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“Kathmandu was a ruin”

Monday, January 12th, 2015
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Tom Robertson

At 2:15 in the afternoon of 15 January, 1934 the earth beneath Kathmandu began to shake. When the tumult ended three minutes later, much of the city was left in rubble, and thousands of residents were killed. As we mark National Earthquake Safety Day today, it is worth looking back at this horrific tragedy.

While looking through old British records at the Indian National Archives recently, I came across a dusty old folio containing reports about the earthquake. Among these was an account written by a British doctor in Kathmandu written just a week after the huge quake. It is a sobering reminder of the dangers of building cities on a seismically active alluvial Valley.

We tend to call tragedies like earthquakes ‘natural’ disasters, but all disasters have a social side, too. Fueling the tragedy is often poor government planning or response, or social divisions between rich and poor or other social groups. On the other hand, disasters can also bring out the best in people.

‘The motion of the ground was like that of the deck of a P&O liner in a gale of wind with a cross sea,’ wrote Lieutenant-Colonel C H Smith, the surgeon based at the time at the British Legation in Lainchaur,

The 30m high Scotch firs in the premises were swaying about ‘as if in a gale of wind’. Smith’s lodgings had good view of many of the valley’s huge palaces. ‘It was an awe inspiring sight as palace after palace crashed to the ground and the ruins were enveloped in a cloud of dust,’ Smith went on to describe a windless day, the clouds of tan and brown debris hanging in the air.

The first reports suggested a tremendous toll in human lives. The city’s medical facilities, already scant, were damaged if not in rubble, all useless.

‘The city itself was a dreadful sight,’ Smith reported, ‘at least one house in five had completely collapsed and very few seemed to have escaped uninjured.’ Piles of debris 6m deep with brick, wood, dirt, and dust blocked the narrow streets. To get anywhere, Smith had to climb up and over.

‘There were many corpses lying about, but as yet most of the casualties were buried. We were constantly receiving heart-rending appeals to come and dig people out.’

Residents somehow avoided panic. In fear of another quake, they hurried to open squares, carrying whatever they could salvage. Smith moved from group to group doing what he could. When darkness fell he found himself without light and returned to the embassy. It was a cold night. At first light, a heavy frost covered everything with white crystals.

Word soon came that no water flowed from the city’s taps. The British relied on a small spring on the embassy grounds. Soon casualties were pouring into the Legation clinic. Communications with the outside world were cut. Wild rumors spread that Calcutta, Benares, and Delhi had been wiped out.

The little food available in the bazar soared to famine prices. Looters had taken advantage of the night. The Government issued stringent measures to rein in profiteering, as well as shoot-on-sight orders for thieves.

‘From the first to last there has been no fire,’ Smith thankfully noted at the end of his report. On 18 January, someone got a wireless set working. It was the Valley’s first contact with outside world. Lights brightened the streets on the evening of the 19th after a small hydroelectric station had
escaped serious damage started working again. The lights, Smith noted, ‘had a great morale effect on the population’.

By the 21st, the death toll from across the valley was at 2,900. More bodies were still being dug up. A few weeks later another report tallied between 7-8,000 lives lost across the country.

Tom Robertson teaches history at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, USA. He is writing an environmental history of US development projects in Nepal during the Cold War. tbr@wpi.edu

Read also:

Preparing to be prepared Kunda Dixit 

Unnatural disaster Editorial 

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One Response to ““Kathmandu was a ruin””

  1. david seddon on Says:

    when earthquake next hits Kathmandu the results will be far worse – much larger population, more buildings (particularly more high-rise and poorly constructed buildings), fewer ‘free areas’ into which to flee – expect hundreds of thousands dead and severely injured, and lack of basic utilities for at least 3 days, and severe food and water shortages. Preparation remains limited. Every household and office needs to prapre for at least 78 hours without ANY external assistance – at best!

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