ON A SUNDAY MORNING LAST OCTOBER, in a cramped office overlooking Kathmandu Durbar Square—an iconic plaza surrounding Nepal’s old royal palace—a small group of volunteers was frantically preparing for a public exhibition to be held that afternoon. The subject of the event was the reconstruction of Kasthamandap, a giant pagoda-like building that gave Kathmandu its name, and which, for more than a thousand years—until it collapsed in an earthquake in 2015—had been a public fixture, sheltering ascetics, weary traders, and on occasion, men exiled from their homes for the night by their irate wives. The office had the chaotic air of a crafts fair. People rushed around wielding scissors, stepping over paper scraps, glue-bottle caps and chunks of styrofoam. At one end, nine volunteers pieced together a 3D paper-model of the plaza outside.
The exhibition was organised by the Campaign to Rebuild Kasthamandap, or RK, a non-profit that has tried to ensure the building is reconstructed as closely to the original as possible and that its associated cultural practices remain intact. RK had held two workshops in the previous days. One was led by volunteer architects, who presented the logistics of construction to a panel of experts. The other workshop had guided groups of locals to document and map out, on floor plans, the rituals that had been performed inside the building and its vicinity.
As the exhibition’s opening time approached, the room swelled with volunteers. Several wore the Rebuild Kasthamandap T-shirt, with a slogan printed on the back: “Let us rebuild our heritage ourselves.” A short while later, the group had shifted downstairs to an open space at the centre of Maru, the Newari name for the neighbourhood. (Newars are indigenous inhabitants of the Kathmandu Valley.) Posters, including proposed architectural drawings, had been taped against the side of a building for public scrutiny. A few steps away was the site of Kasthamandap: about the size of two adjacent tennis courts, now a fenced-in mound of bricks and wooden beams. A poster showed the building as it had stood, “austere and ponderous,” as described by the cultural historian Mary Slusser, although others have been less generous with their descriptions: Alok Tuladhar, RK’s spokesperson, told me it was, admittedly, “a little ugly.”
The exhibition soon caught the attention of locals. A group of older men circled RK’s paper model of the plaza and critiqued its accuracy. Passers-by picked up markers left on the table and corrected spellings and names of rituals on the posters. A crowd formed around the architectural drawings, which RK had ensured were faithful to the original structure—an approach derided by those who believe Kasthamandap collapsed because of its flawed engineering. A middle-aged man, dressed as if he had made a sharp detour from a hike, began lecturing the architects on the team. “Don’t let people with limited knowledge of structural engineering dictate your design,” he announced. On the margin of a drawing, he wrote: “1st principle + responsibility as professionals: life safety.” Below, “2. aesthetics.”
The man, who later introduced himself to me as Ananta Raj Baidya, a structural engineer based in California, summed up his position as: “Once it goes up, it shouldn’t go down.” I asked Badan Lal Nyachhyon, an architect accompanying him, about his view on RK’s work. “Our heritage comes out of this structure,” he told me. Baidya interjected: “They are all young, they have energy, but if they don’t channel the energy properly, they will destroy everything!”
“Everything,” Nyachhyon intoned, looking grave.
Baidya grabbed a red marker and began scrawling comments on one of the drawings. The poster, secured to the wall with masking tape, suddenly came undone on one corner, folding in on itself. Nyachhyon laughed. “It’s collapsing?” he said. “Already?”
AS THE NAMESAKE OF KATHMANDU, Kasthamandap—literally “wooden pavillion”—has a special grip on the Nepali public imagination. Every schoolchild knows its origin story. Its likeness is on the newest five-rupee note, on the National Tourism Board logo, and on the logo of Kantipur, the most widely-read Nepali-language newspaper. Its name is used by legions of businesses in the city, from banks and schools to an airline.
Likely conceived as a non-religious site, Kasthamandap became a sattal, a subtype Slusser described as “half shelter, half temple,” after a Gorakhnath statue was installed inside around 600 years ago. Over the centuries, it was used as a royal council hall, a rest house and a marketplace. Generations of visitors commented on its size—it is the largest building in Newar architecture—its antiquity and the austerity of its design. One nineteenth-century Scottish visitor remarked that it was “of so singular a form, that our terms of art could not be applied to describe its architecture.” In the 1960s and 1970s, it became a habitat for doped-up hippies: the popular Bollywood song “Dum Maro Dum” was shot there. More recently, porters loitered in its ambulatory during the day, awaiting work. A 1997 Let’s Go guidebook describes it as possessing “a feeling of transience, kind of like a train platform.”
Since it collapsed in the 2015 earthquake, there has been a growing demand to rebuild Kasthamandap. The government has been criticised for being callous toward heritage, but even its critics are divided on how reconstruction should proceed. Some, such as RK, argue for a traditional approach, replicating the original structure and resuming practices such as pujas and festivals. Others have made a case for integrating Western engineering concepts, citing safety concerns. For many, the debate over reconstruction is changing their relationship with the past, and has become a way to get in touch with an attenuated cultural identity.
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Atul Bhattarai is a freelance journalist writing on culture and politics in South Asia. He is based in Kathmandu and tweets as @atulbhattarai.