Grass for thoughtRani Pokhari’s sorry condition calls the KMC to move beyond just paying lip service
On Tuesday, the day of the Sithi Nakha—a Newar festival dedicated to cleaning water bodies—locals, students and heritage activists staged a novel protest by offering grass cut from the overgrown bed of Rani Pokhari to the Kathmandu Metropolitan City (KMC). Alongside the tongue-in-cheek ‘gift’, Deputy Mayor of Kathmandu Hari Prabha Khadgi was also handed a memorandum drawing KMC’s attention to the sorry state of the historic pond.
Rani Pokhari, when commissioned in 1670 CE, was at the time one of the most ambitious projects ever undertaken in the Valley. Spread out over 63 ropanis of land, the artificial pond represented the very zenith of Kathmandu’s resourceful and purposeful building traditions. Built over a natural aquifer, Rani Pokhari’s tightly-packed top soil retained water cost-effectively and helped perpetually recharge its water levels, while subterranean canals diverted water to stone sprouts like the Teen Dhara and the Bhota Hiti. Never in the 350 odd years thereafter did the pond once dry up or need substantial restoring.
Furthermore, built just outside to the principle gate into the old town of Kathmandu, for centuries travellers to the city were received at the ornate eight-cornered rest house that once stood on the pond’s banks. Thus, in addition to being a functional water reservoir,
Rani Pokhari also occupied a prominent space in the imagination of the visitors to and residents of Kathmandu alike—who thronged to the temple each year during the Bhai Tika to mourn for lost siblings.
So when the government picked Rani Pokhari to launch its National Reconstruction Campaign, with much fanfare, in January 2016, the plans to revitalise the pond and its temple—in clear view of one of the Capital’s busiest roads—brought with it hope, a testimony that Nepal could build back better from the widespread devastation caused by the 2015 Gorkha Earthquake. Yet, two years later, Rani Pokhari lies in shambles—an emblem of bureaucratic inefficiency instead of national resilience.
What’s more, Rani Pokhari’s dilapidated condition is not for want of investment. In fact, KMC has already poured in as much as Rs 25 million into the pond’s reconstruction. The plans, however, ran aground after vocal protests over the use of concrete in the reconstruction, a move expressedly against the Ancient Heritage Preservation Act (2013).
More recently, following recommendations from an 11-member expert panel, KMC relented to the demands of locals and activists to reverse the use of concrete and decided that the temple at the heart of the pond would be reconstructed in its original Shikhara style. Yet, despite the decision, progress hasn’t been forthcoming. The ‘grassy’ protest this week might have been tongue-in-cheek but it symbolised a growing discontent with the speed and efficacy of the reconstruction of heritage sites destroyed by the earthquake.
Rani Pokhari could be the perfect platform for KMC to roll back its previous missteps and show that it is cognizant of the immense historical, archeological and cultural importance of the heritage sites that fall in its jurisdiction. But the only way to do so would be to go beyond paying lip service and springing into action.