Lok Bahadur Shakya’s earliest memories of Patan Durbar Square haven’t  faded. The 74-year-old played in this centuries-old palatial courtyard as a child; he woke to the morning bells of the temples and would follow his mother as she went to pray to the deities whose shrines are scattered across the square.   

He has walked past the Unesco World Heritage site, in the Lalitpur district of Nepal’s Kathmandu Valley, every day for seven decades and has a story  for each season. But on a sunny September afternoon, as the square is being prepared for Janmashtami, the annual celebration of the birth of Hindu god Krishna, Shakya takes in the scene contemplatively.  

The gods he once worshipped are behind wired fences and some of the temples in which he prayed no longer stand.  

“So many temples have collapsed. These aren’t just monuments for us – it’s where our gods live. They symbolise our faith,” says Shakya, sitting on a wooden bench.  

The 7.8-magnitude earthquake that shook Nepal at 11.56am on April 25, along with the powerful 7.3-magnitude aftershock on May 12, flattened villages, killed more than 8,500 people and displaced millions. Nepal also suffered an incomprehensible loss of heritage – historic palaces, monasteries and ancient temples were levelled. More than 400 monuments were affected in the Kathmandu Valley, the most populated area of Nepal, and at least 35 of them, in six of the seven World Heritage sites in the area, have collapsed entirely, according to the  Department of Archaeology's preliminary assessment report.  

The government estimates that, across the country, 2,900 religious and culturally significant sites have been damaged or destroyed.

The quake transformed Patan in seconds.

This, however, wasn’t the first time that Nepal’s iconic cultural landmarks had suffered. In 1934, an 8.1-magnitude earthquake – believed to be the worst in the country’s recorded history – caused devastation across the nation. Many monuments were rebuilt following that quake, but experts warned it was only a matter of time before they would be shaken again.

However, despite ensuing discussions on disaster preparedness and risk reduction, the authorities, on the whole, neglected to protect Nepal’s extraordinary edifices. Few lessons were learned from the 1934 earthquake.

"The renovations [we do] are not up to international standards, and there is no quality control."

Dr Dina Bangdel, an art historian who specialises in South Asian and Himalayan art, says Nepal’s Ancient Monument Preservation Act, passed in 1956, is an artefact in itself and is in need of an urgent update.

“We don’t have structured guidelines for the preservation and renovation of these monuments in light of new technologies and engineering methods,” says Bangdel.  “The renovations [we do] are not up to international standards, and there is no quality control. We were not ready for this earthquake.”

The Kathmandu Valley has three durbar squares, a generic name used to describe areas filled with temples, open courts and fountains opposite old royal palaces. They are located in Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur. Each was once the base of a separate kingdom, although they all reflect the majestic architecture of the Malla dynasty, which ruled Nepal from the 13th to 18th centuries.

In Patan, the buildings that fill the durbar square are decorated with masterfully crafted sinuous wooden windows and doors, and dotted about are intricately carved stone water spouts. Its multilayered pagoda temples are World Heritage monuments, the square itself being one of seven World Heritage sites in the Kathmandu Valley.  

Patan’s architecture is a mix of Hindu and Buddhist styles; Indian Emperor Ashoka erected dome-shaped stupas in five corners of the city in 250BC. Fascinated by its medieval grandeur, British writer Perceval Landon compared Durbar Square to Beijing’s Forbidden City in his 1928 book Nepal, but concluded that although the Chinese site was large, it couldn’t stand up to the beauty and richness of that in Patan.

"The Durbar Square in Patan probably remains the most picturesque collection of buildings that has been set up in so small a place"

“As an ensemble, the Durbar Square in Patan probably remains the most picturesque collection of buildings that has been set up in so small a place,” Landon wrote.

Nepal now has the daunting task of restoring some of these colossal quarters to their former glory. But not all.  

Standing in the centre of the 17th-century Sundari Chowk (which means “beautiful courtyard”), a former royal bathing area with a golden water spout, conservation architect Rohit Ranjitkar explains that the temples that underwent regular maintenance work suffered less damage in the earthquake than those that were dilapidated: the eastern wing of the courtyard collapsed and the Hari Shankar (built in 1565) and Char Narayan (early 18th century) temples, which were a part of Durbar Square’s distinctive skyline, are no more.

“If we are talking about the buildings that are still standing, we didn’t only renovate them but we applied certain techniques such as retrofitting: we fitted them with metal plates and bolts so that a quake wouldn’t bring down the building completely,” says Ranjitkar, director of the Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust (KVPT).

Haphazard urbanisation and improper preservation methods had prompted Unesco to put the Kathmandu Valley sites on its “in danger list” in 2003, but they were   delisted in 2007,  after improvements had been made.

Today, Nipuna Shrestha, of Unesco Nepal’s culture department, says the local authorities realise the urgent need to restore the damaged sites – a delay could impair their chances of full restoration.

“This not only entails periodic cleaning and renovation, but a proper structural assessment of component parts as well as regular monitoring of the quality of materials and workmanship during maintenance or the restoration process of a monument,” she says.

After years of state apathy towards improving public services and corruption, however, the Nepalese public are mistrustful of the government’s dedication and ability to restore the treasures.  

Conservationists, for example, have implored  the government  to change its policy by which the lowest bidder wins contracts to rebuild the monuments.At the Department of Archaeology, undersecretary Suresh Shrestha says only contractors with extensive knowledge and experience in building cultural sites should be allowed to bid.

The government has set a reconstruction timeline of seven years, with a budget of US$200 million to cover all 16 districts of Nepal.  It is estimated that it will cost US$169 million to repair the damaged buildings that still stand.

Government funds will be bolstered by donations from Hong Kong and mainland China, India, Sri Lanka and Australia, which have all pledged their support for the restoration and reconstruction of specific sites, including some in Kathmandu Durbar Square, the Changu Narayan Temple in Bhaktapur, the Swayambhunath Stupa and other monuments in Bungamati, Khokana and upper mountainous regions, such as Manang and Mustang. 

Perhaps the biggest resource available to the Nepalese government is the endeavour of its own people 

Perhaps the biggest resource available to the Nepalese government, however, is the endeavour of its own people. Hours after the main shock and amid recurring tremors, locals in Patan volunteered to help the security forces salvage what they could of the collapsed temples – “living moments” which have been the centre of daily rituals for years – and guard the remains against theft.

In the days that followed, the dusty windows, doors, struts and tympanums – some broken and others undamaged – were stored in the courtyard of Patan Museum. There they were painstakingly catalogued and placed in temporary tin-roofed shelters: protection from the monsoon rains.

“It was like  solving a jigsaw puzzle – to sort out which pieces belonged to which temples,” says Rishi Amatya, a student in heritage management who lives minutes from the square and volunteered during the crisis.  

The complete restoration of the monuments will also require the skills of local artisans, whose trade has been marginalised in Nepal in recent years. 

“This is a perfect time to honour local artists [practising ‘dying arts’],” Bangdel says. “This is also an opportunity for the younger generation to take an interest in craft-based knowledge and see the value in learning.”

Bangdel and Ranjitkar say the dearth of local artisans, including sculptors and woodcarvers, could be one of the biggest challenges for the country during the restoration process. Though their work is admired, such artists are unacknowledged and underpaid, which has discouraged the younger generation from joining what has become an unglamorous profession.

“They don’t look at us as artists but mere workers,” says Indra Prasad Shilpakar, a fourth-generation woodcarver.

Shilpakar learned the craft from his father when he was 18; he believed it was his duty to continue the family legacy. His motivation came from looking at his grandfather’s work in Bhaktapur’s temples and recently his father’s craftsmanship at Patan’s renovated Sundari Chowk.

The 33-year-old believes the coming months will serve as a cultural reawakening.  

“We need to have the same status as architects and engineers,” says Shilpakar, who teaches at the  Nepal Vocational Academy, which aims to promote traditional skills. “We want recognition as we work to rebuild our heritage.”

In Patan Durbar Square, behind the clean courtyard that now belies the shocking scenes of April’s wreckage, work has already begun. And as new policies and guidelines are being drafted, organisations such as KVPT have started collecting funds and planning how best to mobilise their resources. Their aim is to reconstruct the buildings that best represent Patan’s history and heritage, to help heal the traumatic memories of watching them crumble.

As a monsoon cloud darkens the sky, Shakya stands slowly and walks towards where the Char Narayan Temple once stood. There a stone statue with four representations of the Hindu god Vishnu has been placed underneath a cloth cover.

He clasps his palms, bows his head and says he will return to the same spot the following day, to worship, just as he has been doing for 70 years.

“I’m sure the temple will be here again one day,” he says. “I hope I get to see the [Patan] Durbar Square I cherish and the temples I worship as they were before – during my lifetime.”