A debate between purists and pragmatists is delaying reconstruction of earthquake-damaged heritage sites

Central Nepal and Kathmandu Valley are going through their second monsoon after the April 2015 earthquake. The pace of reconstruction of homes, monuments and heritage sites has been frustratingly slow. In six out of seven World Heritage Sites in the Valley that saw extensive damage, rebuilding has not even started. In this fourth edition of the Nepali Times Heritage Live! Series, we try to find out why.

One of the reasons is so fundamental that the process will not pick up speed until it is addressed: it has to do with how authentic we want the reconstructed sites to be. Authenticity is tricky because over the years heritage conservationists have employed different methods in reconstruction, taking into account the architectural idiom of Kathmandu Valley and conservation methods employed in past decades.

Conservation architect Sudarshan Tiwari describes Kathmandu Valley’s unique architectural form as “distinctive construction and craftsmanship in the brick and wood of the tiered temples”. Exquisitely carved they may have been, but they had to face two destructive forces: earthquakes and monsoons. Kathmandu’s private and public buildings were designed to safeguard against them.

For instance, the deep overhang of the pagoda structure was a conscious design choice to keep out the rain from the brick-mud mortar walls of tiered temples. Our forebears also developed ingenious methods to protect the monuments from earthquakes, with wedged joints between wooden members and brickwork to add structural integrity. Kathmandu’s early builders adapted building technology to contextual challenges, but recent reconstruction disregarded these in renovation and conservation efforts.

Such restoration in past decades introduced a host of new material to our monuments. The reconstruction of the Chyasilin Mandap — carried out in 1989/90 with German technical and financial assistance — introduced a steel frame for structural support, and steel trusses were also used in the restoration of the Patan Darbar and Museum . Similarly, reinforced concrete also found its way into our traditional structures.

These architectural methods opened the floodgates of debate. Reaction from heritage conservationists to such additions ranged from the mild “not really needed” to an outraged “grave mistake”. Rabindra Puri, the heritage conservationist who has struggled to save the traditional architectural fabric of Bhaktapur, falls somewhere in between, but even he thinks modern materials should not be allowed in the reconstruction of public heritage structures.

“The use of such materials isn’t justified,” he says. “You cannot just look at a few fallen structures and point out that our traditional methods failed, when other equally older monuments are still standing like Nyatapol in Bhaktapur and Indreswor in Panauti.”