Devendra Bahadur Shrestha's 200-year-old ancestral home at Kulimha in Patan could easily have gone the way of most houses in this ancient town-demolished to make way for a characterless concrete highrise. But it didn't.
After the wholesale destruction of Kathmandu Valley's cultural heritage and architectural character in the past 20 years, there is a growing trend towards renovation and preservation. Families like Devendra's are in the frontline of this desperate struggle to conserve the cultural landscape of Kathmandu Valley. Inspired by the bed-and-breakfast pensions in Italy, Devendra is turning his home into an eight-bedroom, family-run lodge called Shrestha House with a $30,000 seed grant from the National Federation of UNESCO Associations in Japan. "Even if we hadn't got the money, we'd have gone ahead and converted it ourselves," says Devendra, who has used traditional building materials and the Newari style to make a functional, elegant and comfortable lodge, just off Patan Durbar Square.
Patan is among seven sites in Kathmandu Valley that were included in 1979 in UNESCO's list of World Heritage Sites. The others are Hanuman Dhoka, Bhaktapur, Swoyambhu, Pashupati, Baudha and Changu Narayan. UNESCO had then described Kathmandu as a unique "living heritage site" unparalleled in the world.
Being on the list is prestigious, and makes Nepal eligible for some international support for its conservation efforts. But the accelerated urbanisation of Kathmandu Valley has threatened the cultural landscape and monuments of the seven sites, prompting successive meetings since 1993 of UNESCO's World Heritage Committee to warn that unless something is done to reverse the trend, Kathmandu Valley may be downgraded to "Endangered Heritage Site", or even de-listed. But Nepali delegates from the Department of Archaeology have managed to keep Nepal on the list by promising to meet a series of conservation criteria. A meeting of the committee in 1998 required Nepal to fulfil 55 recommenda-tions by the year 2004, but a year later expressed "serious concern over the persisting problems of demolition or alteration of historic buildings within Kathmandu Valley".
A six-member team from the World Heritage Centre is in Kathmandu this week to see how far Nepal has got with the 55 recommendations, and to find out once and for all whether there is political commitment at the highest level for heritage conserva-tion. "This is a very serious effort to get an objective assessment of the situation," Eduard Sekler, team member and author of a 1977 Kathmandu Valley heritage conservation masterplan, told us. The mission makes recommen-dations to the independent World Heritage Committee which will meet later in the year to decide on whether Kath- mandu Valley will remain on the World Heritage List. Sekler, who first came to Kathmandu in 1962 to begin an inventory of heritage sites, says: "I have noticed the changes in the Valley in perspective, many of them were unavoidable, and it is sad. But I have also been walking around this week, and I see definite signs of local communities more serious about heritage preservation than they were five years ago."
Sudarshan Raj Tiwari is Professor of Architecture at Tribhuvan University and has been working to restore not just the monuments but also the "ambient envelope" of the Valley. He says: "There is no doubt that public awareness about using brickwork, restoring traditional facades, wood carvings on windows is growing." But he says a lot more needs to be done to revise and implement housing and zoning regulations. Above all, Kathmandu residents need an alternative, and Tiwari sees an urgent need to de-congest New Road to ease the pressure on hotspots like Hanuman Dhoka. Being downgraded to the List of World Heritage in Danger would be a loss of face for Nepal, and a matter of shame that after 30 years we could not protect the jewels of our history and tradition. But some, like Austrian architect and conservation consultant, Goetz Hagmueller, who has worked in Bhaktapur and Patan for 20 years, say that being kicked out of the UNESCO list isn't such a big deal. "Maybe after that there will be an effort to prioritise heritage conservation and there will be more international support for Kathmandu Valley conservation," he told us. Bagmati conservation activist Huta Ram Baidya says it is inappropriate to be all excited about conservation and heritage lists just because UNESCO thinks it is important. "When will we start doing things ourselves without forever being dependent on donors? What is stopping us from renovating crumbling Kasthamandap, or from ceremonial oil lamps being lit there? Why do we have to wait to be told by foreigners that things are in bad shape before doing small doable things?"
And that is exactly what seems to have started happening. Despite government inaction, without outside support, some families and communities in the streets and bahals of inner-city Patan and Bhaktapur are restoring ances-tral homes. When they do tear down old buildings they have reconstructed them with traditional material and in proportion and harmony with the rest of the street. In Patan's Momaru Galli opposite a halwai shop we ran into Rajdip Shakya supervising work on his new house. The inside has reinforced concrete beams, large spacious rooms and tall ceilings but the outside is traditional Newari fa?ade with brick, decorative terra cotta and a doorway carved with five Buddhas. "It is slightly more expensive to build, but this is the least we can do to protect our heritage," he says. His neighbour and tourism entrepreneur, Dilendra Shrestha, says tax breaks and other financial incentives for traditional construction near heritage sites would ncourage others to follow Rajdip's example. The individual examples of successful conservation need to spread to other parts of Kathmandu Valley if it is to retain its rich cultural landscape.