Sunday, August 21, 2016

Restoring monuments, one at a time

- Sophia L Pande, Kathmandu
If going to the Durbar Squares gives you a chill, think about the multitude of monuments such as Ashoka Stupa that are lying in disrepair and may never be restored
- Sophia L Pande, Kathmandu

Aug 21, 2016- Walking in Thamel can be a bit daunting, even for someone who is used to the ins and outs, the traffic, and the incessant activity. Long a tourist hot spot and a place to go for a late night out, Thamel’s bustling veneer hides at its heart a very strong community consisting of people who have lived in its neighbourhoods for generations.
If you’ve walked through Thamel with a measure of familiarity, you may have taken a short-cut through a small alley linking two of its major parallel streets, Thamel Marg and Amrit Marg (which leads to Jyatha), and been surprised to see a stupa hidden down this un-motorable lane (see map). Known today as the Ashok Stupa, but unrelated to the four, certified Ashoka Stupas in Lalitpur, this little gem is visible from this path, and from the rooftop terrace of the lovely Café Mitra next door but is mostly hidden from the eyes of tourists or locals who may have delighted in this unexpected piece of heritage—a centuries old Malla era, Buddhist stupa in an unlikely spot.
When the stupa, already derelict and no longer tended by the Tuladhar family that used to attend to it and without a “guthi” in charge, was further damaged during last year’s earthquake, the immediate neighbours from the Thamel community surrounding it were able to take action and start the delicate process of restoring the shrine.
Luckily, the community members were extraordinarily perseverant in order to stick to the task at hand. As those who have ever dabbled, or tried to deal with the Kathmandu Metropolitan City (KMC) may know, it is very difficult to cut through the red tape if one wants to do something as unusual as take the initiative to restore a certified bit of heritage.
After five odd years of contemplating and strategising about how to restore the stupa and mulling over questions such as who to speak to, how to go about it, where to get the funds, and much more such problem solving, the engaged committee members Ramesh Lal Pradhan, Rastra Man Tuladhar, Surya Joshi, and the chairman of the committee, Sanjeeb Shrestha discovered, to their surprise, that the KMC was indeed able to provide not only an engineer to look into the project, but also to stipulate 80% of the funds necessary. 220,000 Rupees were therefore invested by the committee and community, and the remaining 880,000 Rupees was given by the government to make up a project cost. The sum total, however, including putting up boundary walls, tending to the surrounding garden, and employing a guard to look after the site will nudge the budget further upwards, the balance of which will be covered by the community members, steered by the aforementioned committee.
The process itself was arduous. The committee had to be registered first, and a proposal for the restoration submitted. Then, the involvement and approval needed to be solicited from the Department of Archaeology. Experts were consulted for a second opinion, and so Mr Rohit Ranjitkar, restorer extraordinaire who heads the Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust (KVPT) in Patan, was brought in with the help of the Café Mitra’s owner, Kunal Lama, and all of a sudden, after years of work, in the month of Asar (just over a month ago), once a requisite puja had been done to make sure that no ill-luck was brought upon those who would have to break the exterior, the restoration began.
Tracing the whole process defines, in a nutshell, the pitfalls and rewards of attempting to restore even a smaller piece of heritage such as this medieval stupa. That the site is extremely ancient, perhaps over 800 years, is without question, but it is a shame to think that even in a place as central as Thamel, no one quite knows why the stupa is where it is, but plans are underway to try and uncover more of the actual history of this stupa. 
Even after the project was approved, and engineers were sent to draw up restoration plans, the nine-member Ashok Bihar Renovation and Preservation Committee struggled to find the right workers. The big earthquake of 1934 ADhad damaged the stupa as well, and it had then hastily been patched up with vajra plaster (a 1:1:3 mixture of limestone powder, sand, and brick powder) hiding its original, medieval brick façade. The current restoration required carefully removing the top of the stupa without disturbing the possible offerings and relics or “astu” that may have been placed there initially (we do not have definitive documentation of this), and carefully peeling back the vajra plaster to strengthen the central brick structure.
Fortunately the owner of the Barahi Brick Factory, Prakash Maharjan, a supporter of this restoration project, was able to point the committee towards finding brick workers from a village in Lalitpur who had preserved this ancient craft of creating such a brick exterior, but this family of workers were only available right in the middle of the monsoon, incidentally also the same time that the government releases funding. Eager to start, and weary at the struggle with red-tape, the committee decided to forge ahead even during the rains, pooling in their own money and counting on the government’s reimbursement at a future date (the process of extracting money from KMC is complicated, to say the least).
Today, for anyone who is interested, there is a fascinating process going on at the site of the stupa. The “chun” or limestone powder that is needed to seal the bricks together has to be kept wet for two weeks before it can be mixed to make the special 1:1:3 ratio vajra plaster. Fortuitously, the Barahi Brick Factory, based in Bhaktapur was able to provide a similar, slightly thicker version of the original “maa-apa” brick (in the Newar language “maa” means main, and “apa” means brick), which was made centuries ago as a very slim unit.
The older bricks were taken down and used for the inner structure, the newer ones to make the façade. As the people who have invested so much time and effort already, Kunal Lama, the committee, and community members hover endearingly over the work, pouring their remaining energy into seeing things through; they plan to complete work, the stars willing, by Dashain, and to create a green lawn space around this stupa so that it may once again shine in the midst of a concrete jungle.
The example created by this unexpected, amazing effort is one that can be replicated all over our earthquake stricken valley with now countless damaged monuments. If going to the Durbar Squares gives you a chill, think about the multitude of monuments such as this that you never knew about lying in disrepair and that may never be restored.
This is a story of hope, of community engagement, and of willpower, a story that shows the government can step up, with the right amount of needling from concerned engaged, committed citizens who care about heritage,
community, greenery, the environment, posterity, and about how Nepal can be helped first by Nepalis themselves.

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