Exclusive, In-depth look at Bhaktapur — the town that everyone loves.
Bhaktapur, a historic little town, is a short drive outside of Kathmandu. The name, Bhaktapur, literally means a ‘place for worshippers.’
On any given day, you’d find the streets bustling with worshippers, local residents, tourists and folks from Kathmandu ‘getting out of town’ for a few hours.
The streets are lined with temples, houses made of bricks glued together with mud, and handicraftsmen sells gorgeous dragon masks, little temples made of wood, and other artifacts made of brass. Bhaktapur is a delightful little town, with something to offer for everyone.
But not today, today was different.
The streets were still crowded, but there was silence. People walked around the Bhaktapur courtyard with protective masks on, as they stared at the temples, tents with medical clinics, and the city skyline that once was so majestic.
It’s eerily quiet, despite there being so many people. I have never seen Bhaktapur quite like this.
Unlike other damaged UNESCO heritage sites like the Basantapur Durbar Square and the Patan Durbar Square, the main square in Bhaktapur is not cordoned off because this isn’t just a tourist attraction. This is in the heart of a vibrant town, where local residents live and move about freely.
As I stared at the remains of a temple, next to a medical facility run by the Chinese aid workers in a tent, I couldn’t yet comprehend the scope of the damage here.
In Bhaktapur, you’re never more than a stone throws away from a temple. But today, about half of them are no longer standing and have themselves turned into rocks. To make matters worse, I don’t know how much longer most of the other temples will be allowed to stand due to the damage they’ve suffered. A couple of temples looked like they would topple if someone leaned against them.
But first, a bit of good news — Nyatapole Temple, the main attraction at Bhaktapur, still stands head and shoulders above the rest, and looks undamaged (except for a broken wooden window on the top most roof).
I asked a group of local women about the discrepancy in damage. “This temple, the Nyatapole, was restored by German engineers about 10–12 years ago”, one of them informed me. I could sense her frustration about the state of her country. She wasn’t angry because of the earthquake. She continued in English, “this country doesn’t have leaders, it only has politicians. And most of our young talented boys and girls go abroad and never come back. I think they should come back.”
I empathized with her, and hoped that the trickle of Nepalis returning to their homeland would grow. But especially now, after this earthquake, I doubt that many will be inspired to move back home.
Around the corner, I met Raghu Raja Pradhananga (67) standing outside his home looking at people surveying the damage at a little temple nearby. Raghu was born in Bhaktapur and has lived here his entire life. We talked for about 40 minutes. Even though his house wasn’t damaged as much as the others around him, he was afraid of aftershocks and was sleeping under a tarp with his family in the town square.
Raghu lives at home in Bhaktapur with his wife, younger son and an adorable German Shepherd, Danny. Raghu’s second son is working in Finland.
“We have lost hope in everything, except God”, Raghu told me. “I don’t worry about the damage here because it won’t do me or anyone else any good. The government is busy bickering between themselves, while we’re all out here.”
Raghu invited me into his house to show me around. Danny, the dog, interrupted us and jumped on top of Raghu. “It’s Danny’s lunch time. He’s hungry. He wants the basic necessities of life. Just like us.”
Before I left his house, Raghu asked me to drop off a copy of the photos I took of him, the next time I’m in town. I gladly accepted.
I wandered across the ruins and climbed on top of the steps where a temple once stood. I stayed there for a couple minutes watching this town like never before. I have been here many times before, but it felt like a whole new place.
“Bhaktapur is in shambles”, I mumbled. But unfortunately, I hadn’t seen the worst of it yet.
I continued meandering through Bhaktapur’s streets when a group of men wearing bright green shirts caught my eye. They were South Africans. If their accents hadn’t give it away already, the flag on their sleeves surely did.
They were volunteers from the ‘Gift of the Givers Foundation’, and were happy to have a chat as we walked toward their next location.
Steven Crawford (28), a volunteer for Give of the Givers Foundation, told me they’re a volunteer-run, relief aid organization out of South Africa. Steven said, “We landed in Kathmandu today, but most of our equipment is stuck in Singapore. The KTM airport is too full and couldn’t accommodate our equipment. Today we’re assessing and scouting for locations to examine more thoroughly with our equipment, which should be here by tomorrow afternoon.” Today the team carried 2 large boxes with “Life Detector” labeled on them.
I followed them down the narrow lanes of Bhaktapur for a while until I saw a sign in Nepali that read Bhookamp Peedit Chetra, aka “Earthquake Damaged Area.” I went down that path.
The lanes narrowed even further and I saw a few families gathered around a Nepali TV presenter, who was interviewing them. Several houses in this neighborhood had collapsed in the earthquake, and many people inside didn’t have anywhere to run. Several members of their families had died, and some were still under the rubble. Possibly alive?
I wasn’t sure which alley the South African team had gone down, so I picked one and ventured deeper into the residential neighborhoods of Bhaktapur. There were very few people in sight now.
I stopped to take a “cool photo” of a door with a padlock on a brick wall. This street looked completely undamaged, except for the house at the end. I walked up to it and that intersection looked like a bomb had exploded there. The houses had been ripped apart and their guts were lying all over the street.
But I couldn’t get any closer, as there was an active search and rescue operation underway. I stepped away and walked back up the same street. I took another photo of the door with the patlock, when I heard a voice.
“Why are you taking a photo of the door?”, said Kedar Machamasi (32). “Follow me, I’ll show you what you should be taking pictures of.” I followed him into the tiny hallway of his house, along with a Ukrainian Freelance Photographer, Kate Artyukhova.
We were shocked at what we found inside. The house had essentially imploded. The roof had caved in, and the walls inside has collapsed. I could see inside every room in his house from here. It was bad. It was really bad. There is absolutely no way anyone can live in this house again, until it’s demolished and rebuilt. But, the wall facing the steet is still intact and is very deceiving. Fortunately, no one was injured in this house.
“We have been sleeping in tents with many others in the main camp site”, Kedar told me. “We have food and water because the community cooks and eats together.” I asked him whether he had received any help from the government so far, and he replied “not even a single bottle of water.”
I stepped back out into the street, and 2 men there told me the same story about their homes. “It looks fine from outside, but it’s gutted when you step inside,” they said. “Khattam chaa”, one of them exclaimed, which means “It’s finished.”
This wasn’t just the story of this street. This was Bhaktapur’s story. The vast majority of homes here need to be completely gutted and rebuilt. That’s not going to be an easy task, given the narrow lanes here. The road to recovery here is going to be a long and slow one.
I heard a commotion from the end of the street. They were allowing people to cross across the intersection now. I jumped on the opportunity and walked up the debris, narrowly missing a 4x4 block of wood sticking out of the ground. I figured it was used to hold up one of the upper floors of a house.
The search and rescue team here were Israel Army soldiers. They were taking a break now. One of them offered me some tuna that he was eating out of a tin can.
The Israeli soldiers were in good spirits and we talked for several minutes, but then… the mood changed.
A Nepali Army major informed the Israeli soldiers that “someone has predicted that a very big earthquake will strike in the next 2 hours”. I shook my head and thought “you have got to be kidding me. Seriously?” I inquired, “Who made the prediction?” The Army major replied, “We heard it on the FM radio. They wouldn’t be predicting it if wasn’t true.”
Everything in my mind, logically and scientifically, compelled me to dismiss this “prediction”. But then I looked around the old town where I was standing, surrounded by 50–200 years old residential buildings that are hanging on by a thread.
The Israeli soldiers got their marching orders to move further down the hill, while I hiked back up where I had come from.
So far I still hadn’t seen the tents where all these people were sleeping at night. But, I accidentally found it when I walked into a damaged school compound. A tent city had popped up in the school’s courtyard. Families taking shelter from the sun and the dust, were sitting under make shift tents and on rudimentary Nepali mats.
I met with Mr. Binod Chetan Raya, a Bhaktapur resident who has stepped up as a community organizer to manage the logistics as best he can at the tent city. Binod has a Master’s in Geography, and owns several souvenir shops across the major tourist areas in Kathmandu, including Bhaktapur.
Binod told me the “the government provided us proper tents yesterday, and the army is here to set them up for us today. By tomorrow, we won’t have to sit under these plastic tarps anymore, but will have better tents to sleep under.”
“We served about 1,500 meals one evening here, and we estimate that currently 125 families live in this tent area,” Binod continued. “But it looks like there are much more than 1,500 people here right now!” I commented.
“Yes, people have heard rumors that a big earthquake might strike soon, so many more people have assembled with us here in the open.” With impeccable timing, right in that moment, my phone rings. It’s my mother and she says “Amrit, I’m going outside for a while. They’re saying about another earthquake could hit us today.”
I said “Ok mom. I’m fine and safe too.” She has heard me rant about how earthquakes can not be predicted before, so I didn’t need to repeat myself here.
Binod smiles as he understood the rumors of the earthquake are not only in Bhaktapur, but Kathmandu as well.
I asked Binod what supplies he most desperately needs here. “We have food and water to last us for more than 2 weeks. Right now we need water tanks to store water, and generators for electricity. Besides that, we need some basic supplies to maintain proper hygiene here, like tissue paper, wet wipes, plastic cups, plastic plates, soaps or hand sanitizers and tooth paste.”
Binod currently sleeps with 10 others on the floor in his small shop next to the tents.
“The biggest long term challenge we face is housing. Around 90% of buildings in Bhaktapur are structurally compromised. Even though the houses are standing, no one can live inside them,” Binod told me. “And you may have seen the temples that are still standing”, Binod continued, “there is a lot of damage to the statues and artifacts inside them.”
The sun had started to set into the hills, and I still had to figure out how to get home today.
A woman (red sari above) sitting under a rest area told that there’s no electricity in her house due to a collapsed home nearby. But she does have running water. With perfect comedic timing, the village drunk shows up and says “Did you recognize me yet?” We all laughed. “Yeah, you do look familiar”, I indulged him.
I walked toward the local bus stop in Bhaktapur when I saw the sign I had been waiting for all day. “Ju Ju dhai,” the famous yogurt of Bhaktapur. I ordered a cup and enjoyed every spoon full of it. I can’t even begin to describe how it tastes. It’s fantastic, but more importantly, despite the earthquake, the spirit of Bhaktapur lives on. Ju Ju dhai lives on. You’ll just have to travel to Bhaktapur to try it for yourself. It’s worth it.
I witnessed a lot of destruction and heartbreak today, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention this.
Bhaktapur is only a 20 minute drive outside of Kathmandu. Both Kathmandu and Bhaktapur have the necessary short-term aid they need. Please immediately redirect the majority of resources to the thousands of towns and villages across Nepal that haven’t had any help yet. They’re in desperate need.
The entire district of Sindupalchowk is hurting. There are several villages that have been totally flattened with fatalities up to 80%, according to ISAD, the UK-AID International Search and Rescue team. It is impractical to reach these remote villages with aid by foot or by road. The only option is delivering aid via helicopters.
If you’re outside of Nepal and are wondering how you can help. Click here to find out exactly how.
Thank you for reading.
If you enjoyed reading this article, you should follow me on Twitter at @amrit_sharma.
P.S. Remember that earthquake rumor? 2 drunk men were arrested in Kathmandu for spreading false earthquake rumors and causing a panic!