Preserving cultural heritage takes backseat

KATHMANDU - The city of Kathmandu was built at the intersection of two trade routes linking China and India, and its architectural heritage reflects overlapping influences: miniature Buddhist votive structures from the seventh century, decorated with fine brass and wood carvings; tiered temples made of fired red bricks; monasteries, palaces, courtyards and clusters of tile-roofed homes.

In 1979, the Kathmandu Valley was named a World Heritage Site by Unesco. But the destruction from last Saturday's 7.8-magnitude earthquake has been overwhelming.

In many places, the detritus of centuries-old temples and palaces has been left unguarded, diminishing the chances to rebuild one of the world's largest clusters of cultural heritage sites. People, possibly for sentimental reasons, are walking away with bricks from the 19th-century Dharahara tower, which collapsed last Saturday.

On Monday, after a citizen called an official in Nepal's Department of Archaeology to report having thwarted an attempt to steal a bronze bell from the roof of a temple in the capital, the authorities took some first steps to guard against looting. A notice printed in a local newspaper on Tuesday warned that anyone taking artefacts would be punished.

"Nobody is really able to do this - the government not, Unesco not, so I think all have to work together," said Mr Christian Manhart, the head of Unesco's office in Kathmandu. "There are thousands of sites and we cannot put a policeman or military (personnel) on each of the sites 24 hours a day. They are needed for other purposes."

Unesco's top official Irina Bokova said in an interview that she was unaware of any natural disaster in modern times that had damaged so much cultural heritage.The United Nations agency has said temple complexes in Kathmandu and two other cities, Bhaktapur and Patan, were almost destroyed.

At Basantapur Durbar Square on Tuesday, volunteers were shovelling debris off the foundations of two temples that had collapsed. A few police officers stood in the square but made no attempt to supervise the effort.

"There is no organisation whatsoever," said Ms Kaitlin Bull, 22, a tourist from Canada who spent four hours helping to clear rubble off the Maju Dega temple in the square. "It's just a free-for-all."

In the hurry to remove the rubble, carved beams and struts have ended up in piles of scrap wood, although a few particularly beautiful carvings - like a pink-stained piece showing women frolicking acrobatically below two smiling gods - have been set aside.

Police officer Anil Adhikari said the only arrests for looting in the square were of eight teenagers who had planned to sell wood carvings at an antiques market.

Officials said the issue of looting has taken on more urgency in the past few days, but each seemed to hold another agency responsible for securing the sites. But that was a subordinate worry on Tuesday in Basantapur Durbar Square, where volunteers were intent on removing the last bodies from the dusty rubble.

Mr Thomas Bell, author of Kathmandu, a 2014 book about the city, said that, in Nepal, "people don't necessarily place a great deal of value on a piece of wood just because it's old. But if you were to restore the temple, you would want it back".

NEW YORK TIMES