In Nepal, Efforts Underway To Salvage Ancient Sites Damaged By Quake

May 3, 2015
Originally published on May 22, 2015 4:20 pm

Swayambhunath — also known as the Monkey Temple, for its holy, furry dwellers that swing from the rosewood trees — is one of the oldest and most sacred Buddhist sites in Nepal's Kathmandu Valley, an important pilgrimage destination for Hindus as well as Buddhists. It was also one of the worst damaged by last month's earthquake.

At the site, Nepali police soldiers shovel broken bricks and sand into garbage baskets. They're much more cautious cleaning up here than at many other devastated places: There's a chance they could still find precious, centuries-old statues and other artifacts in the rubble.

Volunteers stand precariously atop a two-story-high pile of crumbled bricks, scouring it for relics. A temple nearby, part of the site's hilltop complex, has big cracks and looks like it could topple and crush them at any minute.

This is dangerous, important work, says Nepal's undersecretary of the Department of Archaeology, Suresh Shrestha, who's peeled off his dust mask and is taking a break in the shade.

"There are so many artifacts because in Hinduism and Buddhism, there are lots and lots of gods and goddesses," he says.

Nepal's government says at least 70 ancient, sacred sites in the Kathmandu Valley were severely damaged or destroyed by the earthquake. The area is home to seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites; Swayambhunath is one of them.

With help from the United Nations, every ancient object that's found intact at the site from now on will be inventoried and stored in a secure place to protect from looters. Archaeologists fear that in the chaos following the quake, some artifacts were lost or stolen.

The oldest structure there, a Buddhist monument known as a stupa, dates from the fifth century. "It is intact," says Christian Manhart, UNESCO's country representative for Nepal. "We are lucky."

Manhart says it's difficult to know at this point how much of the Swayambhunath complex can be restored. But, he says, "I'm rather optimistic. We have all these architectural features like sculptures, carved wooden beams, cornerstones, which can be reused for construction."

Despite the damage, the most sacred rituals are continuing — including worship five times a day.

"We have [a] very big problem, but we do not stop the praying," says Ashok Buddhacharya, a priest who says his family roots at the temple extend back to the fifth century. "Ritual praying is continuing."

Buddhacharya sits on a mat underneath a large, blue tarp. It's where he and his wife and children and other families are cooking and sleeping, since their living quarters here were reduced to rubble.

"These are historical, more than 1,000 years old, the stupas, the metal things, the statues," he says. "We cannot make a repeat, you see."

That is, they can't just rebuild them.

That's why archaeologists feel a sense of urgency, here and at other sites, as they work around the clock to recover what they can.


This story was reported with support from the International Reporting Project.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

The government in Nepal is battling on two fronts after the massive earthquake there last weekend - the first, to provide food, shelter and medical help to the millions of people affected - the second, to salvage what is left of its cultural treasures. The government says at least 70 ancient, sacred sites in the Kathmandu Valley alone have been severely damaged or destroyed. One of the largest of these is a complex of temples sacred to both Hindus and Buddhists that sits high on a mountaintop on the outskirts of the capital. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports on volunteers and archaeologists who are digging through the rubble, trying to salvage as many artifacts as they can.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Swayambhunath - or the Monkey Temple, as its named locally for its holy, furry dwellers that swing from the rosewood trees - is one of the oldest and most sacred sites in the Kathmandu Valley. As it happens, it was also one of the most damaged by the quake.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOVELING)

SIEGLER: Nepali police soldiers shovel broken bricks and sand into garbage baskets. They're much more cautious cleaning up here than at many other devastated sites. There's a chance they could still find artifacts in this rubble.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Foreign language spoken).

SIEGLER: Volunteers stand precariously atop a two-story-high pile of crumbled bricks, scouring it for treasures. A temple right by them has big cracks and looks like it could topple and crush them any minute. This is dangerous, but important work, says Suresh Shrestha, who's peeled off his dust mask and is taking a break in the shade. He's undersecretary for Nepal's Department of Archaeology.

SURESH SHRESTHA: Actually, there are so many artifacts because in Hinduism and Buddhism, there are lots and lots of gods and goddesses.

SIEGLER: With help from the U.N., every artifact here that's found intact from now on is inventoried and stored in a secure place to protect from looters.

CHRISTIAN MANHART: The oldest structure here is from fifth century A.D., here in Swayambhunath.

SIEGLER: This is UNESCO's in-country representative for Nepal, Christian Manhart.

MANHART: I haven't even looked at some. If you want to come with me, let's have a look at it.

SIEGLER: It turns out that Buddhist monument was sitting in the middle of this courtyard out in the open when the quake hit.

MANHART: So it's this stupa you see here - you know, the first one on the right side, with the - with the four Buddha heads - and it is intact. We are lucky.

SIEGLER: Manhart says it's not clear how much of this Swayambhunath complex, with its two mountaintops of temples and monasteries, can be restored.

MANHART: It's difficult now to say. But if you want my personal opinion, I'm rather optimistic because we have all these architectural features, like sculptures, carved wooden beams, cornerstones, which can be reused for construction because...

SIEGLER: Remarkably, the most sacred rituals are continuing...

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

SIEGLER: ...Including worship five times a day. The priests and their families here are now homeless with nowhere else to go.

ASHOK BUDDHACHARYA: We have very big problem, but you do not stop the praying. Ritual praying is continuing.

SIEGLER: Ashok Buddhacharya, one of the priests, is sitting on a mat underneath a large blue tarp where he and his wife and children and other families are cooking and sleeping. He says his family's roots trace back to fifth century at this temple. They're devastated and sad.

BUDDHACHARYA: These are historical - more than 1,000 years old. The stupas, the metal things, statues are - we cannot make a repeat, you see.

SIEGLER: We can't just rebuild them, he says. They're lost. That's why archaeologists feel a sense of urgency here and at other sites as they work around the clock to recover what they can. Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Kathmandu. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.