Damaged by deadly quake, fate of Nepal heritage unsure

Kathmandu, May 3: The blue-rimmed eyes of Kathmandu's gold-spired Swayambhunath stupa have long stared silently from a lush hilltop overlooking this city nestled in the Himalayan foothills.

But since Nepal was shattered by a mammoth earthquake a week ago, those eyes have gazed upon a nation in mourning — and on a microcosm of its despair inside the ancient temple itself.

Nepal earthquake

Here, monkeys scurry across the demolished ruins of a pair of precious bullet-shaped edifices built by King Pratap Malla in the 1600s.

Saffron-robed monks haul golden relics and carpets out of a ruined monastery. The temple now has its own population of displaced — priests and vendors huddle under tents, after their own homes in the complex crumbled.

Swayambhunath, which dates back to the 5th century, is one of at least 68 cultural heritage sites in Nepal that were damaged by the tremor, according to Nipuna Shrestha of the UNESCO, the UN cultural heritage organization, citing preliminary figures from the Department of Archaeology.

That's nearly 80 percent of historic landmarks in seven monument zones that have been declared World Heritage Sites in the Kathmandu Valley alone.

Few would compare the loss of Nepal's historic treasures to the massive human misery wrought by the magnitude-7.8 quake, which has claimed nearly 7,000 lives, damaged more than have a million homes, and displaced nearly 3 million people.

And yet, "it's hard to describe how painful this is," Shrestha said. "These are not just monuments, they are part of our daily life. It feels like losing part of your family."

Shrestha said at least 18 other monuments are known to have been damaged elsewhere, but information has been incomplete because phone networks have been disrupted and roads severed by avalanches.

The sites most heavily affected were made of brick and wood. Terrifying footage posted on YouTube of the moment the quake hit one temple complex in Bhaktapur, just east of the capital, shows chunks falling from the top of a crumbling temple as it is enshrouded in a cloud of brown dust.

Tourists can be heard screaming as some struggle to stand and others try to run as buildings disintegrate around them.

Speaking earlier this week, Prime Minister Sushil Koirala said the government's first priority was relief and rescue for all those affected. But he also vowed to rebuild "all structures of historical, religious and archaeological significance."

In an impoverished country already struggling to help the living, though, it is unclear when that will happen, or how.


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