The article is called “Preserving Nepal’s Soul” and it appears in the March 19th edition of the Nepali Times. “For many of Nepal’s development partners, the priority is poverty-reduction, health and education.” Stéphane Huët begins, “But as Nepal makes progress in literacy and mother-child survival, some have turned to preserving Nepal’s unique and rich cultural heritage.”While it is interesting to note that literacy and mother-child survival are excluded from Nepal’s otherwise rich cultural heritage in this set-up the gist of the article is actually about the particular interest the United States has taken in Nepali cultural preservation projects over the past decade or so. For the most part, this interest involves funding for the architectural and artistic restoration of ancient shrines and temples as well as programs for eco-tourism that promote the reinvigoration of cultural performances. For example, the article continues: “In 2012, the program supported Alliance for Ecotourism for the preservation of intangible heritage, the Kartik Nach dance which had not been performed in its full form since 1949. Ambassador Bodde says he was touched when he sat through the performance and watched hundreds of young Nepalis proud of a revival of a nearly-lost part of their heritage. “If we can help do that, we’ve done something special,” he said. ”
It might be confusing as to why my tone here appears circumspect. After all, doesn’t this sound exactly like the kinds of helpful, culturally-sensitive, partnerships we should be engaging our post-colonial, globalized, dollars in? In light of recent tragedies showing the destruction of museums and artifacts by extremist groups in the Middle East, is this not the noble way to ensure the cultural continuity of marginalized peoples? In principle, that would be the hope but unfortunately, such is not always the reality. In Sienna Craig’s “A Tale of Two Temples: Culture, Capital, and Community in Mustang, Nepal,” we’re introduced to a more sobering account of preservation efforts through the case of Thubchen Lhakhang, a temple built in 1472 and located in the heart of Monthang in Mustang District. Bringing together a veritable Greek chorus of characters (a US-based preservation foundation, a couple of Nepalese conservation and development organizations, a Kathmandu-based international architecture and restoration firm, a host of foreign and Nepali subcontractors, and the “rather nebulous category of “community support”” (15)) the project to restore and conserve Thubchen Lhakhang had something of an unanticipated result. The Loba people who once used it, now can’t.
It’s true, the physical monument has been restored (for the time being, at least) and a gripping NOVA documentary has been produced and shown world-wide. But that “intangible heritage” so lauded by the Nepali Times just moments ago seems to have gone missing. The Loba people of Mustang, the “cultural owners” of the monastery, somehow became antithetical to their own culture in the process of saving it. What I mean by this more plainly is that the crumbling edifice of the building itself had been taken to mean neglect by the people, now culturally-bankrupted by the forces of modern society. In other words, the peoples of Mustang, in their efforts to reconcile their lived realities with pressures to “modernize,” became agents in their own cultural demise. For the agencies involved, Loba culture needed to be saved from Loba people. What was important now was preserving culture; a culture that now existed within the construct of a 15th century religious complex. As Craig describes it, “the socio-economic, political, and even aesthetic underpinnings of Thubchen’s neglect – as well as the place of Mustang’s people as agents of this change, is rendered superfluous to the larger mission: to preserve, protect, and restore cultural heritage as a catalyst for what the arbiters of this perspective see as “positive” local practice.” (16).
While this ideological split is frustrating in and of itself, the final result was that, in the end, new centers of Loba cultural identity and activity now no longer appear in Mustang District, but in the urban center of Kathmandu, where many groups located in outlying districts have begun to relocate. As for the preserved centers of “culture” still located in ancestral lands, they’re now visited only by tourists. A new kind of “cultural zoo” has come about; traditions frozen in time and space, set aside for the paying interests of foreign visitors, donors, and trekking agencies.
By designating specific sites as places of “cultural heritage” indigenous peoples are often erased or removed from notions of universal heritage, especially in cases where money, government agencies, and international collaboration are centered around an idea that culture is, somehow, going away (even though, ironically, it is as more and more people leave Mustang District behind for the less destitute opportunities of urban life). And what is more, that which is preserved is no longer produced by the practices and traditions of the peoples located there. Instead, it is produced through an Italian conservationist’s paint brush, an American development specialist’s spreadsheet, and an Indian architect’s blueprint. It may not be their intent, but this culture is different than the one that came before it. This is culture for sale.
Craig, Sienna. 2002. “A Tale of Two Temples: Culture, Capital, and Community in Mustang, Nepal” http://himalaya.socanth.cam.ac.uk/collections/journals/ebhr/pdf/EBHR_27_02.pdf
Huët, Stéphane. 2015. “Preserving Nepal’s Soul.” Nepali Times. 19 March 2015 http://nepalitimes.com/article/Nepali-Times-Buzz/ambassador-fund-cultural-preservation-nepal,2092