Kathmandu in Asia, looks to the future after catastrophic earthquake in 2015

Two years after the catastrophic earthquake, Ronan O’Connell documents Kathmandu’s recovery.

Her long, unkempt hair ruffled by the breeze, the young Nepalese girl sits in the rubble of a destroyed building. 

Surrounded by the destruction of a natural disaster, she pokes a stick at pieces of brick, her head bowed and face obscured.

It is a depressing scene which tightens my heart. No sooner does this surge of anguish beset me than the girl lifts her gaze and my spirits all at once.

With a smile as broad and beguiling as the Himalayan mountain range on the horizon, she points her stick at me and sings “Hello, hello, hello!”

This greeting is followed by a brief dance — a wiggle of the hips — the kind of impromptu expression of joy in which children specialise. 

Over my four days in Kathmandu, documenting the city’s recovery from the catastrophic earthquake of April 2015, I came to see this girl as emblematic of the Nepalese people.

Amid the daunting aftermath of one of the worst natural disasters in Nepal’s history, they are upbeat and speak with optimism about the country’s future.

As more and more tourists are returning to marvel at Kathmandu’s historic treasures, offering precious financial stimulus, Nepal is setting about the task of rebuilding.

The earthquake took more than 8000 lives, left double that number injured and so many more in states of mourning, destitution or homelessness.

For days afterwards, the entire nation was locked in terror as waves of aftershocks struck.

Across the country, thousands of buildings were either damaged or razed - hospitals, schools, government departments, shops, temples and homes.

Many deeply-significant structures were destroyed, particularly in Kathmandu’s ancient satellite city of Bhaktapur, where government estimates say 20 per cent of buildings did not survive.

But from crisis comes opportunity.

For one group of Kathmandu’s community which increasingly had become sidelined and underappreciated in recent decades, the earthquake has provided a newfound level of importance and status.

The unique skills of the city’s traditional craftsmen are central to the Nepalese Government’s plans to rebuild or restore the key historic structures affected by the earthquake in the UNESCO Heritage listed Bhaktapur.

The government has said it is determined these buildings will be authentic. They want to replicate, as closely as possible, the construction and design methods of the original structures.

This task has been handed to a community of up to 1000 gifted artisans who specialise in carpentry, stonemasonry and metalwork.

The skills these men and women possess, handed down from generation to generation, have become rarer and rarer over the past few decades.

Many young Nepalese people have shunned traditional skilled trades in favour of more modern professions, ones which can help them build careers abroad.

Meanwhile, increasing industrialisation, and preferences for Western-style concrete-and-steel homes, has pushed the classical craftsmen to the fringes of the workforce.

Now, however, the intricate carvings and lattice work which embellish Kathmandu’s majestic heritage buildings can only be replicated by hand. For the first time in decades, the city’s artisans are in the spotlight.

Arunodaya Prajapati is a second-generation carpenter with a workshop in the middle of Bhaktapur’s Old Town.

As he shows me some of his finest pieces - wonderfully ornate wooden sculptures adorned by Hindu deities — the 36-year-old describes how he spent his childhood playing in the workshop before later following his father into the woodwork trade.

On the day the earthquake hit, Mr Prajapati was having a family gathering at his Bhaktapur home. His house was damaged and remains uninhabitable but fortunately everyone escaped uninjured.

That day did, however, leave him with a fresh appreciation for the fragility of life, as well as the preciousness of his historic environment.

He spoke with obvious passion and pride about the role he and the nine woodworkers he employs would have in helping to restore the architectural splendour of Bhaktapur.

His team are focusing on the lattice designs and joinery of the ancient structures slated for restoration or rebuilding.

“We are looking forward to being part of it and feel honoured,” Mr Prajapati said.

“And the whole world will be watching us work. Artisans are respected here but their social status is not very high because of low income. But now artisans are once again required to reconstruct Kathmandu and we’re very proud.”

While Nepal’s endless snow-draped mountains attract many of its tourists, it is history which is the main drawcard in the country’s capital Kathmandu.

Technically a separate city, but essentially an outer suburb of sprawling Kathmandu, Bhaktapur has an original town centre laced with timeworn structures - magnificent temples, striking monuments, grand gates, and a splendid royal palace, all dating back hundreds of years.

Some of them were badly hit by the earthquake, while many buildings throughout the heritage area now are propped up by wooden beams.

Yet Bhaktapur remains an astonishingly fascinating and beautiful place. Aside from the wood, stone and metal statues that embellish its historic heart, the pillars, eaves, struts, doorways and window frames are adorned by beautiful, intricate carvings.

It took almost a year after the earthquake for the reconstruction effort in Bhaktapur to officially begin. 

While newer concrete homes were rebuilt at a frenetic rate across the Kathmandu Valley within months of the earthquake, the heritage restoration project was not kickstarted until April 2016.

Thanks to almost 10 million euro of funding from the German government, the project is focused on rejuvenating structures which had prime cultural and historical value, including the National Art Museum, the five-storied temple Pujari Math, Vidyarthi Niketan School and the Bhaktapur Municipality building.

The delay in starting this reconstruction effort was a symptom of wider problems which face the country. Nepal is the second poorest nation in Asia after Afghanistan, with World Bank figures showing its GDP per capita is just US$701 compared to Ireland’s figure of US$54,339.

Because it is landlocked, and hemmed in to the north by the Himalayas, Nepal imports many products from its southern neighbour India, particularly petroleum.

But since September of 2015 there has been a major reduction in these imports, with the Nepalese Government claiming India has instigated an unofficial blockade at border points in retaliation over a political dispute.

The Nepalese people are accustomed to hardship, though, with their modern history marred by poverty and brutal civil war. 

Nepal Tourism Board consultant Sarad Pradhan says the country is well aware of the challenges it faces, particularly in rebuilding the ancient areas.

He said it was difficult to put a timeframe on projects such as the restoration in Bhaktapur because some of the woodwork pieces, like windows and statues, were so intricate they could take more than a year to carve.

Just as the artisans are making the most of a difficult situation, so are the tourism authorities. 

Mr Pradhan said the process of reconstructing historic areas like Bhaktapur was being promoted as a tourist attraction, with visitors able to meet the artisans and watch them work as part of tours.

He said this was an example of the innovative approaches which were necessary while Nepal battled to revive its flagging tourism sector.

Visitor numbers to Nepal still were down significantly compared to the period prior to the earthquake.

Mr Pradhan said he had been heartened to see continued investment by local tourism entrepreneurs despite this downturn.

With its astonishing mountain scenery, ancient architecture and unique culture, Nepal had attributes which were undeniable.

He said members of the tourism industry in Kathmandu and nation-wide had no doubt travellers would return in full numbers. First, however, Nepal needed to fast track its recovery from the earthquake and prove to outsiders the country was firmly planted back on its feet.

“We have to dispel the myth that Nepal is not safe to travel,” Mr Pradhan said. 

“The visual image of the aftermath of the earthquake is still in the minds of the people in many parts of the world. It has to be erased.”

A great deal of the photos and television footage shown internationally in the wake of the earthquake focused on the destruction of Nepal’s renowned heritage structures. 

Temples were seen crumbled, glorious monuments reduced to ugly mounds of debris.

This destruction still is visible across the country. Now the time has come to restore and rebuild.

There is no better place to leave this giant task than in the skilled hands of Nepal’s artisans.

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