April 2015, Nepal affected the entire country immensely by a cruel earthquake that left devastating scenes around the country. Rebuilding damaged infrastructure has proven to be an intricate challenge, especially for the heritage buildings that were preserved for years. Given its location and its proliferation of mountains, Nepal’s economy depends largely on tourism. It is home to one of the tallest mountain peaks in the world, Mt. Everest. It is known to have a unique combination of natural beauty and cultural riches. Due to ongoing collisions between tectonic plates that have historically caused the country’s deadliest tremors, Nepal is extremely prone to earthquakes, landslides and avalanches. However, the April 25th earthquake not only killed people but changed the way of living forever. The Gorkha earthquake killed nearly 9,000 people in April 2015, ever since then, Nepal has been on a slow and vigorous route to recovery.
Nepal’s vibrant cultural heritage of monuments, religious places, crafts, festivals and traditional practices has been key to this process. Heritage reconstruction in Nepal has been prioritised in the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Kathmandu Valley and has received major funds. The Durbar Square of Kathmandu has been in slits ever since the earthquake.
Bhaktapur city is home to one of seven monument zones of the valley and has a similar Durbar square to Kathmandu. It has been undertaking a novel form of locally led recovery, focusing on built heritage to restore its tourist potential and more importantly rebuild community life and the resilience of residents. The central Durbar Square, an ensemble of palaces, temples and rest-houses that has been evident of the cultural history, architecture and craftsmanship. Declared a World Heritage Site in 1979, Bhaktapur is often referred to as a city of “living heritage”, with over 130 heritage sites and an annual calendar of festivals, processions and crafts.
In the aftermath of the earthquake the first impulse was to save people. Many dug through the rubble with bare hands to reach those trapped underneath, much before any equipment or rescue teams could reach them. But as emergency services began to function, people turned to safeguard their heritage sites. In most instances it was the local community which stepped forward. The origins of this spontaneous reaction go back to Kathmandu Valley’s guthi system. Guthis are local kinship organisations which regulate the social, cultural and economic affairs of the community and are responsible for the maintenance and upkeep of the monuments. When they were nationalised in 1964 under the Guthi Corporation, many of the links between community and monument were severed. At the time the government undertook this step to bring the vast lands under guthi ownership under government control. The land which provided the income for the maintenance and functioning of the monuments was in many cases squandered away and the government was never really able to fully take on the responsibility as caretaker through the Guthi Corporation.
However, most monuments continued to be used for religious or social functions. The community’s response to the disaster shows that though they have lost the legal ownership rights, for them these monuments are still significant. This will be a critical impetus for reconstruction.