Bungamati is a small cultural heritage town in the Kathmandu valley.
Even though just a 15 minute drive from the urban hustling of Ring Road, the highway that surrounds Kathmandu; Bungamati has maintained its medieval flair and elegance. As everyday more housing colonies are being constructed in the outskirts of Kathmandu to expand the urban swell of the capital; Bungamati and the neighboring Khokana has maintained its village-like atmosphere. The town is still surrounded by paddy terraced fields and thick forested hills beyond. The town itself is traditional in design and character. Small squares and ponds surrounded by three-storied houses. A majority of the houses are made of mud, clay and bricks with beautifully carved wooden windows in the unique Nepali look. Narrow streets paved with bricks all leading up to the main temple square. Packs of dogs walk around these streets as if keeping everything in order. Ducks and chicken just bask in the sun without caring about the people or vehicles passing by. Children playing their self-invented games outside with marbles and bamboo sticks. The young boys help their parents in the shops or just rebelliously hang out in the street corners, some of whom are unfortunately hooked to their mobile phones. The women are continuously engrossed in household chores and being the perfect hosts for the regular guests. The men are busy with their occupations; most of whom are farmers, wood carvers and carpenters. The elderly enjoy the sunlight and take care of the infants. Life was indeed medieval.
However, with the April 25th earthquake and the resulting aftershocks that shook Nepal for an entire month; the future is uncertain for Bungamati. The beautiful white temple no longer dominates the temple square. Almost all the traditional houses have been marked red by the engineers which means they have to be demolished and cannot be lived in. The squares are filled with temporary shelters as several families live under the same roof. The streets are filled with debris that piles up every day as the houses slowly get brought down. The dogs confused with the sudden change in environment bark at the large number of strangers. The ducks have to continuously compromise on their naps and make way for the vehicles forcing their way inside the narrow streets bringing in much-needed supplies. Children no longer enjoy the freedom to play around the now unsafe town and have to stay close to the worried parents. The women make adjustments to maintain some normalcy by preparing food for the family and guests with whatsoever they can. The men are morally and physically devastated with the destruction to their property and lifelong hard work. The elderly just cannot believe the change the earthquake has brought and contemplate the reasons for all the suffering. But the future is not all bleak.
I was lucky to be introduced to a project by David Steele, an American friend from Webster University. ‘Rebuilding Bungamati’ aims to help maintain the cultural aspects of life in Bungamati and help in the sustainable development of this still beautiful town. The project was initiated by Kathmandu University students and faculty who were determined to help out immediately after the huge disaster struck. It grew each day and fortunately reached the knowledge of David who was enjoying the sun in Koh Chang, Thailand. He flew to Nepal the next day. We visited Bungamati in the evening on 22nd May, Friday and met with the project manager, Sujan Chitrakar. He kindly gave us a tour of Bungamati and explained the various operations that the project was already involved in. The warm greetings he received from the local people during the tour convinced us that the project had already made an impact in the lives of the people of Bungamati. At the end of the tour, he took us to one of the newly completed temporary shelters where students, volunteers and engineers were enjoying their much deserved meals at the end day of hard work. There he introduced us to the rest of the members of the project who were divided into various teams for construction, documenting, outreach, research and photography. We could not wait to get involved from the next workday. We met with some current Webster students, Aayush Shrestha and Suyash Gyawali, for dinner who were on summer vacations and invited them to join the project. Their enthusiasm matched ours.
We were assigned into the construction team. The first few days were surely the most difficult as we tried to learn the techniques of cutting the bamboo to make it suitable for use for the temporary shelters. The team was incredibly helpful as they patiently taught us amateurs to use the various tools as we clumsily got accustomed to it. The summer heat forced us to take respites every hour as we cooled down with the cold drinks brought by the locals who would acknowledge the progress we made with each break. David would continuously attempt to interact with the local people in his best effort at sign language. The locals would reply with the little English they had learnt or just reply in Nepali. In the end, the rest of us would translate and complete their conversation. The smiles both parties exchanged was sometimes however enough to help each other know that the work they appreciated one another. We slowly got involved in the actual construction of the shelters as we dug holes in the ground, planted the bamboo sticks, drilled holes into the bamboo, tied them up with wires and finally laid the roof. The family for whom we were making the shelter would provide us with a delicious lunch that the entire team patiently waited for but never really mentioned to each other. While we ate our meals we looked at the various murals the design team had painted around Bungamati and took inspiration from them. The children who were kept occupied by the outreach team would be dancing and singing in the distance. We would regretfully talk about the way we should have learnt to play musical instruments so that we could be involved in the outreach team instead. But then it was a bit too late for our untalented bunch. However, every night when the storms arrived and the rain poured it was personally the best feeling knowing that we provided families with a roof over their heads.
Our skills improved each day and soon we were becoming experts at using the various tools. One of the days the dogs around Bungamati could be heard barking as they were getting vaccinated by the street dogs care center that the project had invited to Bungamati. We were not always as busy after lunch and took the opportunity to venture around the town. We found a house buried till its second floor even a month after the quake. Helping this family clear the rubble was one of the most disheartening tasks as the amount of rubble was endless. However, the family constantly talked about their hardships as Aayush translated with his limited Newari language skills. Manila, the daughter of the family, kept us entertained as she danced away to the music of our phones. This kept our shovels digging. Leaving the family to their still buried house with a promise to return the next day was always tough. But as Suyash drove us back in his oversized SUV, we would look at the completed shelters in the fields and know that slowly but surely everyone would be provided with a shelter in the future.
At the end of the week students, faculty and volunteers from all the teams met at a restaurant. We talked and discussed about various possibilities for the project and the vision for Bungamati. The discussion diverted to various topics but mainly were relevant to the earthquake and the project in some way. David returned to Thailand on 31st May much fitter and much loved by the people of Bungamati. The rest of us have continued to volunteer in ‘Rebuilding Bungamati’ and even built temporary classrooms for a school in Bungamati. I am sure with the vision and passion of the group of people involved in this project the future of Bungamati is bright. As the t-shirts of our team clearly declare, ‘We will rise’!
We hope to rebuild Bungamati and restore the small cultural heritage town in the Kathmandu valley.