“Making Space for the present and the Local-Creativity in Heritage Conservation” – Prof. Dr. Sudarshan Raj Tiwari. .

It is usual practice to follow the UNESCO conventions and other instruments approved by it when it comes to the conservation of World Heritage Sites. Conservation professionals use these instruments as standards of reference also for ‘lesser’ heritages of national and local stature. In Nepal, many small and medium ‘conservation’ projects are initiated at the local government level when the artifact is already in state of dilapidation or great disrepair and often executed by local communities represented as ‘user group’. The initiation of these ‘local’ conservation activities is often guided by an urge of the community and one or more donor to do public good. Reconstruction approach has dominated conservation/ renovation practiced in Kathmandu since ancient times and these were appear executed at the community level using the traditional knowledge and skills and a community based organization called Guthi. Inscriptions from as early as the fi fth century CE tell of the conservation of images, monuments and urban utilities and the setting up of endowed civic trusts (Sans.: gosthi, New.: guthi) with pious objectives. The Nepalese conservation  tradition, its local principles and standards, is a remarkable response to the particular cultural, material and environmental context. It was developed by the community and was dominated by socio-cultural values. Such tradition of conservation has provided the basis for community initiatives and processes, for settings standards and, in some cases, also in setting up committees, organization and even functional and decision making models. Such traditional approach and standards, favored by the craftsmen and other traditional knowledge holders and user committees, run counter in many ways, to the ‘internationally accepted’ instruments that the professionals and national institutions feel somehow entrusted and bound to implement. Professionals participate in the process either as consultants or advisers and may also be drawn into the projects either on their own interest of participation in the ‘noble’ work or as arbiters in case of public disputes and widespread criticism and rejection of the process and standards of conservation applied by the user committee. These have brought into sharp focus some critical issues such as livingness, creativity, authenticity and temporality in conservation. This paper looks at these issues and debates from the perspective of traditional knowledge and experience from three conservation projects from Kathmandu Valley (Trayodasabhuvan of Dhando Chaitya in Chabel, Staircase of 55 Windows Palace of Bhaktapur and the Bhagavatibahal in Naxal) and draws some theoretical positions on the role of Present time and the local spirit of donation for improvement in the idea of conservation.


The Trayodasabhuvan of Dhando Chaitya had been affected by weather and earthquakes and its stepped brickwork had shown gaping cracks and shifts in its elevation. Cracks were also seen on the surface of the Hermika masonry cube (that is painted with the ever watching eyes of Vairochana). The proposal for renovation was initiated by donors subscribing to the religious faith and the works started under supervision of the Department of Archeology. As the nature of problem in the upper structure was being studied, it was found that its upright timber post, the Yasin was almost totally worn out and disintegrated and needed to be replaced (the timber pole earth-tree symbol that
stands on the reliquary at the center of the hemisphere of the stupa and rises through the Hermika to support the jewel at the crown of the Trayodasabhuvan). This considerably increased the scope of intervention in the heritage building from the Lichchhavi period
(5th -6th century CE) and professionals sought to apply ‘international standards’ of conservation so as to ensure that its ‘universal heritage values’ are authentically and integrally saved. While the original ‘yasin post’ was clad in copper sheet, the donors and
the local committee (headed by the chief Buddhist practitioner at the monastery) wished to cover the Trayodasabhuvan structure itself in gold-plated copper sheets and insert the new timber post with just the paint protection. Although the professionals could see that the post was completely beyond salvage and needed to be replaced by a new one, it was felt that the cladding of the Trayodasabhuvan in gold plated copper was not historically authentic and the ‘improvement’ sought by the donors unjust and unwarranted as it materially, aesthetically and temporally impaired its authenticity. The local committee and the donors had their way and the changes were installed against the international norms of values and authenticity. The key goal of internationally motivated heritage conservation is to conserve the tangible or intangible cultural accretions bequeathed as a legacy of the past
society so as to pass them on to the future generation as it was. It is moved by the marvelous assumption that the values of heritage that the present generation of professionals has assessed to be important, enjoyable and needing to be seen with reverence of our past will be of as great a value to others of the present as well as of the future and so its value content needs to be saved in an authentic and integrated manner. Although, in this scheme of things, the value assignment as well as defi nition of signifi cance of cultural heritage itself is entrusted to the present generation, the approach to authenticity ensures that the present does not add anything of its own. Whereas layers of the past accretions are thought be enriching authenticity, the present is denied any culture accruing role. It could not theorize to accept the metal cladding of the exterior of the Trayodasabhuvan as well as to replace the metal cladding of the post by a coat of paint rather than an another of the same material. The cultural sterility forced on the present time by the currently accepted international conventions of conservation is against the spirit of living cultures as it fossilizes culture and kills its dynamism, the key defi ning element of culture itself. Locally initiated conservation projects are however, not only rooted in the purpose of adding to the public livability of the heritage bound site but also aim at creating a value addition in the socio-cultural function of the site and the heritage-object. Both the urge to incorporate this creative change from the perspective of the present and the intent/commitment to a positive accretion seeking a consequence of enrichment and heightened cultural relevance to the user community of the present make the community led conservation action differ in philosophy and practice from the standard international objective of preservation of only what was and its active exclusion of innovations. In the case of conservation of Dhando Chaitya, the community and local representative’s priority for strictly following ritual processes in construction also stood in sharp contrast with the professional group’s bemused acceptance of such measures. Since the ruling western concept of heritage is largely derived from the application of romanticism – a literary, artistic or philosophical movement originating in the 18th century – on culture, culture becomes more of a legacy than a commonly agreed unconscious framework for community living and loses its present relevance. The remoter and far away the reference, the more the potential of romanticizing heritage, not just in terms of historical time but also in terms of space and people and the more the heritage approaches the idealized state. International instruments, therefore, seek to conserve heritage values highlighted from the perspective of romanticism. This art-historical approach to heritage is detailed through the discipline of archaeology. As such, for example, the dominant values
in world heritage (sites) remain direct or rehashed as expressions of art and architecture in terms of artistry, historicity, socio-religious signifi cance, symbolism and the like values. World Heritage Convention holds that the cultural and natural heritage is among the priceless and irreplaceable assets, not only of each nation but of humanity as a whole. Exceptional qualities render “outstanding universal value” to such assets. Their qualification as universal value as defined and applied in the case of world heritage sites further severs the link with the people in the place, who may be either the culturally descended ones, the current occupants of the place or just the property owners and primary consumers of the heritage artifacts. Indeed the ‘local people’ (and we may call them the owners in a territorial sense) in a ‘site’ may be seen in three classes, the cultural owners owning just the cultural values, the social owners owning just the social values and the economic owners interested in its economic values. The three have different levels of tolerance and expectation of creativity and ‘livingness’ and so would have different demands and definitions on authenticity and temporality. When cultural conservation are initiated from the local level, it is not the universal value, but rather a realistic mix of the values sought by the one or all of the three territorial groups, that guides the definition of the project. All three have a contemporary interest and thus bring the present to play in the conservation objective and design. For example, the conservation of 55-Windows Palace, a key heritage building in Bhaktapur Durbar, one of the seven Monument Zones making the Kathmandu Valley World Heritage Site, was initiated as a joint project of the Government of Nepal and the Bhaktapur Municipality and was led by a Steering Committee headed by the Mayor and with members drawn from the Department of Archeology and professionals. Despite disagreements voiced by the professionals represented in the committee, the design and layout of the timber staircase located at the south-east corner room was changed. The municipality bosses argued that the width of the original staircase was too narrow and needed widening in the interest of safe and easy negotiation by users of the conserved building (proposed adaptive reuse as museum and offi ce space). Unlike the case of Dhando Chaitya, where the cultural owners (the donors from the religious faith) presented their position on conservation and earning spiritual merit through material improvements and forced the professionals to acquiesce, in the case of 55-Windows palace, it was the social owners (the institution of municipality and the tourists visiting the proposed museum) and their user needs that prevailed to install changes.


As we move from considering heritage as objects fixed in time and space to ones that objects transmitting life, the livingness of the heritage and how we accommodate this while undertaking conservation become at once critical in any conservation process and action. We will need to look at culture as a dynamic entity that changes accommodating the collective impulses, urges and needs, energies, commitments and ways of one generation and others that follow. Viewed this way, all cultures would be living and ‘livingness’ will be naturally built in as we take care of the present’s impulses, urges and energies. (And the question may be asked whether we should be using term culture to denote and describe ‘dead culture’ at all. Or should cultures be fossilized thus?). If culture is an unconscious frame of reference for community living, then cultures could not but be living. Kathmandu Valley’s heritage has often been described as part of a ‘living culture’ and professionals raise this phrase as a protective umbrella to rationalize why the conservation of the KVWHS, which might appear as a dismal failure from the perspective of international norms and expectations (it being even put in List of Heritage in Danger for a few years 2003-2007… but subsequently pulled out again as WHS with some plans in paper) is actually an unfair challenge of a wicked problem made of a great force of the present. By using the phrase ‘living culture’ we are effectively posing an argument in favor of the changes inspired by the socio-cultural values of the present time and actively seek their assimilation in conservation actions.


While romanticism in literature and anthropology saw attempts at an exaltation of the primitive and the common man, in architectural heritage, the concept of outstanding universal value applied to heritage has led to the non-representation of the weak and the marginal in favor the peak heritage of the rich of the society, literally cream topping of the civilizing broth as it were and giving cultural heritage an elitist, classical and a non-local interpretation. Conservation action thus gets prioritized towards peak heritage, the heritage of the past social elite and the weak is either expected to identify with the heritage of the masters or see his own heritage and culture as weak, marginal and local (as opposed to universal!). In several conservation projects, there exist a situation of great mistrust and suspicion between the conservation specialist and the ordinary folks involved as members of the user committee and secular minded donors because of the divisive and elitist heritage classifi cation favoring classicism. Indeed, if we are to move towards participatory heritage conservation, ‘whose heritage is it?’ is a question that needs to be addressed in favor of the local.

The belongingness of a community to a heritage is at once affected by the system followed in the classification of the heritage itself; in societies where there have been abundance of heritage monuments, it has been traditional for conservation inventories to list the ‘peak cultural edifices’ exhibiting material architectural excellence as the most important. Such approach has led to the listing of monuments such as palaces and temples of the kings, princes and high society and the heritage of the ordinary citizen gets classed as minor. Consequently conservation of built cultural heritage prioritizes such peak assets that could have limited cultural relevance to the average cultural being or a lay person on the street. This becomes critical when we take the case of living heritage. Often heritage is sought to be developed by the state as objects of national identity – the social division it can potentially create in a multicultural society should also not be neglected. Heritage of the rulers and that of the common lay persons, although related, are not the same. The distance between the ruler and the ruled in the past seems to translate as a distancing of the lay person from the conservation exercises focused on heritage of the rulers, although we also find increased historical value reducing this distance. For developing civic emulation, public acceptance and relevance becomes desirable and this can be achieved through a strategic mix of conservation of ‘lesser heritage monuments’ and ‘peak heritage’. By choosing the non peak heritage, the relevance of conservation activities to the lower rungs of the society is greatly improved.


The reconstruction of the temple of Naxal Bhagavati in Kathmandu in 2010 was initiated by a community formed user committee. The temple, dedicated to the goddess Durga, was completely dismantled since most of its structural parts were considered to be on the verge
of collapse. In January 2010, when the dismantling of the existing temple on the site began, a public outcry that questioned the approach of reconstruction initiated by the community committee (Naxal Bhagavati Upabhokta Mul Samiti) led to the formation of a technical committee under my chairmanship to oversee and assure that the civic committee followed accepted norms and standards if conservation in its works. It appeared that the reconstruction was justified due to the extreme state of deterioration of the existing structural timber beams, rafters, the core wall around the sanctum and the ‘porous’ state of its metal sheet roof. Through its discussion with the civic committee, the technical committee sought to save the temple´s authenticity in the reconstruction by calling off any design interventions and making great reuse of salvageable and un-weathered carved elements such as windows, struts and cornice string bands. It also got the community to agree to keep the historic ancient image of Bhagavati, unmoved and on its venerated spot. Moving the deity would have greatly impaired the authenticity of the place, the deifi ed seat (Sans.: shakti pith). The civic committee agreed to drop several actions it had planned as ‘improvement on the temple’ e.g. raising the plinth of the temple, adding a side door in the sanctum room and introducing a stone string course (New.: nago) as these actually compromised the integrity of the temple design itself. The craftsmen were most reluctant to the reuse of old wooden cornice bands as they thought that the ‘quality and style’ of the extant carvings was poor and the wood itself did not come from the ‘right genus of tree’. Only one quarter of the old band was reused in the back side of the sanctum walls just as a token honor to the position of the technical committee.


Integrating the professionals in community led conservation projects has been seen as a equirement of conservation design and implementation both by the ‘user committee’ and  the professionals. Whereas professionals seem to think that community conservation action is often substandard, the community committees voice their concern that professional conservationists apply more of theoretical standards. In the case of the reconstruction of Bhagavatibahal Temple in Naxal, the members of the user community felt more inspired by the local craftsmen than architects and engineers in conservation practice. The user committee which sought to behave more in the pattern of the traditional Guthi institution was more accommodative of creative inputs in conservation and even seem to demand innovation and change as a way of improving the relevance of the heritage to the present time and society. The reason behind such a difference in approach to conservation appears to lie in the different ways culture is viewed; while the community and user committee seem to see built heritage from within as a subject, the professionals approach it from outside as an artifact or an object.

 This paper was read in the Inaugural Conference of the Association of Critical Heritage Studies, Guthenburg University, held at Guthenburg, Sweden (June 5 – June 8, 2012).