Patan Durbar Square in Patan, Nepal. To the right is the Old Royal Palace. Photo: Wikimedia Commons,
In 1979, seven historic monumental zones in the Kathmandu Valley were collectively designated Asia’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site. For scholars and tourists alike, these Hindu and Buddhist monuments are what immediately come to mind when picturing Nepal’s rich cultural heritage. But according to a German architect who has been working in Nepal for four decades, it is only a matter of time before modernization wipes out the majority of the country’s ancient architecture.
Niels Gutschow, 70, went to Nepal in 1971 to volunteer on the restoration of the Pujari Math Hindu monastery in Bhaktapur. He later made a home in the city, which is about 13 kilometers outside Kathmandu, and has since devoted his life’s work to studying and preserving Nepal’s architectural jewels. His efforts have so far resulted in the publication of more than a dozen books, which will guide future generations seeking to learn about Nepal’s past.
“To put things into a book is an act of preservation because one day this will be the only way to remember,” Gutschow told Agence France-Presse (AFP).
Haphazard modernization and a desire for modernity have swept across the Kathmandu Valley, leaving a trail of destroyed monuments, monasteries, temples and historic houses. Until 10 years ago, developers did not need demolition permits, even in the World Heritage zones. An amendment to the law now requires permits, but Gutschow says they are not enforced because “no municipality can ask the authorities to send a policeman to enforce the law.”
Gutschow’s story is comparable to that of GHF’s John Sanday, who himself has lived in Nepal for 40 years, and who played a key role in the UNESCO inscription of the Kathmandu Valley monuments during the 1970s. In addition to his widely celebrated conservation efforts (in 2004 he was awarded the Order of the British Empire for contributions to architectural conservation and training), Sanday is a firm believer in the economic and social benefits of tourism to Nepal’s rural communities.
As in any developing country, the desire among Nepal’s local communities to modernize is understandable. In this way, protecting ancient architecture is not always a priority, and many more buildings will undoubtedly fall. But sustainably preserving Nepal’s key cultural heritage sites, especially those in the Kathmandu Valley, is essential to supporting a healthy tourism industry — which Nepalis can build entire lives, not just houses, around.