Kathmandu, April 30: At the Tudikhel tent shelter mid-town last evening, Prime Minister Sushil Koirala had
A day before, deputy Prime Minister Bamdev Gautam nearly pulled out of the completion rites of a major rescue mission near the Shobha Bhagwati Bridge on the capital’s outskirts for fear of being heckled; he had to be assured by senior Indian officials in charge of the operation no harm would come to him before Gautam agreed to go.
On the boundary rails of the Singha Durbar, seat of Nepal’s government, Kathmandu residents have put up a missing-person notice as taunt to their representative in the Constituent Assembly: “Dhyan Govind, where are you? And where is the aid?”
The quake has opened a chasm between Nepal’s political class and the people that’s brimming over with ire and indignation.
“Our leadership has collectively retreated from responsibility in a time of grave crisis,” says Kumar Regmi, one of Nepal’s better-known constitutional lawyers.
Sindhupalchok (Northern Nepal), April 29: This is where nature often marinates havoc before serving up tragedy for Bihar – the confluence of the Indravati and the Sunn Kosi which collaborate to make a frequent killing field of the Kosi’s benighted floodplains downstream.
It isn’t their turn to wreak turbulence this season though, at least not yet. Death has sprung from underneath them and cannoned into the skies, ripping whatever fell its way – habitations, cattle pens, orchards, vegetations, mountain bends and causeways, often plain rock.
To see the state of boulders pounded, you’d think ‘rock solid’ isn’t a metaphor to use for impregnable strength anymore.
Where the quake passed, it plundered the mountain to powder and sent it down in showers. What survived the tremor underneath was buried from above.
Destruction has leapfrogged the hills of Sindhupalchok, scoring stab wounds in remote crannies that will take days, even weeks, to discover, much less heal.
“We’ve been left to ourselves all this time,” Bishnu Tamang, a Nepal police constable, told us in Sangha Chowk, a remote hill hamlet. “Everything has collapsed, how much can we dig with human hands, people and cattle are still buried under. We haven’t heard of help, we haven’t been able to call for help.”
Tamang, a strapping lad, his blue fatigues stained with the rigours of desperate rescue, complained, but he also spoke with faith and fortitude: “The truth is there’s destruction everywhere, our turn to be found and helped will come.”
They were a team of eight jawans, he said, too few hands to make a difference to the mayhem that had taken hundreds of families in its grip.
About 120km north-east of Kathmandu, Sindhupalchok is among Nepal’s northern-most districts. It is also, in many parts, hard to access.
At Tatopaani, higher up, Sindhupalchok abuts China on a “Friendship Bridge” manned by the red-hatted People’s Liberation Army (PLA); it’s where the road to Lhasa leads from. But the road to Tatopaani currently lies breached by avalanches and rock falls.
There are too many parts of Sindhupalchok defying access; when they are finally reached by search and rescue teams, it may well turn out this patch was especially favoured for devastation. The toll from these parts has mounted swiftly over the past three days; it’s estimated by district authorities to cross 2,000.
“Hundreds of villages are affected, we do not even know precisely which,” said Ganesh Shreshtha, a junior, but only official at the sub-district offices in Chautara. “It is impossible to have an estimate of those dead or affected but bad news is coming all the time, and we do not have many resources, not even enough men.”
Families escaped from affected villages were camped in Chautara’s open spaces, left to their own devices. Some had pulled vinyl sheets overhead, one group had found a length of corrugated roofing. They had lit wood fires, the women cooked what there was, sitting haunched. The children rolled in the red dust.
From the gorge of Dolalghat, where the Indravati and the Sunn Kosi meet, we had climbed a steep road to come upon the windy spur of Sangha Chowk; it had been blown off its perch like a straw thing in the wind. On both sides of the road, the rubble of what were homes rolled down the slopes.
Under a surviving tree lay the body of a dead man, covered over in a sheet of plastic held down by bricks. Nobody had claimed the body, nobody seemed to know who the man was. Probably just a passer-by taken by shock. They would have to cremate him sooner, but nobody in Sangha Chowk seemed to have the time.
Just across from the dead man under the tree stood Ganesh Giri amid the ramshackle mess of what he had been able to salvage from his fallen home – a dresser, its mirror miraculously intact, a wrought iron television rack with the television gone, a few bowls and ladles, dust-laden cushions, torn bed sheets, his granddaughter’s stuffed monkey toy.
Alas, the quake buried the girl, just six; by the time they got to pull her out, the rubble had asphyxiated her. “There are too many people down the hill and everywhere and there is no way to rescue them,” Giri wailed.
“And there are lots of cattle heads and goats and material. People are so afraid for their lives, they would not even go into rescue because they fear another tremor will strike and they will be gone. Why can the government not come to help? Why do the helicopters just fly by and never land? Why have we been forgotten?”
Forget what doses of strife the Indravati and the Sunn Kosi might offer Bihar post-monsoon, at the moment the recipes are being readied for Nepal – a hot pot of public anger with liberal sprinklings of dereliction.
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.”
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.