On 25 April 2015, Nhuchhe Maya Shakya was giving her grandson an oil massage when her house started shaking. Thinking it was another older grandson being mischievous, she didn’t give it much thought. But as the room started swaying, she heard her husband Buddha Ratna Shakya shout from upstairs and the family ran down the stairs and out.
Buddha Ratna couldn’t make it out on time and the house collapsed on top of him. Their sons ran to his rescue and although they saved him, he had horrendous injuries and is still paralysed. Only the ground floor of the three-storey house remains, and the extended family of 13 have lived separately in temporary shelters for two years.
“It feels like the earthquake not only took our house but separated the family,” says Nhuchhe Maya, 68. “I wish we could rebuild faster and live together once again.” Her three sons work as woodcarvers in a town known for its artisans. Although they are registered in the earthquake victims’ list, the family hasn’t received government aid because of delays in getting proper land titles.
Although the disaster separated Nhuchhe Maya’s Nepali family, it has brought help from far-off friends. Danish architects Jens Waerum and Jorgen Thomsen are raising Rs 500,000 to renovate the ground floor of the old house.
Waerum, Thomsen and six other architecture students from the Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen had taken a year off from courses in 1968 to study Bungamati’s unique semi-urban heritage. They rented the house of Nhuchhe Maya’s father, Prem Lal Bare, and at 15 she ran errands for the Danish guests and showed them around town. She didn’t speak English, they didn’t speak Newari, but they seemed to have no problems understanding each other.
In the past 50 years, every time the Danes visit Nepal, they make it a point to seek out Nhuchhe Maya and see how her family is doing. They have come back after the earthquake with a community renewal plan.
“I am happy that they still remember us and want to help us out,” says Nhuchhe Maya, who still remembers the names of all eight Danish students, and even their quirky habits.
Nuchhe Maya’s family wants to rebuild with concrete because their traditional mud and brick building collapsed. But with limited income, rebuilding will take time. Says her son Bhaju Ratna: “If we rebuild in the old way, there will not be enough space for all of us. The family is growing and we all want to live together.”
When news of the earthquake in Nepal reached Jens Waerum and Jorgen Thomsen in Denmark, their first thoughts were of a little village outside Patan where they had spent a year studying local architecture and society nearly 50 years ago. What had happened to their host families and the sleepy old village and its rows of clay-mortar houses with delicate roofs? What had happened to Nhuchhe Maya, the 15-year-old girl who had helped them in 1968?
When they reached Bungamati a few months after the earthquake, they saw that that most of the old houses were destroyed or damaged, including Nhucche Maya’s three-storey clay brick home. “The village where we had spent a year studying and surveying in 1968 did not exist anymore,” recalls Thomsen.
Even before the earthquake, the Danes had been worried about the rapid, uncontrolled urbanisation that was eating into Bungamati’s charm and unique way of life. They felt the earthquake was an opportunity to rebuild better, while preserving the town’s original physical grammar.
“Even till 2012 much of Bungamati’s traditional architecture was still intact, but after that new concrete blocks were replacing the old façades, and the earthquake has made everything worse,” says Thomsen.
Borrowing from Denmark’s own urban renewal projects that preserve history and society, the two have come up with a Bungamati rehabilitation plan through cooperative housing. The idea is to build two houses that will function as a single unit, with a communal staircase, shared bathroom and space for livestock in the yard. Each house will have five flats for rent.
The houses will have traditional Newari façades, with earthquake secured corners. The use of wood will be minimised and replaced with steel rods and a concrete ring beam on each floor. A cooperative housing association will manage the project, including land acquisition and financing. Funding will be raised from private donors, investors, the buyers and as loans from banks.
In a society that values land ownership, Thomsen and Waerum know that convincing people to live in a space that they do not own will be difficult. But there is precedent in post-earthquake community housing projects, like Pilacchen in Patan.
Now 72, Thomsen says as he walks Bungamati’s cobblestone streets: “We are here out of our love for this town and its people, but we know the project cannot move forward without genuine and strong local ownership from the beginning.”