Nepal, on the Way to Helambu After the Earthquake

text and pictures by Davide Torri. 
The heavy vehicle chugs along for the better part of a day before reaching Melamchiphul, where the Yolmo and Indrawati rivers meet. This is the gate to the Helambu valley. From here, the road begins to climb following the Yolmo Khola, becoming gradually narrower. Before the earthquake, it was accessible at least until Timbu in this season, but today we will have to get out sooner. The minibus reaches Kiul, then the road stops abruptly: a little further up we can see the steep slopes of the mountains disfigured by the landslides, and where the bridge once stood there is only the river, swollen by the recent monsoon rains. Many remember the earthquake that in April 2015 took a heavy toll on Nepal, devastating the valley of Kathmandu and other areas of the Himalayan country.

Bolgaon village. By Davide Torri

However, while most media focused their attention on the capital city, a considerable portion of the country was largely ignored, left out of the spotlights: the rural areas, the hills (as mountains under 4000 metres are known in these parts), with their already fragile ecosystems threatened by climate change, with their cultural wealth precariously hanging between the hardships of peasant life and the promises, often misleading, of a rapid transition towards a life of economic comfort in the valley. Among the thousands of valleys in this country, one is particularly dear to me: the valley of Helambu, half way between the stretch of Kathm andu and the snowy peaks of Langtang, beyond which lies the Tibetan plateau. For over ten years I have carried out my research in the se parts, going from village to village collecting the stories from people and putting together the signs of change, compar ing myths and legends with documents and texts, while witnessing the Buddhist rituals, which represents the main religious expression here, and its contaminations with a sublayer of parallel or even pre-existi ng beliefs that still resist within the popular practices and faith. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the name Helambu originates from the local words that indicate two of the main products offered by this land to its inhabitants: turnips a nd potatoes. These crops, as well as other vegetables and the farming of zomo (a mix between a yak and a cow), represent the main economic activities of the Hyolmo who still resist the temptation of migrating to the city, and continue to in the villages of what is to them a sacred land. In fact, legend has it that this was one of the places of medi tation of Padmasambhava “Lotus Born”, known also as Guru Rinpoche, the “precious master”, considered one of the main figures responsible for the spread Buddhism in Tibet during the 8th century. Various locations along the entire Himalayan chain are associated with his life and actions. According to legend, he was gifted with mystical and miraculous powers, and there is scarcely a valley or peak that hadn’t borne witness to his deeds. Among these places, some are conside red particularly special: certain valleys, in fact, were blessed by the “precious master” to serve as a spiritual refuge in times of need; valleys – according to tradition – hidden by sacred mountains and enchanted forests, rich in balsamic herbs and medicinal waters, and in hidden relics and magical places of prodigious powers. Kiul is just a handful of concrete houses – today dangerously marked by sinister cracks – on either side of the only road.

Nepal, rebuilt. By Davide Torri

On the one side lies the river. On the other the ascent towards the forested ridge which hides the village of Sermathang. Between us and our destination the path snakes through farmed terraces and small houses. Sangye, my guide and trusted friend of a lifetime, and I settle for a plate of rice and a cup of kalochya, black tea, before setting off for our climb. Once again I am here on behalf of the University of Heidelberg, but not just to carry out research: the Institute of Asian Studies (SAI) has important ties with Nepal, and a fundraiser was immediately set up to be allocat ed to various initiatives in support of the population and its historic and artistic heritage (SAI HELP NEPAL). I am here to carry out a survey, and to compile a report regarding the situation in Sindhupalchok and in Helambu in particular. As we climb from Kiul towards the village of Sermathang, the

panoramic view behind us helps us to forget the earthquake for a brief moment: the plain is wide, the crops seem plentiful and shine bright green for a moment in the sun’s blinding light. But it’s just a matter of climbing up to the sanctuary of Padmasambhava, half hidden in the heavy rain-filled clouds, before we are reminded that there is still much to be done before this glorious valley may get back what has been taken from it. Along the route we can see the first ruined structures, piles of rubble that the vegetation has already begun to reclaim. We stop to sleep in a very modest makeshift house built out of metal sheets. Here lives the only doctor of the valley, who welcomes us smiling as he is washing freshly picked wild mushrooms, the main course for our dinner that evening. Although almost in his seventies, he nonethele ss goes round the villages with a small backpack packed with medicine, antibiotics, and disinfectants in order to guarantee the bare  minimum in health support to the people of the nearby villages. His stories keep me awake until late at night, while all around us silence falls, until I give myself up to fatigue and lie down on a mat, tightly wrapped up in my sleeping bag, while Sangye and the doctor keep talking among themselves. The following morning we continue until Sermathang, the “golden plain”. The gloomy sky, and the vast majority of buildings in ruins make us witnesses of a very differe nt scenery. This was one of the main villages of the region, and it presents itself to us like a ghost town. Sangye shows me the degree to which damage has been made to the houses and the local monastery. Multi-story brick buildings, very different from the traditional Hyolmo stone houses. Buildings that now lie abandoned, their walls torn apart. We keep going until his village, leaving Sermathang behind us, but not before having visited the school, or what was left of it. The first impression is that of a war zone, perhaps not entirely a coincidence. Among such destruction a detail immediately catches my attention. Among the pile of rubble, abandoned clothes, torn notebooks and other personal belongings, one book stands out, opened on a map of Iraq. Founded at

Padmasambhava. by Davide Torri

the end of the Eighties,the Yangrima School had started with two teachers and 38 students. Lately it counted over 200 students and represented an important education centre for boys and girls up to the age of fifteen. Together with the schools from the other villages, in Melemchi or in Tarkeghyang, it represented a stable point of reference for the survival of the local social fabric. Without schools, and without the familiar voices of students who crowd the paths on their way to and from lessons, the valley seems even more deserted that it already is. Months have passed since the earthquake, but because of the monsoon rebuilding has yet to begin. People barely had time to build makeshift shacks before the rain season started, during which, even under normal conditions, landslides happen constantly one after the other, and the roads turn into violent streams which in turn swell into flooding rivers. In the evening we reach the village of Bremang. Sangye deject edly points out the ruins of his house, he shows me the other damaged buildings, tells me the stories of those who escaped death by a whisker and of those who instead didn’t make it. His friend Pema welcomes us. We make ourselves at home in his makeshift house, sharing the small space with his family. The only room functions also as a small drug store where one can find basic goods, albeit clearly in limited quantities. Faced with a steaming soup and a drop of local liquor our spirits are lifted, other friends join in, we chat a little and Sangye explains his project. He has worked for years as a guide in the world of hiking, he’s a serious professional and beloved by many. By a series of unexpected and unpredictable circumstances he has bui lt close bonds with Italian excursionists and mountaineers. On more than one occasion he has even worked in an Alpine refuge in Trentino. In his apartment in Kathmandu he still keeps a framed newspaper cut-out, which he always shows me with pride, the page of a local paper from the Val di Fiemme with his photo standing out. For a long time now there has been a group of particularly fond friends who don’t just visit the valley of Halembu in a sustainable way, but they are also ready to give a steady hand in rebuilding after t

he disaster, through the organisation Helambu Arcobaleno. «We will rebuild everything» says Sangye, «house by house». And everyone else nods in silence. No one wants to leave the village, even though many don’t reside here permanently anymore. Modern Nepal is defined by an intense process of urbanisation which has seen a gradual depopulation of rural villages that in turn has led to enormous numbers of migrants both towards the capital, Kathmandu (grown disproportianlly over the last twenty years), and abroad (many young Nepales e are hired by unscrupulous agents and sent to various countries as cheap manual labour). Yet the bond to ones roots and one’s native village still remains a salient feature for the definition of identities, both individual and collective. «We are the Hyolmo because we were born here – Sangye goes on to say – in this land blessed by Padmasambhava, our culture is rooted in these villages, among these mountains, in our land».
It might sound like pure and simple provincialism, but at the moment in Nepal these are very delicate topics. In a country that boasts a great variety of cultures, languages, religions, the fall of the Monarchy of 2008 went hand in hand with the fall of Hinduism as the state religion, and the newly born Republic of Nepal found itself being the main stage of countless movements aimed at laying claim to countless local identities. As colourful, picturesque and folkloristic as Nepal might seem, this revival of ethnic minorities hasn’t been devoid of political and at times even violent consequences. Claims of a sense of belonging to one community rather than another are laid out with pride, and the connection with a precise territory seems inescapable. For the Hyolmo this is the valley whose shape resembles that of a eight-petaled lotus, described by countless sacred texts, protected by a prodigious mountain chain. At its centre, the Ama Yangri Mountain, “Mother
Yangri”, is also considered the divine protector of the area and many rituals are carried out by the Lama in her honour. In the following days we visit other villages, we collect more tragic stories regarding the earthquake and its consequences, but we are also witnesses to moments of resurgence, determined challenges, and solidarity. I must seem a little sceptical at times. I tell Sangye that
by now people want to descend to the valleys, the young want to migrate abroad to find work. At various times I have seen the decline of rural and mountain communities. I know that it takes time and patience to revive a place. «We have them, time and patience, we have them», Syange tells me. Then as he winks at me he adds «We also need a little cash, you know?». The 2015 earthquake with its 9000 accounted for victims, the tens of thousands of injured and the millions of homeless, has brought the already fragile economy of Nepal to its knees, a country which was already one of the poorest in Asia. As often is the case, the emergency has contributed to exacerbate many other problems as well: economic speculation and corruption, human trafficking, black market, lack of infrastructure are just a few of the chronic problems of this country, still politically very unstable as a result of the civil war fought between 1996 and 2006. Two years after the earthquake, there is still much to be done in the districts of Sindhupalchok and Baruwa, where the valley of Helambu and the Langtang national park are located. One just has to think that in this area about 90% of buildings was destroyed. In some cases, like in Langtang, entire villages were swept away by powerful landslides that in a single moment wiped out for ever hundreds of people, their houses and
animals. Over the last year the efforts to rebuild and to bri ng these valleys back to life have intensified: many houses have been rebuilt and many other works are under way, but the road is still very long, and all of it uphill.
By | 2017-02-07T22:00:56+00:00 4 February, 2017|

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