thomas l kelly
Nepal’s Hindus and Buddhists face an enormous rebuilding task following the greatest single loss of a nation’s cultural heritage in history
On april 25, 2015, at 11:56 am Nepal Standard Time, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake rocked Nepal so violently that Kathmandu shifted 10 feet to the south in less than 50 seconds. Hundreds of thousands of walls, floors and roofs collapsed on people who had no time to escape. Nearly 9,000 lost their lives and another 23,000 were injured as the massive quake and its many aftershocks turned much of Central Nepal into vast stretches of heartbreaking rubble. Hinduism Today’s Nepal-based photographers, Thomas and Liam Kelly, and correspondent Sally Acharya set out immediately to render aid to their neighbors, then report the crisis to the international community. In this feature, now months after the event, they tell the story in words and photos.
By Sally Acharya, Kathmandu
ON SATURDAY MORNINGS MY HUSbAND and I liked to walk to Kathmandu Durbar Square, arriving just before noon to climb the tall ochre flanks of the Shiva temple known as Maju Deval. We would perch at the top to relax and watch the square below. We had moved back to Nepal five years ago. My husband is Nepali, I’m American, and both of us felt privileged to have places like this in our lives. Durbar Square is the historic heart of this town and in many ways the heart of Nepal, where the spiritual intersects with the mundane and the past weaves into a signboard-filled, horn-blaring present.
Nothing was roped off. Children could climb on sacred temples hundreds of years old. Vendors plied their wares from the medieval veranda of Kasthmandap, a temple and pilgrims’ shelter that legend says was made from a single tree and gave its name, meaning “sacred porch of wood,” to Kathmandu. You could circle the temple once, the equivalent to worshiping all 330 million Deities, or just buy some fish.
Across the square, people would stop between errands for a moment of darshan before my favorite image, the massive Kala Bhairav, whose intense stare seemed able to knock anyone, at least for a moment, out of the auto-drive of everyday life—a life that was about to change for all of us.
On April 25 my husband had a meeting, so instead of Durbar Square I was at my desk at 11:56 a.m. and our teenager was preparing to shower. Suddenly the house gave a thump and bumped upwards, and the quake alarm we’d installed by the bedrooms began shrilling frantically. I dropped under the desk as our house began lurching and bucking. The floor dipped and tilted. The bamboo linen racks swayed forward and fell towards me.
We’ve heard for years that Kathmandu was overdue for a major quake and was arguably the most dangerous city on the planet in terms of earthquake risk. At least 100,000 people would die and 60 percent of Kathmandu would fall, experts said, if an earthquake similar to the one that leveled the city in 1934 struck again. We’d seen the pictures of pancaked houses in Haiti, and had no reason to believe Nepali buildings were any better. A friend of mine always wore an earthquake whistle around her neck to give her a chance of being dug out from rubble. I had installed the alarm and made sure that every room had a solid piece of furniture with “duck and cover” space. But we joked grimly that if a big quake came, “we’d be chutney.”
The house was still swaying—intact, though maybe just for a moment—when I crawled over fallen furniture, losing a shoe in the process. My son emerged from his room in a bath towel; he’d crawled under his bed with the dog. We rushed out of the still-vibrating house—mom, son and dog—not taking a second to look for shirt or shoes or leash.
The house across the street was gone. In its place was a heap of bricks surrounded by neighbors asking the same question: “Were they home?” Was anyone there, under the rubble that had been a tile-roofed farmhouse with carefully tended pots of begonias?
Thanks to a Bhagwat Puran puja, they were safe. It was being held on a nearby playing field, and the lady of the house was there with neighbors, skipping her usual literacy lesson with a helpful neighbor girl—who a few minutes before the quake had knocked on the door, found nobody home, and left the yard just as the ground shook and the house was pulverized into a cloud of dust.
THOMAS L KELLY
Aftermath: People camped in the streets of the relatively undamaged Indra Chowk area of Kathmandu as aftershocks still threatened to topple buildings
Aftershocks came one after another, 15 or 20 minutes apart. Some were massive; all were terrifying. Neighbors grouped together in the largest yard. My husband finally reached home, having seen two buildings collapse in front of his eyes. Nobody knew the extent of damage, or the death toll, or the quake’s magnitude. But as neighbors clustered together, some crying and others trying to calm them, a common theme began to emerge in their comments. People were all saying, “What if it had been at night?” “What if it hadn’t been a Saturday?”
We didn’t know it then, but a half million structures had fallen, most of them houses. At night, families would have been buried as they slept inside. And in Nepal, every day but Saturday is a school or work day. Nearly 5,000 schools fell in the quake, and countless compound walls collapsed, including the school in my lane, during what would have been recess time.
Life Broken Apart
THOMAS L KELLY
New construction was no insurance against collapse as shown in the heavily damaged Gongabu area, of Kathmandu; many people brought their dogs along, unwilling to leave beloved pets in risky homes; map of the earthquake’s epicenter; Dharmasthali, on the outskirts of Kathmandu, a few days after the quake
Gone in an instant: The temple of Hari Shankar in Patan Durbar Square, one of seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the Kathmandu Valley, reduced to rubble; volunteers clear the rubble
Even in their shock, people spoke of feeling grateful or protected that the quake happened when it did. They told of hanging onto door frames for those horribly long 50 seconds, chanting “Ram Ram” as mud and dirt fell around them. They expressed amazement that more houses hadn’t fallen, at least not yet.
The death toll would mount to nearly 9,000, with 23,000 injured and up to three million homeless. It’s painfully devastating, but here in Nepal we can’t help but compare it to what could have been: hundreds of thousands dead in their homes, Kathmandu left an apocalyptic wasteland, children crushed in their schools. If such a dreadful quake had to happen, Saturday at noon was the best possible time—except for one place: Saturday is when families and friends go on outings to temples. We soon started hearing terrible rumors.
The Temple Is Gone!
It took three hours before the aftershocks subsided enough that we felt we could risk a dash through the narrow lane, past the ominously tall and crack-riddled brick walls, to reach the main street. By then we’d heard a rumor by cell phone that the nine-story Darahara viewing tower had fallen. It was a popular spot with teenagers, and my son was anxious about friends who often climbed it on Saturdays.
Once we managed to exit the lane, we walked towards downtown, staying in the street away from all the threatening walls, to find out if rumors were true and also to help anyone who might be pulling survivors from houses. Everywhere were fallen bricks, shards of glass, and people spreading blankets on the road, refugees in their own city.
Yet we never thought the temples could fall. In all the talk of a great quake, it was the new and shoddy buildings that worried people. The sturdy temples had proven their worth century after century. But that means they had also endured century after century of seismic stress, along with monsoon rains, termites, the rattling of cars and the corrosion of pollution. Many had sections rebuilt after past quakes, and sometimes not well. Maintenance had been delayed. Retrofitting hadn’t happened.
At Kalmochan Temple, “Even God has Received a Tent”
Kalmochan temple’s forlorn Garuda stands watch over the temple platform—all that’s left of the huge structure; the huge dome of Kalmochan temple before the earthquake; Kalmochan priest Govinda Prasad Koirala sits with the rescued temple Deities as army men secure a tent to protect Them
THOMAS L KELLY
About a half hour’s walk from our home flows the Bagmati River, and on its bank is the temple complex of Kalmochan Narayan. It’s not famous—neither a UNESCO Heritage Site, or a draw for tourists—but I’d always been fond of it. I’d chatted with the sadhus who lived for months in its long pilgrim’s house, their numbers increasing each year at Sivaratri, and enjoyed the antics of its resident troop of street-savvy monkeys.
But the temple was gone. In place of its massive Mughal-style dome stood a mountain of rubble. We couldn’t believe our eyes. Yet even then there was no thought that similar mounds had replaced temples all over central Nepal, so that virtually every place we knew or had heard of, visited or planned to visit, was lost.
Bhagwati Koirala, the priest’s amiable wife, was looking at the temple when it fell. She was standing in her doorway in the traditional priest’s quarters, facing the temple and its kneeling Garuda, when the world shook and her eyes filled with dust. “It was so thick it stung,” she recalled later. “I couldn’t see anything for five minutes. When the dust cleared and I saw the temple was gone, I couldn’t believe it. I started to pray, ‘Please, God, let the people be safe.’ ”
No safe haven: The heavily damaged seismograph station in Gorkha, near the epicenter, fared only slightly better than the stone temple in the foreground
“I was astounded,” said the priest, Govinda Prasad Koirala. “How could this be? I wanted to cry. I thought, ‘Why was this, God? Was the country so sinful? Yet a family of four, two adults and two children, was standing in the swirling dust in front of the temple. They had been inside but escaped just as it crashed to the ground.”
Such stories would soon turn up everywhere. Of course, many were not so fortunate. But survival stories at fallen temples are a big part of what’s repeated in Nepal as people process the vast destruction.
Six days after the quake, the temple’s sacred images were dug out of the rubble with the help of the Army. Narayan, Laxmi and Saraswati were placed under a tent in the compound, surrounded by flowers and candles. That, too, would be duplicated many times at temples we’d visit over the next month—temples in rubble or tragically damaged, but no worshipers killed, and Deity images recovered intact.
After the quake, the priest noted, “There are actually more people coming than before.” One was Gita Oli. Trapped in a house as it crumbled in the quake but surviving unharmed, she was organizing a puja with over 100 neighbors, all homeless and living in tents. “It will give peace to the dead, and also to us,” she said.
The earthquake that shook Nepal doesn’t seem to have shaken the faith of its people—or, for that matter, their sense of humor. “Even God has received a tent,” remarked pilot Yuvraj Kumar Bhattarai, a regular devotee at the temple, when he saw the Deity images lying prone under a tent like refugees. Even the priest, Koirala, made a quip: “God is tired, He was standing for 150 years. Now He wants to rest for a bit.”
As we spoke, Bhagwati Aryal walked over to the temple. She had spotted the intact Deities as she was passing on the busy street nearby and decided to take a minute to pray. Coincidentally, I’d been to her town a few days after the quake delivering aid. Only a handful of homes had been left standing. Twelve people had died, including nine children who were indoors watching Saturday cartoons.
THOMAS L KELLY
The world responds: Worried survivors, unnerved by the aftershocks coming every 15 to 20 minutes for days, gather in an open field in Tudhikhel on the first day
Rescue Teams from Far and Wide Rushed to Help
THOMAS L KELLY
The Indian government responded immediately and on a huge scale to the disaster, here at Tribhuwan airport with aid for Sindhupalchok
THOMAS L KELLY
The vast experience of the Japanese in earthquake disasters was a major help in the first post-quake days; these survivors in Kathmandu—unlike those in the villages—were lucky to have a hospital to be treated in; the Los Angeles County Fire Department at Bir Hospital
“We can’t really say why something like this happens,” Aryal sighed. “I don’t think God punishes people. Why would God punish little children? It’s just nature. Somehow it had to happen. But it was a Saturday, and it wasn’t at night, or how many would have died? God was very kind to us.”
The priest’s wife nodded towards the image of Narayan. “You can see how it is. Everything collapsed, but God is still here.”
Worst Heritage Disaster in History
Three weeks after the earthquake, the list of collapsed and damaged heritage sites collected by the Department of Archaeology was 43 pages long, and it still wasn’t complete. This was the worst heritage disaster in history. “I don’t know of any disaster, ever, that has affected this many monuments,” said Christian Manhart, head of UNESCO in Kathmandu.
It’s been said that Kathmandu had more temples per square foot than anywhere on Earth. But now it may have sacred debris. As of June, the damage list included 721 historic structures across 20 districts, essentially the entire central section of Nepal. Of those, 133 heritage sites had collapsed, 95 were partly collapsed and 493 had been damaged.
Even these numbers don’t give a sense of the impact. For those who aren’t familiar with Nepal, the names may blur together; but for us they represent all the beloved landmarks of our communities and lives. It’s as if all your closest friends were on the Titanic, and all you can say afterwards as you read the casualty list is, “Not him! Not her, too!”
Almost every historic place in Nepal is either a Hindu temple, Buddhist stupa or a compound that includes shrines. Each of the seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the Kathmandu Valley is either a religious site or an inseparable mix of spiritual and secular. Swayambhunath and Boudhanath are Buddhist; Pashupatinath and Changu Narayan, a fifth-century temple, are Hindu.
The aftermath: The cremation ghats at Pashupatinath were active constantly in the weeks after the quake
And then there are the three Durbar Squares: Patan, Bhaktapur and Kathmandu’s Durbar Square, also known as Hanuman Dhoka or Basantapur. Each of these is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. When kings built a palace they would surround it with temples. The number of temples on their plazas increased over the centuries as the valley’s feuding city-states engaged in a kind of esthetic Cold War, each trying to express its power by building the most glorious temples. The result was a treasure for the people of Nepal and the whole world. Many residents of Kathmandu live within walking distance of one of the squares and would visit the temples regularly for morning puja, evening arati, seasonal festivals or just for a stroll.
Surrounding these squares are the old neighborhoods. Traditional Kathmandu homes are built around community courtyards with a central shrine, so that old sections of the city lead mazelike from one shrine to another, finally opening onto broad squares with temples or stupas where devotees can pray, children play and neighbors bask in the sun. These places are close to people’s hearts, and most are horribly damaged.
A few days after the quake my husband and I walked to Kathmandu’s main Durbar Square, where we could so easily have been when the quake hit—high at the top of Maju Deval, also known as Queen Mother’s Temple. This temple to Siva was built in 1690 and called by one guidebook “probably the most popular meeting place in the city.”
To stare at the empty platforms was an encounter with the meaning of impermanence that raised questions about what can even be known about the past. A few seconds had transformed the majestic temple into the semblance of an ancient pyramid, which isn’t what it had been at all. If you didn’t have a visual record of Maju Deval, there would be no way to know that a three-story temple had once perched at the top of that pyramidal base.
Bidding Farewell to the Deceased
Mud flats down river from the overwhelmed ghats were used for cremation; the dead wait
Next to it was a scene that seemed suddenly so ancient: a single Garuda statue, praying to emptiness, surrounded by dust. What had vanished was the three-roofed Trailokya Mohan Narayan temple, another fixture of the landscape we’d taken for granted as eternal. And a few feet behind Garuda should have been the 12th-century Kasthmandap, once a pilgrim’s shelter in the kingdom of Kantipur. Travelers of ages past would have said, “I’ll meet you at Kasthmandap,” and so the name of the city evolved. A pile of rubble was all that remained.
Yet Nepal’s sacred heritage wasn’t completely lost. Every temple and shrine we spotted still standing prompted a cheer, like spotting a friend coming through the dust, limping but alive. There was the Siva Parvati temple, horribly cracked but stubbornly standing, with the statues of Siva and Parvati, still at their window, observing the debris below. Siva viewing destruction: strangely appropriate, I thought.
And there, too, around the corner, was the powerful Kala Bhairav, gazing now at the rubble-strewn universe with a face like intensity personified. Bhairav was intact. Person after person would light a lamp, reverently touch the twelve-foot image with its necklace of skulls and piercing eyes, and stand for a moment with hands clasped in prayer and contemplation.
Time to Rebuild
The surviving structures—and there are many, like the towering Taleju temple to Durga—will need extensive repairs. The thick list of damaged sites and their overwhelming needs is kept in the office of the Director General of Archaeology, Bhesh Narayan Dahal. In a strange coincidence, he had spent the day before the quake in Barpak, the remote place that was about to become the quake’s epicenter, checking on a museum dedicated to a national hero. He had barely been back in Kathmandu for an hour when the tectonic plate nine miles beneath Barpak slipped and the destruction began.
“I’m a devotee of Siva,” Dahal recalled. “So I said, ‘Om Namah Sivaya,’ over and over. It was terrible. Nobody could move. We could only pray to God.”
It will take years to restore the heritage of Nepal. Much is lost forever. But much has survived to be restored, and there are extensive digital records to guide the way to rebuilding even some of the most shattered monuments.
Perhaps each generation has to find some way to show anew that they care, and that the creation of the beautiful and sacred isn’t limited to ancestors in a golden past. Heritage includes buildings, but it’s more than buildings. It’s a commitment and a sacred trust. The Siva and Bhairav and Durga shrines that survived the quake were mute, and yet they seemed to have something to tell us. Nothing in this world can escape destruction. But change and destruction are also the ways to new creation.
Volunteers Rise from the Rubble
The 7.8 magnitude earthquake and its aftershocks, including a violent 7.3 tremor on May 12, leveled over half a million homes, and damaged a quarter of a million more. The cost of rebuilding and bouncing back from the quake was estimated at $6.7 billion. That’s a lot of need to meet in a country with a Gross Domestic Product of less than $20 billion a year, lower than the last-ranked U.S. state of Vermont.
Even those of us in Kathmandu with standing homes were sleeping outdoors—in yards, under tarps strung up on vacant lots, at refugee camps—or in a car parked in the open, as did my family. But sitting helplessly and waiting for the government or for foreign aid wasn’t an option. Even as they slept in tents themselves, members of youth clubs and local Guthi heritage groups fed community members, often serving them from neighborhood temples.
It seemed everyone quickly began doing something to help: organizing to reach quake-struck villages, carrying rice on motorbikes to suffering relatives, or simply feeding neighbors informally. One housewife went out on the street, passing out packets of instant noodles to anyone in need. Villagers in areas not hit hard by the quake, like my sister-in-law, collected rice from their harvest and sent bags off by truck to those who had lost everything.
The Villages Suffer Devastating Losses
ALL PHOTOS: DEV RAJ AGARWAL
Mountain villages for hundreds of miles were heavily damaged, some even obliterated, by the main quake and its aftershocks
Local young people, concerned that thieves might abscond with temple artifacts, guarded neighborhood shrines. The tech-savvy fanned out across the city to record data on their smart phones. Dozens of informal groups—like Helter Shelter for tarps, and To Da Loo for latrine building—began distributing everything from rice to farming implements to women’s toiletries.
The World Responds
Other countries, too, responded quickly and generously. On the day after the quake, India sent 187 tons of supplies, including 50 tons of water, 22 tons of food and two tons of medicine along with 300 disaster-relief troops. China quickly sent a 62-person disaster response unit with 20 tons of aid. Tents from the Chinese Red Cross soon appeared across the country.
By late June, India had promised $2 billion in aid over five years, a quarter of it as grants. China had pledged $760 million. There would be $260 million from Japan, $130 million from the US and $112 million from the European Union. Aid agencies poured into Nepal or geared up their existing efforts.
Less welcome were Christian evangelists sensing an opportunity to gain converts in the midst of the disaster. Rahul Priyadarshi published a scathing article on AhankhNaad (bit.ly/NepalConversion) reporting on the initial barrage of tweets some evangelicals sent out within hours, including one that went, “Praying for those affected in Nepal this AM. May the fields be ready for harvest [i.e., making of converts] as four of our own will be there in a month!”
Famed sites damaged: The central stupa of Swayambhu in Kathmandu, with its iconic eyes, survived
The amount of actual conversion activity on the ground was difficult to judge. But there were reports of aid workers telling quake victims they would receive benefits such as scholarships and jobs if they joined a church—a common tactic before the quake as well. And there were many complaints about Christian groups providing aid only to members of their own churches.
“I’ve definitely seen some Christians come and just work with Christians,” said Paul Ramble, a relief worker near the epicenter. “They go and help members of churches, and then people think, ‘Should we become Christian to get support?’ I’m from a Christian family, but I don’t think that’s right. And it makes it difficult for the rest of us to work, because we have to cover a lot more people.”
In some localities, village officials who tried to spread aid equitably to households found that church members would complain about discrimination when they didn’t receive tents—although they had already received tents from Christian groups and aid was being reserved for those who had none.
All across the quake zone, reports came in that people with some level of privilege—often because of political connections or simply because they lived near a road—were stockpiling aid for their personal use. Some relief van drivers were even found to have sold the food aid for profit, prompting angry roadblocks by villagers.
Many voiced concerns about the influx of aid. How would the money be used? Would it reach the neediest people, or would too much end up in the pockets of the corrupt, be directed mainly to the villages of the well-connected, or fuel negative cultural impacts? Skepticism is still rampant.
Grievous Losses for the Nation’s Buddhists
ALL PHOTOS: THOMAS L KELLY
But surrounding shrines were heavily damaged; this monk’s monastery at Swayambhunath is in ruins behind him
The spirit of the Nepali people is the greatest reason for optimism. They never sat passively and waited. They pulled neighbors from the rubble, fed each other, trekked miles to provide relief, and volunteered in countless ways to help those they had never met. Ultimately, it’s that spirit that will lift the country from the devastation of the Great Quake.
Near the Epicenter
Six weeks after the quake, we drove towards Gorkha Bazaar. From miles away we saw a great cloud of dust boiling up from the mountain, and we thought more buildings must be falling, perhaps to yet another aftershock. But the dust cloud came from the shattered remains of that fortress-and-temple complex, where workmen were shoveling debris and tossing shards of tiles and brick off the roofs of places that gave birth to the country of Nepal.
It was here, in 1743, that a 20-year-old prince came to the throne of a rugged northern kingdom with a population of barely 70,000 and decided he could conquer everything around, including the rich and cultured city-states of the distant Kathmandu Valley. History records the battle cry of his soldiers: Jai Gorakh Nath! Jai Kali! The soldiers of Gorkha spilled out of this mountain fortress and went to war shouting the names of their temples and Deities, declaring to the world that they were the people of Gorakhnath and Gorakh Kali—the Gorkhali, the people of Gorkha, the Gurkha soldiers.
When you see the place, it makes sense that the people and temples would be so inseparable. The kings of Gorkha took no chances when it came to relations with their Deities. They built their stronghold only a few feet above the entrance to the far older cave temple of Gorakhnath, where the sage himself is said to have meditated. The palace is flanked by a temple to Kali, and others are crowded close by—temples for Pasupatinath, Guheswori and Sri Vidhya. In the Gorakhnath temple burns a sacred fire that was said, when the earthquake struck, to have been smoldering continuously for nearly 800 years.
The kings also took no chances with invaders. The cliffs are faced with sheer stone walls that make it impregnable and a bit dizzying. Every day, but particularly on Saturday, devotees would make the climb for darshan at the closely grouped temples, leaving with ash from the ancient fire on their foreheads. On Saturday, April 25, some 500 had gathered on the narrow stone terraces and steep stairways. Many would have been gazing north over the crenellated walls at the panorama of majestic ridges that could make anyone feel they could conquer the world, or at least soar above it. Beyond one of those ridges is the village of Barpak. At 11:56am, far underneath that little village, a piece of tectonic plate slipped and the earthquake began.
At that moment Iswornath Yogi, a hereditary priest at Gorakhnath and one of four serving the temple, was on his knees clad in saffron for a Graha Shanti puja to remove the negativity of an ill-omened planetary alignment. “My body suddenly bowed down, all on its own,” recalls Yogi. The mountain and everything on it, including the temples and bells and people, began shaking furiously. Dust flew, bricks fell, and the walls made a sound like a bomb exploding. There was no place to run.
He told the assembled worshipers the only thing that came to him: “You need to get out, but leave with love and respect.” And somehow, people did. Hundreds picked their way down the shaking stairways past imploded temples, collapsed gates and buckled 400-year-old walls. One person was trapped under a falling gate, but others pulled him to safety. “From the blessing of God, no one was killed,” Yogi says.
He counted 18 aftershocks before 4pm, but stilll returned that evening for arati. The sacred fire never went out. Public puja would be suspended for months to keep devotees safe, but the priests continued the daily worship without pause.
Several of the temples here are gone now, but the main sacred sites, Gorakh Kali and Gorakhnath, remain standing—though with considerable damage. The historic palace survived with severe damage and will need rebuilding.
Bishnu Prasad Khanal of the Department of Archaeology gazes at the rubble that was the Sri Vidhya temple. “Five days earlier, the gajur (sacred pinnacle) fell off, and we all wondered why,” he says. “There were plans to perform a puja because it was inauspicious.”
He looks down at all that’s left: a stone cow and a stone turtle. At least, he says, none of the main images at any temple was harmed. “At least,” he says, “it was only the walls.” And the walls spared the people. Hundreds walked away that day, many returning to crumbled homes and unimagined difficulties, but alive. “Temples can be rebuilt,” Khanal says. “People can’t.”
40 people were standing on this ledge of the Gorakhnath hillside temple when the quake struck, all escaped unharmed; the temple’s sacred fire, which has burned for 800 years, continued undiminished
Pashupatinath Copes With the Quake
Pashupatinath Temple, one of the holiest sites in the Hindu world, survived the quake largely unscathed. This boosted the spirits of many Nepalis, as Siva Pashupatinath is viewed as Nepal’s protector Deity. But this was also an epicenter of pain. On Sunday alone, the day after the quake, 140 bodies were cremated. Even as the ground rocked with aftershocks that would kill yet more people, the eleven ghats at Pashupatinath weren’t enough for all the bodies. Mourners flocked to the water’s edge to perform the final rites for loved ones just pulled from the rubble. At one point 32 pyres burned at a time, heaps of wood and straw piled along the banks of the Bagmati River. And the bodies kept coming, a hundred a day, for much of the week.
Temple authorities waived the usual cremation charge of 1,800 rupees (about $18), but there weren’t enough priests at hand for all the cremations and mourning rites. In Nepal, Hindu practice doesn’t rely on formal institutions; even in ordinary times it’s common for families to call their own priests to Pashupatinath to perform the rites. Management of rituals, whether it’s a joyous or tragic occasion, is almost invariably a family or community affair. So, in effect, the same dynamic that enabled most of the city to be fed, have water and find a place to pitch a tarp, even before any formal mechanisms could respond, the close-knit networks of families and communities also helped Pashupatinath meet the overwhelming need for priests and ritual requirements.
Toward recovery: Rebuilding under way at Swayambhu as scaffolding is erected around the heavily damaged tower at left
The Kriya Putri Bhawan, where mourners can stay for 13 days while conducting lengthy and complex mourning rites, waived fees for impoverished families. It did not have space for everyone, though, so mourners strung tarps on adjacent open space and followed austerities and rites as best they could, with support from priests and each other.
Even two months later, bodies were still being brought for cremation, victims of an injury or illness related to the quake. In striking numbers, people also came to Pashupatinath to pray and gain spiritual sustenance. Priest Lila Prasad Acharya, who works with mourners at the Kriya Putri Bhawan and hears stories from people who say they survived while chanting the name of God, noted that people have become more spiritual since the earthquake.
“Of course, many temples fell, and naturally that will happen. They were old. Their time had come,” Acharya said. “Neither humans nor anything made by humans can be eternal. But people feel protected. They know it’s important to remember God.”
Rescuing Animals, Putting up Homes
An international team of veterinarians, World Vets, tend to wounded animals in Lele Village; resident of Lele Village salvaging wood for reconstruction; villagers went right to work rebuilding the homes and animals sheds in Sira Village, Sindhupalchok
PHOTOS THIS SPREAD: THOMAS L KELLY
Buddha Saved Us
While 81 percent of Nepalis are Hindu, Buddhism is also at the center of Nepal’s soul, both as the faith of the 11 percent who identify as Buddhist and as a powerful element of cultural identity. It’s a point of pride that Buddha was born in Nepal, in Lumbini, which was rocked but not damaged by the quake. The Hindus see Buddha as an avatar of Vishnu and a wise teacher of beliefs that grew from and complement Sanatana Dharma.
Khempo Karma Chhiring Tasi Lama, chairperson of the Buddhist Philosophy Promotion and Development Committee, explains the Buddhist standpoint: “We are the same. Buddha was born in Nepal, Sita was born in Nepal. Many years ago Hindus and Buddhists came from the same roots. We are brothers and sisters who should always work together.”
There are two strands of Buddhism in Nepal. One is Newar Buddhism, practiced by 15 percent of Kathmandu’s Newar community according to family lineage in a complex interplay with Hinduism. Newars, for instance, have Hindu and Buddhist castes. The other is Tibetan Buddhism, which is strong in the highlands, where prayer flags wave in the wind and shrines and gombas, or monasteries, dot the trails and ridges.
The highlands area was squarely in the quake’s high-damage zone. In the Langtang Valley, an entire tourist town, with 55 guesthouses full of trekkers, was wiped off the earth by a massive landslide that buried it under 20 feet of mud, ice and rock. “Most of the monasteries were in the Himalayan area, in mountain districts, and the earthquake hit that area very hard,” Lama said.
Before the earthquake, Nepal had 2,171 Buddhist monasteries. Afterwards, it had 871. The quake flattened 1,300 monasteries or damaged them so badly that monks have been living under tarpaulins. But while initial projections of deaths were in the hundreds, in fact only five monks lost their lives at monasteries. “We believe in the Buddha and religion, so I think our Buddha saved us,” says Lama.
One place where Buddhism, Hinduism and Nepali identity come together is Swayambhunath. For 1,500 years it’s been a sacred spot. Hundreds of pilgrims would climb the steep stairs each morning to circumambulate the shrine where the eyes of the Buddha, which symbolize the awakening of wisdom and compassion, gaze down on the city.
But among all the bad places to be during the quake, Swayambhunath must have been among the most terrifying. Of all the UNESCO World Heritage sites, it was certainly the most confined and impossible to escape as columns toppled, massive bells clanged to the ground and visitors were trapped under rubble. Weeks later it was still a claustrophobic disaster scene with barely a patch of ground not covered in debris. Astoundingly, no one was killed.
Buddha’s calm eyes, so iconic of Nepal, are also painted at Boudhanath, the largest stupa in the world. The surrounding community is heavily Tibetan Buddhist, with numerous monasteries, and the history of Boudhanath intersects intimately with the trade route to Tibet. It, too, was damaged, although less severely.
Is there a lesson to be found in the earthquake from the Buddhist perspective? “An earthquake is a natural thing. It comes from time to time,” Lama observed. “Nobody can do anything about the suffering that happens naturally. It’s a fact of nature. It is our common fate that everyone has suffering in life. But we can control how we act towards each other. We must always try to do the right thing and not do harm to others.”
The earthquake was a sadly ecumenical affair, and people of all faiths are struggling to recover. Most Nepalis are Hindu, Buddhist or follow indigenous faiths, called Bon and Kirat, that blend Hinduism and Buddhism with animism and shamanism. Another four percent are Muslim; and while most of these live in the minimally affected southern plains near India, there is also a traditional Muslim community in Kathmandu, where the earthquake damaged a 500-year-old mosque and collapsed two minarets. People were pulled from the rubble, and all survived.
About one percent of Nepalis are Christian according to the 2011 census, although church leaders say it is now double that number. Their worship services are held on Saturday, and many were killed in churches that collapsed. The Christian Broadcasting Network put the number of fatalities during worship services at around 500.
Putting it back together: Artisan showing off his carving as Manakamana Temple in the Gorkha District is rebuilt
Rebuilding Is Underway
Doleshwor Mahadev Temple in Bhaktapur was already slated for reconstruction, with funds raised—they just proceeded a little sooner than expected with the temple’s reinforced concrete foundation and pillars; Manakamana before the quake destroyed it
Rebuilding the Temples
The legendary wish-fulfilling temple Manakamana, about three hours west of Kathmandu, exemplifies what needs to happen all over Nepal. When the earthquake struck, the temple committee was ready not only to repair the damage—cracked pagoda-style roofs and a 20-inch tilt to the northeast—but to reconstruct the temple entirely, from the ground up.
When we visited, the cable car over the Trishuli River to the ridge-top temple—a master stroke of internal tourism—hadn’t reopened yet after the quake, so we coaxed a jeep up the back route along a thin, boulder-strewn, cliff-hugging zig-zag of a trail that brought us in two bruising hours to the town of Manakamana. I would definitely not recommend this over the 10-minute cable-car ride.
Manakamana is among the most beloved shrines in Nepal, and since the opening of the cable car ride in 1998, nearly a million pilgrims a year make the trip to the hilltop temple, 60 percent of them Nepali and the rest mostly Indian. It’s said that Bhagawati, a form of Parvati who according to legend also took the form of a 17th century queen of Gorkha, will grant the heart’s desire (mana kamana) to those who worship at her temple.
When the quake struck, thousands were reportedly standing in line for the cable car or temple entry. Scores ran from the temple as it rocked back and forth, dislodging bricks and finally tilting around severely to the northeast.
But all survived, and Manakamana was ready to fix the damage. The temple committee had already raised much of the estimated $1.5 million needed to completely dismantle, repair and reconstruct the 17th-century structure, preserving the appearance but strengthening it and mending the weaknesses resulting from age and previous quakes. Master carvers were on the scene, putting the finishing touches on spectacular replicas of the weakened 17th-century struts, doors, windows and pillars. Artisans from traditional woodworking families and workshops in Bhaktapur had spent a year and a half crafting painstaking replicas of the temple’s elaborate woodwork. A puja was set to begin shortly to remove the gajur, or sacred pinnacle, and begin the work. They only had to wait for the aftershocks to calm down. While no one would say that a quake had auspicious timing, for Manakamana all the pieces were certainly in place.
Admittedly, the timing was happenstance, since the renovations were six years in the planning. But this state of preparedness was the result of a commitment to heritage that will need to be duplicated on an unprecedented scale all across Nepal if the temples are to rise from the ruins.
THOMAS L KELLY
As do many, engineer Sanu Dangol, about to enter a risky heritage site for a damage assessment, stops to worship and take solace at the undamaged shrine of Kala Bhairav in Hanuman Dhoka
The renovation of temples has never been undertaken on the massive scale now facing Nepal. In all of history, no country has ever suffered such a loss of heritage at one time.
To get an idea of what a challenge it will be, consider Patan. The quake toppled the oldest temple, Char Narayan, and the three-roofed Hari Shanker temple. In the days after the quake, fragments were dug out of the debris and gathered into a secure courtyard by the Nepal police, local volunteers, and staff of the Patan Museum, Department of Archaeology and Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust.
Two months later, skilled craftsmen were going through the fragments piece by piece, matching them so they could be fitted together later. The long, painstaking process would be nearly impossible except for photographs that meticulously documented the structures as they had been. The next step will be to replace the missing chunks with replicas, using traditional methods.
Ram Govinda Silpakar is one of five woodworkers deployed by the Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust to work on the Patan restoration. When he’s not working in the garden of the Patan Museum, he sleeps in a tent, because his home in Bhaktapur also fell in the quake.
“Everybody is having trouble,” he shared. “The people are suffering, the Gods are suffering. I think it will be three or four years until I can rebuild my home, but it will be even longer for all our temples to be repaired. It will take three or four months to fix these windows (for Char Narayan), but at least three years to rebuild the whole temple, with carving and masonry. And that’s just one temple.”
There is also a dearth of skilled craftsmen. Most learn the craft from childhood, but young people increasingly choose high-status professions such as medicine or engineering, or simply go abroad as laborers in the hope of earning better money.
“We really need 20 times the amount of masons, carvers and so on. We just don’t have enough that are really qualified,” said Thomas Schorr, a restoration architect and long-time Nepal resident. “There are a lot of ideas now about training. I can’t say how successful it will be, but the quake could change a lot of things. There are so many unemployed people, so many people going abroad. I’ve heard people say if you can make 1,600 rupees a day (about $16) as an experienced craftsman, it wouldn’t be worth going to Saudi Arabia for foreign employment.”
“The artists at that time were so talented,” said Shivaram Chiguthi, another traditional carpenter working on restoration. “Just think of it—they had no computers, no fancy equipment. It was all by hand and all in their head. But there are young people now who are also very talented.”
The golden age of temple-building may have been in the past. But hopefully the skills will reemerge and bring the temples back from the rubble, along with a commitment to rebuild Nepal and the lives of its people. That, at least, is my own heart’s desire—my mana kamana.
For those who want to help, photographer Thomas Kelly and writer Sally Acharya have assembled a list of local organizations and people they know active in the relief work: bit.ly/NepalRebuild.
Sally Acharya is a writer who lives in Kathmandu, Nepal. She has worked as a reporter for Gannett, won awards for environmental and cultural reporting, and was staff writer for American University in Washington DC before returning to Nepal with her husband Homraj, who is country director of a nonprofit organization, and their son Shiva.