Echoes of Asia in the Notre Dame Fire
On 19 April 1998, fire swept through Bhutan’s most famous monastery, the Tiger’s Nest, perched on a cliff face on a mountain outside the town of Paro.
The blaze, perhaps started by an overturned butter lamp, destroyed the main structure of the 400-year-old monastery and almost everything inside.
As with the fire at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris 21 years later, the blaze ravaged the country’s most sacred building, a source of pride and a prime destination for tourists, setting off national mourning.
There were striking differences, of course. The Notre Dame stands in the heart of one of the world’s great cities, and the world watched live as the fire raged.
The Tiger’s Nest, also known as Paro Taktsang, clings to a mountainside in a remote part of a small Asian country. If any footage of the 1998 fire exists, it doesn’t appear to be available online.
It’s hard to overstate the enormity of the Notre Dame tragedy. In the words of The Guardian newspaper, it felt as if the very heart of France had been viciously ripped out.
For the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, the loss of the Tiger’s Nest was just as heart-rending. While the temple buildings had undergone extensive restoration and repair several times before (as had sections of Notre Dame) the centuries-old holy relics inside, including statues, paintings and silk hangings, were irreplaceable.
Restoration work began a couple of years after the fire and was completed in 2005. It reflected Bhutan’s approach that buildings are meant to be renewed but that nothing can destroy the philosophies and ideas they represent.
Although most of it is new, the Tiger’s Nest today remains just as sacred as before, just as visually dramatic and just as thrilling for visitors who make the long climb up the mountain to see it.
A fresh disaster hit Bhutan on 24 June 2012 when fire destroyed another sacred building, the Wangdue Phodrang Dzong, a 400-year-old monastery-fortress in the hills east of the capital, Thimphu.
Like Notre Dame, the largely-wooden dzong was being renovated when the fire struck. Many of its historic relics were in storage and were saved.
The complex was nothing more than a hilltop ruin when I saw it from across the river later in 2012. My guide pointed it out but did not offer to take me there, perhaps because of his sadness at the loss.
The dzong is currently being rebuilt, funded partly by the government and partly through public fundraising. December 2021 is the target date for its completion.
The new complex will contain seismic technology designed to minimise damage from earthquakes. Another new feature will be a service tunnel built underground to carry utility lines and serve as an entry and escape point during emergencies.
These improvements mirror President Emmanuel Macron’s remark that Notre Dame will not only be rebuilt in five years but will be “even better than before”.
The damage to Nepal’s sacred buildings in the earthquake on 25 April 2015 was on a far greater scale. Apart from killing nearly 9,000 people, it struck at the country’s spiritual heart, including the three durbar squares in the Kathmandu valley that contain most of its historic temples and palaces.
In other countries, sacred sites are threatened by pollution and by the sheer number of tourists who visit them.
More than 2.6 million people visited the temples at Angkor Wat in Cambodia in 2017. The numbers are only going to continue rising. Many climb on the temples or touch the bas reliefs, inflicting steady wear and tear on them.
India’s Taj Mahal – which qualifies as a sacred structure because it contains a working mosque – attracts an astonishing 7-8 million visitors a year. It’s under threat from air pollution, which is causing its white marble surfaces to darken and crack in places.
The deterioration isn’t helped by the hands and feet of untold visitors, or by the worsening pollution of the Yamuna River that runs beside the Taj. There have been warnings that parts of it could collapse unless something is done to reverse things.
If there’s a lesson in all this, it’s that even mankind’s finest sacred works are impermanent. And perhaps that serves to widen their appeal for travellers – the knowledge that these wonderful buildings might not always be there. We should visit them while we still can, and treat them with the reverence they deserve.
Header image: Arisha Singh