In post-quake rebuilding, Kathmandu’s carvers reclaim a fading heritage

In a workshop inside the courtyard of a 17th century palace, Tirtha Ram Shilpakar is surrounded by the guts of ancient temples. The floor around him is crowded with carved wooden beams, ashy with age. The walls are lined with pillars and detached windows. A few steps off lies a 11-foot wide doorway, dissected on the floor.

Tirtha Ram sits hunched in a corner, one leg curled over a giant beam. Amid the scream of power saws and the blare of ’80s Bollywood hits, he carves into the beam, hammer and chisel in hand, copying a floral pattern from a sketch beside him.

As the workshop’s naike, or leader, he makes occasional rounds of the premises. Of the 24 craftsmen he oversees here most share his family name: “skilled worker” in Nepali, although they also go by Sikarmi, or wood-worker. These men were inducted into the craft before they started the first grade, driving nails and planing surfaces in family workshops; most abandoned school before their fifteenth birthdays to work full-time.

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“For us Shilpakars, wood is our work by birth and caste,” Tirtha Ram says. “Our fathers, our grandfathers, everyone we know did this.”

Their work, however, is a far cry from that of their ancestors, the temple-builders of the Malla period, who raised the elaborate tiered pagodas that Kathmandu is famed for. Since patronage for temple construction petered out some 250 years ago, Shilpakars have been consigned to the plain staples of modern woodwork: furniture, decorative windows, gates, and tourist merchandise, often crude miniatures of statues and parts of these very temples. Feeling unappreciated and underpaid, many have fled the profession, leaving it close to its demise.

But their future took a turn on April 25, 2015, when a 7.8-magnitude earthquake tore through Nepal, killing nearly 9,000 people and wreaking havoc on centuries of heritage in the Kathmandu Valley. Among the structures flattened by the quake were Hari Shankar and Char Narayan, 18th- and 16th-century Newar temples in Patan Durbar Square, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust (KVPT), which has restored sites in the city since 1991, took up responsibility for rebuilding these two temples by 2019. Shortly after, Tirtha Ram, taking a hiatus from his private workshop, was recruited into the project full-time, alongside other craftsmen from nearby Bhaktapur. For more than two years his team has been resurrecting Hari…

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