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Examining Nepal's Architectural Legacy After the Earthquake

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As images of flattened buildings bounce across the Internet, the scale of the humanitarian tragedy left in the wake of the recent Nepal earthquake has begun to take hold. And while the loss of life, and efforts to aid survivors, are paramount, another loss has also begun to reverberate. Nepal's unique position, perched on the roof of the world and at the crossroads of great civilizations, has left the country with an unrivaled and singular architectural heritage with seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites spread out across the Kathmandu Valley, many of which were severely damaged in the quake. "It's just aesthetically stunning," says David Gellner, Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Oxford. "It's like going to Rome, history is built into every street corner. This kind of Hindu-Buddhist urban landscape was once much more pervasive. It stretched from Afghanistan to Bali, and now the Kathmandu Valley is where it is. It's like going back in a time machine to see what northern India was like in the first century AD."

Gellner, who lived in the country for years and has visited dozens of times, says the architectural style of the region, an amalgamation spanning centuries without a concise technical term — when pressed he described it as "medieval Hindu Buddhist baroque" — dates back to the 4th or 5th century AD. Early temple buildings from that era boasting stupas, tiered towers often made of wood, influenced the pagoda, a fixture of traditional Asian architecture.

"It's incredible medieval urban living," says Gellner. "They're incredibly well-preserved. These sacred sites were built into the town as a part of everyday life."

Evidence of the country's craft traditions can be found across the built environment, especially the carved wooden windows and metalwork. Artisans from the Kathmandu Valley in Nepal were important in shaping developments in Central Asia, especially metalworking and sculpture, according to Alexander von Rospatt, Professor for Buddhist and South Asian Studies at UC-Berkeley.

"The attention to detail is, if not in its own league, in the top league, globally standing," he says. "The refinement of woodwork happened elsewhere, but this is one of the places in the world it survives due to the climate."

Three of the UNESCO sites, Durbar Bhaktapur, Durbar Patan and Durbar Kathmandu, all massive palaces in the squares of their respective cities, were the centers of three kingdoms that were united in 1769. The palace in Kathmandu, also known as Dhoka Durbar Square, a reference to a statue of Hanuman, the monkey devotee of Lord Ram, was built by Sankharadev in the 11th century and has been a royal center for the majority of the time since, boasting extensive additions, temples, and religious iconography added during the rein of Pratap Malla in the 17th century. All have suffered moderate to serious damage, with many buildings completely destroyed.

The Pashupatinath Temple, a national shrine that dates back to the 5th century, was relatively unharmed by the quake. A classic example of pagoda architecture, the cubic structure boasts two-level copper roofs ornamented in gold and doors sheathed in silver. Part of a pan-Asian pilgrimage route, the structure is decorated in a plethora of male and female gods, and Nepalese Kings used to end speeches with references to this massive religious complex. Another Hindu temple in the area, Changu Narayan, north of Bhaktapur, also shows signs of serious damage.

Swayambhunath and Boudhanath Stupa are both sacred Buddhist sites. Built in the 5th century, Swayambhunath still has the gazing Buddha's eyes painted on the central tower. Boudhanath, which measures 118 feet above ground, towers over the landscape and is Asia's biggest stupa. Boudhanath has been largely destroyed, while Swayambhunath has suffered serious damage, but the central stupa remains intact.

"It's the one place where Buddhism survives," says von Rospatt of the Kathmandu Valley. "These traditions are under even greater siege if the central places where they're being held are ruined."

According to Gellner, these monuments can be rebuilt; many were similarly destroyed during an earthquake in 1934 and then reconstructed. UNESCO has noted that the Durbar of Patan, Kathmandu and Bhaktapur are almost fully destroyed; when asked about the full extent of damages and reconstruction plans, a UNESCO representative said it's too early to fully assess the extent of the damage, and plans have yet to be formulated for reconstruction.

According to Andreas Johansen, partnerships manager at Article 25, a non-profit that provides architecture services and reconstruction aid in remote areas, 90 percent of all buildings are flattened. The group previously planned to travel to Nepal to help build a school, but is now accelerating plans to send a team to help with reconstruction.

"It's going to be a long time before Nepal is back on its feet," he says. "We often see lots of interest from the public in the first 4 to 5 weeks, but after that is when the real rebuilding begins."

"From my perspective, this needs to be rebuilt properly, and it will require massive outside aid," says von Raspatt. "The Nepalese won't be able to do this themselves, and they will have a lot of other things to do besides take care of temples. These are among the finest things the human spirit and hands have produced. The hope would be that particularly, countries that can afford it, can step up to the plate and do what needs to be done."

In addition to providing humanitarian aid, those who want to help provide aid to Nepal's architecture heritage can also support the Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust.

· All Preservation Watch posts [Curbed]