Kathmandu Offers Front-Row Seat to History Being Rebuilt
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because Kathmandu’s historic sites are unveiling thousand-year-old archaeological secrets.
By Stephen Starr
The 7.8 magnitude earthquake that shattered Nepal in April 2015 left millions homeless and claimed almost 9,000 lives. It dealt enormous damage on the Kathmandu Valley’s majestic Hindu temples, shrines and Buddhist stupas. Hundreds of the region’s historic sites, including several UNESCO World Heritage-listed structures, were damaged or destroyed.
But a restoration process, started in 2016 and funded in part by international governments and embassies, has offered historians and archaeologists a chance to record history anew — and visitors have a front-row seat to the action.
A 20-minute walk south of the backpacker Thamel district, the din of hammers striking stone and brick fills the air around Kathmandu Durbar Square. Here, laborers are busy putting together what the earthquake tore apart, dispatching bricks into wheelbarrows before stacking them carefully against fences surrounding any of a dozen construction sites in what’s probably one of the largest open-air cultural reconstruction zones anywhere.
There’s much more going on than simple bricks and mortar. Take the now destroyed pagoda-style temple that gave Nepal’s capital its name, the Kasthamandap. Before the earthquake, debate raged for centuries around the iconic temple’s age, and its significance in the pantheon of Himalayan heritage. Now, researchers from Durham University in England and Nepal’s Department of Archaeology have been able to date it all the way back to the seventh century — hundreds of years older than previously thought.
Groups overseeing restoration work in Patan Durbar Square, another major assemblage of temples and shrines a half-hour drive south of Kathmandu, are even allowing the public to walk around craftsmen as they go about the important business of replicating history.
The stupa sits atop 365 lung-busting steps and is the oldest Buddhist monument in the valley.
“We have left open the area at the back side of the 16th-century Mani Mandap palace, and there is a huge garden where we have a workshop. Craftsmen work there from 9 am to 5 pm, and it’s where we store all the materials,” says Rohit Ranjitkar of the Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust, a conservation organization involved in rebuilding several significant sites. “In all our projects we have transparent fencing so that people can see from outside.”
If you find yourself looking for some Instagram-worthy shots and a breather from the crowds, head for the stunning Swayambhunath Stupa, or “Monkey Temple,” a 30-minute walk from Kathmandu Durbar Square. The stupa sits atop 365 lung-busting steps and is the oldest Buddhist monument in the valley, making it hugely significant, especially for Tibetan and Newar Buddhists. While many temples in Kathmandu and across Nepal have yet to start on the road to reconstruction, the Swayambhunath Stupa is closer to the finished article.
To reach it, don’t bother taking a taxi — instead, saunter through the Dallu district’s narrow streets to get a feel for what life is like for Kathmandu’s resilient residents. You’ll see monkeys swinging from telephone lines, slabs of unrefrigerated, freshly butchered meat and locals sharing intimate moments over tea.
But despite the valuable work being done, the reconstruction process hasn’t been entirely straightforward. Controversy and disagreements involving locals, heritage groups, city authorities and the state — there is no single authority overseeing the work — have followed. Some of it centers on differences over which temples should be attended to first. There have also been disagreements over whether traditional materials should be used, which slows the process, and whether the temples should be rebuilt exactly as they appeared before the earthquake (several have not).
While Kathmandu’s historic sites bristle with energy and offer a window into the past, the damage inflicted by the quake means that unless you’re an expert on the history of Nepali monarchies, it’s probably best to call on the services of a guide. One man, Shiva Dhakal, even offers tours for free.
“It’s a unique opportunity for tourists to see history as it was first built and [that’s] now under construction,” says Dhakal, who has run the Free Walking Tour Kathmandu agency for the past two years. “[It] connects people to stories, local beliefs and our cultural practices.”
- Stephen Starr, Stephen Starr is a journalist and author who lived in Syria from 2007 until 2012. He is the author of Revolt in Syria: Eye-Witness to the Uprising.Contact Stephen Starr