The broader work from which the proposed project emerges based is a joint endeavor between Lauren Leve, Associate Professor of Religious Studies at UNC and Baakhan Nyane Waa (“Come Tell Stories,” in the Newari language), a group of Nepali cultural heritage activists based in Kathmandu. Members of Baakhan Nyane Waa are architects, engineers, artists and filmmakers who came together to help reconstruct a major cultural site in Kathmandu that was destroyed in the 2015 earthquake. Professor Leve is an expert on Himalayan Buddhism and Nepali Buddhist culture. They met in the summer of 2018 when Professor Leve traveled to Nepal to create 3D models of Buddhist temples in the Kathmandu Valley. This meeting led to a plan to create a publicly accessible internet-based record of tangible and intangible religious heritage in Nepal. This will take the initial form of a VR-accessible 3D model of Swayambhunath stupa ( web site), a major cultural monument and UNESCO World Heritage site, that is linked to an archive of recorded interviews and historical documents and is annotated with audio, video, photos and text that illustrates its many meanings and deep significance to the diverse local and international communities that focus their ritual and cultural lives there.

Professor Leve and her Nepali partners spent two months this past summer (2022) constructing a preliminary 3D model of the monument, filming ritual practices, and recording interviews with Buddhist monks, priests, scholars, and other stakeholders and visitors to the site. The goal of these interviews was to document cultural and ritual knowledge, record devotees’ descriptions of their connections to and practices at the site, and capture the kinds of religious and cultural changes that are taking place in response to globalization and modernization in Nepal in an engaging, user-friendly way. These interviews will integrate into the model as audio and/or visual annotations

The goal is to create a dynamic web application that hosts a 3D model of the Swayambhu heritage site with a first-person user experience where a visitor to the site can click key artifacts in the model and interact with annotations (text, photo, audio and video). For example, the user would be able to hear an old man talking about visiting the site as a child, what it was like back then, and how he loved to play with the object that the visitor clicked on while his grandpa performed prayers. Or they might click elsewhere to access an explanation of an object and a link to another page containing a video of someone doing a ritual that uses it. Clicking in a different location might bring up a monk telling a story of how a Buddhist deity produced monkeys at the temple from the lice in a yogi’s hair, or a list of statues that have been stolen from the premises that are now in private collections or European museums, or a pilgrim explaining that she came to the stupa to complete the death rituals for her mother, or a twenty-something would-be soldier explaining that he recently applied to a competitive army position after which he came to the temple to play a game that he’d seen on TikTok and believed would tell him his luck. There is a diversity of myth, knowledge, experience and cultural history embedded in Himalayan traditions and materialized at the site and we seek to make it accessible to audiences that include UNC students….

The application should be compatible with computers, tablets and mobile phones. It should load 3D models smoothly with some animation where needed and incorporate the annotations in an elegant way. It will also ideally have an option to switch between various languages so that English speakers can listen to translations of the audio or video interviews while speakers of local language can hear the interviews in their original languages.

Together, the 3D model and annotations/archive of interviews that we are producing constitute important records of the tangible and intangible heritage of Nepal. They will preserve vital knowledge of both cultural practices and the built Buddhist environment into the future. This is a crucial need given that the Kathmandu Valley is still geologically active with more earthquakes expected and considering the rapid pace of cultural change. 

We expect that the site will attract users with a variety of types of interest in Buddhism and/or Nepali culture. UNESCO has expressed interest in promoting our completed product, as has the US Embassy in Kathmandu and the Tourism ministry of Nepal. Professor Leve will integrate it into the courses on Buddhism she teaches at UNC; she expects it may be appealing to faculty and students at other colleges as well.