Nepal’s capital Kathmandu is a kaleidoscopic architectural mishmash: pagoda-roofed temples decorated with intricate woodcarvings stand alongside traditional brick houses and concrete towers like mismatched beads threaded on a string, a reflection of the country’s haphazard urbanisation.
One Nepalese man, Rabindra Puri, has been on a determined quest to revive the city’s architectural vision. An artist, architect and sculptor, Puri is determined to save the country’s architectural inheritance, a mission that the 43-year-old began close to home – literally. “Can you believe this house was like that?” he said, pointing to a picture hanging on his front porch of a 150-year-old near-derelict building that was once a poultry farm. Today that same house is the Namuna Ghar (Model House) and a winner of the Unesco Asia Pacific Heritage Award in 2004. A four-storey house in the ancient neighbourhood of Bhaktapur – one of the three adjoined royal cities along with Patan and Kathmandu – Namuna Ghar is a master class in reviving traditional Newari architecture. The Newars are one of Nepal’s many ethnic groups, also said to be the early inhabitants of Kathmandu Valley and renowned for their craftsmanship.
From the outside, this brick house with its carved wooden window frames, doors and balconies is a perfect facsimile of history. Inside, it retains the traditional aesthetic of Newari homes. The wooden stairway leading to each floor is narrow; the living room, bedroom and kitchen have handcrafted wooden pillars and ceiling beams; the bathrooms, though western in style to suit a more contemporary Nepalese family, have Nepalese elements such as brass faucets. The house is open for public visits and Puri welcomes private guests here.
“There wasn’t a single person who talked positively about my project,” Puri says of the scepticism that surrounded his efforts at the outset in 1999. “It was also very difficult to convince the workers as well. They thought I was some lunatic.” Ramesh Shilpakar, who has been working with Puri for more than a decade, believes Puri is a man of vision. A woodcarver by profession, the 50-year-old says that initially he didn’t think that the Namuna Ghar project would ever materialise. “He was using those decayed wooden pillars and painting them for reuse,” Shilpakar says of his doubts. “But what he has made of that house makes us believe in our work – to carry on our tradition.”
Projects such as these make new use of skills passed from generation to generation, but while the older generation – Shilpakar’s generation – is proud to earn a meagre living as an artisan, its children long for more modern careers. As a teenager, Puri’s parents persuaded their son to choose a 21st-century profession; they wanted him to study law, but growing up in Bhaktapur, an ancient royal city ringed with temples and palace courtyards, the young Puri had already made up his mind. “Bhaktapur made me the artist I am today,” he says. “If I wasn’t born here, I don’t know if I would have become an artist.”
While studying law, Puri enrolled in art school without his parents’ permission and also studied history and business to quench his hunger for knowledge. By 1993, before going to Germany for further studies, Puri had four undergraduate degrees in law, fine arts, business and history. When he returned to a well-paid desk job, he noticed how quickly Kathmandu Valley was being transformed in the rush towards modernity: roads were being widened and old brick buildings demolished to make way for concrete structures along with any idea of preserving the past.
“My heart wept that very moment,” he says, remembering a walk through the Patan neighbourhood, noticing the changing landscape. “I wanted to do something then – that’s when I decided to leave my job and follow my passion.”
It’s been more than a decade now since Puri started renovating Bhaktapur’s historic buildings as well as building new ones that adhere to local building techniques. To date, he has worked on 50 projects, including renovating old houses, community schools and libraries to reflect traditional architecture.
Rohit Ranjitkar, a conservation architect and one of Puri’s contemporaries, describes his projects as “adaptive reuse”. “He is renovating these buildings for a new purpose – while the exterior pertains to the old style, the interior is modernised to suit individual needs,” says Ranjitkar, programme director of the Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust (KVPT).
Unlike Puri, who is investing his time and effort on private spaces, KVPT’s focus is on the preservation of public monuments. Kathmandu Valley contains seven Unesco world heritage sites that have regularly been listed as endangered and the organisation warns that action must be taken. With this in mind, KVPT’s current projects include the restoration of the Sundari Chowk or Beautiful Courtyard, a striking example of traditional Nepali architecture, wood carving and stone sculpture dating back to 1647.
“We are preserving history,” Ranjitkar says as he stands outside Sundari Chowk overlooking the Patan Museum, which according to him was being used as a dumping ground. At present, craftsmen are restoring the palace courtyard’s original window carvings, doors and tympana (a highly decorated sculpture panel, pictured), and carefully moulded replicas have replaced the looted artworks.
About 36 kilometres south-west of Kathmandu, in Panauti, Puri has equally ambitious plans to open a Museum of Stolen Art to house replicas of 50 of Nepal’s lost artworks dating back to the 7th century. When Nepal opened its doors to foreign visitors in the 1950s, its cultural heritage garnered great interest and a marketplace developed, fed by hundreds of sculptures smuggled out of Nepal in subsequent decades.
Set to open in 2015, the museum will help highlight what has been lost and underline the importance of preserving what is left. The replicas are being made by 14 local artists and shown in the Heritage Gallery in Bhaktapur with monies raised from admissions going to help fund the project. Next month, the cultural custodian will open a vocational training school in Panauti to run courses in stone sculpting, woodcarving and metal work to train a much-needed local workforce to continue the age-old artistry. By 2030, Puri is hopeful that Panauti can become a model town and as part of his masterplan, supported by the local municipality, he plans to renovate a number of local houses. His RP Foundation will also provide technical assistance to local families who would like to follow his example.
Puri is hopeful of a more beautiful future for Kathmandu Valley that can preserve the past.
“People usually get motivated by good things in life,” he said. “But for me, all the destruction of those old buildings actually motivated me to work in their preservation and re-present them to the future generation. That’s my mission.”
Bibek Bhandari is a regular contributor to The National.