Chilly scenes of summer: Grim images are conjured every National Heritage Month
Recent events have shown how fragile we are, how frail are our monuments.
We were still atremble at the 7.8-magnitude earthquake that struck Nepal on April 25 when a new tremor of 7.3-magnitude hit the Himalayan country on May 12, killing more than 8,000 and destroying hundreds of thousands of buildings, including four sites in Kathmandu Valley designated as World Heritage by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco).
Unesco describes what have been reduced to rubble in a matter of minutes as “architecture developed over the past two millennia boasting of one of the most highly developed craftsmanship of brick, stone, timber and bronze in the world.”
These include palaces and temples, an iconic tower and the biggest and holiest Buddhist stupa outside of Tibet.
We still haven’t forgotten the lives lost and structures damaged by the tsunamis of the Indian Ocean in 2004 and the Pacific coast of Japan in 2011. And we still haven’t recovered from the 7.2-magnitude temblor that wreaked havoc on seven ancient churches in Bohol province and three in Cebu province in 2013.
Swiftness of destruction
The swiftness of destruction is couched in the tremulous statement of a Nepalese photographer interviewed by The New York Times, who could hardly contain himself as he described what he saw of the nine-story Dharahara Tower: “I was here yesterday, I was here the day before yesterday, and it was there. Today it’s just gone. Last night, from my terrace, I was looking at the tower. And today I was at the tower—and there is no tower.”
The fragility of things is especially underscored during the National Heritage Month (observed in May, as proclaimed in 2003). It is a time when we are reminded of the materiality of many of our heritage and our lackadaisical attitude toward them.
Some of these have been overlooked, forgotten or simply ignored as they are in the remote areas of the country. A few have been claimed by the wilderness. We don’t really know what we have in our hands, or what we have already irretrievably lost.
Among these are churches that, since 2006, have been considered for addition to the Unesco World Heritage Sites under the Baroque Churches of the Philippines (Extension). Each is one crown jewel of a heritage.
This tentative list includes the churches of Patrocinio de María in Boljoon, Cebu; La Inmaculada Concepción in Guiuan, Samar province; San Isidro Labrador in Lazi, Siquijor province; San Matias in Tumauini, Isabela province; and San Pedro Apóstol in Loboc, Bohol (deleted after it was destroyed by the 2013 earthquake).
Some remark that the greatest enemy of cultural heritage as regards our ancient churches is the parish priest as he is the one who usually tampers with the authenticity of the original structures.
A globalizing concept of cultural heritage mitigates the loss, if not totally solves the problem. Because of Unesco’s systematic monitoring, the Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordillera was recently delisted from World Heritage Sites in Danger.
Unesco has pledged to rebuild what Nepal just lost, presumably by anastylosis—but that would take decades, and it wouldn’t be the same.
As a Nepalese historian laments: “We have lost most of the monuments that had been designated as World Heritage Sites. They cannot be restored to their original states.”
While natural catastrophes may be credited as the single most destructive factor, human stupidity must not be discounted as contributory to this pillage of heritage. We don’t stand a chance against nature, but we can prevail over idiocy.