Community-based Conservation of the Sacred Living Heritage at the Bauddhanath Monument Zone, Kathmandu Valley World Heritage Site, Nepal

Repainting the Bauddhanath Stupa – the author’s photograph

Repainting the Bauddhanath Stupa – the author’s photograph

The case study data used in this article is part of the outcome of 9 weeks fieldwork undertaken in Kathmandu Valley World Heritage Site in the summer 2012. In this article I specifically look into conservation practices of the local community of the Bauddhanath Monument Zone and the challenges faced in its conservation and management. Bauddhanath Monument Zone is one of the significant sacred sites and pilgrimage destinations in Buddhism especially among Tibetan Buddhists. It is a great example of a living sacred heritage site which has retained its original function/use, is strongly associated with cultural expressions and sacred rituals, has remained as a significant part of its associated communities’ daily lives and is continuously conserved by them. The main feature of the Bauddhanath Monument Zone is the Bauddhanath Stupa, a reliquary of the Lord Buddha’s relics; a sacred architecture. Stupa is one of the oldest symbols representing the Lord Buddha. They are one of the fundamental elements of the Buddhist communities. In addition they normally function as a reliquary of the Buddha’s relics, a remembrance of him or a special event in his life and as an offering to gain merit. Bauddhanath Stupa is located at the center of the site surrounded by rings of apartments, handicraft shops, rooftop restaurants, hotels and art schools. As every other stupa, Bauddhanath symbolizes the Lord Buddha. The four pairs of eyes which is a unique feature of the Nepali stupas resemble the eternal presence of the Lord Buddha in the minds of the worshipers.

This article presents how local conservation practices of Bauddhanath Monument Zone are closely interlinked with and derived from religious rituals. The contrasts with the international doctrine reveal the gaps which result in the conflicts between international and local approaches to conservation of living [sacred] sites, in this case, in the Buddhist context. As an alternative, a new approach is introduced: Living Heritage Approach which aims at complementing previous existing approaches by focusing on the core community values and recognizing the core community as the custodians of their own heritage.

UNESCO World Heritage Listing
Today, Bauddhanath Stupa is surrounded by one of the most congested areas of Kathmandu. It is recognized as a Buddhist sacred site and designated by the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as one of the seven Monument Zones of the Kathmandu Valley World Heritage Site since 1979.

Comparing the aerial photos of the Bauddhanath reveals a shocking fact. The aerial photo from 1960s shows the Stupa surrounded by a ring of houses encircled by farmlands. Approximately 50 years later, today, the Stupa is surrounded by rings of buildings, leaving barely any green space behind. This unauthorized development and urbanization which took place all around the Kathmandu Valley led into the unfortunate listing on the UNESCO World Heritage in Danger List in 2003. Producing an Integrated Management Plan for the Kathmandu Valley World Heritage Site, four years later, the Site was removed from the UNESCO World Heritage List in Danger, however the neighborhoods and heritage sites remained vulnerable.

Left: Satellite Image of Bauddhanath and its area - Google Maps 2013 Right: Bauddhanath situation in the 1960s - Survey Department of Nepal (

Left: Satellite Image of Bauddhanath and its area – Google Maps 2013
Right: Bauddhanath situation in the 1960s – Survey Department of Nepal (

The Structure of the Bauddhanath Stupa
The ancient symbolic representation of the Great Buddha, the Bauddhanath Stupa is one of the largest stupas in Asia. Based on Buddhist beliefs, the stupa is the evidence of the Buddha’s presence. The most visible feature is the hemispherical mound placed on three mandala-shape platforms, carrying a cube (harmika) on top which on each side there is a pair of eyes. The eyes give the impression that the Buddha is always watching, hence always present. The traditional practice of painting the eyes is so specific to Nepal that they are one of the symbols of the country. In between the eyes, the Nepali numeric character ‘1’ can be seen as a nose. According to Setler, this numeric symbol represents the monotheistic essence of the Buddhism. (Setler et al., 2006) A thirteen-step spire and a canopy is placed on the top of the harmika. In general, the current form of the stupas is greatly different to their former shape at the time they were built. Many layers have been added to the structure for various reasons, such as constant enlargements and renovations. According to Slusser, the thirteen stages became the standard for the Nepalese stupas after the eleventh century. (Shepherd Slusser, 1982)

Heritage Conservation: A brief comparison of the Buddhist and the international doctrine
In the Buddhist philosophy, the practice of conservation of the sacred objects and places are amalgamated with the religious rituals to a point that they become inseparable. It is important to note that Buddhism is expressed differently in every culture and background however there are certain fundamental concepts that are similar throughout different Buddhist backgrounds. According to Gamini Wijesuriya, conservation tradition in the South Asian context is associated with fundamental concepts of Buddhism such as spirituality, continuity, impermanency, symbolism, samsara, merit and pilgrimage. (Wijesuriya, 2007b: 74-77) Neel Kamal Chapagain adds insubstantiality to this list. (Chapagain, 2013: 50)

The adaptation of these fundamental concepts in conservation practices of Buddhist communities often challenges the international thinking on conservation. In the Buddhist context, sacred objects and sites are constantly maintained, restored or reconstructed. In other words, they are continuously recreated thus the livingness is the main characteristic of sacred objects and sites associated with Buddhism. The reason according to Gamini Wijesuriya is that the conservation of the physical form is the only way to conserve the sacredness of a stupa (Wijesuriya, 2005: 30) since Buddhists should be able to see the sacred objects of worship in their complete form. The endless effort to maintain, restore or reconstruct the stupas or sacred objects is a testimony to this fact.

Repainting of the mural figures – Photo by Foad Shafighi

Repainting of the mural figures – Photo by Foad Shafighi

This brings us to the concept of impermanency which is the center of one of the last teachings of the Lord Buddha; “decay is inherent in all component things! Work out your salvation with diligence”. (Davids, 1881: 114 cited in Jayarava, n.d) Buddhists accept decay or as Chapagain puts it; “the transient nature of the material world”.(Chapagain, 2013: 50) Insubstantiality is also connected to impermanent character of the components of the world. “Buddhists, thus, find no satisfaction, peace or contentment in the world. There is no purpose, therefore, to look for any authenticity or value in an insubstantial and impermanent material existence” (ibid: 50) To better understand, it is important to remember that Buddhists believe in the cyclic concept of time which is in contrast to the western view of time that is linear. (Wijesuriya, 2007b: 75, Skedzuhn-Safir and Oeter, 2010: 111, Chapagain, 2013: 50) This leads to the concept of Samsara or reincarnation; the process of birth, death and rebirth. (Amundsen, 2003: 484, Sinding-Larsen, 2012: 178, Chapagain, 2013: 50) “Despite the importance attached to cultural heritage in Buddhist context, drastic physical changes, including the reconstruction (sometimes in entirely different forms) of historic buildings and artifacts are not unusual. In cases of their decay, a complete reconstruction (not necessarily to their previous state but often to an enhanced state) is considered meritorious”. (Chapagain, 2013: 50)

The western view however emphasizes on perfectionism by using the fabric-based approaches; based on an art-historic doctrine that since the beginning of 19th century has emphasized on conserving the materiality of monuments and has tended to freeze them in time without any changes or modifications to its form and fabric. According to Wijesuriya, the aim of conservation was to retain the materiality and to extend the life of monuments and heritage objects. (Wijesuriya, 2003: 42) In this view, heritage loses its “present relevance”. (Tiwari, 2012: 3) Most of the legal international documents on conservation produced from beginning of 20th century were reflecting the conservation ideas of 18th and 19th century focusing on material conservation, undermining intangible aspects of historic structures and sites. The International Charter for the Conservation and Restoration of Monuments and Sites known as the Venice Charter 1964 is an example of such approaches. However, in latter documents the authoritative language have become gentler and “less commanding or normative”, “changing from must and shall to may”. (Pound, 2008 cited in Sinding-Larsen, 2012: 80, Ayoubi, 2013: 29) The more recent conventions, documents and charters try to emphasize on the heritage values and cultural significance while acknowledging the intangible dimensions. The Australia ICOMOS Charter for the Conservation of Places of Cultural Significance known as the Burra Charter (latest version 2013) is a good example of these latter changes in the conventional approaches.

Conservation of the Bauddhanath Stupa

Repainting of the Bauddhanath Stupa – Photo Source: Unknown, 1984

Repainting of the Bauddhanath Stupa – Photo Source: Unknown, 1984

In Bauddhanath, conservation practices have been constantly done by the local community. However, not everyone is permitted to take part in the conservation when it comes to deal with the physical fabric of the Stupa. The caste system is still dominant in the Nepali society today and the process of conserving the Bauddhanath Stupa is no exception. The hierarchy of the caste system rules who can step on the upper platforms and who is allowed on the lower parts. The Newars[1] are the group who can climb up to the highest point on the spire, clean the gold plates, install the prayer flags, change the clothing around the spire and repaint the mural figures on the cube under the spire. It is the Tamangs[2] who are permitted to repaint the lower parts such as the hemispherical body of the Stupa. The men who repaint the Bauddhanath Stupa have inherent this sacred task from their ancestors and will eventually pass it down to their next generations.

The conservation process which is mainly restoration is done twice or thrice a month and usually starts early in the morning by organizing tables outside the Stupa on the circumambulatory path with color powder bags and saffron flowers for people and worshipers to buy and donate to the Stupa’s conservation. In Buddhism contributing to construction, maintenance and conservation of sacred places and objects is considered as a highly meritorious act. This is not only reflected in the participation of the Buddhist community associated with Bauddhanath for its repainting days but also is seen in different forms of volunteerism around the Bauddhanath Stupa. For instance, small groups of women regularly lubricate and clean the prayer wheels around the Stupa. They frequently remove the ashes remained from the incense sticks.


(left) An old woman lubricating the prayer wheels (right) A woman removing the remaining ashes (center) Color powder tables outside the Stupa the author’s photographs

Once enough color is gathered, the painters start their work by whitewashing the hemispherical dome of the Bauddhanath Stupa. They pour the white color all over the dome to clean and wash away the previous color. Once the Stupa’s hemispherical dome is whitewashed, the painters pour the yellow saffron color skillfully to create yellow arches on the surface of the dome which symbolizes a lotus flower. There are 108 stone sculptures of the Buddha in different postures encircling the lower periphery of the Bauddhanath’s hemispherical dome. While pouring the color from upper platforms, it overflows down on the statues. To remove the color, a thick bristle brush is used which physically damages the statues.

Especially in the monsoon season when the Bauddhanath Stupa is affected by long rainy days and at those occasions when there is a longer gap between two repainting days, the Stupa’s surface gets covered with moss. In this case, the painters and the restorers try to scrape the surface to remove the moss-affected areas for which they use shovels and thick bristle brushes. Later the scraped surface is collected and cleared out.

Repainting the Bauddhanath Stupa – the author’s photographs

Repainting the Bauddhanath Stupa – the author’s photographs

Removing the moss-affected surface areas using a shovel – the author’s photographs

Removing the moss-affected surface areas using a shovel – the author’s photographs

Since it is a sacred ritual, the community does not use paints with chemical substances, instead they naturally produce the color paints. Saffron flower is used to create yellow color. Lime and milk powder are used in making of the white paint color. As a result, the painted surface done by this method can be easily washed away by water or rainfall. As it was mentioned before, Nepal has a long monsoon season. Rainfalls are usually expected everyday. Despite spending hours cleaning and repainting the Bauddhanath Stupa, everything can be washed away right after finishing the restoration work only if the rain falls.

Conflicts between Buddhist and international doctrine
One of the old-established sacred rituals of Buddhism is lighting and offering butter lamps. Buddhists have been encouraged to light and offer butter lamps by the Lord Buddha; “hundreds of thousands of golden objects are not equal to the wise man, faithful in mind, who makes a gift oil lamp at shrines of a Buddha”. (Rotman, 2009: 57)

An enchanting ancient sacred ritual in Bauddhanath is the tradition of lighting and offering butter lamps all over the Stupa in the Full Moon night. However Department of Archaeology, Government of Nepal has prohibited the use of butter lamps on the Full Moon night. This preventive measure was decided to prevent further damage to the Stupa’s structure caused by soot of butter lamps over time. The solution of Department of Archaeology has been to replace butter lamps with stings of colorful LED lamps.

(left) Bauddhanath in the Full Moon night as it used to be in the past – Photo by Matthieu Ricard (Photo copyright Matthieu Ricard, all rights reserved to Karuna Shechen) (right) Bauddhanath in the Full Moon night as it is today – the author’s photograph

(left) Bauddhanath in the Full Moon night as it used to be in the past – Photo by Matthieu Ricard (Photo copyright Matthieu Ricard, all rights reserved to Karuna Shechen)
(right) Bauddhanath in the Full Moon night as it is today – the author’s photograph

One of the downsides of this measure is undermining the intangible value and significance of this ritual. The reason behind this according to Raj Sudarshan Tiwari might be that “it is usual practice to follow the UNESCO conventions and other instruments approved by it when it comes to the conservation of World Heritage Sites. Conservation professionals use these instruments as standards of reference also for ‘lesser’ heritages of national and local stature”. (Tiwari, 2012: 1) However it is not very clear why certain practices get eliminated despite the high significance and why some practices do not. The Full Moon night is celebrated among both Hindus and Buddhists in Nepal and its associated rituals such as the lighting of butter lamps are continuously practiced in other stupas (such as the Swayambhu Monument Zone), Hindu temples and on the streets. To this moment, the stupas and temples are still standing despite the fact that butter lamps have been leaving traces of soot and oil on the wall surfaces testifying to this long-established traditional ritual.

Living heritage approach: a new hope for the local communities
There are certain factors which differentiate living heritage sites from others. Continuity or the living dimension of heritage is the primary characteristic of such sites and helps to define living heritage. (Poulios, 2014: 115, Wijesuriya and De Caro, 2012: 41) In characterizing continuity there are certain values inherent in heritage which need to be recognized; continuity of original use/function, continuity of community connections, continuity of tangible and intangible cultural expressions and continuity of care through traditional practices, materials, knowledge or established means. (Wijesuriya, 2007a: 61, Wijesuriya and De Caro, 2012: 41, Poulios, 2014: 28, 115)

Living heritage concept by Gamini Wijesuriya (ICCROM) Collected and made into graphic by Ayda Ayoubi and Camille Benecchi

Living heritage concept by Gamini Wijesuriya (ICCROM) Collected and made into graphic by Ayda Ayoubi and Camille Benecchi

Complementing other approaches (fabric-based approach and value-based approach), the Living Heritage Approach was developed by the International Center for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM) in 2003 as a response to the challenges of conservation and management of the living heritage sites. (Wijesuriya and De Caro, 2012: 41) The Living Heritage Approach aims at promoting the core community engagement with the sacred sites/objects by prioritizing their values and recognizing them as the custodians of the heritage. The core community is recognized to hold the main role in the conservation activities and decision-making processes which turns the Living Heritage Approach into a good example of a bottom-up approach. The strong linkage to community and prioritization of their values implies the acknowledgement of evolution and change. The Living Heritage Approach tries to link conservation to the sustainable development of the communities, by managing change and making heritage relevant to the contemporary life of the heritage community. (Poulios, 2014: 28, Wijesuriya and De Caro, 2012: 41)

This means that the Living Heritage is a dynamic phenomenon which in nature is broader than its physical fabric and encompasses the context and the immaterial dimensions, namely intangible aspects, traditions, rituals and values. According to Wijesuriya, “consideration should not only be given to the structures built in a particular period but to all the contemporary and evolved expressions, both tangible and intangible, including the maintenance of associated arts and crafts”. (Wijesuriya, 2007a: 66) When change is managed and community values are acknowledged, the communities are able to draw various benefits (spiritual, social, economic, etc.) from their own site. The Living Heritage Approach tries to recognize above mentioned points while taking care of the fabric.

The notion of the living sacred heritage is different to other types of heritage since it is associated with meanings, symbolism and religious rituals. The living sacred heritage sites are sacred places for devotees to spiritually prosper and flourish and this for them requires following religious rituals and traditions. In the Buddhist context and in this case; Bauddhanath Stupa, it means placing offerings, continuous use and constant conservation. It is important to understand that the Bauddhanath Stupa is a symbol of the Buddha himself, thus should be treated as the Buddha. Respectively, participation in conservation for devotees becomes a mean to gain merit.

Perhaps, it is relevant to ask; what should be conserved? material authenticity or the overall shape and associated rituals (the intangible aspects)? To conserve the Bauddhanath Stupa, one needs to acknowledge all the symbolism and meanings embedded in the Stupa’s architecture as well as its associated rituals. It is important to understand that the aim of conservation is to conserve the spirituality and symbolism behind the physical object to be able to fully conserve the structure itself. In Buddhist context, religious rituals are an inseparable part of the materiality, in other words, tangible and intangible can never be separated, thus the rituals need to be adapted to the conservation process as well.

Finally, a balance and mutual understanding is needed. There is no doubt in existence of valuable knowledge in the international doctrine. What is important here is to find a way to integrate these two approaches together and adapt it to the respective context. The Living Heritage Approach is a step towards reaching this sublime by placing the communities at the core of decision-making and conservation and acknowledging their values and traditions while embracing change.



Ayda Ayoubi

Ayda Ayoubi

[1] The indigenous people of the Kathmandu Valley

[2] Tamangs are one of the largest ethnic groups in Nepal who mainly live in Himalayas and are mostly influenced by the Tibetan culture and traditions

The fieldwork was done from June to August 2012 to gather field data for writing the master’s thesis in Urban Ecological Planning program in the Department of Urban Planning and Design, Faculty of Architecture and Fine Art of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU).

On April 25th, 2015 at 11:56 AM Nepal was struck by a devastating earthquake of 7.8 magnitude with an epicenter in Lamjung; 8 kilometers northwest of Kathmandu. Thousands of people lost their lives and homes. Many cultural heritage sites were damaged or destroyed during the earthquake. Minor structural damage was observed at the Bauddhanath Stupa after the earthquake.


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