Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
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.