Nepali Times
Time travel in Kathmandu


Some places have a captivating distinctness with a life of their own, a living, breathing organism. Kathmandu Valley is one such place.

Things in Kathmandu don't just happen, they develop over time and come into existence because of what the place and the people require and demand. It is a response of the built environment to the place, history, culture, people, and climate.

The vernacular architecture of Kathmandu evolved during the Malla period, an era of intricately carved timber framed buildings with deep red mud brick facades, sloped roofs of tiles over a layer of mud supported by timber trusses. The houses had thick brick walls with cupboards and niches embedded in them. The palaces and residences at the Darbar Squares of the Valley lent an aesthetic excellence to the era that has lasted to this day.

Yet, what is not adequately discussed is how these celebrated architectural achievements responded to the Valley's scenic setting, and transformed through the wrenching change of the recent past. What is the new vernacular architecture of Kathmandu today? Is it suited to what we want the city to be?

By taking it for granted, we tend not to value adequately this architectural legacy. Which is why the treasures of the Malla period and the living culture that they embody are being superceded by a globalised Kathmandu of soulless condominiums, ersatz office blocks with aluminium composite panels, glass-skinned malls, and vast billboards.

With the new grammar of Kathmandu's built environment, we have not just wiped out the historical heart of the Valley, but also marginalised the cultural heritage, lifestyle, festivals, and communities that it represents.

There is a temptation to over-romanticise the past. The past can be explained, studied, and usually makes sense. The present, however, seems cluttered and chaotic. In architecture, buildings from a previous era, temples, palaces, courtyards, monasteries, residences, have all been studied in relation to their proportional, utilitarian, and symbolic relevance.

So it makes sense when the ground floor of a Newar residence is not used for living purposes or when there is a circumambulatory space around the central shrine of a temple. The thick brick walls insulate against cold and heat.

Today, this is replaced by multi-disciplined and multi-cultural built spaces, a borderless egalitarian environment. On one hand there is a representation of many aspects of design found outside of Kathmandu, brought in by a cross-cultural metropolis, on the other is a nameless international style that is based on a global aesthetic and design principles.

The ambient space of Kathmandu is therefore a cluttered and intermixed mish-mash: history and heritage rub shoulders with a non-descript globalised look. Except for few recent examples of heritage conservation, an emerging Malla renaissance, and an effort to evolve a modern vernacular, for the most part the architecture of Nepal's capital symbolises the confusion and chaos of the country's current socio-political state.

This development doesn't just threaten our heritage, it also doesn't provide solutions to the everyday life of the Kathmandu urbanite. The Valley needs a new vernacular that values the past, while preparing us for a trying future.

Swati Pujari is an architect and editor of SPACES magazine. She is also involved in the conservation of the Swoyambhunath Mahachaitya.

Read also:
'Palazzos decorated with pilasters'
A heritage conservationist takes a dispassionate, but pained, look at Kathmandu's hideous urbanisation

1. Gopes
Swati: Good attempt on mirroring Kathmandu Valley present situation.  However, I felt that more work is needed to make it robust to the intended audience. In addition to that ,you are jumping from one scenario to another and which is breaking the flow of the sentence. And as a I reader I get lost and connected again somewhere down the road.

Overall loved reading it! Keep up the good work :-)

2. pravasi nepali

Who is to blame for all this? I would blame SPA and maoists. Since 2006, there has been rampant since the Jana andolan 2...... It defies logic that tall towers are being allowed to be built near roads and near critical security installations (Eg: those ugly tall towers near Police HQ naxal)....Just imagine what will happen if a big earthquake comes @ KTM?

How did they get license from municipality to build such unsafe structures? Obviously, because the netas cum maoists cum gangsters have their black money invested in those projects......


Time for Jana andolan 3....leave it, why bother? I stay outside Nepal; but am worried for my family @ KTM.

3. Swati
The idea of mirroring Kathmandu is fascinating, but the possibility of providing an accurate image of this place, specially in the scope of an essay, is vague. I think anytime we attempt to write about Kathmandu, the chaos slips into the words as well, and in some strange way, that may just be the best way to mirror this chaotic town. 
But indeed, there is so much more to be written, and so much more to be done.

4. What living and breathing?
Kathmandu isn't a "living, breathing"city but it's definitely a dying city. The valley has lost its charms. Recently, I came across an old satellite photo of Kathmandu valley and I believe the picture would have been taken in the 1960s. The photo showed the lush Kathmandu valley with 85% of its total area having farmlands with beautiful terraces. Today, unfortunately, it's not the case,as 50% of once lush valley is covered with cement and iron rods and we are proud to call it "development." It's a shame that we're systematically destroying our culture and heritage, arts and crafts, and environmental friendly structures to be replaced by hazardous materials. And the blame goes to the Maoists for wreaking environmental havoc in the valley. How did they do it? Well, during insurgency in order to escape from the Maoists' terror, people had nowhere to go but come to Kathmandu looking for safety and livelihood. The Maoists must have driven at least a million plus people, if not more, from their traditional homes in the rural areas. Due to lack of education and skill, upon their arrival in the valley most of the folks had no other options but seek foreign employment. Since their families had somehow already managed to settle in the valley, the money they sent home from foreign countries began to be invested in buying property in Kathmandu. Seeing the opportunity of making quick bucks, middlemen ("dalal"), including commercial banks and other loan sharks, would encourage these people to buy highly inflated properties in the valley. Ever since the valley's infrastructure has remained unchanged, but high rise buildings are popping up everywhere. What people don't understand is that Kathmandu sits on one of the most active earthquake zones in the world (Ask Mt. Everest if you don't believe it, because Himalayas aren't just rising for no reason!). Given its geographical setting, one wonders what the heck would happen if Haiti like earthquake were to strike the Kathmandu. If that were to happen (God forbid!), we would surely witness a catastrophe never seen in the history of humankind. We're talking here death toll in hundreds of thousands, if not millions. A quake in the Richter scale 7+ could potentially left 70% of the inhabitants of the valley dead. Those who may survive would surely be left with no basic items of necessity, like water, shelter, and food and power, for a very long time. People it may sound like a fictional story, but it's all real. But we still have hope. To avoid calamity of that magnitude, we must invest in infrastructure: ask the Chinese for help; stop copying Indians. No need to turn Kathmandu into another Indian city, where people hang their laundry from the windows and balconies of their high rise. Lastly, Kathmandu must remain the "City of Temples" and not the city of concrete. 

5. Anonymous
"The architecture of the Nepal's capital symbolizes the confusion and chaos of the country's current socio-political state"-- yes, indeed, well said Ms.Pujari!! It is an irony that the architect-town-planner-turned-politician is currently leading this country. If the doctor-Prime Minister stops playing political cards, instead applies his technical talents and energy in addressing the real problems in his own professional field, that would be a great contribution to the people and country!

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)