are among 140 monuments damaged within Kathmandu Valley World Heritage.
UNESCO started restoration work on December 10 last year. But two weeks into the project, it started facing obstacles from the local groups.
In a bid to find an amicable solution, UNESCO held a series of meetings with local community members, the Ministry of Culture, the Nepal Reconstruction Authority, the Department of Archaeology and Rajesh Shakya, a Province 3 assembly member.
“We held meetings with local representatives as well the National Reconstruction Authority and Department of Archaeology. In the meetings, we clarified that the restoration work was being funded by the Japan government and Nepal Investment Bank and that it would use local conservation experts, local craftspersons and masons,” Christian Manhart, UNESCO country representative for Nepal, told the Post in an email interview last week.
Works somehow resumed on May 15 this year only to come to a halt again after obstructions.
According to the UNESCO statement, residents even threatened restoration workers at the site.
“The National Reconstruction Authority, Department of Archaeology and Ministry of Culture as well as other representatives of the Hanumandhoka Palace Management and Conservation Office ensured us that they welcomed UNESCO’s work for these two temples,” said Manhart. “However, we could not convince the locals and Mr Shakya.”
According to Shakya, who was elected to Province 3 Assembly on the CPN-UML ticket from the constituency where the two temples lie, he had written to the Department of Archaeology after locals, who he said he represents, did not want any international organisation’s involvement in (re)building Nepali monuments.
“Yes, we asked the UN agency via the Department of Archaeology to stop restoration because we believe construction works should not be carried out by an organisation which is only authorised to monitor construction,” Shakya told the Post. “We also want to set a precedent that such monuments should be built with our own money—without international assistance.”
Many heritage activists, however, see an ulterior motive, as they say Shakya, who is also the chairman of Kasthamandap Reconstruction Committee, wants to take Jagannath and Gopinath temple restoration project under his wing. Kasthamandap Reconstruction Committee was formed after the 2017 local elections, which also snatched the Kasthamandap project from the hands of the Rebuild Kasthamandap Campaign.
“It was Rajesh Shakya who went to the site and threatened workers physically,” said Rajan Maharjan, a Basantapur local and a former official at Kathmandu Metropolitan City. According to Maharjan, Shakya has been trying to bring the project under him and his committee, something Shakya denied.
“These are all baseless claims aimed at defaming me,” said Shakya. “I am a heritage lover and I want to make sure Basantapur rises again. And I want to do that using our own money.”
This money part is where the problem lies, according to Maharjan.
“This is all about money,” said Maharjan. “If they are really interested in heritage conservation, why don't they take charge of rebuilding all heritage monuments in Basantapur? Shakya didn’t say anything when Maju Dega and Trailokya Mohan Narayan temple construction projects were awarded to other contractors.”
Amid allegations and counter-allegations, UNESCO handed over all documents, including damage assessment drawings, architectural documentation, structural analysis, archaeological research of foundations, and detailed retrofitting designs of the temples to the Department of Archaeology.
Manhart said the documents were prepared by a team of local conservation experts, in close consultation with the Department of Archaeology, ward officials, local communities and priests.
Damodar Gautam, acting director general of the Department, confirmed receiving the documents from the UN agency. Gautam, however, was of the view that it would have been better had UNESCO been allowed to continue.
“When we received letters from the local stakeholders and politicians asking us not to let UNESCO build the temples, there was nothing we could do,” said Gautam.
When asked how the department now plans to construct the temples, Gautam said the question should be asked to those who obstructed the restoration projects.
“I don’t think it was a big issue,” Gautam told the Post. “The project should have been given to UNESCO. But what happens next is a question the press should ask Shakya.”
But Gautam’s response has not gone down well with those who want the temples to be constructed early and in an impartial manner.
Birendra Bhakta Shrestha, former chairperson of the Rebuild Kasthamandap Campaign, says the Department of Archaeology as the lead agency for the conservation of heritage and monuments should take a firm stance and stop making vague comments.
“Shouldn’t the Department be taking necessary steps to ensure that our heritage monuments are constructed? Shouldn’t the Department of Archaeology and National Construction Authority be monitoring the construction?” Shrestha wondered.
According to Gopal Prasad Aryal, spokesperson for the National Reconstruction Authority, the budget for the reconstruction of the temples has been set aside by the Province 3 government.
“According to our understanding, the Province 3 government has allocated Rs10 million for the restoration of the two temples,” said Aryal. “But how the reconstruction will move forward is yet to be determined. Maybe the Province 3 government will call for tenders, or it may form a separate committee which will then construct the temples by hiring skilled and unskilled workers and purchasing the required materials directly.”
Activists are concerned that since the provincial government has allocated the budget, the project could probably go to Shakya and his group.
Ganapati Lal Shrestha, a heritage activist, said the issue has been unnecessarily politicised.
“I understand the argument that Nepali monuments should be built by Nepalis. It's a good thing that Shakya is trying to implement it,” said Ganapati Lal. “That said, UNESCO shouldn’t be treated as a foreign country. I don't think the UN agency would do any harm to Nepali heritage.”
He also wondered why Shakya was so involved in these two temples while he is least bothered about other monuments on the Hanumandhoka premises.
Manhart, on his part, says incidents like these can cause problems in the future.
“If such incidents continue to happen, donors will not be investing in heritage reconstruction. That will further cause a delay in the process,” said Manhart, who also pointed at the sluggish pace of heritage reconstruction.
When asked if the UNESCO agency pulled out of the project due to political pressure, Manhart denied, but he was quick to add that the UN agency did not get the political backing to carry out the project.
“Without any political backing, it was harder [for us] to deal with the local groups,” said Manhart.