When it comes to heritage conservation, where do we draw the line?The Lohani family’s house in Basantapur has three chaityas that potentially hold historical significance. Locals want them to be accessible to the public. But the Lohani family disagrees.
On a recent Saturday morning, when a group of people entered Dhana Nani Lohani’s backyard, with shovels in hand, she was taken aback. Lohani, who lives with her daughter, was scared at the sight of people entering her house without permission but she immediately confronted them. They told her they had come to dig out the three half-buried chaityas in her home’s compound, in Yathka, Basantapur, and that they wanted to clean and preserve it.
Only a few days earlier, another group of people from the local ward office had come to ask her permission to clean the chaityas. She had accepted their request then, she says, but barging into her home without her consent was crossing a line.
“How can they just come and want to dig up our backyard?” says Deepa Lohani, Dhana Nani Lohani’s daughter. “This is private property. People have also been claiming that our land should be public. But this is our home. We have been living here for the past three generations.”
Locals believe that the Lohanis’ compound used to be a part of Mukhu Bahi, a centuries-old bahi. Bahis were traditionally used as a place of practise for Buddhist religious purposes. And the three chaityas—which are spread over around 3 annas—are the only remains of the bahi and thus hold great religious and historical significance, say locals.
They assert that they just want to restore the place and clean it, and the Lohani family is resisting their efforts. “We just want to be involved with the upkeep of the place because we don’t want to see a place of religious significance in ruins,” says Shailendra Bajracharya, a heritage activist who is also a local of Yatkha.
But the Lohani family have little faith in such words. They say that the chaityas are in the same state as they were when they bought the land. They also have paperwork to prove the land's possession and have little interest in giving away part of their property.
“The land belonged to Guruju, the King’s main priest, after which the ownership was transferred to my grandfather when he bought it,” says Deepa. This conflict between the locals and the Lohani family has given rise to raise an important question: when it comes to heritage conservation, where do we draw the line?
But for devotees, such questions are of lesser importance. They believe Mukhu Bahi is a place where religious practices of the Shakyas and Bajracharyas can take place, and thus they strongly believe they should have access to such a religiously significant place. They also claim that the chaityas could be traced to the Licchavi era and need to be preserved and made public.
To back the locals' claim, conservationists say that the chaityas at the Lohani residence do indeed display signs of design in vogue during the Licchavi era: for instance, chaityas from the Licchavi era did not have Buddha carvings and they were coated in a thin film of iron and stone dust, known locally as louha lep, a technique prevalent only during that era.
Historians, too, say the land did originally house Mukhu Bahi; however, the exact time of its construction is unknown. According to John Locke’s book ‘Buddhist Monasteries of Nepal’, the place was acquired by the Rana regime soon after the Kot Massacre. The book also states that the government relocated the people living in the bahi close to the Bishnumati River near Pode Tole.
Rajendra Mohan Bajracharya, in his book ‘Mahavihara and Vihars of Kathmandu’, has further tracked the bahi’s history and writes that when the people were relocated, they tried to take the chaityas and its idols with them. “But as they were trying to dig out the chaityas, hundreds of the snakes appeared, according to folk tales. That is why it is believed that the chaityas are still there,” writes Bajracharya.
He further writes that the land was given as a gift to Kul Nath Lohani, Dhana Nani Lohani’s father-in-law, who was related to the royal priest.
The Lohani family, however, doesn’t agree with this story. Deepa Lohani says the land was bought by her grandfather Kul Nath Lohani, who was one of the few Nepalis who worked in the United Nations in its early days.
“They come to our house, and tell us that it was given to us for free. My family hasn’t received anything for free. When we earned everything we got. And now that we don’t have the power or the riches, people are trying to bully us,” says Deepa.
The place has been steeped in controversy earlier as well. Some 50 years ago, an idol—of a standing Buddha—that was placed in a small shrine in the premises was stolen, say locals. Deepa confirmed that the idol had indeed been stolen from the property. And when the idol was tracked and repatriated to Nepal from the US (where the statue had landed up) by the Metropolitan Museum a few years ago, the Lohani family refused to take it.
Tej Tamrakar, an archeologist who has worked at the Hanuman Dhoka Royal Palace and the Department of Archeology, says that the Lohani family refused their request to re-establish the idol at one of the bahil’s shrines. “We just wanted, still want, to do what’s right and return the idol to its real home. But they don’t cooperate with us. They called me a goon for approaching them to put the idol,” says Tamrakar.
But according to Deepa, the reason that the family refused is because they feared that more people would come to their home which would make it tough for them to live in their own house.
“My mother is 80 years old now. She’s been sick and through three major surgeries. We don’t want commotion because of this. We don’t want people coming to us in a few years’ time accusing us of selling the idol again, like they did. It’s not fair on us. We just want to live in peace,” says Deepa.
She says the family has been under immense stress because of the issue. “Sometimes it feels like we are tenants who haven’t paid rent. It’s not nice living under constant pressure to leave, but I’m willing to take all necessary measures to make sure that people stop entering our property.”
Why the local people are raising this issue right now and not sooner, Shailendra Bajracharya, the heritage conservationist, says that the Lohani family, back in the day, was quite rich and powerful, and not many people agreed to go there.
“It’s understandable why people 100 years ago didn’t visit the place as much, when the family had power. But times have changed. We talk a lot about heritage and promote it accordingly, but when it comes to action we lack the courage to do anything,” says Bajracharya.
As the Lohani family is currently sticking to their ground and the locals have failed to strike an agreement with them, the campaigners, via the Ward Office, have asked the Department of Archeology to look into the matter.
“We have asked the department to do some studies. For now, we will have to wait and see what they say before taking any other measures,” says Sashi Lal Shrestha, Ward Chair of Ward No. 19.
The department, however, says that its hands are tied as the property is private and the only way to make it public is if the government acquires the property from the Lohanis and then makes it public.
The Ancient Monuments Act states that if “the Government of Nepal may, if it deems necessary from the point of view of protection of the monument and the environment of the monument area, purchase any ancient monument owned by a person as his/her private property or any land and house situated at the ancient monument area and owned by private person or institution, on paying a price as evaluated.”
A few years ago, there was a similar dispute, where the local ward office of Yangal, through Newa Mukti Morcha, went to the Land Revenue Office and Department of Archeology to take possession of the Yanga Hiti from a Rana family who had claimed the ancient stone spout to be part of their property.
After two years of court cases, the Rana family handed over the land to the local authorities, without demanding any compensation, stating they believed in preserving national heritage as well.
As for Mukhu Bahi, things are only just brewing. “We had received an application from the ward office asking us to inspect a site which they claim is from the Licchavi era. Our primary assessment is that that chaityas is in fact from the Licchavi era,” says Ram Kunwar, the department’s information officer. “We will be discussing the issue further and come up with a resolution,” he said.
The Ancient Monument Protection Act 2013 doesn’t have any provisions or instances of any cases like this.
“We have done nothing wrong. We want to be left alone at peace. This constant hassling has to stop.It’s like we’re living is someone else's home and we have committed a crime. The torture we are enduring in the name of heritage conservation has to stop. My mother feels that this issue will kill her before cancer does,” says Deepa.