Monday, January 08, 2001

Kathmandu Valley heritage , witnessing transformations

Francis Childe, the Chief of Section of Europe Asia and the Pacific Division of Cultural Heritage Sites -UNESCO, is one of the well wishers of the cultural heritage of the World Heritage Sites enlisted Kathmandu Valley. In different ways, for the last two decades, he has been contributing a lot to raise awareness among the people about the significance of the heritage sites and to protect the ancient Nepali monuments.

Francis Childe was in Kathmandu during the first week of December as a member of the team of The International Campaign for the Safeguarding of Cultural Heritage of Kathmandu Valley (ICSCHKV). Razen Manandhar of The Kathmandu Post talked to him on his long associations with the cultural heritage sites of the world and that of Nepal as well. The excerpts:

Razen Manandhar: What is the meaning of cultural heritage?

Francis Childe: This is the blend of knowledge and wisdom, accommodated by the hundreds or thousands of years, which has been transmitted to the present in the form of language, religious teachings, social customs, science, arts and architectural forms. It does not mean just the monuments but also the houses we live in, and the whole environment around us.

RM: Why should we preserve the cultural heritage?

FC: To be very simple, we ought to preserve these monuments and particularly the heritage itself in general, because it is precious. It is our identity, the evidence of our existence and, as it is often said, the gift from the past to the future.

Our ancestors must have put a lot of efforts to make them, and erect them where they now stand. This is the outcome of our millions of years of long journey from the primitive jungles to today’s way of life. In that sense, it is our spiritual duty also to honour those things, which are more than merely the past records.

And, these physical heritages reflect some sort of cultural identities too. For example, the traditional houses of the Kathmandu Valley with four floors and the kitchen on the top demonstrate the dwellers’ psychology. Once you change this age-long system of house building, you break yourself away from the chain of generations as well as the philosophy of life you are basically from. This is the big part the modern life-style is missing today.

RM: Even after two decades of the Kathmandu Valley being included in the World Heritage Sites, the people here are not fully convinced about this listing. What is the significance of being enlisted in the World Heritage Sites?

FC: It is basically the recognition of the importance of a monument in the global context. It means the site is not only important for the makers’ family, the community and even the nation, but it’s so precious that it in fact is the matter of concern for the whole world. It is similar to say it belongs to whole world.

RM: How do the locals "benefit" from the enrolment of their monuments, areas or cities in World Heritage List?

FC: It has little to do with benefit and sacrifice of the people. What makes the concept of World Heritage exceptional is its universal application. Even though we are aware of the significance of the monuments, preserving them as such in today’s ever-changing world is not so simple or easy. Preservation may sound contrary to evolution too, especially in the developing country like Nepal.

Therefore, preservation of heritage sites is challenging. People have to pay a lot for preserving the priceless treasures. And, the payment should not be counted only in terms of money. It needs broad thinking and learning to be proud of them.

Besides, directly or indirectly, it offers a very special social, economic and development prospects. It is because of the monuments in the World Heritage Sites that flow of tourists never ends in these regions. Being in the prestigious list matters a lot when the innumerable people select their travelling destinations. Especially for countries like Nepal, where tourism is one of the highest foreign currency earners, it is the responsibility of all the citizens as well as the government to take heritage conservation seriously.

RM: These days, the preservation of ancient monuments generally targets tourist, as if it’s the only area of promoting tourism. Whom should heritage preservation target?

FC: Tourism could be one among the targets because it pays you back financially. But, this should not be the absolute aim of heritage preservation.

The locals should be given the first priority while preserving any monuments. Spending money on any monument would be meaningful only if the locals who live in or around the site are proud of it and convinced of the reason of preservation. Apart form this; the nation itself also could be the target because the preserved monument is a property of the nation itself. And, in this context, we cannot overlook the importance of the tourists. In short, all these factors should be taken into consideration while intending preservation.

RM: You have been working in many countries. Which of the countries satisfy you the most in reference the to the preservation of cultural heritage?

FC: Each country has separate reasons behind its success to preserve the monuments in the World Heritage List. Still, if I have to select some of them, I would choose those of Morocco, Vietnam and some others.

RM: And, where do you think does Nepal stand?

FC: Of course, the present efforts of the Nepali government and the local communities are appreciable. Though Kathmandu is a small valley, you can find a new identity of separate settlements, which lies just a half an hour’s drive from one zone to another.

Some areas are well preserved and some are constantly being changed. You can find elements of primitive settlements as well as a metropolis of the 21st century in the same valley. The small settlements like Patan and Bhaktapur should learn a lesson from this fast growing city of Kathmandu and be prepared to save it from further destruction.

RM: You have been associated with the World Heritage Sites of Nepal for last 21 years. What changes did you find during this period concerning the preservation activities and peoples’ attitude toward it?

FC: We have to look at this in two ways. On one hand, I say, in this period of two decades, a lot of things have changed - social, political, economic as well as people’s philosophy of living. Urbanisation is a natural process and we should not take it as incongruous. When I first came to Nepal in 1979, I could see the Bouddhanath Stupa from the hills of Pashupatinath and there were only paddy fields in between. But now we can see hardly anything except concrete buildings. New constructions are mushrooming from almost everywhere and monument sites lie in the shadows.

Still, in this long period, I am happy that people have taken to heritage preservation seriously. In the past, it was only a topic for some government staff and we visitors. But you see, in these days, common people have realised that those ancient monuments have indeed some value for them. I can see, heritage societies, community based groups are also showing interest to preserve the monuments. From school children to media, social workers to policy makers and politicians are a bit more conscious. From the government side as well as the public, a sense of preservation is growing up. People want to preserve the traditional style while building their houses. This is more important. I wish this to continue in future too.