Nepal’s Cultural Heritage Needs Post-Quake Rebuilding, But Lives On

Far fewer tourists now visit Basantapur Durbar Square in Kathmandu.
Far fewer tourists now visit Basantapur Durbar Square in Kathmandu.

By Karen Lane

Four months after the deadly earthquake in Nepal, the country is struggling to rebuild cultural and historical sites like the Basantapur Durbar Square in Kathmandu to bring back badly needed tourism revenues.

How quickly a day can change history. Or at least its historical monuments.

The last time I came to Nepal just four months ago, the Basantapur Durbar Square, one of seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the Kathmandu Valley, was teeming with tourists marveling, like me, at over four centuries of magnificent and colorful temples, palaces, and statues. Many of them would go on to trek through the country’s vast expanses of hills and mountains. Every year, these million or so tourists would bring in huge revenues for the restaurant and hotel industry, and provide employment for tour guides and handicraft makers, not to mention sellers of backpacks and thick-soled walking boots. Taking jobs into account, tourism used to account for about 8% of the Nepali economy.

The April earthquake and many aftershocks have reduced several of Basantapur‘s ancient buildings to mountains of brown rubble, surrounded instead by plastic tape and signs warning people not to get too close. There are far fewer tourists. Taxi drivers, money changers, and shop assistants all complained to me about the slump in business since the tremors. The assessment by the Nepal government and development partners reckons that losses to the tourism industry will total around 40% over next 12 months and 20% over the coming two years.

The cultural monuments aren’t just for tourists though. What struck me in February was how much the square was used by locals too. Many worshipped quietly, while elsewhere in the square entire families perched on the steps of the temples, chatting while others fed corn to flocks of pot-bellied pigeons.  Farmers also used the shelter of the buildings to sell vegetables, fish and other produce.

Kathmandu residents continue to worship at the temple, while entire families sit on the steps to chat or feed pidgeons.The buildings of the square are not only a mark of the country’s history, but are woven into the fabric of Kathmandu life. As a member of Nepal’s National Planning Commission told me, it’s a place for praying, and a place for walking and talking. This last time I visited, though, no one was hanging around, but rather using the square as a shortcut. There were even far fewer pigeons.

At the recent donor conference to gather funds to help Nepal get back on its feet, almost everyone pointed to Nepal’s long, unique, and rich heritage. Rebuilding it will also rebuild places that are at the heart of city life.  

It certainly won’t be easy. First of all, the extent of the damage is huge. The recent Post Disaster Needs Assessment reckons the earthquakes damaged or destroyed about 2,900 cultural or religious structures, causing about $169 million of damage, and that is only to the buildings that could be counted. Rebuilding them to withstand future hazards could cost 20% more than that. The government will also need to consider the cost of retrofitting the buildings left standing too if it is to reassure local and overseas visitors of their safety.

It’s not just money though – it’s a massive logistical undertaking. The rubble needs to be sorted to see what can and should be salvaged. Experts will be needed to assess and redesign. Materials—some these days in short supply—will have to be sourced at a time of high competition (and therefore high prices) for timber and bricks. Artisans skilled in the ancient arts will be hard to find.

Ancient buildings are now mountains of brown rubble, surrounded by plastic tape and danger signs.For all the destruction, there is much that is still glorious about Kathmandu and the areas around it. Smaller neighborhood temples still abound; the mountains are still lush and green and—with careful planning of routes—still navigable. Cafes are still serving the same delicious Himalayan coffee and spicy momo dumplings, tour companies are reopening and ready for business, and the people are still warm despite their country’s tragedy.

The tremors may well have wiped out the physical reminders of Nepal’s rich cultural past, but the story of Nepal lives on in its resilient people as their country’s heads into its next chapter. As tour guide Dawa Sherpa told me, Nepal is still standing, and #stillbeautiful.