Nepal has had a rocky history of heritage preservation. On one hand, we have people commenting on social media about how proud they are of Nepal and its culture, each time a photo from the country pops up on an international platform. On top of that, Nepal’s vibrant culture, festivals, and jatras are used to promote tourism. But on the other hand, many historical and cultural structures, languages, attire, and even cuisine are on the brink of extinction.
But, how has this disparity been caused? And how can we change that? In order to learn, we need to dive into the history of the efforts made to preserve the heritage of Nepal.
In the international arena, Nepal has always been promoted as a tourist destination that is rich in cultural heritage. However, the reality is that Nepal’s tangible and intangible heritage has been suffering from effects of corruption, land encroachment, and loss of traditional techniques.
The role of preserving and conserving the cultural heritage of Nepal by the government falls under the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation. But, the department has been tossed from one ministry to another for four decades. From the Ministry of Youth Sports and Culture, to Parliamentary Affairs and Culture, and Ministry of Culture and State Rebuilding before finally settling in the Ministry of Culture, Civil Aviation and Tourism. This only goes to show how culture and heritage are an afterthought when it comes to government and allocating a budget for its preservation. By not creating a separate ministry dedicated to culture and its components, it is only receiving one-third, perhaps even a lesser amount to preserve one of the biggest contributors to tourism and foreign economy to Nepal.
The earthquake of 2015 put a spotlight on the need to preserve old techniques and historical structures. But this too, was not achieved easily. Many structures were built with the help of foreign aid such as Gaddi Baithak at Basantapur Durbar Square. But this structure was one of the lucky ones as it mostly preserved its previous structural designs. However, if we are to discuss the loss of heritage and its sentimental and historical value, nothing can be a greater example than the new Dharahara, or as everyone likes to call it, “Jhilke Tower”. The new Dharahara is built using concrete and metal bars whereas the old one was built using locally sourced materials such as vajra-surki (brick dust), lime, black lentil and chaaku. While the old Dharahara stood for ages, the lifespan of the new one is questionable, as the average lifespan of concrete is 50 to 80 years.
There has to be efforts put in for heritage conservation, and it has to be done right. For this, one must first understand its value, educate the people of its history, and give proper resources to help aid in its conservation efforts.
Preserving Traditional Techniques
When it comes to rebuilding heritage sites, following traditional techniques is a must. This is because these structures were built centuries ago using what was available locally and with knowledge that was passed down from generations. The Patan Durbar Square and museum area was rebuilt with the help of local artisans and wood crafters. This helped to preserve the traditional motifs and designs we see in the temple structures. But at the same time, it is also preserving an ancient form of craft work which had initially helped the structures stand tall for ages. Preserving old techniques, such as metal repousse, stone carving, wood carving and wood work, and pottery will not only help with tourism, it will also help us to study the ancient techniques and how we can implement them to modern structures to make them more earthquake resistant.
A good example of preserving traditional techniques is the rebuilding of Rani Pokhari, where women from Bhaktapur with experience in rebuilding a traditional pond were brought in. Their knowledge and expertise helped restore Rani Pokhari to its original glory, and despite a few shortcomings and a rocky start (where Bidhya Sundar Shakya, former Mayor of Kathmandu wanted to commercialize the land surrounding Rani Pokhari), it is one of the best examples of community involvement and heritage reconstruction.
Defining Importance of Heritage for National Economy
There is no doubt that our heritage plays a vital role in promoting tourism in Nepal. In 2022, Nepal saw 600,000 tourists coming to Nepal after a two- year decline in tourists due to the COVID pandemic. The numbers are expected to rise in 2023. Heritage sites, such as Kathmandu, Janakpur, Lumbini, Sagarmatha National Park and Chitwan National Park, are one of the top visited sites besides trekking destinations in Nepal. Proper studies need to be conducted to understand how such sites can be capitalized without compromising its cultural integrity.
Of course, tours around cultural heritage sites provide good income, however, tours around these places are usually squeezed on a free day between treks to fill up a tourist’s free time in Nepal. Instead, in-depth learning of such sites can provide a deeper connection to these sites and a deeper learning of Nepal’s history. Events such as heritage walks can provide tourists with a quality tour with better understanding of the sites.
Building a Systematic Database for Cultural Heritage
Record keeping in different ways such as digital documentation, journals, and reports will help in archiving published records of the endangered cultural heritages. Efforts made by institutions, such as Nepal Heritage Documentation Project and Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust to keep a detailed record of tangible and intangible heritages, are helping to rebuild old temples and structures after the earthquake with historical precision. Along with that, these resources are made available to all who are interested in heritage conservation for the purpose of architects, engineers, heritage admirers, and the general public.
Culture and heritage holds a sentimental value to many people. From observing festivals as a child and gathering with family to celebrate to participating as a part of a community. It still plays an important role in social events. Culture, traditions, and history give us an identity and bring people together. Promoting these unique traditions will definitely help the country’s economy to grow, but more than that, culture connects us to home, to our origins and our land.