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GFI Works at World Heritage Site to Save Nepal’s Endangered Treasures

GFI Works at World Heritage Site to Save Nepal’s Endangered Treasures

Photo showing courtyard wall of royal palace of Hanuman Dhoka (above) leaning outward.

KATHMANDU, JUNE 2 - Inside the dangerously shattered walls of one of Kathmandu’s most important landmarks, the former royal palace of Hanuman Dhoka, treasures of the past have been trapped and unreachable since a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck Nepal on April 25.

The Hanuman Dhoka palace and museum are an integral part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Kathmandu’s central Durbar Square, but the quake caused the most destruction to heritage of any disaster in history, and the loss and damage was so extensive that no one knew how to make the sprawling five-acre complex with its now-buckled and cracked walls safe enough to get out the artifacts.

That’s when Global Fairness Initiative stepped up to the plate. A team of US structural engineers skilled in post-earthquake building assessment had just arrived in Kathmandu at the behest of GFI when we learned that Nepal’s Department of Archaeology and UNESCO needed a plan to stabilize the building and remove the artifacts. The GFI team included a structural engineer with global expertise in both earthquake damage and historic preservation, David Biggs, whose credits range from the World Trade Center to the tomb of King Midas in Gordion, Turkey.

At the request of UNESCO and the Government of Nepal, GFI went to work to create a plan to shore up Hanuman Dhoka before the ongoing series of aftershocks tumbled the walls or the impending monsoon poured through the gaping holes.

“We are very worried about this building,” said Christian Manhart, head of UNESCO in Kathmandu. “It has great importance for the cultural identity of the Nepali people, and it has a very important collection. This wing is now totally disintegrated.”

Most of the engineers with GFI’s response team were working from dawn to dusk to assess Nepal’s homes, colleges, hospitals and public buildings in the wake of the quake, assisting Nepal’s limited number of structural engineers, but a heritage team was also formed to answer the engineering challenges of Hanuman Dhoka.

Among the artifacts at risk if the building crumbled were the coronation throne used by generations of Nepal’s kings, a massive chaise longue-type affair, backed by heavy gilt coils and a canopy shaped as a nine-headed serpent, typically lifted by up to 10 people. Unfortunately it’s located on the third story of the most damaged wing of Hanuman Dhoka, along with a royal arsenal of guns, swords and a cannon and an ancient stone slab with the only inscription ever found that mentions the Kirat Dynasty, which ruled the Kathmandu Valley until around 200 BCE.

“(The inscription) is a very, very rare thing,” said archaeologist Bishnu Raj Karki, former Director-General of Nepal’s Department of Archaeology, who is directing the conservation of a major section of Hanuman Dhoka. “It can never be replaced. We have nothing else like it.”

The proposal developed by GFI became the first plan to stabilize the heritage site. GFI also crafted an alternative proposal to utilize shipping containers instead of bracing to allow artifacts to be retrieved safely. Based on the experience of New Zealand after its earthquake, that option was developed by GFI team member Jason Ingham, professor of engineering at the University of Auckland in New Zealand.

Ingham and Biggs worked on the heritage team with Nepali engineer Sanu Dangol of MinErgy, part of Brick Clean Group Nepal (BCN), GFI’s partner in the Better Brick Nepal (BBN) program to incentivize the production of bricks that are sustainable and free of child and bonded labor.

As of this writing, the Hanuman Dhoka Museum is working to implement the plans to rescue Nepal’s heritage before the rains begin.

“The engineers we brought are some of the best engineers in the world, with very precise kinds of expertise and skills, and they’ve worked day and night to use their skills to save our heritage at this time of overwhelming need,” said GFI-Nepal Country Director Homraj Acharya. “We’re very excited to be able to assist in this important effort and at this World Heritage Site, which is close to the heart of every Nepali and is part of the cultural heritage of the entire world.”

by Sally Acharya