I had the fortune of seeing Nepal in November last year, in its full glory, while attending a climate change conference as an Indian journalist. When a deadly earthquake struck the affectionate country on April 25 this year and shattered its homes and heritage, their smiles haunted me. I knew i had to go back to see for myself what had become of the places that had welcomed me so warmly. I had to bring their stories to the world. A month after the quake, I got an opportunity to cover rehabilitation efforts in Kathmandu.
Although i wasn’t scheduled to, i hopped on a relief truck convoy (of Live to Love Foundation), with some kung-fu nuns of the Druk Amitabha Mountain Nunnery, headed to reportedly the worst-hit areas in the mountains, Sindhupal Chowk district. It was worse than i had expected or remembered from my time in Kutch during 2001. Whole villages had been wiped out, many houses lining the narrow, steep route barely hung on, some dangled precariously over the cliff’s edge; but the people continued to wear their smiles when confronted by a stranger offering to help, even if only by means of his camera. A week before that, social media was raging against the Indian media for overdoing their coverage of the disaster. While their concerns were partly true, if you set aside those who had access to Twitter even in times when people were looking for potable water, the ground reality was very different: i was welcomed, once again, with open arms. Not once did a local object to a picture being taken or a question being asked. A man taking shelter under tarpaulin sheets on the playground of what was once a school offered me tea. Such is the soul of Nepal; they lose their homes, families, and history, but not their kindness.
Here are some of my frames from a Nepal that was knocked down but got back up. Immediately after coming back to India, i filed my stories and apart from the frames that my publication carried, I stayed clear of publishing any more since it felt like indulging in tragedy porn. But now that the dust has settled and Nepal is rebuilding itself, i feel compelled to share its story with you. It’s a story not of disaster, but of resilience and compassion in the face of daunting odds.
Click on any picture to view them all in fullscreen mode along with their context (highly recommended):
The Nepalese ran out of everything but compassion
The Pashupatinath temple remained unharmed but other structures in the complex suffered damage. There was no effect on the number of locals visiting it though.
The residence of one of the priests of the temple, or ‘Bhatta’, suffered major damage
Sadhus are in a majority in the temple complex
There is a huge cremation site by the river near the Pashupatinath temple
The famous Sandhya aarti at Pashupatinath
The Bagmati river separates worship and tragedy. While the evening aarti is attended by hundreds every day on one side of the bridge, the other side hosts cremations in the dozens.
After the deadly April earthquake, not even for a day, i was told, did the Aarti stop
Sindhupal chowk district is spread over a region of mountains and narrow steep roads. We were headed to the town of Tatopani to distribute relief packages to the villagers of that area. Many of the houses on the route had been crushed by boulders that came rolling down after the tremors
As you went further up, a house that stood convincingly became an exception instead of the norm
These roads were cleared of avalanche debris by Chinese troops in the few weeks after the quake, locals said. Until then, the area was cut off from Kathmandu and hence from rescue and relief efforts
Even in May, a lot of buildings were standing precariously on the way to Sindhupal Chowk, many of them schools.
Tatopani has a monastery. Spending time with the monks here and the nuns of Amitabha was a revelation. Observing them from close quarters, i realized that their day routines might be different but we had a lot more in common than in contrast
On the right and far up ahead is China. Sindhupal chowk touches the border. The friendship bridge which can be barely seen here, had been closed down at that time (May) for any and all trade, given the risks involved. Tremors were still a frequent occurrence and a downpour (monsoon was barely a month away) could trigger landslides
At Tatopani, nature’s beauty and destructive power lay side by side. There was a scent of danger in the air and the slightest of tremors sparked off panic. People living here were doing with bare minimums
Contrary to notion, the nuns (or monks) don’t spend their days just praying. Apart from their kung-fu exercises, the nuns also take classes of their interest. One of them had taken to photography and was busy capturing every event and trip of the group
The Nepalese people have many lessons in courage, but many more in compassion and life’s little joys
The steep drive to Tatopani riddled with a very real danger of landslides, triggered by aftershocks, is not for the fainthearted. While i felt relieved to be back on ground zero at the end, the nuns and monks were already planning their next day’s relief route. Their calm demeanour often masks a much stronger core
The Tatopani monastery suffered some damage in the quake but stood its ground
While Kathmandu seemed to be working hard to rebuild itself and hide the rubble in the corners, Sindhupal chowk seemed to be living on prayers in May
A resident at the monastery entitled to frequent belly rubs
The monastery at Tatopani suffered damage but continued to host its daily prayer rituals. In fact, the young monks intensified their prayers for healing of the nation.
The Nepalese are generally very camera friendly. Not once was i asked to delete a picture, or not take one.
Tashi, the survivor, has found home in the temporary shelter of this family
The news of a relief truck spreads quickly. I climbed down a few metres down the winding roads to climb back up with the villagers who came to collect their relief packages
There is a shortcut if you have the knees for it
The packages were numbered according to the families left in the villages – 256. The villagers were calm and formed queues to collect their entitled packages.
As it started pouring, many concerns appeared. The villagers were worried about keeping their ration dry. We were worried about making the climb down with an added risk of rain-triggered landslides.
Kumari and group take shelter from the intermittent rain
Young, old, lactating.. everyone loaded some part of the relief package on their back to carry home.
On the way down from Tatopani, we raced against an unexpected downpour as the danger of landslides loomed over us. Once out of the danger zone, i took stock of the flattened villages on the route
A school is reduced to a pile of debris
Langtang was one of the most popular tourist destinations in Nepal. Every year, thousands of trekkers would walk for days to reach the picturesque valley at the foot of the Langtang Lirung mountain. On April 25, an avalanche from the same mountain erased the villages in the valley. The 488 survivors of Langtang found themselves holed up in a small compound of a monastery in Kathmandu.
Survival kits have become the new toys for the mountain boys. The kids of Langtang were so paranoid after the experience that even loud horns would startle them.
Bhaktapur Durbar square was one of the Unesco Heritage sites to have faced catastrophic damage in the April temblor. Many grand structures fell to the quake. Many stood reduced to crumbling piles of bricks.
The priceless engraved columns were being guarded and preserved by locals living near the square
The heritage structures in Nepal are more than just temples or monuments. They form a part of the locals’ everyday lives as they gather around these grand structures every day to socialize. The damage to these structures, hence, is deeper than it appears
Bhaktapur Durbar square suffered the most damage of the heritage sites in Nepal.
All that remained of this magnificent temple was the platform on which it once stood.
These children and their families had taken shelter on the playground of a school in Bhaktapur Durbar Square. All the kids seemed keen to go back to school but were also afraid of the tremors that continued
A school in Bhaktapur Durbar Square awaits rebuilding
- Posted by Frames from a journalist, Travel diary in
- Tagged: compassion, culture, earthquake, heritage, kindness, Nepal, Nepalese, photo essay, photos, portrait, quake, rebuilding, relief, relief efforts, street, temple