Could Bhaktapur hold lessons for South Africa?

Could Bhaktapur hold lessons for South Africa?

In the eastern corner of the Kathmandu Valley of Nepal, about 13 kilometres from the capital city, you will find the gem known as Bhaktapur. It is the smallest city of Nepal, one of the oldest and also one of the most densely populated.

Variously known as the City of Culture, Living Heritage, Nepal’s Cultural Gem, and a City of Devotees, Bhaktapur is an ancient city. It is renowned for its elegant art, religious values, fabulous culture, colourful festivals, traditional dances, architectural masterpieces, ancient sculptures and the indigenous lifestyle of Newar community (Newar are the historical inhabitants of the Kathmandu Valley and its surrounding areas). It is also famous for its amazing ‘Juju Dhau’ yoghurt (also known as ‘King of Curds’), which is made of fresh buffalo milk and served in a small clay pot. It is sweet, creamy and thick, with a crunchy layer on top. 

Bhaktapur is a “Living Heritage” or “Living” Museum, and the majority of the inhabitants are either Hindus or Buddhists. Religious harmony unites the people in the city, and every festival and cultural activity (irrespective of its religion), is observed with equal enthusiasm. Until the early 18th century, the ancestors protected the city as a sovereign country – surrounding it with boundary walls and a number of city gates. Shaped like a flying pigeon, the city spreads over an area of 6,889 km² and lies at 1401 meters above the sea level.

Bhaktapur’s potters and handicraft industries are known nationwide. “Pottery Square” is located to the south of Bhaktapur Durbar Square, quite close to Taumadhi square. The place is locally known as “Bolachha Tole” but everyone else simply calls it Pottery Square.

Bhaktapur Durbar Square itself is a former royal palace complex. It housed the Malla kings of Nepal from 14th to 15thcenturies. The kings of the Kingdom of Bhaktapur called it home from 15th to late 18th century until the kingdom was conquered in 1769. Due to its well-preserved medieval nature, UNESCO listed Bhaktapur as a World Heritage Site in 1979. During its height, Bhaktapur Durbar Square contained 99 courtyards but today barely 15 of these courtyards remain – mainly due to the frequent earthquakes, particularly those in 1833, 1934 and 2015. 

The 25th April 2015 was one of the darkest days in the history of Nepal. Thousands of lives were lost. Many more were left in tatters. Ancient settlements and structures (including many historic monuments) were reduced to rubble in a matter of seconds. Eight years later, Nepal is still in the process of rebuilding.

Of the 920 cultural heritages that were either destroyed or damaged by the earthquake, 425 of them have yet to be reconstructed. Reconstruction in Bhaktapur Durbar Square is almost complete, with most of its iconic structures back up. Locals believe this has to do with how the reconstruction was handled i.e. prioritizing local ownership and locally-led efforts over international assistance. 

This square is jointly managed by the Archaeological Department of Nepal and the Bhaktapur Municipality. Always known for the unique architecture of its medieval squares and buildings, it was a tragedy when the 2015 earthquake destroyed nearly a quarter of this ancient city, including monuments in its famous palace square. Up until today, significant restoration is still being done. Using well-defined guidelines, economic sources and a trained workforce, Bhaktapur is steadily rebuilding itself. Unlike in Kathmandu where foreign donors are competing with each other to help reconstruct, here it is the municipality and the locals that have taken charge.

Bhaktapur was originally restored under a German project which started in the 1970s. After the 2015 earthquake, various international organisations, as well as China and Japan, expressed interest in rebuilding the entire city. The Germans wanted to return to Bhaktapur, where many of the monuments they had restored 40 years ago withstood the earthquake. They tried to convince the local authorities to allow them to support another urban renewal project. The municipality declined the offer. They decided to rebuild using their own resources with help from Department of Archaeology (DoA), the Guthi Sansthan and the National Reconstruction Authority (NRA).

Even prior to the earthquake, the municipality had established norms for heritage conservation and restoration. After the 2015 event, reconstruction was delayed for five months because although the NRA had directives for new concrete buildings, none were provided for traditional clay-wood-brick structures. The city had to come up with its own guidelines to preserve the old construction methods.

Of the 116 documented archaeological heritage sites in Bhaktapur due for reconstruction and renovation, those with monuments on the tourist routes and those promoting tourist business and trade have been given the priority for rebuilding. Of the total budget for reconstruction, 15% came from the government, 35% from the entry fees of tourists, 10% from taxes, and the remainder from various semi-private sources.

Only traditional construction materials like wood, brick and lime mortar are used for historic monuments, and all the newly reconstructed temples have internal wooden structures that provide flexibility and support. Whilst some skilled craftsmen left Bhaktapur for better paying jobs elsewhere, many others stayed behind to learn the skills and transfer them to future generations.

Bureaucratic processes often hold up necessary funding when it comes to international aid, whilst in locally-led projects, the funding is raised upfront or can be accessed much more easily down the line. Their rejection of international funding also meant that fewer players were involved, simplifying the process further.  Contrast this with the situation in Kathmandu, where numerous structures still remain draped in scaffolding. Many believe this to be a result of the international component. Whilst they received funding from a number of national and international players, it resulted in a hodgepodge of stakeholders and consequent delays. Simply put, a surplus of stakeholders and committees make things exceptionally difficult to achieve.

Perhaps there are lessons to be learned here that would be apt for our own country?

Jacqui Ikin & The Cross Country Team

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