A Nepalese woman sits against a wall of the still-standing Pashupatinath Temple, facing an empty coffin after Kathmandu's devastating earthquake. AP images

It wasn't a divine intervention that kept the ancient structure from being destroyed.

Behind the smoke rising from funeral pyres next to the Bagmati river, Kathmandu's Pashupatinath Temple solemnly stands—unharmed by Saturday's earthquake in Nepal. For the devout, the temple's resilience may seem like a divine miracle, given the scale of destruction caused by the disaster. But for urban planners and historic preservationists, it offers a lesson in earthquake-resilient building.

The exact reasons why the Kathmandu temple escaped virtually unscathed, when other historical sites were completely destroyed, warrants a technical investigation, according to Tej Kumar Karki, former resident and the town planning chief of Kathmandu city. In an email to CityLab, Karki outlines some structural features of the Pashupatinath Temple he thinks might explain its survival.

First, unlike the Durbar Square or Dharahara Tower (collapsed sites shown in the Tweets below), the Pashupatinath Temple isn't very tall. It is also made of solid material; its brick (as opposed to mortar) walls are held together by the strong metal sheets in its roof. And the temple, looked after by the Pashupati Area Development Trust, has been renovated a couple of times in the recent past "because of its importance, focus, and revenue generation capacity," writes Karki.

R.S. Jamwal of the Archeological Survey of India notes some of the temple's other structural assets to the Hindustan Times:

"The square pan of the temple, its light weight, the roofs and floors uniting with the walls and a strong jointing system helped. The quality of construction ... is also very high."

Of course, the earthquake-vulnerability of each historical site is different, based on its unique location, shape, and construction. But the architecture of the Pashupatinath Temple, at the very least, highlights the importance of good building material and smart engineering, which Kathmandu hasn't always employed in past reconstruction efforts. After the 1934 earthquake, for example, temple repairs were hastily done, using cheap, flimsy materials (like wood and mortar), writes Niels Gutschow, an expert on urban history and temple conservation in Nepal, via email.

An obvious problem when it comes to reinforcing Nepal's monuments is that the country lacks resources. Once the immediate human suffering and damage has been contained, Nepal might need the help of international conservation organizations to rebuild its cultural and historical landmarks—including its temples—which are the heart and soul of the country's identity, Gutschow says.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. Transportation

    Spain Wants to Ban Cars in Dozens of Cities, and the Public’s on Board

    As Madrid bans cars in the city center, the national government plans to do the same in more than 100 other places. A new survey suggests broad support across the country.

  2. A photo of an encampment of homeless people outside Minneapolis,
    Equity

    Why Minneapolis Just Made Zoning History

    The ambitious Minneapolis 2040 plan will encourage more dense housing development in single-family neighborhoods.

  3. The opulent anteroom to a ladies' restroom at the Ohio Theatre, a 1928 movie palace in Columbus, Ohio.
    Design

    The Glamorous, Sexist History of the Women’s Restroom Lounge

    Separate areas with sofas, vanities, and even writing tables used to put the “rest” in women’s restrooms. Why were these spaces built, and why did they vanish?

  4. Passengers line up for a bullet train at a platform in Tokyo Station.
    Transportation

    The Amazing Psychology of Japanese Train Stations

    The nation’s famed mastery of rail travel has been aided by some subtle behavioral tricks.

  5. A photo of the Vianden castle rising above the tree-covered Ardennes hills in northern Luxembourg
    Equity

    Luxembourg’s New Deal: Free Transit and Legal Weed

    It’s not just public transit: The Grand Duchy’s progressive new government also raised the minimum wage and gave everyone two extra days off.