Print Edition - 2016-08-27  |  On Saturday

Why Rani Pokhari matters

  • The use of steel and concrete in the reconstruction of the iconic Rani Pokhari has left experts, activists and locals alarmed
- Sanjit Bhakta Pradhananga
Rani Pokhari, or Nhu Pukhu, was built in 1670 AD by Pratap Malla in memory of his son Chakrabatendra, who was trampled to death by an elephant, just days after being declared regent

Aug 27, 2016-Shyam Tandukar is standing on the foot bridge at Jamal, gazing at Rani Pokhari, his eyes brimming with nostalgia. Tandukar, who grew up a short walk south of the pond, is chancing the ominous clouds overhead to catch his breath and reminisce over younger, brighter days he’d spent here. Having graduated from the Durbar High School across the street, 61-year-old Tandukar knows this neighbourhood intimately—much of his childhood were spent playing in the open fields that once surrounded the pond. “So much has changed,” he says. “They have even started cordoning off the perimetre with tarps. I had to climb up here just to catch a glimpse.”

When I tell him that the cordon was erected for the renovation taking place at the Balgopaleshwor Temple at the heart of the pond, he squints his eyes to spot metal rods are gingerly jutting out from the temple.    

“But how can they do that? Isn’t anyone protesting it?”


Unbowed, unbent

Across the pond, under the statue of Ganesh Man Singh—the Iron Man—a small group of activists are filtering into the Shanti Vatika park with freshly scribbled placards, denouncing the use of steel and concrete in the reconstruction of the 17th century monument. Here, Sumana Shrestha, the founder of initiatives like Medication for Nepal and Carpool Kathmandu, is juggling between making more placards and talking to journalists, tipped off by the outrage the issue has stirred on social networking sites. 

“We are not protesting. We are demanding our right (to information),” she says into a recorder. “The public has been kept in the dark and have no idea about what is going on. The way this construction has been rushed through is dictatorial and outright crazy.”

Sixteen months after the Gorkha Earthquake reduced dozens of important heritage sites to rubble, the country has yet to begin reconstruction in earnest, despite the government setting itself a deadline of five years to begin rebuilding the sites. Rani Pokhari was supposed to be the exception. Because the renovation on the Balgopaleshwor temple is relatively straightforward when compared to other large, intricate structures like the Kasthamandap, Maju Dega or the Char Narayan Temple, the site has, by design, seen a barrage of coverage in the past year. The government picked Rani Pokhari to launch the national reconstruction campaign, with much fanfare, in January. When complete, the pond and its temple—in clear view of one of the Capital’s busiest roads—would be a beacon of hope, a testimony that Nepal could build back better from the devastation.

Yet, half a year later, not much progress is visible. A recent decision to cordon off the perimetre with tarps, tacked onto the metal fence along the pond’s boundary, has left the site veiled from the adjoining streets. It’s a decision that has rendered Sailesh Shakya, a 51-year-old resident of Lagan and a community organiser, visibly irked. Speaking to the small crowd gathered at the site, he bellows into a microphone, “Why is the entire perimetre shielded from view? Is Rudra Singh Tamang (CEO of Kathmandu Metropolitan City (KMC)—the agency charged with the reconstruction) building his private mansion in here that he has the property hidden from view? This pond belongs to the people and its restoration must be done in full view of the public eye. What do they have to hide?” He goes on to underline that it is Kathmandu’s unique heritage that sets it apart from the rest of the world. “If important cultural sites like Rani Pokhari are desecrated, why would tourists continue to visit our city?”

More than just a pond

Rani Pokhari, or Nhu Pukhu (new pond) in Nepal Bhasa, was built in 1670 AD by the Malla King Pratap Malla in memory of his son Chakrabatendra, who was trampled to death by an elephant, just days after being declared the regent to the then kingdom of Kathmandu. Grieved by his son’s untimely death, the king ordered a large pond 

be constructed just outside the city limits with water collected from places of religious importance. It is believed that water was brought to the Capital from sites including the Bagmati-Bishnumati confluence, Gosainkunda, Muktinath and even as far away as Rishikesh and Badrinath in India. The rest of the water that filled the pond was channelled in via a subterranean canal that runs under the newly proposed site of the 29-storey tower nearby.

Historians believe that the pond—spread over 63 ropanis—to have been a spectacular sight to behold when completed. Because Nhu Pukhu was just outside the city gates at the time, all visitors were received by the royal entourage at a large eight-cornered rest house that once stood nearby. The first western reference of the pond dates back to 1721.

In the centuries that followed, Rani Pokhari’s place in Kathmandu and its residents’ imagination has slowly evolved. The structure of Balgopaleshwor temple has changed as well. Over the course of many renovations, the original Shikara style temple—a style Pratap Malla was obsessed with—was remodelled into one with a Moghul-inspired dome. The pond is believed to have been fenced off by Jung Bahadur Rana in the 19th century to detract suicide attempts.

Today, Rani Pokhari is open to the public twice a year: during the Chhat festival and on the day of the Bhai Tika, when those without siblings visit the temple for blessings. Buddhists can also access to the pond for a traditional ritual, where captive fish are released into the pond. 

Bishnu Karki, former director general of the Department of Archaeology [DoA], believes that despite the many changes Rani Pokhari has seen through the centuries, it would be wrong to dismiss the current protests as being anti-progress. “Cultures change and evolve over time,” he says. “But the monuments that provide the evolving culture with historical markers to root itself in, must be preserved.” He adds that the recent construction using steel and concrete is a naked intervention on part of the authorities; one that does history great disservice. 

“Think of a hundred years from now when we are all gone. A young child is going to visit Rani Pokhari and think Pratap Malla built it with concrete. History is being altered here and it must be stopped”, he says. 

Bungled bureaucracy

Uttar Kumar Regmi, chief of the department of Urban Infrastructure Development at the Kathmandu Metropolitan City [KMC], however, remains defiant. “Rani Pokhari has been renovated numerous times in the past,” he tells me over the phone. “The structure that we know today was not the original structure. When we went in, there already were concrete pillars at the outer perimetre of the temple. We are restoring it as we found it: with concrete pillars on the outside and traditionally on the inside,” he says.

The Department of Archaeology—the primary organisation for archaeological research and cultural preservation—maintains that it never sanctioned the use of concrete. Sampat Ghimire, Senior Divisional Engineer at the DoA, claims the construction took place without KMC following the prescribed protocol. “DoA has not approved the use of concrete,” he says, “On projects like this, the DoA has to approve two documents: the building plans and the budget estimation. The materials used in the building are disclosed on the estimation, but we never received the document from the KMC.” When asked why the DoA failed to catch the violation before it became viral on social networking sites, he responded, “The approval of the estimation is what the DoA uses to gauge the materials being used.” He went on to say that the DoA has dispatched a letter to the KMC asking it to halt the construction until a meeting between the two agencies is held. He couldn’t, however, confirm when the said meeting would take place. 

KMC is renovating the Rani Pokhari premises with a total budget of Rs 120 million. It plans to convert the pond into a recreation space featuring an outdoor cafe and “dancing musical water fountains.” Speaking about the project and KMC’s decision to use steel and concrete Regmi says, “I am a structural engineer and my primary concern is to construct a building that is safe. Given our budget, it is not possible to reduce the temple to zero and build all over again. In the end we want a structure that is safe.”

More convenient not safer

Architect and educator, Sudharshan Tiwari, however, refutes Regmi’s claim that building with concrete rather than traditional materials makes a structure safer. He is alarmed by KMC’s intentions of using Roller-compacted concrete (RRC) at the outer perimetre while attempting to retain the traditional building methods in the inner sanctum. “RCC buildings are rigid structures, which is not to say they are any better or worse—they have been used to great effect around the world. But the one thing that you cannot do is mix flexible structures (like Nepali architecture) with rigid ones. When you mix the two, you are setting the building up for collapse. The nine-storeyd palace in Basantapur is a potent reminder,” he says, referring to 1978 renovation of the iconic Basantapur palace that mixed concrete beams with traditional building methods. Experts believe the palace that once dominated the Kathmandu skyline collapsed, when the concrete beams continually slammed into its wooden frame during the April 25 earthquake. 

Tiwari, a former professor at the Insitute of Engineering in the Capital, has been a vocal advocate for the preservation of traditional architecture and building methods. He argues that while traditional building materials are not necessarily stronger than concrete structures, they do come with two key advantages: they keep the buildings flexible and because the material is easily replaceable, traditional buildings are by and far more durable. 

“The very beauty of traditional Nepali architecture is that all the technology that is used is reversible,” he says. “Our buildings were built in a way that could be restored every generation or two. But you can’t do that with concrete. When you pour concrete into any traditional structure, you are not only wiping away traditional architecture and building methods, but you are also wiping away the possibility of future renovations. You can’t restore concrete; you have to knock it down.”

It is a message the attendees at the spontaneous protest on Wednesday have taken to heart. With so many heritage sites (and traditional settlements) yet to be rebuilt, what transpires at Rani Pokhari—the government’s photo-op project—has become ever more relevant. “If we let the authorities do as they please here in Rani Pokhari, it will set a precedent for all the reconstruction work that is yet to be done. And once we lose what we have, it is never coming back,” Sumana Shrestha reiterates. 

Published: 27-08-2016 08:36

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