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A Community Unites to Rebuild Char Narayan Temple in the Wake of an Earthquake

The shaking began shortly before noon on April 25, 2015. By the time the initial shock of the 7.8-magnitude earthquake had finished, debris from collapsed, or partially collapsed, buildings littered the entire streetscape of Kathmandu Valley. Two large aftershocks followed, and within 48 hours, nearly 2,000 lives were lost to the earthquake. 

Nepal is not unfamiliar with earthquakes. As one of the most seismically active countries in the world, its rich heritage would not have survived over the centuries were it not for painstaking reconstruction efforts.

Soldiers assisting with the efforts to salvage Char Narayan Temple in 2015.
Soldiers assisting with the efforts to salvage Char Narayan Temple in 2015.

The 2015 earthquake’s impact on places of heritage was immediately apparent throughout the valley, home to hundreds of sacred Buddhist and Hindu sites. In the historic city of Patan, now known as the Lalitpur Metropolitan City, locals carefully emerging from their houses and shops after the quake were greeted with clouds of dust and rubble.

Among the earthquake’s casualties, the 16th century Char Narayan Temple in the center of Patan’s Durbar Square had completely collapsed. Dilendra Raj Shrestha, a local resident of Patan, joined forces with local youths to ensure the integrity of the Durbar Square temples.

Moments of crisis and confusion are when the threats of pillage and artifact theft loom the largest. Aware of this fact, Dilendra and his band of young volunteers spent the following day and night guarding the metal and wooden materials hidden in the rubble, until the responsibility was passed over to the Nepalese police and army.

Salvaged pieces from Char Narayan that were integrated into its reconstruction.
Salvaged pieces from Char Narayan that were integrated into its reconstruction.

In the days that followed, the Nepalese army and police worked with community members to salvage and secure fragments of Char Narayan, including hundreds of pieces like historic carved door and window frames, decorative carvings, lintels, walls, aedicules, colonettes, and stone pavings. “We did not only hope,” Dilendra told us, “we were committed to rebuilding the temples.”

Dilendra’s family has lived in Patan for more than seven generations. “The Patan Durbar Square used to be our playground,” he confided. “Growing up, I started realizing the architectural and historic value of its monuments.” Considered “living heritage” in Patan, the temples on Durbar Square serve as a local gathering spot for the community, beyond their role as places of worship.

The importance of the temples for local tourism and development became obvious to Dilendra when he opened his restaurant just behind Char Narayan Temple, the oldest temple on Durbar Square. After it was destroyed, there was no doubt in his mind that Char Narayan would be an integral part of Patan’s recovery.

Char Narayan restoration progress, 2019
Char Narayan restoration progress, 2019

But healing after any crisis is difficult, and the road toward it is long. This is especially true when a crisis of this nature—sudden, with little to no time to react—takes place. In the summer of 2016, World Monuments Fund committed to work in the Kathmandu Valley with a mission in mind: to accurately reconstruct Char Narayan Temple using salvaged materials while concealing carefully designed seismic reinforcement measures to protect the temple from future seismic activity.

Thanks to support from American Express and the Robert W. Wilson Charitable Trust, and in partnership with the Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust (KVPT), WMF undertook an extensive project in pursuit of this mission. After Char Narayan’s remaining pieces were all collected and brought to a palace courtyard for protection from theft and monsoon rainfalls, a painstaking effort to label, identify, document, catalog, clean, and store these pieces took place.

For the reconstruction phase to be truly sustainable, however, WMF and KVPT needed to think ahead to future earthquakes and focus on preparedness. While it was an earthquake that pulled Char Narayan down, it was the temple’s disconnected foundations that, by allowing its walls to move independently from one another, pulled the entire structure apart.

Northeast view of Char Narayan after restoration, 2020.
Northeast view of Char Narayan after restoration, 2020.

By connecting Char Narayan’s inner and outer brick masonry foundation walls and concealing a steel frame in the rebuilt structure, new seismic reinforcement measures would allow the temple to survive future earthquakes relatively unscathed. The design for these measures drew from WMF and KVPT’s past work in the Kathmandu Valley, which protected multiple sites from the quakes that destroyed Char Narayan.

In January of this year, nearly five years after the earthquake, a ceremony was held to celebrate the completed reconstruction of the temple. “We feel proud as the Patanite people,” Dilendra told us, “and proud of our artisans and craftsmen involved in the reconstruction work.”

This article first appeared in the 2021 Watch Magazine. To read more stories from the magazine, click here.