The enigma of KathmanduAs one of the three cities of Nepal Mandala, it has occupied the minds of people for centuries.
Kathmandu or Kantipur has an enigmatic character. Native and foreign scholars, writers and artists have made attempts to spell it out by writing about the culture, politics, music, art and literature of Nepal Mandala of which Kantipur is a prominent city. The enigma still remains a pragmatic, inspiring and creative challenge. When it comes to the question of power or statism, this capital city, though not very large in size, poses challenges to those who want to explain the enigma. This is the subject of a long essay but here I am putting forth some arguments about the character of Kathmandu brought into focus once again by the victory of an independent candidate of the young generation named Balen Shah in the mayoral election of the city.
The local elections were overwhelming in character and size. The subject of this article not being a political analysis, I want to focus on the enigma and power of this locus called Kathmandu or Kantipur that evokes discussions about its history, presentism and futurity. Kathmandu as one of the three ancient cities of Nepal Mandala has occupied the minds of people for many centuries, we could even say for millennia. It would be a tautology to say that this metropolis has attracted the minds of rural-based people of this land as well. The reason for that is simple. As the capital city of a land with geographic and natural difficulties, people from the hills and Madhes had to travel on foot to this place not only for administrative but also for religious purposes.
Nepal Mandala has also been a pilgrimage site for millennia that has played a role in shaping the power history of this place. Not only the natives but also travellers from distant lands were lured by this city at different times. This process continues even today. The common and universal metaphor for such visitors is "tourists". But the travellers of the past were visitors from Europe and China as inscribed in the scripted texts and folkloristic narratives of this place. A certain kind of power has always impelled visitors from rural Nepal to explore this place for centuries. This sense of quest and this psyche of being assured have always guided the power and political activities of this land.
The enigma of Kathmandu is never spelt out in common parlance. The power of this metropolis lies in that mystery that impelled the natives to see this city in awe. The amazing part is that the attraction persists even when the main sections of the city are perennially covered with trash and dirt spreading rank smell all around and the growing chaotic character of the nagar. The city is very rich, but the wealth is never channelised to make it clean and decent. Stuck by its enigma, poets, scholars and politicians have always valorised this city in different ways. To take one eloquent example from poetry, we can read the verses of Bhanubhakta Acharya (1814-66) a very famous Nepali poet from the western hills of Tanahun who travelled to Kantipur or Kathmandu for various purposes. He was so impressed by the very look of this city, its architectonic shapes and the people especially the young women moving around this nagari with ease that he thought he had come to some paradise on earth. He composed a poem by comparing Kantipur with the imaginary cities of heaven. Some lines of the poem in free translation read like this:
"Mobile women tucking daffodil flowers in their locks walk around in ease with their friends in this Alakapuri (city of heaven)." Then he compares the city with the metropolis he had never seen. He writes, "This city looks somewhere like Bhot (Tibet), London and Chin (China)…somewhere are gullies like that of Delhi. …It's like Lucknow, Patna and Madras, this Alakapuri." What is interesting is the prosperity of this city that he describes. He writes, wealth in this city has no bounds; "The people here are very happy." And "this is a city of happiness". That very lure of this city continued after Bhanubhakta. A poet from my family named Pahalman Subedi who visited this city a little over a hundred years ago composed poems celebrating the awe of this city. He composed: "There are lovely hills around. There are deities who come out to meet you, as it were. You can hear the ting-ting sounds of cycle bells all around. Oh, what a city..."
We can cite many examples from poetry. But here it would be appropriate to recall a different example. The latest lure of Kathmandu is political. The Maoists used to say in their political parlance—the next rebellion would be Kathmandu-centric. But they materialised that dream ironically only after they formed a government with Prachanda as prime minister and failed. They called for a huge march in Kathmandu on May Day of 2010 to force prime minister Madhav Kumar Nepal from office. And that did not work out well. A peace march of an estimated 20,000 people called by 50 leading professionals evoked another power of Kathmandu city. The Maoists entered another phase of Kathmandu-centric political activism.
Theatre of political drama
Much water has flown under the Bagmati Bridge since then. It is a common sight to see Prachanda and Madhav Kumar Nepal on the same stage as partners of the ruling coalition of five parties speaking the shared idioms. Kathmandu always remained the active and somewhat crowded theatre of the political drama of this country. Retrospectively, we can say the underlying enigma of that political march lay in the power of the Kathmandu theatre where the political dramas are staged; where rehearsals for successive performances happen at regular intervals. We can spell that out if we focus on how the political parties of all hues and brands get lost in the power of Kathmandu with its history, wealth, global contacts and its position as the principal locus of power.
Balen Shah's relatively young supporters in the mayoral election appear to have made consistent efforts to spell out the enigma of Kathmandu in new idioms articulated through both printed and electronic mediums. Most importantly, they resorted to the theatrical means to spell out the theme of the new movement. What I find very meaningful is the way the issues of Kathmandu nagar are being discussed with a certain degree of haste as if it has become late to address them. It is difficult to say how the problems of Kathmandu will be addressed by the new Mayor Balen Shah and the talented Deputy Mayor Sunita Dangol. But the need to spell out the enigma of Kathmandu will always remain as a challenge for the state and the nagarpalika.