John Sanday: ‘We need to save the heritage of Nepal’

Posted on by Beyond Bespoke

John Sanday (FSA, OBE) is an expert on the temples of Angkor in Cambodia and one of the leading architectural conservators in Nepal, with a 30-strong office, John Sanday Associates, in Kathmandu. Here, he talks about the work that lies ahead to restore the country’s heritage in the aftermath of the recent earthquakes in the Kathmandu Valley, which have claimed up to 10,000 lives 

After studying architecture at Bristol University, you worked on restoring Chevening House in Kent, and Trinity College, Cambridge. What took you to Nepal?
I first arrived in Nepal in 1970 on a UNESCO contract and worked on the Hanuman Dhoka Royal Palace in the centre of Kathmandu. I saw myself as something of a William Morris of Nepal. The practice was set up about 20 years ago and many of the original staff are still with me. The practice  is very much a training organisation, bringing in modern technology on projects ranging from hospitals to offices. Historic buildings are my special interest.

General view of Changu Narayan at the top of the village from East. The main Changu Narayan Temple is in the background

What is your focus in the wake of the recent earthquakes?
The first priority has to be on saving people and lives and caring for people who have lost everything, but this is not just a humanitarian crisis – we need to save the heritage of Nepal as well. I was away when the earthquake hit, and am eager to rejoin my business partner and team, as our office is still functioning. In the meantime, I’ve been sent hundreds of photographs of key buildings that have disappeared. My focus is on trying to retain historic buildings within the World Heritage Sites, such as the Durbar Squares of Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur, which have been badly hit.


How do you go about salvaging these historic temples and monuments?
I have carried out big projects in UNESCO’s historic city of Angkor and the same system applies: salvage what you can and repair what you can. A good American friend and philanthropist has also arranged for us to engage some drone specialists from San Francisco to assess the damage. Our seismic team are carrying out emergency assessments and analyse whether we will need to do a more detailed study, based on the condition of the buildings.

Damage to the Main Temple Changu Narayan

The last major earthquake in Nepal was back in 1934 when 10,600 people were killed. What has been learnt from the past?
The whole concept of seismic assessment arose from that earthquake. I remember one of my craftsmen once stumbling into the office after one severe tremor, and saying we had been very lucky: it had been a vertical earthquake, not a horizontal one, which is the type that shakes buildings from side to side and causes the real damage. This is typical of what happened recently.  

Damage to enclosing structures around the courtyard

Villages outside Khatmandu have also been devastated by the earthquake. What is the extent of the damage?
The earthquake was the most severe in the Khatmandu Valley. We know that areas to the east of the Kathmandu Valley city have been badly damaged, including the village of Sankhu on the edge of the valley. Details are only just filtering in of the severe damage in the mountains where the quake triggered off major landslides, which, for example, destroyed the village of Langtang where 55 houses were flattened leaving only one still standing. And, of course, roads are blocked by landslides making them impassable. The village of Changu Narayan in the Bhaktapur District of central Nepal is our main focus at John Sanday Associates and we have raised about 35% of the total of the £400,000 we need to raise over the next four years.

If you would like to make a donation to help the relief effort, please contact John Sanday by email at for details of the Heritage and Environmental Conservation Foundation (HEC) where funds can be sent.

For more about the practice visit 

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