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The Bhairav rath stranded in the devastated Durbar Square of Bhaktapur.

Bhaktapur, April 28: When Shiva’s chariot runs amok, it’s naive not to expect devastation in its wake. Bhaktapur is witness.

Once every year, and no more, residents of this cameo township 30 kilometres north of Kathmandu festoon their “Bhairav rath” and cart it around in celebration of the Nepali New Year, which falls in April’s first half.

It’s a mastodon chariot, fitted with four chunky wooden wheels; atop sit three tiers of a pewter pagoda. It only stirs when half of Bhaktapur strains to pull, and the other half pushes.

Last Saturday, the quake loosened its many tethers and rolled it down the alley it was parked in, a behemoth in free trundle. By the time it came to rest in Durbar Square, Bhaktapur’s brick-lined central piazza, the town lay plundered.

The “Bhairav rath” had travelled no more than a few metres, and no longer than a few seconds, but that is all it often takes strong quakes to wreak their havoc. And this was no earthly quake; this was the dance of Bhairav, revered manifestation of Shiva’s wrath.

“Before we could sense what was happening, it was all over,” said Raviraj Luintel, a Bhaktapur cafe owner.

“We were taken by a cloud of dust and when it lifted, it revealed half our town razed. It came and went quick, like a cannon bolt. It left us stunned.”

To Luintel it means little today that Bhaktapur is globally feted as a marvel of architecture and certified by the Unesco charter as a World Heritage City. “But where’s the city? It’s gone, what we have is remains of it.”

Guardian deities at a collapsed shrine.

King Ananda Malla, medieval potentate of the Kathmandu valley, was a pioneer and patron of fine design; he invested resource and rigour in laying out the capital of his Newari kingdom at Bhaktapur in the 12th century.

It was to be a polished red-brick city crafted around expansive squares, crisscrossed by paved lanes and dotted with ornate temples and gazebos. Successive Malla rulers embellished Bhaktapur’s masonry with intricate wood, metal and stone work, such that each structure was a unique piece of art.

Most of what took centuries to painstakingly arrange, it took only a trice to wantonly dismantle. At the mouth of the township, a sandstone dragon gaped pitifully from a pile of brickwork, a once proud figurine knocked rudely to the ground from its august perch.

Round the corner, in one of the tinier squares, stood granite lions and elephants and mythic bulls flanking a pyramidal stairway leading up – guardian avatars to a shrine that had now turned to irretrievable rubble.

To its side stood a temple, a chaste white steeple draped around a crimson Durga. Bamboo poles formed a makeshift circumference around it to prevent people from coming to peril. The quake had riven cracks right up the inner dome; the temple would collapse to the slightest hint of a tremor.

The artefacts museum close by had been marked off limits; an army guard said its walls had been rendered so fragile they could fall any time.

The squares, usually overrun by tourist footfall, were all taken by residents. They had spread out mattresses and stoked kitchen fires, and pulled out what worldly goods they could from their fallen homes – jewellery boxes, utensils, mirrors, linen, poly bags stuffed with clothing, fish and vegetables crated in styrofoam. Some still had dregs of ice.

“Even those whose homes are standing are afraid to go indoors,” said Malati Bishta, a goods store owner. “Somebody or another is forever warning of another quake, nobody wants to die, and so we are all living in the open, sleeping, eating, bathing, just looking at what has suddenly become of our lives.”

Bhaktapur is shaken, and petrified of being stirred again.

The Durbar Square is a restorer’s dream, and everybody else’s nightmare – escarpments of trampled roofs and shattered brickwork everywhere you look. It’s like a dinosaur has been on the romp, and forgotten to take its toy along – that humongous chariot, stranded in the middle of the vista, its wheels jammed into the ground, its ropes disarranged like a witch’s hemp hair.

Bhaktapuris fear to approach it yet, preferring a dazed bewilderment from a safe remove. Their eyes are still glazed, they move about as if in stupor, tourists in their own town surveying the ruins of the new, demolished Bhaktapur.

Unesco’s surviving heritage plaques on sundry walls must mock their reality. None of its proclaimed protections to the heritage city stood a chance when Bhairav resolved to dance.

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