On the day of the earthquake, Rabindra Puri, a self-taught Nepali architect, was on the first floor of his model house, an elegant structure of bricks and wood carvings, giving a tour to a local journalist.

The two quickly descended the wooden stairway, arriving at the courtyard of the house, which won an award from UNESCO in 2004. Puri’s first thought was for the safety of his family: his wife; his mother; eight year-old daughter and a six-month old son, who were at another house.

While panic-stricken people were running helter skelter, the 45-year-old sprinted along the narrow alley and reached another house within seconds, narrowly escaping death as an old building collapsed just as he passed by.

Everyone in the Newari neighborhood of Ga Chhen – literally, ‘lowland houses’ in the Newari language – had gathered in the small square with a shrine of the Hindu god Vishnu.

“When I saw my family was safe, I heaved a sigh of relief,” he recalls. He took them to the safety of another house which was under construction. As everyone in the neighborhood huddled around their family members, he too wanted to be with his loved ones, particularly his infant son.

Someone told him that Nyatapola Temple, a five-story structure built in 1702, had collapsed. He was torn between his role as the guardian of the family and the urgency to see the temple’s condition with his own eyes.

When he arrived at Bhaktapur Durbar Square, a 10-minute walk from his home, now littered with debris and bricks, he found it unscathed. “I felt very happy to see my beloved temple,” he tells Anadolu Agency.

“My family was safe; my houses were not damaged. So I went out to the districts hardest hit by the quake to help people who were in dire conditions,” he said. For a week, he accompanied a group of German doctors who had previously worked in Haiti, treating the injured and distributing relief materials including 3,000 tarpaulins for shelter.

A week or so later, he found that a group of soldiers from the Nepalese army had tied a rope to a traditional brick house of his neighborhood and started tearing it down.

“It was heartbreaking to see that. Bhaktapur is blessed with marvelous architecture. Even private houses here are centuries-old and made of old bricks and wood carvings. These were gems, but at the hands of the security forces, they were of no value,” he says.

“It was very sad because we were going to lose the precious materials. I thought we must do something to save the history and culture of the city,” he said.

In order to salvage the precious clay bricks and exquisite windows in latticework, he hired 30 students from Nepal Vocational Academy, his institute that trains young men and women in traditional carpentry and masonry in Panauti, a small town 20 kilometers (12 miles) southeast of Bhaktapur.

The group has not returned to work after a second powerful earthquake struck the country on May 12.  

Since then, Puri, a pot-bellied man with a luxuriant mane of graying hair, has been making rounds of the neighborhood, persuading people to support his project.

Hari Krishna Shrestha, an 82-year-old pensioner, ran a grocery store at the ground floor of his 200-year-old brick house.

Precariously supported by wooden poles, the traditional three-story house has a gaping hole on the facade. Most houses here seem on the verge of collapse, a sign of the devastation wreaked by the earthquake.

“People tell me to build a concrete house, but I don’t like it. I am not sure whether it’s possible, but I want the new house to be like the old one, yet stronger,” Shrestha tells Anadolu Agency. 

Shrestha’s is one of 10 houses in the Ga Chhen neighborhood that Puri and a team of his heritage-loving friends, plan to restore.

“First of all, we will have to demolish it very carefully because we want to preserve all the bricks and wood carvings to reuse them. Next comes fundraising for the restoration,” he says, adding that he needs around $10 million to complete the project.

Puri is in a unique position in that he already has done similar work in the neighborhood of Ga Chhen.

Five years ago, he renovated a concrete house after reading about it on a book by Toni Hagen, a Swiss geologist and author of the book, Nepal. Hagen was disheartened after observing that a cement building had been constructed amid traditional Newari architecture.

In 2009, he completed the four-story apartment complex, named it Toni Hagen House in tribute to the late geologist and moved his family in.

Puri, who left a well-paying job at German aid group GiZ’s office in Kathmandu to pursue his passion for architecture, is counting on his patrons and allies to return the ancient architecture to its former glory. He considers the city of Bhaktapur, literally meaning the ‘town of devotees’, his muse and calls it “a heaven for an architect”.

“I am yet to find any other city in the world which is infused with so many festivals and myths that are linked to a living heritage of architecture,” says Puri, a graduate in development policy from Germany's Bremen University.

Although Puri doesn’t belong to the Newar community, he is a fluent speaker of the local language and has restored and renovated more than 60 traditional houses in Bhaktapur and Panauti, another ancient town in central Nepal.

Ruled by a succession of Malla kings originally from southern India who took over the Kathmandu Valley from Sanskrit speaking rulers believed to have come from northern India. One of three independent kingdoms in the valley, Bhaktapur flourished between 14th and 18th centuries when it straddled the major trading route between Tibet and India.

Buoyed by the wealth that came from minting coins for Tibet and the trans-Himalayan trade, the art-loving and devout Hindu rulers outdid their predecessors by adding pagoda-style temples, sculptors of elephants, lions and griffins and carrying out extensive reconstructions in the Durbar Square.

Generations ago, Puri’s ancestors also migrated from India and served as priests for the Hindu deities. While his elder brother still serves as a priest, Puri found his calling in combining the old and the new to give new lease of life to dilapidated dwellings.

“His trajectory from a sculptor to an architect is amazing. He’s grown over the years as an architect and has done fabulous work,” says Shekhar Kharel, an art critic who is supporting Puri’s fundraising.

“He infuses aesthetics with humanity. Hundreds of foreign friends of Nepal have shown interest in our project. We are working to preserve our heritage; this is a worthy cause. I am sure people will support us,” he adds.

Anadolu Agency