To Restore Its Shattered Treasures, Nepal Has A Secret Weapon

Master carvers like Ratna Muni Brahmacharya will play a key role in restoring Nepal's many damaged temples and monuments. (NPR)
Master carvers like Ratna Muni Brahmacharya will play a key role in restoring Nepal's many damaged temples and monuments. (NPR)

Blue-uniformed police do the heavy lifting in Dabar square in the city of Patan, one of Nepal's oldest. Moving wooden beams and stacking broken bricks, they sift through ruined monuments, some of which date back to the 1600s.

A considerable chunk of Nepal's cultural heritage crumpled under the intensity of the seismic energy released by the quake nine days ago. The Nepal earthquake devastated one of the world's largest collections of cultural heritage sites, turning centuries-old monuments into piles of brick.

But at Nepal's disposal is a unique tradition stretching back generations that can help restore the country's architectural treasures.

Dabar square houses a dizzying array of those treasures, from pagodas to steep-stepped Hindu temples and Buddhist shrines. Two stone-carved elephants look forlorn, standing half-buried in the dusty debris of the monument they once guarded. Across from them sits the damaged royal palace of the Malla kings, who are credited with founding this square.

The Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust, founded by Harvard architectural historian Eduard Sekler, has saved over 50 historic buildings over the past two decades, including the courtyard that is a central attraction in this square, says country director Rohit Ranjitkar. This former royal complex has served as a gathering place where people come to worship, contemplate and socialize.

The earthquake devastated one of the world's largest collections of cultural heritage sites, turning some centuries-old monuments into piles of brick.
The earthquake devastated one of the world's largest collections of cultural heritage sites, turning some centuries-old monuments into piles of brick.

"It's not like the Roman Forum," Ranjitkar says. "If you go to [the] Roman Forum, you see mostly tourists. Here you see mostly local people. This is our identity, our pride. We have to rebuild. We have to bring back the square in the same condition."

Any restoration would be a huge recycling project; Ranjitkar says the trust prefers to use old materials.

"You can easily break the new bricks, but these bricks are still hard to break," he explains, holding bricks from 1563, the same period as the temple. "You can still see there is lots of damage, but the brick is not warn down."

Standing amid the rubble, it's hard to imagine this place restored, but carver Ratna Muni Brahmacharya believes it can be done.

Brahmacharya sits cross-legged in his workshop, which is infused with the subtle scent of camphor, a rare wood he's using to carve a Buddha. Nepali carvers, he says, have passed their skills down through the ages. He's traced his lineage back 2,400 years to the time historians say Buddha would have been born in what is now modern-day Nepal.

Two stone carved elephants look forlorn standing half-buried in the dusty debris of the monument they once guarded.
Two stone carved elephants look forlorn standing half-buried in the dusty debris of the monument they once guarded.

"We are Buddhists," says Brahmacharya, but he adds that art is his religion. The master carver is a member of Nepal's indigenous community or Newar, the carving class even today.

He says his forefathers were involved in building the palaces and monasteries of Patan, with its square now in ruins.

Nepali architecture beguiles with its intricate carvings. Gods, dragons, snakes and suns feature on the doors and rooftops of Nepal's royal and religious buildings. The distinctive wood-latticed window was thought to keep out those who meant harm.

Today some 60 members of Brahmacharya's family are in the trade, carving wood, stone bone and metal. The 42-year-old craftsman, schooled by his uncles, says he has trained some 500 young carvers.

"I'm now successful, sending my products around world," he says. "The important thing to do now is impart my knowledge to young people so that they join this profession and preserve our ancestors' legacy."

The damaged royal palace of the Malla kings is among the many damaged historical structures.
The damaged royal palace of the Malla kings is among the many damaged historical structures.

Brahmacharya says Nepal must reinforce its vulnerable monuments.

"We have lost a part of our heritage, but our culture is still intact," Brahmacharya says. "We have the knowledge and the expertise. We can revive our heritage."

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