Thursday, September 3, 2015

Rebuilding Heritage in #nepalNOW | Shantipur Temple, Soyambhunath


The Shantipur temple in Soyambhunath has damages on the outside wall and the inside wall and is now closed for worship, though devotees still worship the door outside - there is no stopping that.

I attended a small meeting at Soyambhunath in the morning, and was pleasantly surprised that it was teeming with devotees (supposedly, three days after the August Full Moon, devotees from Bhaktapur have to come to Soyambhunath). I never knew that, and it always surprises me how many times I feel like a tourist in my own country, every time I come in contact with a new tradition from the over 100 ethnic groups we have.

The first thing that struck me was how young the group in the meeting was - and how diverse. Some were the priests family, some were the custodians of that space, the youth club, the sponsors etc. The discussion was revolving around traditions - with the earthquake and the recovery, whether to modify the traditions or find ways to preserve. Fascinating debates that happens in Nepal now.

So here is the story. The main sanctum sanctorum of Shantipur can only be opened by the priests, and no other person is ever allowed to enter. So no one really knows what is in there, even today, except this young guy sitting around the drinking tea (who I secretly hoped would take me aside and tell me, but it was not to be) who comes from the priest clan, and whose grandfather, now 92, is still head priest of this temple. It is said that this slightly bent man with a pacemaker suddenly walks straight when inside this deepest part of the temple. The devotees can only come to the second level, just outside, and of course around the temple too.

The decision. We cannot modify tradition. Tradition and belief systems are a combination of known and unknown, and if you make the unknown known, we destroy ancient beliefs and this is the beginning of the end. If there is way to keep the mystery there, we will preserve tradition. Everyone is agreed on that!

Hence an interesting solution for recovery comes up and is agreed upon. Wood panel walls will be constructed to keep the accessible area separate from the inaccessible. A walled area will be outside the temple, and there will be walls to separate the sanctum sanctorum from the outside too… the priest clan will go inside and work there on their own, doing the restoration and recovery of what is their responsibility, the outside can be done by other people. However, all of them have to be raised from the ground up together to keep the building stable and earthquake resistant.

The most fascinating thing in this whole discussion, I think, is that there is no questions of architects, painters, masons, technique. We know that already - this has been preserved through the ages. The discussion on funds is casual - the Indians, the Thai, the government have all promised something, but no one goes to them… when they are ready to fund, they have to come to these committees who hold the keys to each structure. The agreement - let them figure it out. When they are ready, they will come to us!

Shantipur Temple, Soyambhunath, Kathmandu
Later, someone laughs about how lucky we are that the earthquake happened after 86 years of the last one. If it was after a 100 years, everyone who had experience in restoration of these structures would be already dead! That way, Nepal is lucky - this cycle of 80 odd years of earthquakes preserves ancient traditional skills - as the ARTISANS rise again, every time disaster strikes.

We leave after drinking some really, I mean really sweet tea, and feeling a deep sense of pride - in our own ability to restore our heritage.

Check out the RISE of the ARTISAN - a trip focussed on exactly this - the artisan who rebuilds structures that have fallen.

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