Cultural crusader

10 min read
23 May 2017
10 min read
1622 words
From the Archive (Oct, 2016): Cultural heritage conservation activist Ravi Darshandhari talks about how he has turned his life around and his efforts to turn Patan around

What was your childhood like?
I grew up in a middle-class family in Mangal Bazaar. My father was a tailor, and my mother was a dedicated homemaker. They made sure we got a proper education despite their lack of schooling. I have fond memories of myself running around and playing hide-and-seek with friends around medieval bahals and courtyards in Patan Durbar Square.

Did you always know that you wanted to be involved in heritage conservation projects?
I have always been fascinated by old buildings and temples, but I never thought that my identity would be entwined with these monuments. Most people that I grew up around saw historical buildings merely as old houses that would some day topple down. It was commonplace to see children defecating in the squares and people burning wooden artefacts for firewood during winters. I think witnessing this lack of respect for our historical monuments prepared and motivated me to do the work I do today.

How were you as a teenager?
I started abusing narcotics in school and got expelled. I stopped studying and loitered around for a few years after my expulsion. My family members were concerned, but I couldn’t kick the habit—I was hooked to tranquilisers for nearly 12 years. However, I must say that I continued to be mesmerised by the beauty that surrounded me even during this phase. I used to imagine the old buildings and mystical bahals, as it were, whispering tales to me. My friends noticed my inclination for art and history, and they suggested that I become a tourist guide.

Did you feel like becoming a tour guide was your calling?  
After many failed attempts to sober up and start a business, I finally decided to take my friends’ suggestions seriously and gave tourism a shot. I was in a lot of debt at that point—I had tried to run a restaurant, but owing to my lack of knowledge of hospitality, that venture tanked. Today, I look back and laugh at myself. I am glad that I accepted a loan of Rs 10,000 and enrolled in a tourist guide course at Nepal Academy of Tourism and Hotel Management (NATHM). In 2008, I officially started my job as a tour guide, and the next four years altered my life.

So your fascination with heritage helped you sort out your life.
Yes, becoming a tourist guide turned my life around. I was getting paid for doing something that came naturally to me—walking around my neighbourhood, reliving childhood memories and layering those memories with historical facts. Tourists also appreciated the personal accounts, and they have told me that this method of showing them around adds dimension to their visits. I was also able to recover from my addictions during this period without going to a rehabilitation centre.

How did you get involved in restoration and conservation work?
I happened to meet people from the Green Project, who had worked for various environmental projects in the valley during my time as a tourist guide. They wanted to start working in Patan; as I mentioned earlier, people would defecate and urinate in public places, and the entire place had a repugnant stench. I worked with these people, and after the successful implementation of the project in the Patan area, I began getting more involved in community work. In 2011, I had the good fortune of working with Rohit Ranjitkar of Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust (KVPT), and since then, I have been working as a liaison for them. I have also been working with the joint secretary of Mangal Tole Sudhar Sangh to make sure that the Patan locals carry out the directives of the Sangh.

How have things changed after last year’s earthquakes?
The community’s involvement in Patan over the years has been heartening to see. When the big one struck on April 25, within 10 minutes, locals had secured the Patan Durbar Square area. We recovered the most valuable artefacts—the gilded gold Yog Narendra column, the gajurs and the lion in front of Bhimsenthan, on the day of the earthquake. Within the first two to three hours, we had also restricted access to the main durbar square. This helped prevent artefact vandalism: The law-enforcement agencies arrived at the scene only two days later. The community has been holding meetings with the representatives of the Metropolitan Office, the Department of Archaeology and the KVPT to discuss future plans. Patan has a long road to recovery, but things are looking better.

Would you consider yourself an advocate of community ownership?
Definitely. The chowks, bahals and alleyways I grew up in are like extensions of my own home. It’s the same for my neighbours. Since we live in this area, conservation is more than a part-time undertaking for us. For example, the Golden Temple that you can see if you look across the street from the window of my shop—Golden Temple Singing Bowl—has nearly 500 locals doing everything for the bihar. They don’t have to rely on the government or NGO/INGO aid, because the work is taken care of by the guthi, which is run by a close-knit circle of patrons.

So what’s missing from the equation?
Institutional and government supervision, and their predilection for controlling everything, has led to an unfortunate mismatch between what needs to be done to preserve local heritage and local interest. The series of archaeological reforms brought by the government has isolated monuments from their neighbourhoods. Local residents who benefit from these monuments should be awarded funds for their maintenance, instead. Community involvement in the preservation of monuments and heritage treasures may help people understand the importance of the work.

Do you see that happening anytime soon?
Seeing our historical monuments topple right before our eyes was a rude awakening during last year’s earthquakes. Now, people’s appreciation for historical monuments has definitely increased—they are more appreciative of their cultural riches. In Nepal, sadly, history is either preserved in dead monuments, or not at all.

What has the involvement of the youth been like in this process?
Honestly, most of our youth are not very involved in heritage preservation. This is why I think that educating the locals is vital for getting the youth—and the elderly—involved. You will start seeing changes if you are able to provide a variety of opportunities for young people to participate in. We have started recruiting locals to work as tourist guides, and this has not only provided jobs for hundreds but has also given people ownership of their surroundings.

Patan is leading the bed and breakfast accommodation trend. What do you think are its implications?
This has definitely helped breathe new life into old buildings. Given a choice, tourists prefer homestays because such accommodation provisions help them understand the culture and lifestyle of the people living in a specific area. Nowadays, most homestays provide their guests with just as much comfort as a well-furnished reputable hotel. Increase in tourism will hopefully increase revenue generation, and that is bound to have a positive effect on the restoration and preservation of these historic monuments, provided that the funds are used properly. Our community groups should also be more reliable than the government in such matters.

Do you see new buildings as a threat to cultural identity?
The city and its archaeology are dynamic and ever-changing. What makes one structure more valuable than another is largely subjective. If old houses, temples and historical monuments are a significant record of the architecture of older times, concrete houses are also relevant symbols of our modern life. I think that both should be embraced and that an obsessive allegiance to history can be counterproductive to progress.

You mentioned the Golden Temple Singing Bowl. Is that your new venture?I’m stationed in Patan most of the time, and running this business suits me. At the Golden Temple Singing Bowl, we curate handmade bowls by local artisans—these bowls are known for their beauty, quality of sound and healing powers. Our business, and others’ too, was immensely affected after the 2015 earthquakes, but we are sure that business will pick up once our community manages to heal from the catastrophe.