Swayambhunath — also known as the Monkey Temple, for its holy, furry dwellers that swing from the rosewood trees — is one of the oldest and most sacred Buddhist sites in Nepal’s Kathmandu Valley, an important pilgrimage destination for Hindus as well as Buddhists. It was also one of the worst damaged by last month’s earthquake.
At the site, Nepali police soldiers shovel broken bricks and sand into garbage baskets. They’re much more cautious cleaning up here than at many other devastated places: There’s a chance they could still find precious, centuries-old statues and other artifacts in the rubble.
Volunteers stand precariously atop a two-story-high pile of crumbled bricks, scouring it for relics. A temple nearby, part of the site’s hilltop complex, has big cracks and looks like it could topple and crush them at any minute.
This is dangerous, important work, says Nepal’s undersecretary of the Department of Archaeology, Suresh Shrestha, who’s peeled off his dust mask and is taking a break in the shade.
“There are so many artifacts because in Hinduism and Buddhism, there are lots and lots of gods and goddesses,” he says.
Nepal’s government says at least 70 ancient, sacred sites in the Kathmandu Valley were severely damaged or destroyed by the earthquake. The area is home to seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites; Swayambhunath is one of them.
With help from the United Nations, every ancient object that’s found intact at the site from now on will be inventoried and stored in a secure place to protect from looters. Archaeologists fear that in the chaos following the quake, some artifacts were lost or stolen.
The oldest structure there, a Buddhist monument known as a stupa, dates from the fifth century. “It is intact,” says Christian Manhart, UNESCO’s country representative for Nepal. “We are lucky.”
Manhart says it’s difficult to know at this point how much of the Swayambhunath complex can be restored. But, he says, “I’m rather optimistic. We have all these architectural features like sculptures, carved wooden beams, cornerstones, which can be reused for construction.”
Despite the damage, the most sacred rituals are continuing — including worship five times a day.
“We have [a] very big problem, but we do not stop the praying,” says Ashok Buddhacharya, a priest who says his family roots at the temple extend back to the fifth century. “Ritual praying is continuing.”
Buddhacharya sits on a mat underneath a large, blue tarp. It’s where he and his wife and children and other families are cooking and sleeping, since their living quarters here were reduced to rubble.
“These are historical, more than 1,000 years old, the stupas, the metal things, the statues,” he says. “We cannot make a repeat, you see.”
That is, they can’t just rebuild them.
That’s why archaeologists feel a sense of urgency, here and at other sites, as they work around the clock to recover what they can.