In post-quake rebuilding, Kathmandu's carvers reclaim a fading heritage
Spirit of humanity
Restoration efforts after Nepal's 2015 earthquake have breathed new life into traditional art. But they have also unearthed strains between the past and present: between temples' roles as relics, and as living spaces; and between history, and the men restoring it.
Patan, Nepal—In a workshop inside the courtyard of a 17th century palace, Tirtha Ram Shilpakar is surrounded by the guts of ancient temples. The floor around him is crowded with carved wooden beams, ashy with age. The walls are lined with pillars and detached windows. A few steps off lies an 11-ft.-wide doorway, dissected on the floor.
Tirtha Ram sits hunched in a corner, one leg curled over a giant beam. Amid the scream of power saws and the blare of '80s Bollywood hits, he carves into the beam, hammer and chisel in hand, copying a floral pattern from a sketch beside him.
As the workshop’s naike, or leader, he makes occasional rounds of the premises. Of the 24 craftsmen he oversees here, most share his family name: “skilled worker” in Nepali, although they also go by Sikarmi, or wood-worker. These men were inducted into the craft before they started the first grade, driving nails and planing surfaces in family workshops; most abandoned school before their fifteenth birthdays to work full-time.
“For us Shilpakars, wood is our work by birth and caste,” Tirtha Ram says. “Our fathers, our grandfathers, everyone we know did this.”
Their work, however, is a far cry from that of their ancestors, the temple-builders of the Malla period, who raised the elaborate tiered pagodas that Kathmandu is famed for. Since patronage for temple construction petered out some 250 years ago, Shilpakars have been consigned to the plain staples of modern woodwork: furniture, decorative windows, gates, and tourist merchandise, often crude miniatures of statues and parts of these very temples. Feeling unappreciated and underpaid, many have fled the profession, leaving it close to its demise.
But their future took a turn on April 25, 2015, when a 7.8-magnitude earthquake tore through Nepal, killing nearly 9,000 people and wreaking havoc on centuries of heritage in the Kathmandu Valley. Among the structures flattened by the quake were Hari Shankar and Char Narayan, 18th- and 16th-century Newar temples in Patan Durbar Square, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust (KVPT), which has restored sites in the city since 1991, took up responsibility for rebuilding these two temples by 2019. Shortly after, Tirtha Ram, taking a hiatus from his private workshop, was recruited into the project full-time, alongside other craftsmen from nearby Bhaktapur. For more than two years his team has been resurrecting Hari Shankar and Char Narayan, using ancestral skills they have trained for their entire lives but have seldom had occasion to use.
But if the earthquake has breathed new life into their craft, it has also exhumed strains between the past and present: between the role of temples as relics, and as functional spaces today; and between Kathmandu’s storied heritage, and the needs of the men restoring it.
Historically, Shilpakars have been stereotyped as manual laborers rather than artists, robbing them of income and prestige, explains Rohit Ranjitkar, KVPT’s country director. He calls them “the real heroes of conservation.”
While the restoration work may not remedy their financial woes, Tirtha Ram says it carries “glory.”
“Lattice windows are simple to make,” he explains, referring to a popular tourist replica. “But this is heavy, very heavy. Even most Shilpakars can’t do it: it’s special work.”
'As different as earth and sky'
Since it was erected in 1565, Char Narayan, the oldest temple in Patan Durbar Square, had been rattled by earthquakes every century. Had it received proper upkeep, the 2015 quake might have been just another entry to that list.
Instead, as the temple lurched back and forth at four minutes to noon, the immense weight of its masonry sheared off weaker joints and knocked out its base columns. The roof’s overhang folded like an umbrella. Beams snapped in midair or were crushed by falling debris. Carved doorways and windows crashed to the ground, shattering instantly. In seconds, the whole structure was a heap of rubble.
In the days that followed, KVPT sifted through the wreckage to identify what could be kept – it was “a huge jigsaw puzzle,” Mr. Ranjitkar recalls. Most parts were deemed salvageable, although pillars and other weight-bearers would have to be rebuilt from scratch. Cracked and scarred portions would be excised and spliced in with carved blocks of rosy new wood. “Like patching up old jeans,” says Bijay Basukala, who supervises the craftsmen.
Today in the workshop, Pushpa Raj Shilpakar, one of the project’s most gifted carvers, is bent over a statue of a two-toned goddess: half old, half new. She has gone stub-nosed, details having blurred through the centuries. Flicking away woodchips, Pushpa Raj carves her new hand into a plain block, shaping fingers, and with his finest chisel, her minuscule nails.
Asked if he had worked on similar designs before the earthquake, he gave a wistful smile. “Nothing like this,” he says. “These designs – it’s like they were made by a god. I still can’t understand how they did it.”
Kathmandu’s Newar temples stand apart from other Asian architectures for their maddening irregularity. It’s clear carvers for temples like Char Narayan were never issued firm blueprints, architects say, allowing them to work individual styles and whimsies into the patterns. A row of columns might appear identical, but peer closer and every element is done up differently: the flowers, figures, even standard flourishes.
“Extraordinary architecture,” Ranjitkar calls it.
But only a handful of conservation projects stress fidelity to original designs. The rest are tendered out to contractors who are more invested in minimizing costs than upholding quality, Tirtha Ram says. He reckons if he were to put as much care into tourist pieces as the temples, they would take four times as long to complete. A single large window would consume four months of uninterrupted work and cost far too much to stand a chance in the market.
In Tirtha Ram’s private workshop in Bhaktapur, his colleagues fashion windows for two traditional guesthouses in Patan Durbar Square that caved during the earthquake. Hanging on the walls are tourist windows made of cheaper wood with shallower carvings, like those on the face of a coin.
“This is a flower. This is also a flower,” he says, pointing to the filigrees on one window and the plain patterns on the other. “But they’re as different as earth and sky.”
The cost of craft
Despite their work with KVPT, the craftsmen live in a state of financial uncertainty. For generations, their families eked out a small living building furniture and gates for homes. After Nepal opened up to visitors in the 1950s, a tourist market emerged. But for these goods, cost competes with craft, and work is hurried to meet buyers’ budgets and deadlines: delicate fretwork and subtle details are left out; complex traditional wood joinery is swapped for nails.
The more successful craftsmen keep workshops in Bhaktapur, where they made $100 to $300 a month before the earthquake. Demand for tourist merchandise has since evaporated, and unsold statuettes, returned from the shops, stand in dusty rows in Pushpa Raj’s bedroom. Even when they were marketable, however, shopkeepers purchased his pieces for $6 to $12 and resold them for up to $50, taking home most of the gains.
“You can’t keep track of profits in the shops,” Pushpa Raj says grinning. “The shopkeepers are wily. They tell the tourists, ‘This is a masterpiece!’ and cheat them.”
Tirtha Ram feels he’s swallowing losses to take part in the KVPT project, where craftsmen receive $12 to $15 for six hours of work per day. In private workshops, where they are compensated per contract, the daily wage averages only $11 – but in times of need, they sometimes power through 18-hour shifts, wrapping up orders ahead of time to pocket larger profits.
And this has been a time of need. Since 2015, like many in Nepal, Pushpa Raj and his family have lived in temporary housing, a shed of corrugated tin sheets arranged into walls and ceilings. Tirtha Ram has crowded into a relative’s house with his wife and two children, one of whom has cerebral palsy. Both men’s family homes were battered by the earthquake, and neither knows if he will ever be able to gather the estimated $30,000 needed to rebuild.
“If you can build a house for yourself, your life is successful,” says Surya Bahadur Shilpakar, a colleague in Tirtha Ram’s workshop. “We build one house with difficulty – with difficulty – and only a few of us at that. Everyone says it's important work, our profession. Our ancestors said don't leave it. But people who have done other things earn so much more.”
Many Shilpakars feel indentured to the trade, unable to pursue better-paid jobs because of their truncated schooling, Surya Bahadur says. He would rather his children not join their ranks. Several of the craftsmen’s younger relatives, seeing the precarious finances they would inherit, have shunned the grueling apprenticeship to qualify as a carver, a rite that can take upwards of a year. This trend could spell the end of traditional woodcarving.
Tirtha Ram is buoyed only by the significance of temple restoration, which he frames as his “actual” work, as opposed to his “commercial” work.
“The thing about temple work is, I can tell people I did even this,” he says. “Who do I tell that I built a closet?”
The present past
As the Shilpakars attempt to reconcile their heritage with the future of their craft, a similar tension plays out among the architects. KVPT seeks to freeze the temples in time, as archives of the past, but they have always been pastiches, renewed piecemeal by successive generations of craftsmen. In previous centuries, damaged wood would have been switched out and tossed into a fire.
Ranjitkar considers the dizzying variety of designs in the temples a part of the historical record, and requires they be reproduced stroke for stroke – including mistakes. He fears deviations might “mislead historians.”
But replication is always inexact, says Niels Gutschow, an architect who has consulted for restoration projects in Kathmandu since the 1970s. Purists, horrified at the idea of “recreating” designs, would leave replacements shorn of decoration. But Dr. Gutschow maintains that in Nepal the craftsmen, as descendants of the “original carvers,” are “able and even entitled to recreate what is lost.”
Sirish Bhatt, a consulting architect for KVPT, notes her admiration for the temple’s history is a world away from how the temple is popularly viewed. Valuing something simply because of its age is a foreign concept in Nepal.
For most Nepalis, “this is not art,” she says, gesturing toward the temples in the square. “This is not a dead monument. In the West, these places become museums. It’s so formal, you pay an entrance fee. There’s none of that here. Maybe it’s a bit chaotic, not clean, but it has life, I feel. It’s part of the everyday.”
In late afternoon, as the craftsmen trickle out of the workshop, Patan Durbar Square beats with activity. Schoolchildren gather in chattering groups. Tourists stroll between temples wrapped in scaffolding, cameras bouncing off their bellies. Circulating the open space are boys selling cotton candy, hoisting their suspiciously pink wares on long sticks, like standards. On a ledge facing the stump of Char Narayan, an old man naps as a teenage couple holds hands surreptitiously a few feet away.
Inside, asked if he would have gone about restoration in the same way as KVPT has, Tirtha Ram hesitates. “No,” he says finally. “They want to save the wood.” He points to a frieze depicting a faceless goddess, her features weathered away. A crack snakes down half the length of her body.
“This will hold, but it’s like the temple is missing teeth,” he says. “If we had to do it, we would use old pieces too. But we would mostly build new. After all, whatever we make now, it will be seen for another 500 years.”