Need of a middle-path architecture for traditional Newar houses

Razen Manandhar

The quake has ceased but the tremor that persists in heart of every Nepali citizen is yet to recede. Of course, the quake demolished habitats of all people in mainly 11 districts, irrespective of ethnic groups or castes. But, what the Newars, the indigenous people of the Kathmandu Valley, have lost is undoubtedly irreplaceable.

As most of the Newars still live, with pride of course, in mud-and-brick traditional houses with elaborately decorated doors and windows, they had to face the biggest hit of the damage. The government has the data of the number of people died in Kathmandu Valley but what the government record cannot give is the detail of the each Newar house that faced not only monetary loss but also art, architecture, social, cultural or even historical value.

No matter how rich a poor a Newar might be, if his or her house is in the valley, most probably, it is decorated, artistic or historically valuable. They have all decorated moo-lukha (main door), tiki-jhyaa (latticed small window), sanjhyaa (decorated three-piece window), or biman jhya (verandah-type three-piece window) or any other type of window. Their staircases are wooden, and so are the pillars and rows of small beams. Now, alas, not only the structures but also the technique, materials, craftsmanship as well as aesthetics too are gone.

Newar houses are beautiful to be looked at, be photographed or be made a theme of social, cultural, engineering or architectural theses. But owing, living in or preserving them is a tough task. And rebuilding them after having them collapsed in the earthquake is next to impossible.

Time is changing and so are the lifestyles and mentalities of the people who reside in such Newar houses. They may own a car or watch LED TV or surf with enjoying high-speed Internet on their laptops or work in software engineering offices. Obviously, they have seen the world and pursue a dream of witnessing some change in their living standards. They no longer want to live in the mud-painted house where the floor gives cracking sound each time you take a step or give a bang on your forehead when you forget for a second that your floor height is just five-feet. They commit no crime by demanding some change in the architecture of their living places as well.

No wonder, thus, most of the Newars have made a facelift to their houses or pulled down them to replace with modern-looking concrete structures with steel, aluminium or glass decorations. Even people living around World Heritage Site zones have defied the government standard and converted their truly Newar hoses into modern buildings. Having written an article in a paper about the need to conserve Newar houses and having to live in such an uncomfortable and fragile looking house are two different things.

Now, the great earthquake, in a sense, particularly damaged or pulled down those Newar houses, be it in Ason or Harisiddhi, Bungamati or Satungal. They are Newars who have to face to two-fold damage, of their residence and their identity. This was not only an earthquake but also a lesson, in a layman’s point of view, that a Newar’s traditional house is not safe for earthquake zones like Nepal. After witnessing the destruction of art and architecture, no Newar would be instantly ready to afford to rebuild their ancestor’s house with beautiful windows etc. and wait for another 7.9 rectors scale tremor that might come in several decades again and see their property turned into a pile of mud and also a threat to lives of inhabitants aside.

In this backdrop, it will be very uncommon to expect common Newars rebuilding their houses again with tradition outlook, local materials and indigenous technology of house-building aftermath of the earthquake damages. When we have seen many of the houses, not only the private residences but also the temples and sattals, have been rebuilt with imported engineering and it is proved that concrete houses are far more earthquake-resistant than mud-and-brick traditional houses, it is obviously presumable that most of the Newars, who have their houses collapsed during the earthquake would prefer to erect concrete and modern houses on their parental property.

Therefore, it is the biggest challenge for the Newars today and all others who love Newar art and architecture to maintain people’s love, commitment and zeal to have their houses rebuilt in the traditional way and also the promise to live thereby. People’s craze, demand or necessity to rebuilt their house following modern engineering have their logic but we cannot subside the need to preserve Newar art, architecture, craftsmanship, and eye for Newar aesthetics.

What we know, only we feel, that once a traditional house is replaced by a concrete mass of the structure, we will never learn to recover our art, architecture and indigenous knowledge of craftsmanship. The people of the new generation are never going to see what does a Newar house mean. Once gone is gone forever.

On the other hand, while the government is making all the excuses of depriving the locals of the promised subsidies, even the Newars, who have love for their taste of Newar architecture, have to go for “compromises” for choosing ordinarily-engineered houses because they know their type of beloved houses, in general, would cost double of other houses. And for the present officials in the government, there no difference between a typical Newar house or any other match-box structure.

At this crossroad of time, it is more than important to import or create a new, secured and also a durable architecture for Newars to have their houses rebuilt traditionally and get-up but with guaranteed earthquake-resistant technology. At the same time, it is also prerequisite that such houses will not cost more than average. Are we going to invent it, with support from aged traditional carpenters or mason and suggestions from fully trained structure engineers and architectures? Definitely, it seems impossible to work for this dream when people have to live in wet and muddy temporary sheds and also mourn for their departed dear ones. But, looking at the urgency of the time and issues, we should find a middle-way solution to save this living heritage of the Kathmandu Valley, which, once gone, will never come back for our future generation and they will certainly lose one vital point to be proud of being Newar.

Daboo 1138

(Photographs are collected from the Internet)

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Razen Manandhar

A writer, a journalist, an Esperantist and a student of Buddhism; and works at Bodhi TV in Nepal.