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Whose heritage is it anyway?



Not long ago, I took some Norwegian friends for a walk through Thamel to Kathmandu Darbar Square. Though usually a 15-minute walk, this time it took us over an hour. My friends, amazed and intrigued, had to stop to look at small temples adorned with rice and flowers, monks in a monastery in a small square, wood carvings on house facades, shops so small they barely had room for goods and, finally, the big temples in Darbar Square.

Most foreigners coming to Nepal for the first time usually react in the same way – with awe. The kings of yore built numerous palaces and temples, partly as a display of power but also to invite respect and esteem from ordinary people. The construction and use of temples and religious objects were integrated with everyday life, supported by local guthis.

But then, for about 100 years, the Ranas neglected traditional temples and monuments. The government that came to power in 1951 was faced with an immense task of restoration. Who would take the responsibility to preserve Nepal's cultural heritage, and did anyone feel that it was even necessary?

UNESCO archives in Paris document how international professionals (architects, anthropologists, conservationists) became involved in cultural heritage preservation in Nepal after 1951. They also show that, apart from requesting UNESCO for economic support, Nepali government agencies were reluctant to be actively involved in the actual work until the 1960s. A strained economy is part of the explanation, but the documents also indicate that politicians and public administration staff were not really interested.

American anthropologist Mark Liechty, who has studied Nepal since the 1990s, argues that this neglect stemmed in part from the Rana tendency to value foreign items as symbols of distinction, prestige, and power (that only they could display). Even with the end of the Rana regime, therefore, there was an elite reluctance to accept the advice of foreigners who planned to put indigenous Nepali culture in the spotlight.

During the 1960s, restoration was linked to cultural tourism, which itself could promote economic development, and government agencies became more active in collaborating with UNESCO, and other foreign governments and organisations. Monuments, buildings, and sites were studied, restoration costs were calculated, and professional people who could train local craftsmen were invited to Nepal. In 1979, seven sites of universal importance were put on the World Heritage list, among them Sagarmatha National Park, Lumbini, Bhaktapur, and Patan.

However, by designating a specific site or monument as part of universal cultural heritage, preservation has become very expensive, giving rise to two difficult questions. What happens to the indigenous culture when it is defined as being part of our universal heritage? Who has the economic responsibility for preserving monuments and sites, so they can be presented to an international audience, most of whom are foreign tourists?

For centuries, the construction and use of temples and religious objects in Nepal were integrated with people's everyday lives, very much supported by the guthis. Today, the financial basis for both private and state guthis is crumbling, making national as well as international organisations even more important for restoration work. Nepal is increasingly dependent upon foreign support in the cultural sector in the same way that development aid in general has created a system of dependency. Thus, most restoration projects in Nepal have aimed at establishing open-air 'museums', such as the Bhaktapur Darbar Square, and excellent museums such as the one in Patan.

Being a foreigner, I appreciate that Nepal's rich cultural heritage is being taken care of through work such as that of the Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust. At the same time, I cannot help but be concerned about indigenous culture becoming part of the tourist sector, separated from the everyday life of Nepalis, from whom it took root.

1. Andy
Interesting article, Marit. On one hand, you do have a strong foreign and tourist interest in architectural history/conservation. But, I think we are also witnessing a resurgence of "traditional" architectural themes (brick facade, sloped roofs) in new buildings and houses around the Valley, what some call Kathmandu Postmodern or neo-Newari Renaissance, and this is driven by Kathmandu elites. 

2. jange

Interesting piece. As usual for articles of this sort the most interesting questions are left in the air.

- how is it that our ancestors, who were less numerous, had less technology and were generally less well off than we are were able to create these things but that we are not.

- We are already abandoning the cultural basis and philosophy that produced these things. Is it worthwhile to preserve these artifacts when we have abandoned the roots that produced them? No problems with preserving them as historical and artistic curiositis. But then why not simply build a museum to house them? Better and cheaper, and more honest.

- You cannot preserve culture. Culture is either dynamic and alive or dead. Only artifacts can be preserved. Therefore it is only natural that people who have loadsamoney should be the ones interested to keep them in good condition. This is much the same as the family which has fallen on hard times and wishes to sell some antiques that have been left rotting in the attic in order to buy the new car/luxuryholiday/pradashoes or whatever.

- indigenous culture?? This is just something for the tourist sales talk. Glad you have fallen for it.

3. gurdhum
These temples and monuments are in greatest danger now than ever with imposition of dollar funded secularism on Nepali people. Church funding to the Maoist has helped deliberate undermining of local religion and culture, and cut down on government support of restoration of such heritage. Just look at what is happening to Pashupatinath temple and collapsing eastern section. Why are Nepali people so naive ...

4. chandra gurung

Norwegians are also on the forefront to support missionary activities in Nepal. I noted with somewhat irony that Missionaries even invested in Nepal's hydropower with the Norwegians (BPC), and are fighting with govt to keep what's govt's share/dividends. In short, be oversmart, use Nepal's resource to destroy Nepal, while pretending facade of being generous helper. Missionaries have targeted Janajati and their culture for conversion because they see them as sitting ducks.

No, foreigners didn't do a jackshit to preserve the Nepali culture. The foreigners were not here until 1950s, and yet KTM was considered a live museum where famous researchers came to study Hindu culture. KTM's good weather, almost no foreign intervention etc made it an ideal place to see they evolution of Hinduism/Buddhism. If anything, foreign influence has harmed the preservation efforts.

There are good foreigners and bad foreigners, and while I appreciate the likes of Joseph Tucci, Toni Hagen etc who genuinely cared for Nepal's history, and had a good appreciation of it, lots of the foreigners came to Nepal, bought our heritage for pennies and encouraged thieves and robbers among locals to loot the heritage. This all happened in the last fifty years.

5. singha

a very good and intressting article, i do have things i do agree with n also not. i belive its important to see beyond the nationality of the writer, its a personal impression based story afterall with many good points that we should be thankful are highlighted.

being a nepali but living abroad for many years, even though i regulrary visit nepal find the general development rather freightening, culture has become to mean a almost fanatic nationalism, usually even without a knowledge of thier own history or appreciation of anything different then thier own "jat" or political ideology or their own preferances...the focus on money seems to be the main standard now...the more u have the better person u r, usually the more trouble u can make n get away with it.

Mr. Gurung, i think u should read what u wrote one more time as its somewhat contradictory...foreigners didnt come to nepal before the 50´s mainly as it was a closed country and very few were allowed to visit, as always the greatest threat to any nation is always its own inhabitants, no one else though its easy to blame others....the british could take the indian continent because they could borrow money from some segments of the local population and played one group out against another in the local rivalvry for power...let us also reme,ber that India, was the jewel in the Crown, and at independence in 1947 stood better then most other Asian (even non-colonial) nations to face the modern, post ww2 world´s challenges.

without foreign help (for better or worse) i do where nepal would be now?

janjatis are a target area of missionary activity as they have not been included in the mianstream of being nepali, in culture, traditions or policy....but r regarded with contempt by most even 2day...

even in Govt. its not matched besides policies but no real effort....still the vast majority of the political leadership come from the bahun-chettri background, even maoists who prefer to wear western clothing then embrace the uniqe cultural traditions of nepal.

I sincerely object to the statement "foreign influence has harmed the preservation efforts", we live in a global world where people daily share new and even foreign ideas n come into contact with each others, but its still each ones choice to decide what they want to be n how to go about things. The govt. of nepal has since the 50´s been more intressted in getting their pockets full of foreign money then actually doing something real abt developing the nation with clear policies n reality based work to acheive it..."ke garni" turn their hands n look like couldnt care any more...cus really didnt care from start.

i do however agree that there r good foreigners n bad foreigners, just like there r good nepalis and bad nepalis...thats life....

a vast majority would choose a M16 or AK 47 then a old kukri or a Henry martini rifle from the old arsenals of ktm....even though it carries more history n culture and is more nepali...

education has and will always be the key for development and also for preservation or conservation...if people are dying of hunger they could care less abt a temple or palace but naturally will care mainly abt getting smth to fill thier hunger.

perhaps its time to start give all the money that comes in through foreign aid directly to each inhabitant then to the government, as would probably be more useful then what it is now.

6. Marit Bakke

Thanks to everyone for comments to my article about Nepal's cultural heritage. I appreciate that it apparently is relevant in an ongoing discussion among Nepalis, not only about heritage preservation, but also about foreigners' activities in other sectors. 
Though not approving religious missionary work, I indeed do respect the concrete accomplishments by such individuals and groups in Nepal re. hydro power and health services. 
'Indigenous' is a common term among cultural researchers, and alludes to culture's historical context, thus not particularly related to tourism. The term also enables us to be aware of a country's different cultures, not only a 'national' culture.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)