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Quake-Ravaged Nepal Races To Salvage Historic Treasures

Digging in Bhaktapur, Nepal
Digging in Bhaktapur, Nepal
Julien Bouissou

BHAKTAPUR — With one arm, Rabindra Puri slowly clears a pile of rubble, followed by a second, and a third, until a statuette of the god Shiva appears. He delicately wipes the object's dust-covered face, then puts it on a stretcher so that it can be carried away and placed in a locked cabin nearby.

Like other wooden survivors, the sculpture will be numbered and stored before eventually being returned its original home — once it is rebuilt.

Five months after the earthquake that struck Nepal and left about 9,000 dead, men with masks covering their faces are still rummaging through the rubble in search of buried memories; things that date back to the Malla or Mewar Dynasties, for instance, carved in the wooden decorations, door frames or richly sculpted lintels.

In total, some 2,500 religious and historical structures were damaged or destroyed by the earthquake, according to the Nepalese government's latest figures. "Their destruction was heartbreaking," says Rabindra Puri. "I ran to stop the bulldozers that were about to demolish old houses."

The architect knows better than anyone the value of the Nepalese architectural heritage. Restoring old homes is his job. He spends his days trying to understand older building techniques, their peculiarities, the different influences they represent. In the 19th century, for example, the French who came here to train the royal army "raised clearances and widened windows," the architect explains. So much history was buried on April 25.

Radindra Puri and his teams are trying to save 10 houses that were built with red bricks and carved woodwork in the Gachhen neighborhood, in Bhaktapur, a town founded during the 12th century by King Ananda Deva Malla and included on the UNESCO's World Heritage List. They alone cannot save everything, but they are setting an example.

All the houses that the architect built these past few years, following the traditional building methods, are still standing. "Nepalese houses are flexible," he says. "This means all the parts of the structure are linked to each other, which allows them to resist quakes and not break."

The destruction was not caused by the earthquake alone, but also by the use of poor quality building material and a lack of maintenance of old buildings. The Nepalese archeological department's paltry $2 million annual budget, it turns out, was not enough to protect the vast architectural heritage.

The loss of those treasures will now deprive the country of the financial windfall that stems from tourism, which represented 8% of Nepal's GDP and employed more than 500,000 people prior to the quake.

With that in mind, Nepalese authorities decided to reopen certain damaged sites in mid-June, against the advice of UNESCO, which had warned against "a risk of collapse."

Willing and ready

Given the extent of the reconstruction needed, the traditional crafts industry has a bright future. Prem Raz Zhakya is a mason. Wearing a roomy shirt, he has a bright smile on his face. In the town of Bigmati, which is famous for the quality of its craftsmen, he's the most experienced. "I started out by earning 12 rupees ($0.11) per day; now I earn 1,000 rupees ($9.40) per day," he says proudly.

During his years in construction he witnessed the growing fondness for concrete and taller and taller buildings. "I told my clients it was dangerous, but no one listened to me."

Pem Raz Zhakya, with help from the government, is now in charge of training young craftsmen. And he has no trouble finding candidates. Some are students who, while their university is closed, chose to learn a job to rebuild their home or earn a living by working on construction sites.

The bigger challenge for rebuilding the religious and historical buildings is finding quality building supplies. "The lack of material is a serious threat to our efforts," a post-quake report published by the Nepalese government warned. "There will also be great demand for wood...There will also be problems obtaining special bricks necessary for the renovation of monuments."

Cost is an problem as well. The government expects it will need more than $180 million to complete the job.

"Low prices shouldn't win"

In the Karya Bianayk temple, a few kilometers from Bagmati, Mahesh Shakya is a priest known for his wooden carvings. He receives orders from all over the world via WhatsApp or email, mostly for Buddha statuettes, his specialty. "Many idols have been lost," he says. "The government only thinks about houses, but how will people pray if they don't have idols?"

But houses are not built like the Shiva or the Vishnu statues. "It's important to understand the nature of divinity, its attributes, its spiritual meaning, before starting the works," the priest adds. "There are so many Hindu divinities that if we miss a detail, a motive, the god in question could be mistaken for another."

Mahesh Shakya thinks at least one year of training is required before someone can sculpt "the smile of Buddha that isn't that of laughter, but of beatitude."

In August, the government launched a call for bids. "But it's as if the Sistine Chapel launched a call for bids to repaint its ceiling," the sculptor-priest says angrily. "It's impossible! Low prices shouldn't win, quality should."

A petition has been launched to ask the government to cancel the call for bids and give time and money to the country's sculptors. It's not easy to rebuild centuries of heritage in a hurry.

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