How a Kathmandu Group Is Protecting and Restoring Their Monuments

The ancient monuments are at risk but there's hope for the future

Photos of monuments clustered together

Elen Turner

We’re dedicating our August features to architecture and design. After spending an unprecedented amount of time at home, we’ve never been more ready to check into a dreamy new hoteldiscover hidden architectural gems, or hit the road in luxury. Now, we’re excited to celebrate the shapes and structures that make our world beautiful with an inspiring story of how one city is restoring its most sacred monuments, a look at how historic hotels are prioritizing accessibility, an examination of how architecture could be changing the way we travel in cities, and a rundown of the most architecturally significant buildings in every state.

Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, is an ancient city with layers of tangible culture dating back centuries. One of the most intriguing things about visiting Kathmandu is seeing how millennia-old Buddhist and Hindu monuments are incorporated into everyday life. But the greater Kathmandu Valley area has seen a population explosion since the 1990s, and what was once a quiet and predominantly rural valley is now a South Asian metropolis of almost 4 million people.

This growth has strained every aspect of Kathmandu's infrastructure, including preserving its ancient monuments out in the open, which are now competing for space with new developments and roads. While well-known monuments like the Swayambhunath and Boudhanath Stupas are kept in relatively good condition, the same cannot be said for many smaller similar structures. It's not uncommon to see a 1,000-year-old stone structure—called a chiva, chaitya, or stupa—falling apart, with bricks and stone carvings missing, plants growing out of them, covered in enamel paint, "fixed" with cement or surrounded by trash. Some are dismantled or destroyed and built over. But one local group, the Chiva Chaitya Organization (CCO), is working on preserving the physical structures and cultural heritage attached to them.

Close up of dye on a Chiva

Elen Turner

What Are Chivas?

First things first: chiva, chaitya, and stupa are all words for the same thing. Chiva is the Newari language name, chaitya is used in the Nepali language, and stupa comes from Sanskrit and is more commonly used by non-Nepalis.

Nepal is an ethnically diverse country, and the Newar people are a prominent ethnic group in the Kathmandu Valley. Much of the architecture thought of as "Nepali" is, in fact, specifically Newari. Newari cultural and linguistic roots lie in Tibet, and Newars were traditionally Buddhist. Chivas are Newari shrines erected in memory of a deceased family member. Because they were erected in public places, they became sites of devotion for the whole community.

Some chivas are enormous, like the Swayambhunath Stupa (called the Swayambhunath mahachaitya in Nepali), while others are tiny. Most are about 6 feet high. They're made of stone, brick, or clay and feature carved statues of the Buddha and various Bodhisattvas and divinities. Carved inscriptions (usually in Ranjana lipi, the script used to write the Newari language) on or beside a chiva usually provide some information on its history, such as who it was made by and when.

The oldest chivas are around 1,600 years old, dating back to the Licchavi period that began in the 5th century. There was a revival in chiva construction in the 17th century, so many that can still be found today date from this period or after. Chivas are still made today, but they're more commonly found in private homes or semi-private courtyards shared by several households.

Chivas are a living part of history and the present. As Amar Tuladhar, secretary of the CCO, put it, "For me, preserving chivas is like preserving the values and identity of the indigenous residents of the valley."

Two men trying to reconstruct a broken chiva

Courtesy of Chiva Chaitya Organization

Preserving Threatened Culture

The New York-based World Monuments Fund recognizes the importance of chivas, and placed them on their 2020 World Monuments Watch list, "a biennial selection of at-risk cultural heritage sites that combine great historical significance with contemporary social impact." In 2020, the World Monuments Fund partnered with the CCO to support the restoration of ten shrines. The project is intended to be a model for future shrine conservation in the area.

The CCO is engaged in several other activities that aren't, or can't be, done by governmental authorities. "The Chiva Chaitya Organization hopes to fill the gap where there is no focused organization or development agency focused on promotion and restoration of these very important heritage sites in Nepal," said Amar

One ongoing activity is the process of photographing and plotting on a GPS-enabled map every chiva in the Kathmandu Valley. There are believed to be between 2,000 and 2,500 in total. Some are large and prominent, but others are smaller, in poor condition, hidden, or partially destroyed. To date, the group has documented and plotted around 1,300 monuments. Amar hopes these photos, with their GPS locations, will be helpful to people working in the academic, archeological, restoration, and tourism sectors.

Along with this map, the organization is transcribing and translating the inscriptions accompanying many chivas. While the Newari language is still widely spoken in Nepal, not everyone can read the traditional script. Some of the inscriptions are centuries-old, making them difficult to read or interpret.

Another large part of the CCO's work is cleaning and restoring chivas, and they make efforts to connect willing people and groups with in-need chivas. This might involve removing damaging paint, removing plants and weeds, or re-assembling broken structures. The restoration work may also draw on the skills of Kathmandu's talented traditional stonemasons, who follow techniques that have been used for centuries. In the past year, the CCO has performed minor and major interventions on around 20 chivas.

A natural—and intended—consequence of this work is raising awareness in local communities about the importance of preserving chivas. While many people continue to use chivas in their daily worship, others have never noticed the stone structures and don't understand their significance. Once people living and working near a chiva better understand its importance, they're less likely to cause damage to it willfully and are more likely to report vandalism.

CCO's outreach work also includes visiting schools and businesses to give presentations, and they run a Facebook page and blog that share photos of chivas and the CCO's work. They also advocate for chivas and heritage preservation with the government and other organizations who may be in a position to step in or change development rules and permits that threaten chivas.

Ultimately, the CCO hopes to have a visitor's center in Kathmandu where locals and tourists can come to learn more about these living artifacts. In the meantime, they can be found on any amble through the main cities of the Kathmandu Valley—Kathmandu, Bhaktapur, and Lalitpur—and the surrounding villages. The Patan Museum, located in the old palace building in Patan Durbar Square, is an excellent place to learn more about the traditional architecture of the Kathmandu Valley.