One year after devastating earthquake, Nepal works to repair its cultural heritage

HARI SREENIVASAN: Now: restoring ancient cultural treasures in earthquake-ravaged Nepal.

A little more than one year ago, a magnitude-7.8 tremor took 8,000 lives and displaced hundreds of thousands. It also destroyed historic temples and religious monuments that are classified as World Heritage Sites.

As part of our Culture at Risk series, special correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro reports from Kathmandu.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Until now, the major concern in Nepal has been the humanitarian response and the slow pace of rebuilding, as hundreds of thousands of quake survivors remain in flimsy, temporary shelters.

But, for historians, archaeologists and even tourism promoters, the earthquake did extensive damage to Nepal's historic temples, structures anywhere from 200 to 1,400 years old.

CHRISTIAN MANHART, UNESCO: The temples of Nepal are absolutely unique. They have — they are inscribed on the World Heritage list. So, you will find such a dense concentration of cultural heritage in almost no country of the world. Also, it is an exceptional mix of religions. Many temples are Hindu and Buddhist at the same time.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Hinduism has deep — and intersecting — roots here with Buddhism, whose founder, Gautama Buddha, was born in what today is Nepal some 2,600 years ago.

The rich cultural heritage is also a living one, says Christian Manhart of the United Nations cultural organization UNESCO.

CHRISTIAN MANHART: So it is not just beautiful monuments which are there for tourists, but they are used.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: And that adds more complication to the rebuilding efforts, already slowed by bureaucracy and political instability, setting up a cultural a clash

ROHIT RANJITKAR, Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust: We don't have this romanticism with historical patina. So this is, you know, a different way of looking at the monument, as a Westerner eye and as the local people here.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Rohit Ranjitkar is with a nonprofit organization called the Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust. He says, for most Nepalis, these historic sites are first and foremost places of active worship.

ROHIT RANJITKAR: Basically, they have the attachment with the God and the place with the religious activities, not with the architecture. You know, for them, the temple will be rebuilt or not rebuilt. It does not make any difference.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Ranjitkar's group has been restoring temples here for more than two decades, with funding mostly from private Western donors. He says the trust's work likely helped some structures withstand the quake.

Much of this complex in the Patan neighborhood of the capital survived, and it's become a shelter for antiquities salvaged from destroyed temples.

ROHIT RANJITKAR: So, these all rescued from the rubble.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: They are among thousands of icons, statues, and timbers now housed in makeshift storage until they can be restored to their original homes.

ROHIT RANJITKAR: This is one the oldest sections of the whole palace from 1627.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: The temples and monuments are often part of royal palace complexes. It's here that the delicate balancing act between Western or international norms and local concerns comes into play.

So this is about 300 years old, and this is…

ROHIT RANJITKAR: Last year.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Last year.

Here, Ranjitkar explained they decided to repair weathered 300-year-old architectural elements with brand-new work, going against the grain of many art historians who would have left the old damaged structure as it was.

ROHIT RANJITKAR: The people who can still do that, we need to promote them. If we don't do this, then this skill will also be lost.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: He says one priority is to preserve the skills and artisanship handed down the generations over centuries, but disappearing in a modern world economy.

Three days?

ROHIT RANJITKAR: Three days to make this.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Wow.

The craftsmen mainly come from lower socioeconomic classes. Many have gone into other work, notably as laborers in the oil-rich Gulf States.

There's also a shortage of recorded information to guide a rebuilding that's faithful to the original temple design. Shukra Sagar Shrestha, a retired archaeologist, spends much of his time gathering old photographs, documents, and drawings to help the artisans.

And he studies the ancient inscriptions and intricate carvings on these temple icons. This series, for example, is a kind of dos and don'ts, he says, the path to heaven or hell in one's next life.

SHUKRA SAGAR SHRESTHA, Archaeologist: Because you gave your daughter to marry, but you accepted money.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: So he has been put into a cauldron of boiling water because he accepted a dowry for his daughter?

SHUKRA SAGAR SHRESTHA: Exactly.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Nepal's government says work will begin in the next few months on rebuilding major sites that were destroyed with a target to finish in five to seven years.

UNESCO's Manhart is not sure.

CHRISTIAN MANHART: We were quite optimistic. Directly after the earthquake, there was so much solidarity from the international community. We thought, in six years, we would be able to do it. But now we are tapping for 10 years to reconstruct most of this heritage, if, of course, the funding is available.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: All told, about $205 million will need to be raised, he says, and there's more than enough to start.

For his part, Ranjitkar says here he leans toward a more Western or international preference, repairing a lot of the woodwork, instead of replacing it.

ROHIT RANJITKAR: The local people, they don't like it. In our religion we don't worship image which is broken or which is chipped out. So, when you have some damage in the image, so people normally replace it with a new one. They don't use the old one.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: As the rebuilding gets into full swing, Ranjitkar plans to spend time with worshipers, trying to convince them of the virtue of the ancient artisanship, especially to another set of pilgrims to these temples, tourists.

Their reverence is mainly for the historic architectural patina and their dollars a critical engine in the local economy.

For the "PBS NewsHour," this is Fred de Sam Lazaro in Kathmandu.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Fred's reporting is a partnership with the Under-Told Stories Project at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota.

A version of this story aired on the PBS program "Religion & Ethics Newsweekly."