Nepal

Some of Nepal’s most beloved religious and cultural sites were damaged or destroyed in the April 2015 earthquake, and local people say they’re grieving the loss of favorite places of worship. Reconstruction will take years, and it’s not clear when those projects will begin.

KATHMANDU, NEPAL — The damage from the April 25, 2015, earthquake first hit families: Mothers, fathers, sons and daughters died when the ground shook and the earth, and the buildings that stood on it, crumbled.

And when the earthquake ended, people emerged from the rubble and looked toward the religious and cultural sites that had for centuries been places reserved for worship and other traditions. Many of those places had been destroyed, too.

“When buildings in which these ceremonies and prayers take place are not there anymore, then ceremonies and prayers cannot exist,” says Christian Manhart, the UNESCO representative to Nepal.

It’s critical to rebuild those sites to ensure that Nepal’s cultural heritage will survive, Manhart says.

The Kathmandu Valley World Heritage sites include seven monument zones with groups of monuments and buildings.

When buildings in which these ceremonies and prayers take place are not there anymore, then ceremonies and prayers cannot exist.

The earthquake damaged 195 monuments across the seven sites, with 38 monuments completely destroyed and other monuments partially damaged, according to the Nepal’s Department of Archaeology.

Across 20 districts in Nepal, 151 heritage monuments were completely destroyed, and 474 monuments in 20 districts across Nepal were partially damaged, according to the department.

In February, the Nepali government issued guidelines for the reconstruction and rebuilding of heritage sites, says Suresh Suras Shrestha, head of the World Heritage Conservation Section of the Department of Archaeology.

It took nearly 10 months to draft the guidelines, because there was a debate among experts, local communities and others on whether the rebuilding should use modern or traditional methods, Shrestha says. The final decision was that the reconstruction should use traditional techniques and materials, unless there are specific reasons to use modern techniques and materials.

The project could take five to seven years, Shrestha says.

“Reconstruction and conservation of heritage sites cannot be done in haste,” Shrestha says. “Thorough research and study has to be conducted first.”

Restoration and conservation for each site has three phases: damage assessment, which was done shortly after the earthquake; emergency consolidation work, which is ongoing; and finally, complete reconstruction.

The budget has yet to be passed by the government, Shrestha says. The project is in the planning stages now.

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Bhaktapur Durbar Square is one of three Durbar Squares in the Kathmandu Valley, an area filled with religious buildings and royal palaces. Suresh Babu Hada has lived all his life near the square, and says that though many of his neighbors moved away after the April 2015 earthquake damaged the buildings, he will never leave.

Shilu Manandhar, GPJ Nepal

Gautam Shakya’s family has served the Kumari, a young girl worshipped as a living goddess, at the Kumari house in Hanuman Dhoka Durbar Square in Kathmandu, for 11 generations. The Kumari house suffered only minor damages in the earthquake.

Shilu Manandhar, GPJ Nepal

The Swayambhunath Stupa in Kathmandu is a Buddhist place of worship. Thirteen monuments around this stupa were severely damaged, including a temple and a monastery.

Shilu Manandhar, GPJ Nepal

Deepak Buddhacharya operates a souvenir shop in the Swayambhunath complex, in addition to his duties in making preparations for the pujas or rituals at the temple. His family has served at the Swayambhunath Stupa for more than 1,800 years, he says.

Shilu Manandhar, GPJ Nepal

Dinesh Maharjan Dangol, 33, makes metal religious statues at his workshop and store in Patan Durbar Square. But business has declined since the earthquake. Foreign buyers used to export 15 to 20 statues to China, including to Tibet, each month, but now he says he sells only five statues each month.

Shilu Manandhar, GPJ Nepal

Hira Maya Lama, 53, operates a stall selling butter lamps to devotees who visit the stupa. She performs a kora, a meditative walk around the Bauddhanath stupa, every morning before she opens her stall.

Shilu Manandhar, GPJ Nepal

Global Press Journal explored the impact of the damage and reconstruction activities at five of the seven monuments and locations within the Kathmandu Valley World Heritage site.

Hanuman Dhoka Durbar Square (Kathmandu Durbar Square)

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BEFORE: Kasthamandap temple in Hanuman Dhoka Durbar Square is believed to have been built with the wood from a single tree. Kathmandu, the city where it is located, derives its name from this temple.

Photo from the Department of Archaeology

Before the earthquake, a group of statues of Hindu gods was prominently displayed within the Kasthamandap, a famous temple in Hanuman Dhoka Durbar Square, a place known for temples and monuments crafted by the Newar, a people group in Nepal.

The Kasthamandap collapsed in the quake, and afterward the statues were moved to museums for safekeeping.

Before the quake, Nepalese people were free to worship the statues any time, day or night, says Gautam Shakya. (Foreigners had to buy tickets and were allowed to enter the area at certain times.)

Now that freedom has been lost, Shakya says.

“I feel sad to see that the gods are kept in the wrong place,” he says.

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AFTER: Kasthamandap temple in Hanuman Dhoka Durbar Square was destroyed in the April 2015 earthquake.

Shilu Manandhar, GPJ Nepal

Shakya, his family and their ancestors have served the Kumari, a young girl venerated as a living goddess, for the past 11 generations. Each girl serves in that role until she reaches puberty, then another girl takes her place. The family lives in a section of the Kumari house, also known in Nepali as Kumari Ghar, in the Durbar Square, where Shakya operates a small store on the ground floor that sells drinks and snacks to visitors. The earthquake left cracks on the walls of the Kumari house but no other major damage, Shakya says.

Twelve monuments in this square were completely destroyed by the earthquake, the Department of Archaeology says, and 27 were partially damaged. Every remaining building or shrine has cracked walls or other evidence of damage.

Some areas of the square are now restricted, enclosed with chains and ropes and guarded by the military. Spaces that are empty except for rubble indicate where a shrine or temple once stood.

Around 500 to 800 foreign tourists visited the square daily before the earthquake, says Sundar Prajapati, a collector at Hanuman Dhoka Durbar Square Conservation Program. Now, only around 200 visitor tickets are issued daily.

For Shakya, the earthquake has disrupted a long-held daily routine. He wakes at 5 a.m. every day and visits the temples and shrines in the square. For years, that routine included visiting the statues inside Kasthamandap.

“Our cultural heritage is destroyed; I feel like crying,” Shakya says.

 

Swayambhunath

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BEFORE: The Anantapura temple in Swayambhunath compound before the earthquake.

Photo from the Department of Archaeology


Every morning, as the sun rises over Kathmandu, Deepak Buddhacharya and his two brothers chant prayers for all living beings on the planet.

Buddhacharya, 43, is a priest at Swayambhunath, a Buddhist religious site in Kathmandu. Members of his family have served at the temple for more than 1,800 years, he says.

The earthquake damaged most of the 29 houses where his family members lived, Buddhacharya says.

“Although houses collapsed, nothing happened to the 185 members of our family,” Buddhacharya says. “We were saved by the gods.”

Swayambhunath is believed to be the oldest Buddhist monument in Nepal, according to Shrestha, the conservation official.

Thirteen monuments around the Swayambhunath Stupa, a dome-shaped shrine, were severely damaged, including a temple and a monastery. The stupa suffered minor cracks. Several artifacts from the Swayambhunath, such as statues, have been moved to the National Museum for safekeeping.

In the two days following the April 25 earthquake, the five daily prayer rituals known as pujas at Swayambhunath did not take place on time, Buddhacharya says.

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AFTER: The Anantapura temple in Swayambhunath was almost completely destroyed by the earthquake.

Shilu Manandhar, GPJ Nepal

It was the first time in living memory that the pujas were delayed, he says. Temple priests had to search the rubble for puja materials, including water, rice, flowers, incense sticks, tika powder, which is a bright red pigment, and special threads called jajanka.

The pipes were damaged in the Swayambhunath area, and water service hasn’t been restored, Buddhacharya says. This causes great difficulty for the priests, as water is an essential part of the pujas.

And the drop in the number of devotees visiting the temple has directly affected the priests’ lives.

“We are priests,” he says. “Our work is prayers and pujas. We depend on the alms given by devotees.”

The priests didn’t receive regular alms until mid-November — about seven months after the earthquake, Buddhacharya says. Even now, there are fewer visits from devotees than before the quake.

The souvenir shop at Swayambhunath, operated by Buddhacharya and his family, is struggling.

“After the earthquake, the sales were zero percent,” Buddhacharya says. “We would open the shop and just sit, because there were no tourists.”

Swayambhunath has always been adorned with prayer flags, but they were removed after the earthquake to prevent monkeys from using them to climb up to the stupa. Buddhacharya says they hope to put up the flags soon, restoring some measure of normalcy to the Swayambhunath compound.

“This is the first time I am seeing Swayambhu Stupa without the flags,” Buddhacharya says. “It feels naked and unclothed. It is difficult to see the stupa like this.”

 

Bauddhanath

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BEFORE: The 13 gilt copper plates at the pinnacle of the Bauddhanath stupa were distinctive features at this popular Buddhist pilgrimage site.

Shilu Manandhar, GPJ Nepal

Hira Maya Lama leaves her rented room early to reach the Bauddhanath stupa, about one kilometer away, by 5 a.m. From her stall in the temple compound, she sells butter lamps, small metal lamps filled with ghee, to devotees who visit the stupa.

Lama, 53, also worships at the stupa.

“I am a Buddhist and I go for kora every morning and evening,” Lama says, referring to a meditative walk taken around the stupa.

Bauddhanath, one of the largest Buddhist stupas in Nepal, wasn’t damaged as much as other heritage sites in the Kathmandu Valley, but the effects of the quake are obvious.

The gilt copper plates that top the stupa cracked, and the many aftershocks that followed the April 25 quake increased the number and depth of the cracks, says Phubu Yanji Lama, executive director of the Shree Boudhanath Area Development Committee.

Before the earthquake, an average of about 500 foreign tourists visited the stupa every day, says Phubu Yanji Lama. That number has dwindled to about 60.

“Just after the earthquake, people came to light lamps for the people who lost their lives in the earthquake,” Hira Maya Lama says.

But thereafter, the number of devotees dropped, and very few people came to worship, she says.

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AFTER: Bauddhanath, one of the largest Buddhist stupas in Nepal, wasn’t damaged as much as other heritage sites in the Kathmandu Valley, but the 13 golden plates at the top of the stupa were cracked and are being replaced.

Shilu Manandhar, GPJ Nepal

A blockade of goods imported from India that started in late 2015 brought another blow to Hira Maya Lama’s business. Her costs skyrocketed. A drum of ghee, which she usually purchased at 1,700 Nepalese rupees ($15.92), increased to 3,000 rupees ($28.10). Lama has doubled the price of her lamps, from 5 rupees (5 cents) to 10 rupees (10 cents). Her income has dropped drastically — from 6,000 rupees ($56.19) a day before the earthquake, to around 1,500 rupees ($14.05) a day.

“It is difficult, but we have to manage,” Hira Maya Lama says.

Even as her own life and income have been affected by the earthquake, the changes to Bauddhanath stupa have also been difficult to bear, Hira Maya Lama says.

Reconstruction began in January.

“Bauddha is our country’s jewel,” Hira Maya Lama says. “I see Bauddha’s photo on books that tourists carry. Bauddha is important.”

Hira Maya Lama and Phubu Yanji Lama are not related.

 

Patan Durbar Square

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BEFORE: Char Narayan temple in Patan Durbar Square is thought to be the oldest temple in the square, and was built entirely of bricks.

Photo from the Department of Archaeology

Dinesh Maharjan Dangol, 33, sits cross-legged on the floor in his shop in Patan, surrounded by tools he uses to carve decorative embellishments on metal Buddha statues.

He’s alone in his shop.

“Business completely stopped after the earthquake,” Dangol says.

Before the disaster, Dangol exported 15 to 20 statues to China, including to Tibet, each month. But in the past year, he’s exported no more than five per month.

The tourists who once flocked to Patan from morning to evening are gone, Dangol says.

“Patan is known for their Newari artisans — from statue makers to thanka painters to silversmiths,” says Dangol, who has been making statues for more than 20 years.

There used to be plenty of work for everyone, he says.

Patan Durbar Square includes a palace and temples built by the Newar, a specific community in Nepal. The buildings, many with intricate wood carvings, are considered priceless examples of Newari culture and craftsmanship.

The earthquake destroyed 21 monuments in the square, six of which were completely ruined, according to the Department of Archaeology.

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AFTER: Only the base of the Char Narayan temple in Patan Durbar Square remains after the earthquake.

Shilu Manandhar, GPJ Nepal

The first floor of Bhimsen Temple is now restricted, he says. The large statue of Bhimsen, where people usually perform their pujas, is part of the restricted area, and instead there’s a small statue of Bhimsen on the ground floor.

“Now we have to do puja there,” he says, referring to the ground floor where the smaller statue is kept. “It is a different feeling. I don’t feel like I am visiting a temple. I feel like I am praying in the puja room at my house. We are so used to seeing the big statue of Bhimsen god.”

But the changes haven’t kept Dangol from spending time in the square.

“I feel love in my heart for this place,” he says. “The government should reconstruct the Durbar Square quickly. It is not only good for the locals but for everyone. Because tourism business affects everyone, not just us.”

 

Bhaktapur Durbar Square

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BEFORE: The Vatsala Devi temple in Bhaktapur Durbar Square was built using white sandstone and had intricate carvings.

Photo from the Department of Archaeology

The Durbar Square in Bhaktapur was empty after the earthquake, says Suresh Babu Hada, who lives with his family in a house next to the square.

“Some went to live in their fields, while others went elsewhere,” Hada, 42, says.

For two months after the earthquake, he and his family lived in tents in the square, even though their house was not badly damaged, Hada says. They were afraid the aftershocks would cause the house to collapse.

But the family never considered leaving.

“I can’t leave this place,” Hada says. “It will be like separating the soul from my body.”

Bhaktapur Durbar Square is an area with a palace and temples built by the Newar, and is known for its intricate wood carvings.

Five monuments and buildings in the square were completely destroyed, and another 14 monuments were partially damaged, according to the Department of Archaeology.

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AFTER: The three-tiered plinth on which the Vatsala Devi temple in Bhaktapur Durbar Square rested is all that can be seen now.

Shilu Manandhar, GPJ Nepal

Hada’s family operates a restaurant and a shop in the square, and he also works as a tour guide for English- and Japanese-speaking visitors.

Tourists began trickling back into the square in early March, he says. But it hasn’t returned to normal.

“Not only is the tourism affected, but the gods’ place of abode is destroyed,” Hada says.

Local people’s religious rituals were disrupted because they feared going into partially damaged temples, he says.

“I feel sad to see the Durbar Square in this condition,” he says. “It should be reconstructed soon.”

But it’s people who need the most help, he says.

“But first priority should be given to people, their houses, and then heritage sites,” he says.

 

Shilu Manandhar worked with UNESCO Nepal from July to September 2014 on a temporary assignment.

Shilu Manandhar, GPJ, translated eight interviews from Nepali.