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.