Any delusions of the scale of destruction within Kathmandu were completely blown away after seeing with my own eyes.
Scanning the streets as the taxi made its way from the airport, the apprehension of seeing widespread destruction following the earthquakes in Nepal faded quickly. In fact at first it was quite hard to spot any damage at all. True, the main roads between the airport and Thamel, where most tourists head for the hotels and restaurants might not be typical of the whole city, but so far so good. What was evident however, were the holes in the former palace walls and damage to some of the older buildings. But many of these had been long abandoned or poorly maintained long before the earthquakes.
In Thamel it was the same story. There were a few instances of buildings collapsing, but not many. One hotel had fallen into one of the old water tanks that locals used to do their washing, but other than this, there was really not very much damage in this area where most tourists stay.
When news broke about the first earthquake in Nepal on 25 April 2015, the top story was about the destruction of Bhimsen Tower a nine-storey, 62m tower at Sundhara in Kathmandu. Built in 1832, it was a popular icon and observation tower. It collapsed killing about 180 people. Then news quickly spread focusing on the damage to Kathmandu’s historic buildings. The media painted a bleak picture and for anyone outside of the city, it seemed that anything of any note was now a pile of rubble.
Some areas were hit much harder than others. The older brick buildings more readily fell victim to the two earthquakes. The historic durbar squares, complexes of palace buildings and temples in Bhaktapur, Patan and Kathmandu suffered worst, though Patan’s Durbar Square was least damaged of the three. Most of the rest of the city however, was relatively unscathed.
Visiting the Stupa at Boudhanath in August, the top of the Stupa was under wraps as repairs were under way. Save a few cracks in the plaster here and there, there appeared little significant damage to the main stupa, although a few months later the all-seeing eyes at the top of the Stupa had been removed for full renovation. Pashnapatinath was also reported as not suffering much damage, despite the poor maintenance that a few years earlier had seen a temple collapse of its own accord.
At first at Patan’s Durbar Square, feeling a little disorientated, it took a while to realise what was different here. Despite the low clouds and steady rain, the square seemed a lot lighter than usual. Then after circling the square a few times, the penny dropped that one of the tallest temples had completely disappeared except its foundations. There was no sign of rubble or broken masonry, just the base remained. The former palace that houses a museum looked to be completely intact. Walking around with some tourists who had never been there before, they of course had no idea what had been there before. It was only me who had noticed any difference. Elsewhere in the square there were some signs of scaffolding and repair work, but there were only a few piles of stones and broken pillars that betrayed what had happened a few months before. In a way these lent charm more than anything.
Continuing to Swayambunath, the picture wasn’t quite so good. Reports had painted a dark picture of the destruction here and damage was indeed much more extensive. But again, it was not quite as bad as I’d expected. There were signs of much more restoration work going on, but it was still bustling with pilgrims visiting the shrines. Though it was not as crowded with the usual numbers of foreign tourists who would have been there normally, given this was the summer rainy season and low-season any way, it was very still busy with locals visiting the temples. The monkeys were up to their usual tricks, entertaining everyone with their antics and by diving from great heights into the pools.
On another day, strolling down from Thamel through Asaan, again it was reassuring to see the buildings along the narrow streets and alleys that form the main bazaar area of Kathmandu were surprisingly intact. Here the old rubs shoulders with the new. Little shrines, stupas and temples can be found almost at every street corner. Asaan is a maze of alleys lined with shops selling everything from saris to pressure cookers. Timeless, this part of Kathmandu has little changed in over twenty years since I first visited in 1994. Looking through the archways into the small courtyards of family homes however, there were more wooden struts propping up sagging walls than before. Already in a state of poor repair, it is a wonder that most of these buildings were still standing. But they were, and other than a few gaps where buildings had collapsed, the area was surprisingly intact.
Many of the few gaps where buildings had collapsed revealed fascinating sights: of inner courtyards and beautiful old temples that had previously been hidden behind more modern shop buildings. Here and there, though the dust had hardly settled, construction was already underway to repair what little damage there was.
Kathmandu’s Durbar Square at the far end of Asaan was a different story as it had been one of the worst hit areas in the city. Several temples and part of the palace were covered with precarious-looking bamboo scaffolding and tarpaulins. Of Kathmandu’s three World Heritage durbar squares, this one holds interest by virtue of being home to Kathmandu’s Kumari or Living Goddess. However, still charging high entry fees despite the damage and still allowing motor cycles to take a short cut through this World Heritage Site makes it a place you might want to miss if you are short of time.
All in all, any delusions of the huge scale of destruction within Kathmandu portrayed by the media were completely blown away after seeing with my own eyes. Kathmandu has certainly lost none of its appeal to the visitor.
RMT offers a day tour of Temples and Stupas, including the World Heritage Sites at Boudhanath, Pashnupatinath, Patan and Swayambunath. Or for a day trip out in the Kathmandu Valley, Cultural Valley includes a visit to Bhaktapur and Panauti.
By Marianne Heredge