With heritage reconstruction efforts stuttering, locals seize initiative for Kasthamandap rebuild

April 26, 2017

The Kathmandu Post, Sanjit Bhakta Pradhananga, 26th April 2017, Kathmandu

 “A city without a mooring to its past becomes a sterile utilitarian cluster of infrastructure and people.”—Dipesh Risal

In light of the government’s lethargic response to the rebuilding of heritage sites destroyed by the 2015 earthquake, locals launched a campaign to rebuild the iconic Kasthamandap through a community initiative that will prioritise the use of local resources and traditional building methods.

Organising a ceremonial oath at 11:56 am on Tuesday, exactly two years after the Gorkha Earthquake killed almost 9,000 and damaged hundreds of heritage sites across the country, the Rebuild Kasthamandap initiative made a public pledge to reclaim the stuttering rebuilding process and to charge it with local fervour and community ownership.

Kasthamandap is the oldest public building in Kathmandu Valley. Serving both religious and secular functions for over a millennium, the wooden pavilion is misconceived as having been built by Laxmi Narsingh Malla in the 17th century. Other estimates had placed the structure as a 12th century monument. But a joint excavation conducted by the Department of Archaeology and Durham University last year pushed Kasthamandap’s dates back by five centuries, confirming that the foundations dated to the 7th century, establishing that the building was at least 1,300 years old.

But more than just a physical structure, Kasthamandap also holds immense cultural and symbolic importance for Kathmandu. Lying at the crossroads of two ancient trans-Himalayan trade routes that connected China and Tibet to India, Kathmandu’s very name is derived from Kasthamandap. Which is why, Mary S Slusser, a pre-eminent historian and chronicler, has described Kasthamandap as the most important heritage site of the Valley. In an article Why Kasthamandap Matters by author Dipesh Risal, published after the earthquakes brought the pavilion down, she was quoted as saying, “Kasthamandap is Nepal’s heritage defined, a witness to its history and evolution as a nation for almost a thousand years—and likely more. No other traditional building in Nepal could compete in size, antiquity or cultural impact. It must not be allowed to perish.”

The government’s efforts to rebuild the Kasthamandap, however, were marred by missteps. Last year when the Department of Archaeology (DoA), the government body charged with overseeing the sites of historical importance, unveiled its architectural plans for rebuilding the Kasthamandap, it drew flak from locals and heritage conservationists alike for including steel, industrial glue and even concrete in the blueprint. Stakeholders at the time had argued that the proposed plans went against the DOA’s own heritage conservation guidelines and had been drafted without due consideration for the reuse of structural elements salvaged after the quakes.

In 2015, the Gorkha Earthquake destroyed 753 heritage sites in the country and damaged many more.

In the two years since, the government’s efforts to rebuild heritage sites have been obstructed by protests from local communities who accuse the authorities of lack of transparency, a disregard for traditional building methods and of ramming through projects through the “lowest-bidder system” which hands out lucrative rebuilding

projects to contractors without taking stock of their expertise or previous experience. Rebuilding projects, including of the historic Rani Pokhari, Dus Avatar Temple and Jaisi Dega, have ground to a halt this year in light of vocal local opposition.

Highlighting that heritage sites are not just physical structures but an integral part of the social fabric, Birendra Bhakta Shrestha, the chairperson of the Rebuild Kasthamandap initiative, said, “This declaration by locals highlights that it is not just our duty to rebuild our heritage, but also our right. Kasthamandap belongs not just to the locals, or just to the Nepalis, but as a World Heritage Site, it belongs to the entire human civilisation. So, we must ask, do we want to just rebuild a physical structure that has no soul? Or do we want to rebuild a structure that the community claims ownership over?”

Also present at the declaration was Dhana Narayan Kapali, one of the organisers of the annual blood donation drive that was traditionally held at the Kasthamandap site. His wife, Sanu Maya Kapali, was one of the 10 volunteers and donors who died at the pavilion when it collapsed during the 2015 earthquake.

“I lost my wife at Kasthamandap. Now, two years later, I look at the site [with all its steel mesh fences] and it looks more like a chicken coop than a venerated site. Are we honouring the dead and the original builders who passed this heritage down to us in the right way?” he questioned, in a conversation with the Post. “Just the fact that these monuments were handed down to us for upkeep, despite many earthquakes having ravaged them over the centuries, makes it a moral duty that we hand it down, as it was, to future generations.”

Rebuild Kasthamandap initiative is now aiming to draw out fresh building plans that prioritise traditional building methods and the reuse of structural components salvaged from the rubble. Working with the Rabindra Puri Organisation and Society of Nepalese Architects (SONA), locals will be unveiling fresh plans for the reconstruction. While the initiative is yet to declare a budget or a timeline, they have set Rs190 million--a figure floated by the DOA for their reconstruction plans for the pavilion--as their initial fundraising target. According to the initiative, pledges have already begun to pour in but the drive will steer clear of big corporate houses trying to co-opt the effort through large donations meant just for branding.

“This is not just about reconstruction of Kasthamandap; it is also about community ownership,” Sumana Shrestha, spokesperson for the Rebuild Kasthamandap initiative, said.

“We ultimately see this as more than just the rebuilding of a physical structure. This is a movement, a spiritual awakening if you will, that seeks to bring people closer to their heritage and ensures both tangible and intangible heritages are preserved.”

The article, Why Kasthamandap Matters, referenced in this report is available at