Retrieving the value of destroyed heritage

KATHMANDU: Where does the heritage value of the monuments and historical buildings lie? The value surely lies in the material of which it is constructed. It is not the material itself, but how the material has been used, crafted and assembled into a structure. The value lies in the wooden elements that play a prominent role in both the structure as well as the ornamentation. The value lies in the numerous forms of bricks which are plain, smooth or decorated, depending on the role they play. It could also be considered that the significance lies in the foundations which define the exact location, tying the structure to the earth and being consecrated accordingly. For religious buildings the value lies in the statue of the deity. The significance, however, also lies with the people who created, maintained, utilised and gave life to the monument.

If we want to build a structure that will last for over four thousand years, we need to take the pyramids as a model

So when a natural disaster destroys the monument and the pieces are scattered around the square, what happens to the value? Little bits of value must still lie in all the parts. So it becomes important to collect the parts. The wooden elements have been collected. In most cases the bricks have also been stacked nearby. There was however a frenzied drive to remove the remaining ‘debris’. So what would this debris have been composed of? It would have been interesting to study this, for what was considered ‘debris’ was also small parts of the same monument. Even these parts, possibly comprising of bricks bats, rotten and broken pieces of wood and the mud from the mortar, could have contributed in carrying some small fragments of the value. How-ever, without regulations or standard practice, the drive to clean up the sites of destruction led to a general assumption that this remainder material was waste and needed to be removed and disposed of.

Beyond the material elements that were salvaged, the foundations are a very important part of the historical building or monument. The choice of the location for temples and for palaces was carefully chosen taking into consideration geomantic and compositional parameters. The building was protected through specific rituals and by placing protective artefacts under the foundation stone. The foundations could be considered the roots from which even when the superstructure was damaged, it could be renewed. Clearly this system of renewal has been part of the cultural process of post earthquake restoration. This means the regenerative value of the structures lie in the foundations. With all the destroyed monuments, the foundations and in most cases the plinths have remained. This is the opportunity to research the plinths and foundations using archaeological techniques while ensuring that they remain intact.

As our understanding of monuments change from being exclusive masterpieces of high culture to components of a broader and more inclusive setting, the intangible or human dimension has to be given importance. This means that the value of a monument or historical structure also lies with the community or stakeholders. So when the pieces of the monument lie scattered across the square, the resilience of the structure depends on the motivation, need and ability of the community to rebuild or restore. Resilience must therefore not be taken only in engineering terms. If we want to build a structure that will last for over four thousand years, we need to take the pyramids as a model. This is of course very different from the monumental structures in the Kathmandu valley.

The graceful structures of filigree wooden and brick elements subjected to the seasonal weathering will

require constant maintenance and renewal and therefore the value lies in the will and ability to do so.

So where do we retrieve the value of the collapsed and damaged heritage structures? We must collect the pieces and using the will, motivation and craftsmanship of the community, re-establish the wonderful historic ensembles. We need to do this, because this is what has always been done.

(The author is an architect and can be contacted through