May 6, 2015
The April 25 earthquake in Kathmandu Valley in Nepal has not only killed more than 6,000 lives and injured more than 14,000 people but has also impacted severely the country’s most iconic edifices and UNESCO World Heritage Sites. We now know that centuries-old pagoda temples have crumbled, statues have been thrown off high pedestals, and watchtowers have been reduced to fragments. Even as volunteers dig through rubble to locate survivors, and officials continue to devote their energies to feeding and sheltering the injured, the fate of the unguarded architectural fragments remains uncertain. Despite the Nepal government’s pleas that people should refrain from stealing what is left of these structures, a few pieces are likely to be picked up by individuals aspiring to profit from their sale. What will happen to the vast majority of these fragments in the months to come? Will they remain unprotected and begin to disappear in the face of development pressures? Or will they be assiduously gathered and transported to godowns?
Robert Bevan, an architectural critic, recently wrote in The Art Newspaper, “If a group’s cultural identity is eradicated, this has a similar end result to eradicating that group physically; they cease to exist as a distinct cultural entity.” Yet, preserving settlements and edifices that have shaped and reflected a group’s cultural identity are not easy tasks. The efforts to reconstruct European cities that were bombed in World War II and to restore Buddhist enclaves that the Taliban destroyed in Afghanistan in 2001 have demonstrated that such projects pose enormous intellectual challenges, logistical demands, political complexities, and economic strain.