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Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos

Nepalese question rebuilding of quake-damaged temples

Protesters accuse government contractors of using cheap materials

The Chinese government is paying for the reconstruction of a nine-story former palace in Kathmandu's Durbar Square. (Photo by Deepak Adhikari)

KATHMANDU -- Just inside the entrance to Kathmandu's iconic Durbar Square, an exhibition explains reconstruction work following a devastating earthquake in 2015. Close by, an array of Chinese flags marks a Chinese government project to rebuild the top four floors of Nautale Durbar, a nine-story 18th century palace built by the first king of Nepal's Shah dynasty, which reigned until 2008.

Further ahead, construction workers move wheelbarrows through the stone-paved courtyard of a 19th century neoclassical building whose reconstruction has been funded by the U.S. The Japanese government is rebuilding Agam Chhen, a three-story temple that housed the family deity of Nepal's earlier kings of the Malla dynasty. In another part of the square salvaged bricks are piled high at the base of a centuries-old temple. Torn tarpaulins barely cover the bricks. Elsewhere, damaged temples are propped up by wooden beams.

These buildings are among heritage sites damaged by the earthquake, which killed more than 9,000 people and injured more than 22,000 on April 25, 2015. But as Nepal marks the third anniversary of the tremor, which damaged more than half a million homes and other buildings, local groups are protesting over what they see as a lack of transparency in the reconstruction process and the use of unconventional materials to rebuild heritage sites.

In December, the reconstruction of Rani Pokhari, or the Queen's Pond, a 17th century landmark, was halted after conservationists found that the contractor was using cement instead of traditional materials. At Bungamati, an ancient town on the southern outskirts of Kathmandu, locals have complained that contractors rebuilding three temples have not faithfully followed original designs.

Conservationists and members of the indigenous Newar people, who are patrons of the temples and live close by, worry that the government is flouting international heritage standards because of pressure to rebuild quickly. Some say that could prompt the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization to delist some of Nepal's four World Heritage sites, which would deal a blow to tourism.

Alok Siddhi Tuladhar, a member of Rebuilding Kasthamandap, stands in front of the ruins of a temple in Kathmandu's Durbar Square. (Photo by Deepak Adhikari)

"It's not just a physical structure we are rebuilding," said Alok Siddhi Tuladhar, a member of Rebuilding Kasthamandap, a youth volunteer group campaigning for involvement in reconstruction. "There are cultures and traditions associated with each monument and temple. We must ensure that those are also properly restored." The recognition from UNESCO held significance because tourists were attracted to it, said Tuladhar. "Delisting [would] have a negative implication."

For the last two years, the group has organized workshops and exhibitions to raise awareness among young people about Nepal's cultural heritage. The 50-member organization has aimed its campaign at Kasthamandap (wooden pavilion), a seventh century three-story pagoda that serves as a shelter and temple. Ten people were killed when the building, which gives Kathmandu its name, collapsed in the earthquake. Its ruins are covered by a tin-roofed canopy.

The Kathmandu valley, a World Heritage Site with seven groups of historic monuments and buildings, suffered the greatest damage, especially in the palace complex at the heart of the city, which includes 25 temples, monuments and pagodas spread across 44,000 sq. meters. Built in the distinctive style of the Malla kingdom between the 10th and 18th centuries, the area is considered a "living heritage," where the faithful still worship and a virgin "goddess" -- a prepubescent Newar girl who "retires" at puberty -- is ensconced in one of the temples.

Agam Chhen temple is being rebuilt with funds from the Japanese government. (Photo by Deepak Adhikari)

The government's Department of Archaeology, which is responsible for rebuilding the damaged heritage sites, has ignored calls from conservationists to avoid cheap bids from companies that might cut corners, such as using steel structures rather than wood, which is more expensive. Progress is also slow: Only 100 of 753 heritage sites set to be rebuilt have been completed so far. Another 329 projects are under way, but the rest are in limbo.

At Durbar Square, half of the damaged or destroyed buildings are yet to be rebuilt, including Trailokya Mohan Narayan, a 17th century temple with a half-man, half-bird Garuda statue in front of it, and Maju Dega, the tallest and largest of the temples at the square.

Campaigners have vowed to mobilize public support for rebuilding the structures in their original styles. "Government officials just want to complete rebuilding during their tenure so that they can take credit for the work," Tuladhar said. "We want to rebuild Kasthamandap ourselves. We have already received pledges from people who want to donate to the cause."

Three years on, half of the damaged buildings at Durbar Square are yet to be rebuilt. (Photo by Deepak Adhikari)

Suresh Suras Shrestha, who heads the World Heritage conservation section of the archaeology department, said his office's efforts to exempt the reconstruction of heritage sites from government bidding rules requiring the acceptance of lowest bids had been thwarted by other agencies.

"For two years after the earthquake, we tried to convince them to make an exception," he said. He declined to name the ministries or departments involved, but added: "During discussions, all officials accepted it, but we were left with the same rules that required normal procurement."

Shrestha said that his office screened contractors through a prequalification process, and that all bidders had experience of rebuilding heritage sites. He also challenged claims that the archaeology department has failed to monitor contractors to ensure that they comply with its heritage reconstruction guidelines, arguing that more than 60 engineers and architects are overseeing the rebuilding.

"We also trained more than 150 workers on rebuilding heritage sites," he said. However, an official at the department said that some contractors had hired their own labor, ignoring those trained by the government.

A vendor sits in front a damaged palace building that is covered by scaffolding in Kathmandu's Durbar Square. (Photo by Deepak Adhikari)

The number of tourists visiting Nepal has increased from roughly 700,000 in the year before the earthquake to almost 1 million last year, but tourist guides say foreigners tend to avoid Durbar Square because of the rebuilding work.

"It has had an impact on tourists. For example, Chinese tourists want to post their photos to WeChat, but the ruins don't make a good background," said Dhruba Paudel, a veteran guide.

Dipendra Gautam, a structural engineer who has done extensive research on the earthquake, said the campaigners were driven by emotion, but also criticized the government, claiming it had shown a lack of conviction, and defended the use of steel structures in some cases as a way of strengthening vulnerable ancient buildings.

"There are two extreme views when it comes to rebuilding traditional architectural sites. We have to choose between emotion and sustainability," Gautam said. "The Malla-era architecture is complicated, but they tend to be top heavy," he added.

Some other experts said the buildings collapsed because of a lack of maintenance rather than because their structures were weak. "Nepal has been hit by major earthquake every 100 years or so. Why did these temples collapse only in the last earthquake? Because they were shoddily restored," said Sudarshan Tiwari, a retired professor of architecture at Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu.

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