‘Monuments Men’ needed in Nepal

Reconstructing Kathmandu Valley’s heritage sites is going to be a difficult task

May 06, 2015 01:12 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:35 pm IST

SAVING HERITAGE: “Even if tragedy strikes, markers of cultural identities must be sustained.” Photo shows monks salvaging a statue of a Buddhist deity from a monastery near Swayambhunath stupa in Kathmandu, Nepal.

SAVING HERITAGE: “Even if tragedy strikes, markers of cultural identities must be sustained.” Photo shows monks salvaging a statue of a Buddhist deity from a monastery near Swayambhunath stupa in Kathmandu, Nepal.

The April 25 >earthquake in Kathmandu Valley in Nepal has not only killed more than 6,000 lives and injured more than 14,000 people but has also impacted severely the country’s most iconic edifices and UNESCO World Heritage Sites. We now know that centuries-old pagoda temples have crumbled, statues have been thrown off high pedestals, and watchtowers have been reduced to fragments. Even as volunteers dig through rubble to locate survivors, and officials continue to devote their energies to feeding and sheltering the injured, the fate of the unguarded architectural fragments remains uncertain. Despite the Nepal government’s pleas that people should refrain from stealing what is left of these structures, a few pieces are likely to be picked up by individuals aspiring to profit from their sale. What will happen to the vast majority of these fragments in the months to come? Will they remain unprotected and begin to disappear in the face of development pressures? Or will they be assiduously gathered and transported to godowns?

Robert Bevan, an architectural critic, recently wrote in The Art Newspaper , “If a group’s cultural identity is eradicated, this has a similar end result to eradicating that group physically; they cease to exist as a distinct cultural entity.” Yet, preserving settlements and edifices that have shaped and reflected a group’s cultural identity are not easy tasks. The efforts to reconstruct European cities that were bombed in World War II and to restore Buddhist enclaves that the Taliban destroyed in Afghanistan in 2001 have demonstrated that such projects pose enormous intellectual challenges, logistical demands, political complexities, and economic strain.

The reconstruction of the extraordinary historical fabric of settlements in the Kathmandu Valley is going to be difficult. Over the past few decades, collectives such as the Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust have inventoried individual monuments and worked with architects and local craft persons to conserve homes and public spaces. However, these collectives lack solid funds and expansive multidisciplinary teams. Christian Manhart, the head of UNESCO’s Kathmandu office, has been quoted in The New York Times saying that his organisation will be unable to independently undertake the task that lies ahead.

India has long prided itself on its civilisational ties with Nepal. Since the earthquake rocked the Valley, India’s government and citizens have responded vigorously. Teams of Indian defence personnel, diplomats, engineers, paramedics, pilots, social workers, and truck drivers have been working alongside their Nepali counterparts and rescue and relief specialists from around the world to locate missing persons and provide succour to the affected people there. However, can India support Nepal in rebuilding the Kathmandu Valley’s monumental heritage? Can it swiftly assemble and dispatch a rapid action team of expert archaeologists, art historians, conservation architects, and urban planners to the Valley?

The bitter truth is that as things stand, India is not in a position to do very much. The Archaeological Survey of India is itself understaffed and remains susceptible to being drawn into political controversies. The condition of some State archaeology departments is similar. For instance, Uttarakhand, which shares a border with Nepal, has hundreds of lithic monuments and is also prone to natural disasters, does not even have a formalised state archaeology department.

Demoting study of history As Vishakha N. Desai, a cultural policymaker, recently wrote in The Hindu , >India’s educational system has systematically demoted the study of ancient culture and history. Only a handful of colleges and universities have departments in the history of art and archaeology. In recent years, a few departments with relatively greater autonomy have successfully aligned themselves with the burgeoning contemporary art market, and made interventions in the establishment of art fairs and private museums. However, they have mostly been unable to undertake the pressing task of imparting instruction in epigraphy, landscape archaeology, historical preservation, and the study of the material and visual culture of the SAARC neighbours.

India’s inability to contribute substantially to the preservation of some of the most significant antiquities in the Kathmandu Valley and its rich urban fabric should encourage those of us who are involved with teaching cultural history to begin rethinking our responsibilities. India’s public institutions, charitable trusts and academic departments need to create milieus in which archaeologists, art historians, conservation architects, environmentalists, and urban planners can come together to formulate innovative curricula that can equip students to interpret and protect the many building types that stand across South Asia and that are in various states of preservation and vulnerability.

Taken together, such measures might allow us to build an army of ‘monuments men’, well-trained and unswerving individuals who can offer support and advice to local communities and authorities that are seeking to conserve their own built heritage and material culture. Even if another tragedy strikes, we must be able to sustain the markers of cultural identities.

(Nachiket Chanchani is Assistant Professor of South Asian Art and Visual Culture at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, U.S. E-mail: nachiket@umich.edu )

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These visualisations show how the intensity varied with distance from epicentre. > Read more The PM spoke to Nepal President and Chief Ministers of Bihar, Sikkim. > Read more Helpline no.s: +91 11 2301 2113, +91 11 2301 4104 and +91 11 2301 7905. > Read more
"Blind thrust" quakes are ones that do not break the surface, and tend to be more frequent. These records indicate that the region has a rich history of quakes in the past centuries. > Read more
A magnitude-7.8 earthquake shook Nepal’s capital and the densely populated Kathmandu Valley on Saturday, the worst quake in the Himalayan nation in over 80 years. A look at the world’s strongest earthquakes since 1900. > Read more

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