A day after the #NepalEarthQuake, I went to Kathmandu’s Darbar Square. The scale of devastation was massive. Many of its attractive buildings, former palaces and temples, had either completely collapsed or were heavily damaged. The landmark Kastamandap building had been reduced to rubble. Two other beautiful temples nearby were not where they once stood. The “nau talle” darbar [the Basantapur tower, above] was still standing but it had lost its gajur. Several heritage buildings had their walls cracked. For a regular visitor of the Darbar Square, it was difficult to comprehend the sudden change brought about by the quake. A crowd had gathered at the Basantapur chowk. Most of them were lying on the ground, some facing the sky; others chatting with each other. They looked tired. Somewhat scared too. But they were generally calm. There was uncertainty on their faces. These people were very different from the ones that Basantapur used to see in normal times. Like many open spaces in Kathmandu, Basantapur too was crowded with people who wanted to escape the aftershocks.
A top tourist destination in town, Kathmandu Darbar Square in normal times is a bustling place. People from all over Nepal and and the rest of the world can be spotted here on a typical day. Here, vendors annoyingly follow tourists to sale souvenirs and curios. Dope dealers loiter around looking for customers. Tea sellers serve thousands of cups of tea. Singers come to perform. Artists stage street dramas. Politicians and activists gather to lecture and shout. Temples and palaces fight with each-other for a visitor’s attention. Rickshaw pullers jostle with taxi drivers to get passengers.
Once a place for kings and queens, Kathmandu Durbar Square today houses Gods and criminals, in close proximity and with no discrimination. Perhaps a slight one. Convicted and suspected ones live in police custody in the notorious Hanumandhoka lockup, of course, while the Gods and Goddesses, both living and those immortalized in statues, live free. Not only inside the temples and houses but also out in the open. This is the place where rituals and ancient traditions of many kinds are performed with great enthusiasm and participation of both public and the state. This is a place of utter paradox. An oasis of calm in most days, this place also witnesses some of the most violent cultural activities. That includes slaughtering of thousands of goats and buffaloes on certain days of the year. All in all, this is the cultural heart of Kathmandu. To be precise, this is the most prominent and visible cultural centre of one among many Kathmandus that exist in Kathmandu. But today, a day after the 25th April earthquake, this world heritage site is deeply shaken.
I took this photo in April 2014 (ignore the stamp). On the left is the Trailokya Mohan Temple that was built in 1680. On the back of this temple is a statue of a praying Garuda, Vishnu’s bird-man vehicle, which survived the quake. Maju Deval Temple on the right was built ten years later. This is also known as the Hippy Temple, according a tourist guide who I met in front of the ruins a day after the quake. The temple was dedicated to Shiva and had a linga inside. The earthquake destroyed both temples (see pic below).
Kathmandu has very limited open spaces. More so in the central and old part of the city. Basantapur offers a breathing space to the adjoining crowded neighborhoods. It also provides a space to hang out for many others who live in other corners of the capital city. The steps of the fallen temples were favorite places for many to sit for hours, sip countless cups of tea, and engage in endless gossips and animated conversations on issues of varied significance. The stairs were also popular among lovebirds on a date.
A day after the quake I saw a few people– women, elderly and youth– on the stairs of the Trailokya Mohan Temple. The steps were mostly under debris. Someone had put a bouquet of flowers at the base. These people were quiet. Girls whispered something. Like me, I thought, they were all stunned to see the damage and the destruction around them.
The wooden building
I couldn’t ignore the coincidence. In the evening of the 25th April last year, I was in Basantapur to photograph the busy and crowded markets around the Kastamandap building. The place was chaotic, noisy and very disorganized. Vegetable sellers and other vendors occupied half of the narrow street. Cars and motorbikes honked incessantly. Some of them nearly collided with pedestrians. To a random visitor the charm of the place lied in that anarchy. The disorder made the place attractive.
On the day after the quake, the spot where Kastamandap once stood was filled with debris of the heritage building. The city of Kastamandap, the word from which Kathmandu is derived, had lost its namesake. A few locals seemed to be clearing the rubble. A lonely dog stood near them. Soon after a Japanese TV crew arrived to interview one of those who were digging. There was no chaos. The atmosphere was eerily quiet.
“The squat, medieval-looking building,” Lonely Planet told us about Kastamandap, “[was] especially busy in the early morning hours when the valley’s vegetable sellers set up shop and porters sit awaiting customers. Piles of smoked fish, banana leaves and marigolds spill[ed] into the surrounding alleyways. Although its history is uncertain, local tradition says the three-roofed building was constructed around the 12th century from the wood of a single sal tree. It first served as a community centre where visitors gathered before major ceremonies (a mandap is a 16-pillared pilgrim shelter), but later it was converted to a temple dedicated to Gorakhnath, a 13th-century ascetic who was subsequently linked to the royal family.”
A ‘remote’ perspective
I am saddened by the destruction which is why I spent time putting these photos here. I was mildly shocked to not to see Dharahara when I reached there within 90 minutes of the quake. But my sadness has a limit. I am neither inconsolably traumatized nor emotionally disturbed to see these landmark structures go down or damaged. That’s because, personally, these buildings didn’t mean anything to me in the sense that I didn’t share an emotional relationship with these buildings when they existed. I didn’t grow up seeing these buildings.
I was born and raised in the remote hills that are hundreds of kilometers away from Kathmandu. When I came to the city, closer to these buildings, for the first time, I had walked for several days to catch a bus to the capital city. In the isolated village where I was born no traces of such ‘grand’ buildings existed. Not then, not now. My ancestors were too busy living on subsistence in inaccessible hills while these buildings were being built by the state and the rulers mostly for their personal pleasure. The gap between those for whom these buildings were erected and my ancestors in the hills was unimaginably wide. Things haven’t changed much even after centuries. Not even in 2015.
The earthquake demolished most houses in the hills where I come from. For the people there, rebuilding Kathmandu Darbar Square or Dharahara doesn’t come anywhere in the priority list. Since time immemorial, in such hinterlands, the darbar was a place people came to see perhaps once in their life. The darbar never went to them. We lived in places that were alien to the grandeur of the royals and the elites. Even when I permanently started living in Kathmandu in 1990, I lived in another corner of the city. A remote one. In a periphery. Centre was still inaccessible. Too expensive to even think about it. This continues to be the case at present.
Clearly, my life didn’t or doesn’t revolve around the Darbar Square. Therefore I don’t have a personal, emotional connection or childhood memories of these buildings or the place itself. In a broad sense, I have never felt that I belong to the culture and the class that these buildings or the place represent. I didn’t even know the names of and history behind many of these buildings. I never felt the need too. When I went there it wasn’t necessarily to relive the past but to enjoy the present. I just admired the sight of them, and to the extent I could, being in the place.
The reason I was saddened to see these buildings collapsed or defaced is because I had liked these structures as Nepal’s national treasures. One important part of Nepal’s history and diverse culture. Things are not that old in Nepal. And these buildings were among the relatively older things that Nepal had. Especially the Kastamandap building. I liked and still like the buildings mainly because they were/are so clearly different from the one I live in or the ones that I see all over in this almost dysfunctional city. I like these buildings and the place because they have a distinct character. They have their own personality.
I could spend several minutes, indeed an hour, looking at these structures. In short, they are distinct in a city that’s increasingly becoming a jungle of concrete. I liked that distinctiveness. And they were beautiful. It’s not that their absence will adversely impact in the way I live. But there’s a feeling that it was good to have them. It would be good to have them back.
These are the stairs of Maju Deval temple where I sat for an hour or so and sipped two cups of tea in a row in August last year. The lady, left, in the photo below had served me the tea. I observed a lot of faces and overheard a lot of conversations while sipping tea.
A day after the #NepalEarthquake, pigeons at the Hanumandhoka square had nothing to eat. I went very close to the birds to take this photo but they wouldn’t move much. I found that very strange. In normal times, that wouldn’t be the case. They would be mostly busy eating. Pratap Malla’s column broke on the first day. The damaged part of the building, on the foreground, had survived the main earthquake but couldn’t stand the biggest aftershock that jolted Kathmandu the next day.
There were no bhaktas to seek the blessings of the Kal Bhairav. In normal times, the statue would see a constant flow of visitors– devotees, onlookers and tourists who wished to put themselves in the same frame together with the Kal Bhairav. A day after the quake, two dogs were peacefully sleeping in front of the giant statue.
[Major portion of this entry was written on 26th April.]