Thursday, 9 December, 2021

Concerns over Kathmandu’s changing cityscape


By Aashish Mishra
Kathmandu, Apr. 20: When Avigail Levy came to Kathmandu after 34 years in 2019, she was disheartened. The 59-year-old Israeli who had last come to the Nepali capital in 1985 to study Tantrism and Buddhism was dismayed by how the city had changed for the worse.
“The traditional Newa houses have all but disappeared,” Levy said. “The temples and stupas are belittled by the tall concrete buildings that surround them.”
“The entire cityscape has changed,” she claimed.
Cultural Heritage Conservationist Rabindra Puri relates to Levy’s disappointment. “Up until 50 years ago, Kathmandu Valley was the largest heritage site in the world. But no more,” he said.
“Our love for steel and concrete blinded us to the treasure that was our native architecture. Our houses were so scientific – they would be cool in the summer and warm in the winter – and they were perfectly suited to Kathmandu’s topography and climate. It is heart-breaking how we demolished them indiscriminately,” Puri, the first Nepali to win the UNESCO Asia Pacific Cultural Heritage Conservation Award, said.
In Puri’s observation, the degradation of Kathmandu’s architecture began in the 1970s with the introduction of cement in the market. The trend gradually expanded through the 80s and took a monstrous pace in the 90s.
But why? Why are people so eager to abandon their indigenous building forms? What brought the downfall of Kathmandu’s once-iconic urbanscape? “A lack of awareness among people,” Puri said. “And lack of will to draft and implement appropriate conservation policies at the top.”
Puri explained, “People do not know that old buildings can be equipped with modern amenities. They think that maintaining and renovating historic structures is more expensive than building new ones when, in fact, it is actually cheaper. Most of all, our society associates tall concrete buildings with wealth and prestige and people

who live in traditional buildings are considered poor. This pushes many to demolish their homes.”
He added, “The successive governments have not prioritised conservation. There are very few policies to begin with and the policies we do have, such as building restrictions around world heritage sites, have also not been strictly enforced.”
Civil Engineer Kumar Chitrakar also blames haphazard urbanisation for the architectural loss. “An eight-storey mall or a hotel is built right in the middle of a row of old-styled buildings which blocks the view and sunlight for everyone. So, the residents are forced to build houses as tall as the mall, if not taller. This is what happened in areas like New Road and Thamel.”
Just like buildings, Kathmandu is also fast losing another jewel of its city architecture – Hitis.
These spouts were more than just sources of water. They were spaces for gatherings and socialisation, they were works of art in themselves and also centres of other exquisite carvings and statues; they were points around which settlements developed. In short, they served as the nerve centre of Kathmandu’s culture, said Riddhi Pradhan, former director-general of the Department of Archaeology who has studied and written extensively on the stone fountains of Nepal.
According to Pradhan, the Hitis are an architectural marvel exclusive to Kathmandu Valley. “They are unique to the valley’s civilisation. No other country has the kinds of spouts we have,” she said. This makes their loss all the more tragic.
Pradhan told The Rising Nepal that the beginning of the end came with the supply of piped water. With water available at their doorstep, people no longer needed to go to the spouts and hence, stopped seeing the need to preserve them, she said.
Then, another nail in the coffin came with the establishment of the Guthi Sansthan and the implementation of the Land Reform Act in 1964. “Previously, the Hitis were preserved and protected by local Guthis with income earned from designated plots of land. With the establishment of the Sansthan, however, the communal Guthis had to surrender their lands to it. As a result, the sense of ownership they felt over the heritage vanished.”
“People felt that it was now the responsibility of the Guthi Sansthan to preserve the Hitis. Also, even if they wanted to do something, they had no lands and hence, no income to work with,” Pradhan elucidated.
Then, as Kathmandu developed, it became more profitable to destroy or bury the stone spouts and build on top of them than to protect. Buildings and roads encroached upon them or they were turned into dumping sites. With urbanisation, the channels and canals from which water flowed to the spouts were also blocked, Pradhan described.
It is a pitiful situation for Kathmandu’s Bahals and Bahis as well, shared Engineer Chitrakar. “They are an integral part of Kathmandu’s urban landscape, open spaces inside the compact city core,” he said. But, thanks to private vehicles, they are not so open anymore. “These courtyards are now parking spots, choked with bikes and cars – the aesthetics of these spaces gone.”
However, as much as there is a lot to worry about, there is still some space for optimism. Puri, Pradhan and Chitrakar see a renaissance in the new generation. “Youths are aware of their heritage and want to conserve it,” Puri said. “Whereas people had to be coerced into preservation before, many now do it voluntarily,” Pradhan stated. “Youngsters have realised that our culture is what makes us attractive to tourists. So, they are preserving it to boost income,” Chitrakar opined.
The role the local governments are playing in restoring, reviving and renovating the monuments is also praiseworthy, they said.
“Kathmandu Valley is more than its UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Every house, every street, every fountain is a product of millennia of knowledge and innovation. We have destroyed much of it but there is still much left which we must protect,” Chitrakar said.