Nepali Times Asian Paints
Life Times
Moving forward with the past

Travis Price's Spirit of Place meeting house in Finland, inspired by the epic 'Kalevala'
"Two plotters came on motorcycles yesterday asking if there was land for sale in the village," a local said. "They come every day, some from as far away as Kathmandu to scout out land." She showed me the pile of business cards left behind by these 'plotters' developers who buy land and parcel it into small plots large enough to build cookie-cutter homes without any reference to cultural history or landscape. "They promise to bring the bright lights of Kathmandu to our village."

Stirred by such comments from the villagers of Namje and Thumki, I rubbed my eyes and looked around their landscape again. It was very different from the first images that had introduced me to Nepal, as a Peace Corps volunteer a decade ago. There were few signs of the water shortage that had propelled my work with the community. Was easier access to water now one of the key drivers of modernisation? About 10 new homes had cropped up in the last 3 years, and the school buildings had expanded to accommodate a +2 campus. The bumpy roads had been smoothed out by the increasing traffic.
Before me lay not a village, but a rapidly developing townscape.

For my wife Priyanka and myself, these villages have been a microcosm of our understanding of the larger pursuit of development proliferating throughout the country. The infrastructural growth that began with roads in the 1950s has brought a certain version of modernisation to Nepal, which has seen traditional, cultural ways of life associated with backwardness and poverty. Developing the human connection to land and spirituality is not considered development at all. With hundreds of villages now becoming homogenous concrete-built communities, the current need is not just for water or schools, but also for newer ways to create the built fabric embedded into the history and culture of communities.

In our quest to find a solution to this problem, we met architect Travis Price, the founder of Spirit of Place-Spirit of Design, to bring his award-winning design-build program to Nepal. Captivated by the images of his timeless structures embedded in different landscapes, we can only imagine what excitement his architecture will bring to the villages. In The Archaeology of Tomorrow, Stanley Hallet notes, "His work seeks to recognize the importance of cultural myth informing the very fiber of our bodies; it colors, shades and transforms how we perceive and find meaning in the world that surrounds us."

Travis Price is not so focused on building with natural materials as he is with playing with nature in ingenious ways. This year, he and his students at the Catholic University of America will bring their provocative ethos to Thumki village. They will seek to develop a new aesthetic archetype that embraces the village's modern pursuits and the rich ancestry of indigenous peoples and their sacred geographies.

SEEKING SPIRIT: Thumki hill from Namje, Dhankuta district
Thumki village has a distinct history of its own, much like the historic communities where Spirit of Place has worked in previous years, from Peru to Ireland. The history of its Magar community dates back 250 years, when they first settled here after a stint in the conquering army of Prithvi Narayan Shah. They aren't particularly Hindu, Buddhist or even Kirat; though they are influenced by all religions, they still practice animism and worship their ancestors. Thumki hill has remained undeveloped until now because of the presence of the burial ground on top, from where the ancestors are believed to watch over the community. "It is where we go to fight the demons of the graveyard to protect our village as part of our initiation," Thumki's eldest shaman says. "Our ancestors live there."

It is here that Spirit of Place will build its 18th legacy marker, which will both commemorate Thumki's ancestral spirits and symbolise its modern future. The students will also help design the townscape in order to reproduce a similar aesthetic. Travis Price notes, "We hope to stir the spirit not only of the villages of Namje and Thumki, but indeed set a new vision that even encroaching development can emulate."

Finally, after 10 years of working here, I feel that the project is moving forward.

Rajeev Goyal, co-written with Priyanka Bista

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)