CHARLOTTE, N.C., May 5, 2015 – On any given day, before the quake, Katmandu, Nepal, was a bustling metropolis of bicycles, rickshaws, pedestrians, saffron-robed priests, curiosity seekers, adventurers, hawkers and gawkers.
Lively, that is, until the earth trembled.
Citizens were poor. Not “Haiti-poor,” where pieces of corrugated tin turned into four walls and a roof for a “home” beside streets flowing with raw sewage down to the sea.
No, Katmandu, to an outsider at least, was more like “Bangkok-poor,” where people accepted their plights, content with the spiritual knowledge that there is something better waiting beyond their earthly existence.
Then, suddenly, in mere minutes, ancient streets broke into pieces while centuries-old temples and shrines crumbled into a massive landfill that turned Nepal’s capital into immense heaps of lifeless rubble.
Within a day and a half, the 7.9 magnitude earthquake was old news, no longer trending in the 24/7 cycle of Hillary Clinton, Baltimore riots and Texas terrorism. Newspaper pages yellow quickly in our modern world.
Katmandu was named after one of the many temples that once surrounded Durbar Square in the thriving center of the old city. Kasthamandap Temple had stood proudly since the16th century until a natural disaster on April 25 brought it down to little more than a heap of splinters.
In Sanskrit, “kastha” means “wood” and “mandap” is “covered shelter.” Like so many temples in Katmandu, “wood-covered shelters” lent much of its character. But that architectural splendor that gave Katmandu so much of its personality became a primary reason it was so vulnerable to collapse.
Buddhist priests recite a vow even today that refers to a “great city” called Kasthamandap, another name for Katmandu.
Archaeologists have excavated evidence dating the city back to 185 AD, but the earliest Western reference comes much later, in 1661, when Jesuits passed through Nepal en route to Tibet.
Durbar Square is a melting pot of people and palaces. Temples were not large by contemporary standards, but they were many, and most were constructed mainly of wood over a period of 10 centuries. Like “kremlin” or “acropolis,” a durbar square is a generic term. Thus there are many “kremlins” in Russia and dozens of “acropoli” in Greece, just as there are many “durbar squares” in Nepal.
But, much like its linguistic relatives, to the Nepalese, “Patan Durbar Square” was the hub of contemporary Katmandu.
Just to the side of Durbar Square is the Kumari Ghar, the home of the “Living Goddess” known as Kumari. Built of red brick in 1757 by King Jaya Prakash Malia, who was well known for his paranoia, the Kumari Ghar was created as an act of penance. Various legends describe an act of sexual indiscretion or a failure by the king to believe that a particular Kumari was a goddess.
Either way, the king was so overcome with guilt that he built the palace, which remains today as home of the “Living Goddess.”
The palace was renovated in 1966 and, though many of its interior courtyards are constructed of wood, it appears that the building itself survived the recent earthquake.
Like so many natural events that have laid waste to great civilizations and cultures, Katmandu and Nepal must first wrestle with burying the dead and providing for survivors in a third world environment.
Then, when the rubble is cleared and the task of rebuilding begins, the question becomes whether the city can preserve that ancient character that made it unique or the past will merely fade into memories.
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