15-21 January 2016 #791

Rebuilding new structures using old tradition

Two communities in Lalitpur lead the way in post-earthquake rehabilitation
Sahina Shrestha

COMMUNITY FIRST: Volunteers clear rubble of destroyed houses in Pilachhen, an old Newar settlement in Patan.

After every big earthquake that tends to strike once in a century, Kathmandu Valley has rebuilt itself anew. This time around, the old settlements of Pilachhen and Bungamati are using last April’s earthquake as an opportunity to not just rebuild the physical structures but also to rediscover their crafts, heritage and festivals.

Ramesh Maharjan fondly remembers growing up in the narrow alleys of Pilachhen, an old Newar settlement in the ancient town of Yala (now Patan). When eighty-two houses were destroyed in his neighbourhood in April, he saw loss but also an opening. 

“This has become a perfect opportunity for us to revive our forgotten socio-cultural heritage and festivals that were slowly disappearing,” he told us during a tour of the historic locality. 

When he was a boy, Maharjan saw the old architecture give way to cement houses and wooden khapas replaced by ugly metal shutters. He also watched as the newer generation moved away in search of work and the farms overrun by urban sprawl.

Working with the Maya Foundation, Maharjan put forth a plan to rebuild Pilachhen to serve as a model of preserving the traditional architecture while also creating economic opportunity for its residents.

“We have a rich history, culture and architecture, and we want to use that for economic revival through tourism,” he says. The idea is for the community to reconstruct houses with traditional architectural facades without compromising on modern amenities so that tourists are attracted, and this creates jobs. 

Govinda Raj Pokhrel, formerly of the National Planing Commission who briefly headed the Reconstruction Authority, encouraged Pilachhen’s revival.

“Reconstruction after the earthquake is not just about restoring damaged buildings, but the cultural heritage, festivals, crafts, and livelihoods that they represent,” he says.

With volunteers from Global Shapers and architectural design (pics, above) provided by CE Services, the project is estimated to cost Rs 470 million. The Tilganga Foundation has donated Rs 40 million and another Rs 10 million has come from individual donors. 

Ten km away on the southern outskirts of Patan, the heavily damaged township of Bungamati is similarly trying to rebuild the temples, monuments and neighbourhoods. Of the 1,351 houses in Bungamati, 851 were completely destroyed including the temple of Machindranath. The community wants to revitalise the town while preserving the architectural heritage, woodcarving tradition and its famous chariot festival.

The Bungamati Reconstruction Committee is getting help from UN HABITAT, KU Leuven University in Belgium and other groups to plan the socio-economic revival of the town through tourism. A vocational school is also being planned to ensure that handicrafts and hospitality will sustain a tourism-based economy.

Says the Committee’s Prem Bhakta Maharjan: “Rebuilding the town will not only preserve the cultural heritage but also ensure the livelihood and economic benefit for the community, but rebuilding using old architecture is expensive and without soft loans or subsidies, the locals cannot afford to do so.”

Read Also:

Monumental loss, Stephane Huet

Carving out a niche, Sonia Awale

After the aftershocks

Rebuilding what is holy, Sahina Shrestha