Plundering the past, polluting the present

Kirtipur, An Urban Community in Nepal
March 10, 1995

A lovelier spot than this the heart of man could scarce desire," a 19th-century British Resident in Nepal wrote of the Kathmandu Valley. As the traffic-choked capital sprawls ever wider, visitors now have a more ambivalent attitude. None the less, this broad valley 1,400 metres up in the Himalayan foothills is the home of a unique blend of rich and complex cultures. The three main urban areas - Kathmandu, Lalitpur (Patan) and Bhaktapur - are now fairly well documented and a number of urgent conservation projects have taken place. Kirtipur, the valley's fourth town, has not yet received this kind of attention.

Kirtipur (population in 1989: 12,800) is the least changed of the valley towns, partly because it is still impossible for motor vehicles to venture further than the very edge of the densely-built settlement. It is therefore a quiet place where people live as much in the streets and public squares as in their houses. There are steep narrow streets and neighbourhood squares, the remains of old town walls, gates and a citadel and several important Hindu temples and Buddhist stupas. The town has an heroic hilltop location, with a view down over the terraced fields to Kathmandu, and then, in winter, up to the huge snowpeaks that march out along the northern horizon. Almost all the inhabitants are Newars, the ethnic group with the best claim to indigenous status in the valley, whose kings built these towns during the Middle Ages. They seem to remember still the fierce resistance their little town put up to the invading forces of Gorkha during that kingdom's campaign of unification in the late 1760s; and the Gorkhalis' weapons still hang from the eaves of Kirtipur's main temple. In the absence of any modern facilities for visitors, there is a feeling of having stepped back 50 or 100 years to the days before Nepal embraced the doctrines of development and opened its doors to the world.

This is, of course, a romantic view. Kirtipur is rapidly becoming merely a satellite of Kathmandu: its farmers lost much of their land when Nepal's main university campus was established below the town. Few houses have a private water supply and there are no drains. Many people have no choice but to defecate in the open, and garbage is dumped in the streets. The old Buddhist monasteries are crumbling. Art thieves have made off with several sacred images, for here the streets are lined with shrines housing sculptures viewed as antique masterpieces in the West. The 4th-century stone images of the Mother Goddesses at Bagh Bhairava temple are cemented into a retaining wall, but there have been attempts to steal a Shiva image of similar age that would fetch a fortune in the West.

Third World tourism is one of the stranger paradoxes of the age in which we live. Tourists travel thousands of miles to view places and cultures that they are told exist in continuity with an ancient past, and the governments of Third World countries, starved of hard currency, vie with one another to attract them. Meanwhile, the local people, not realising their importance as picturesque tourist attractions, abandon traditional styles of clothing and architecture and begin to wear factory-made garments and live in concrete houses. The promoters of tourism see their asset declining, and the tourists decide pompously that this particular destination has been "spoiled" by tourism, and start to go elsewhere. Meanwhile, concerned academics worry that the harmonious, organic character of the old culture will be lost in a period of rapid change.

Kirtipur has hosted researchers from two British universities during the past 15 years. In 1979-80 and 1982 two teams from Bristol spent 18 months in Kirtipur and produced reports on the environment, social structure and economy of the town that made wide-ranging recommendations for its conservation and development. Mehrdad Shokoohy writes that these studies "remained theoretical and . . . failed to produce any specific project". The Shokoohys' book differs from the Bristol projects' reports in that it is a much more comprehensive study of the environment and cultural heritage of Kirtipur and its contributors include not only foreign experts but also Nepalese officials involved in planning and development, and Nepalese scholars with specialist knowledge.

The book is attractive and expensively produced. Unfortunately, Mehrdad Shokoohy's introductory chapters on history and the Newars draw on outdated sources and contain a number of fundamental errors. His use of the Anglicised corruption "Gurkha" to refer to the forces of Gorkha risks confusion with the British battalion of Gurkhas; his references to Wright's History of Nepal translated from the Parbatiya as "the Parbatiya" suggests that "Parbatiya" is the title of a text rather than being what it actually is: a well-known alternative name for the Nepali language; and his statement that Newari is "increasingly a spoken language only, and does not appear in printed form except rarely" will elicit howls of protest from Nepal's many Newar authors and publishers. The strongest chapters on the traditional heritage are those by Sukra Sagar Shrestha, a Kirtipur resident and one of Nepal's leading archaeologists and art historians, the French architect Marc Barani, and Natalie Shokoohy. Shrestha provides a detailed inventory of Kirtipur's historic buildings and art and antiquities, Barani explains the symbolic organisation of traditional residential units, and Shokoohy describes the Buddhist monasteries, which are increasingly dilapidated but of great historical interest. Barani's essay is an absorbing account of the ways this farming community maximises the use of shared space in its densely built urban environment, and also of the social impact of architectural change. When houses are extended or rebuilt, materials such as concrete are used instead of the local brick, and the building usually has a flat roof instead of the traditional pitched and tiled roof. This roof becomes the venue for many of the tasks formerly performed in the street or courtyard, producing a "gradual tendency towards the isolation of family units". Kirtipur's problems are addressed by Nepalese experts in five instructive chapters, which deal with changes in land use, problems of water supply and sanitation, and transport and communications.

Of course, much of what is said here has already been said about other towns of the valley. But Kirtipur lends itself to this kind of treatment particularly well because of its smaller size and because its environment has not changed as drastically. The achievement in bringing the work of Nepalese specialists to the fore in this highly constructive way deserves praise. One hopes the people of Kirtipur (whose voices we do not really hear) will benefit from their efforts.

Michael Hutt is a lecturer in Nepali, School of Oriental and African Studies, London.

Kirtipur, An Urban Community in Nepal: Its People, Town Planning, Architecture and Arts

Editor - Mehrdad Shokoohy and Natalie H. Shokoohy
ISBN - 1 870606 02 7
Publisher - Araxus Books
Price - £43.00
Pages - 248

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