Wet n Wild Bardia
Risk Reduction and Preparedness in Nepal
are heard History is seen
The morning of January 15, 1934 began as all ordinary winter mornings in Kathmandu did at the time. The day was a Saturday, and the denizens of the Valley were going about their daily chores without an inkling of what was to befall them some hours later. There must have been peals of laughter in the courtyards of Kathmandu, Bhaktapur and Patan; the birds must have been chirping as they always do, and the dogs barking and sniffing each other.The day, though, was not to be as ordinary. As the clock struck 2:34 pm, a rumbling was heard underground. The earth itself began to shake and people started running in fear. In a matter of minutes, Kathmandu Valley was enveloped in dust. The earth shook like undulating waves, buildings tumbled like they were made of paper; the narrow streets of the Valley caved in. At least 17,000 of Kathmandu's 200,000 residents died that afternoon. It must have seemed to those who had survived then that the world itself had ended. The earthquake, which has come to be known as the ‘great quake’ of 1934, measured 8.3 on the Richter scale. Its tremors had been felt as far up south as Mumbai (then Bombay) in India. The event is etched in the collective memory of the Nepali people as a national tragedy. Eighty years since it hit, the earthquake still sparks fear amongst us, we who live in one of the world’s most quake-prone regions.
The serene Himalayas–symbols of stolidity, beauty and strength, and a socioeconomic boon for our country–are also the reason why Nepal is so seismically vulnerable. Among the youngest mountain ranges in the world, the Himalayas are a geoynamically active and isostatically imbalanced range.This means that the Indian Plate is still pushing northward
toward the Eurasian plate, creating an under-thrust and generating below the- surface stresses that culminate in earthquakes.
Kathmandu, Nepal’s biggest city and its capital, is particularly vulnerable to quakes. Today, the city is remarkably different from what it was in 1934. It is characterised by its haphazardly constructed buildings, and its many cluttered and unplanned settlements and communities. These structures will certainly not withstand the shock of an eight or even seven magnitude earthquake, and the 2.5 million-strong (and still growing) population finds itself living in a city ranked number one in a list of the world’s top ten cities most vulnerable to earthquakes.
Nepal is making strides in earthquake awareness and retrofitting technology, but these efforts are still not enough. Building codes are not effectively monitored and regulated here, and the shockingly unplanned manner in which Kathmandu has grown as a city infrastructurally will definitely take a big toll on life and property when the next big quake hits.
In the 1930s, most buildings in Kathmandu were mud-and-brick homes. They had few windows, and fewer stories. Today’s city is starkly different. Houses many times taller than they are wide and stand cluttered amongst each other. As an evaluation of data from the 1934 earthquake shows, most of the structures that survived the jolt at the time had ample width but little height, substantial brick-and-mud space between windows and upper stories that were much lighter than lower floors. The buildings that were destroyed are recorded as having had multiple stories adorned with arches and pillars, as well as multiple facades (with ‘good’ bricks lining the outside), and unattached walls with heavy loads on the upper stories.
Most residential houses at the time were three-four stories high and built using traditional techniques. The materials included load-bearing ‘dachii appa’ (sundried bricks) for walls, mud, wooden beams, joists and ‘chokus’ (traditional wedges that were used to interlock the joists to the walls). While some of these traditional buildings resisted damage, others were brought down by the earthquake. Those homes which had walls that were uniformly joint through beams, joists and ‘chokus’ mostly survived. The modern equivalents of these buildings would be structures that are adequately retrofi tted. However, such buildings are still few and far between in Kathmandu, and the damage to life, infrastructure and property when the next big earthquake does hit this city will be enormous.
Records from the great earthquake also seem to point toward the existence of some relatively ‘safer’ regions inside the Kathmandu Valley. Localities in Kirtipur, Gokarna, Sundarijal and Gaucharan were least affected by the quake, whereas those in Lubhu, Harisiddhi, Khokana and Bungamati sustained the most damage. Such information should ideally act as guidelines for the kinds of building codes that must be implemented in these areas, but that seems hardly to be the case at the present moment.
Our ancient temples and monuments bespeak the glory of our past, as do old Rana-era palaces and garden complexes. The traditional squares and quarters of Bhaktapur, Patan and Kathmandu are veritably living museums that showcase the Valley’s rich cultural, artistic and architectural heritage. The 1934 earthquake damaged some monuments even as others were spared the destruction. There is no telling what damage the next big earthquake is going to do to these ancient buildings. However, conservationists are working to strengthen old monuments and preserve their aesthetic, artistic, architectural nuances for the generations to come. We take a look at some of the structures that did survive the great earthquake as well as those that were completely renovated afterwards Nyatapola Temple, Bhaktapur The magnificent Nyatapola Temple was built by King Bhupatindra Malla in early 1702 AD. A jewel in the crown that is the Durbar Square of Bhaktapur, this five storey pagoda stands at an impressive 30 metres and sits atop five layers of pedestals that form a protective bulwark for the actual temple structure. One of the tallest pagodas built in Nepal, the Nyatapola–called the Paanch Talle Mandir in Nepali–is the only temple to be named after an architectural dimension as opposed to a deity (in this case, the goddess Siddhi Laxmi).
The building withstood the shocks of the 1934 earthquake with little damage, largely limited to its roof. Its strongly fortified structure balances and counters its impressive height, and the temple itself pays homage to workmanship and flawless design. It is said that it took around five months–from the initial digging of the foundation to the final placing of the ‘gajur’–for this structure to be completed. The Nyatapole still stands as majestically today as it did in the 1700s; it is a testament to finesse of Malla-era design, architecture, art and craftsmanship.
The 1934 earthquake left the Degutale Temple in Patan completely destroyed. There was only rubble where the beautiful temple built by King Sivasimha Malla in the 17th century had once stood. Today’s Temple is an elegant piece of architecture in the heart of Patan, its Durbar Square, but its reconstructed version differs from the original. The roof, in particular, proved impossible to replicate. The new structure does not look very different structurally from the original though. The lowest three floors have been re-built using bricks from the Rana period, whereas the upper levels use the same dachii appa bricks and load-bearing system of the original.
This octagonal Shikhara-style temple stands on the south of the Patan Durbar Square, welcoming visitors to the living museum that is the temple square. Chyasin Temple too was completely destroyed by the great quake, and was rebuilt from materials– stone and brick–salvaged from the original Chyasin Dega and two other Shikhara-style temples that were also damaged. The temple’s confi gurations do not remain the same today, as they were before 1934; it has even been plastered over in an attempt to strengthen it.
The Durbar High School, originally established in 1892 as an educational institution for children of the ruling elite, is a beautiful example of Rana-era building design. Its facade, influenced by classical Greek architecture, depicts continuity through arches and windows and simplicity through its plain white lime plaster. This elegant piece of architecture sustained some damaged in the 1934 earthquake; the building walls were visibly cracked, however, the structure itself remained intact. The building, albeit in a largely neglected state, stands as a reminder of Kathmandu’s rich architectural history.
The Dharahara that we see today in the centre of Sundhara is not the eleven-storey ‘Bhimsen Tower’ tower originally built by Bhimsen Thapa in 1824. The present-day tower was built for Queen Lalit Tripura Sundari, the prime minister’s niece, who wanted a tower of her own next to Bhimsen's original. The 1934 earthquake completely destroyed Bhimsen Tower while only two of the 11 stories of the second one remained. It was the then-prime minister Juddha Sumsher, who renovated the Dharahara, and it is that building that still looks over Kathmandu today.
Nepal’s first public clock tower, the original Ghantaghar, was designed in the style of London’s Big Ben. The tower we see today in the Tri Chandra Campus vicinity was built after the 1934 earthquake left nothing of the original tower but its lower supporting pillars and arches. The present structure, with its classical and Victorian influences so characteristic of the Rana era, is a landmark of the Capital city.
Most of the homes that were damaged by the great earthquake have been rebuilt and largely replaced by modern concrete ones. There are, however, a few old buildings from the pre-1934 quake era to be found in old corners of the city. A 200-year old building overlooking a busy 18-inch street towards the south of the Bhaktapur Durbar Square is one such structure. What’s amazing about this building is that eighty years since it was damaged by the quake, it has still not been renovated and is inhabited even in its dilapidated state. The two-story building, a typical 20th century Newari residence, is home to 92-year-old Badrimaya Kapali. The frontal façade of the building faces south, towards the street, and the structure itself is built in the load-bearing system, using sun dried bricks and mud mortar. An elaborately carved door which looks like it has been detached from the walls but is actually still connected to it and still fully functioning serves as the entrance. What has kept this structure intact all these years is the manner in which the joists have been connected to the walls. Although in a visually dilapidated state, these joists and their connection to the structure’s walls are somehow strong enough to support the building, which has survived numerous smaller quakes since 1934. The south-eastern portion of the house, which is completely damaged and now serves as an open space for drying clothes, has exposed doors and windows that have been fi lled up with bricks. The roof itself is supported by wooden posts supplemented by a bamboo pole. This crumbling building is part of the living architecture of Bhaktapur, but it is also a strong visual reminder of the great quake that hit us 80 years ago.
As an immensely earthquake-prone city where the past is very much a part of the present, Kathmandu needs to make sure that its old monuments as well as new residences and work spaces are sufficiently fortified and retrofitted to withstand the impacts of earthquakes of various magnitudes that are bound to hit the Valley at various points in the future. We all need to be prepared if this city’s denizens, buildings, public spaces and historical monuments are to stand a chance of coping with the destruction that will inevitably come out of the next big quake.