THE ANNEX BLOGYou Always Think of the Ground as Firm – 4.4.16
A temple in Kathmandu destroyed by the 2015 Nepal Earthquake

Kathmandu is the greatest city of the Himalaya where cultural practices still survive that died out in India a thousand years ago. In Kathmandu, Tom Bell tells the story of a decade in the city, unravelling its history through successive reinventions of itself. Erudite, entertaining and accessible, it is the fascinating chronicle of a unique place. Below is an extract from the book looking at the 2015 Nepal earthquake and it’s immediate aftermath.

You Always Think of the Ground as Firm

A few minutes before midday on 25 April 2015, the Main Himalayan Thrust ruptured 15 kilometres beneath Gorkha district, about 80 kilometres north-west of Kathmandu. This fault runs right across the hills of Nepal, where the northward-creeping Indian continental plate strains to slide at a shallow angle beneath the Eurasian continental plate, and is locked by friction. That Saturday, for the seventh time since the thirteenth century, the Indian plate in this section slipped, by between 4 and 6.5 metres and at speeds of up to a metre a second. It caused an earthquake with a magnitude of 7.8, the seismic waves propagating eastwards from the epicentre as the slip unzipped a section of the fault 120 kilometres long.

About twenty seconds after the rupture began, it flashed across the fault 10 kilometres north of Kathmandu. The Valley is a basin filled with five to six hundred metres of former lake bed sediments, in which the seismic pulse resonated to produce strong shaking, but with an usually low frequency of about five seconds. This may be because the Indian plate had slipped quite smoothly, and that seems to have saved the city. The land moved like a sea swell. In some places, such as Balaju and Gongabu, the vibrations rearranged the air, water and soil particles beneath the ground to cause ‘liquefication’, whereupon the ground really did become like a fluid, sand and water oozed from the surface, and some buildings tilted over or sank.

Within 65 seconds the main event was complete. During that period a section of the earth’s crust 120 kilometres long and 60 wide, with Kathmandu standing on it, had risen by a metre and moved two metres south. Not only did it seem like being at sea, what we also felt was like being among the towering, rattling objects on a giant table that is picked up and put down in a different place. In the same moments the mountain range to the north sank lower. Over the next few weeks hundreds of after-shocks were set off across this region, as pieces of the crust found their new equilibrium, causing continuous alarm. Rumours spread that a new huge quake, of magnitude 8 or 9, would occur at certain times on particular days, and on at least one occasion two people were arrested for making such announcements with a loudspeaker from a taxi. A friend who camped out in Sindhupalchowk district at that time, more or less right over the rupture, said that all night she heard sounds from the earth, like big boulders being dropped off a cliff far away.

When the shaking started I climbed into the back of the parked car where I’d just strapped my children, and closed the door. The chowk quickly filled with horrified people, and I could see a tree thrashing like in a storm, but none of the houses came down, as I expected them to. Bouncing on the car’s springs was like driving on a bad road. Other people mostly experienced it as a swaying motion upon which it was difficult to keep one’s feet, like being on a boat, or, as one man who fled into his garden (to find the iron gates clashing like the Symplegades) described, it was like running across a series of conveyor belts which were driving in alternate directions.

That night I slept indoors. Since our house hadn’t cracked yet I didn’t think it was going to, and with a couple of pegs of whisky in me I turned over with a true sense of security when the room banged from side to side. We invited many neighbours to stay inside, but they didn’t feel safe, and every time the tremors rose I heard the women in the chowk calling ‘Haa! Haa!’ I later learned that when they did this they pressed the paving with their thumbs to calm the shaking. I would like to know whether this relates to the belief, which I once read about, that earth-quakes are caused by the weight of sin upon the world, but I haven’t yet found anyone who knows. There was a large after-shock from the eastern end of the rupture on the second day, when the ground swayed and I watched a hotel swimming pool wash from side to side before it began to spill.

My friend Ujjwal said that when he was finally able to stumble out of his house he didn’t find himself, as he expected, standing still in the garden watching his house shake, because the garden was shaking just as much. He said, ‘This is the strange thing, because you always think of the ground as firm.’ It was only after the next day’s aftershock that he grasped the strangeness of the whole world moving like a boat. ‘It was the noise,’ said another friend, Niranjan, who on that morning was in an upstairs room at an oral history workshop. ‘Prawin got up and started waving his arms around, saying not to panic and to get under the tables’ – which Niranjan had already done, while others crowded round the door. All he remembers after that was a Tk! Tk! Tk! Tk! sound like a train going fast over points.

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