House of the holyThe abode of the living goddess cannot be left to rack and ruin
When the Gorkha Earthquake struck in 2015, 11 monuments in the Durbar Square area—Kathmandu’s ancient royal palace complex interspersed with temples, idols, open courts, water fountains and more—were damaged or destroyed.
As a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it goes without saying that it holds a distinct cultural and historical significance. Kumari Chhen or Kumari House, is one of the 11 monuments nestled inside it. Located at the southern end of Basantapur Durbar Square, Kumari Chhen is a favourite tourist spot. Enthusiastic foreigners and devotees throng the courtyard just to catch a glimpse of Kumari—the living goddess.
Kumari, as the spirit of goddess Taleju, has been worshipped for centuries. The state goddess Taleju is also known to be the virgin mother of the world. The Kumari tradition is a unique practice that has occupied a prominent space in the imagination of visitors coming to Nepal. But lack of concern among our authorities for Kumari Chhen—the symbol of the unique heritage of the Kathmandu Valley civilisation—is underwhelming. Even three years after the devastating earthquake, the Kumari House remains supported by props.
Last month, Kathmandu Mayor Bidya Sundar Shakya publicly announced that Kathmandu Metropolitan City would undertake the renovation of the house of the holy. But months have passed and the renovation process is yet to begin. What’s more, the mayor even said that Kathmandu Metropolitan City would make public an assessment report by November 4, but nothing happened. While our leaders are no strangers to making sweeping statements, demonstrable actions are well overdue.
The earthquake destroyed many of Kathmandu’s historically important cultural heritage structures. All the three main cities of the Kathmandu Valley—Kathmandu, Patan, and Bhaktapur—are an archipelago of squares with multi-tiered temples and palaces with the most intricate of carvings. With seven internationally recognised cultural treasures doting the city and its satellite towns, the Capital has more UNESCO World Heritage Sites than any other city in the world.
By offering a combination of culture and history, heritage structures help define a country’s identity. Since, as a society, we have limited memory, our cultural heritage offers a snapshot of the past. But it appears that cultural heritage only seems to be relevant to the government when it serves to strengthen diplomatic interests and holds monetary promises. The state’s swift approval of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Janakpur-Ayodhya direct bus service serves as an example of how discussions on heritage are often appropriated to benefit the country’s foreign policy interests. Heritage sites in the Tarai—a region that hosts a plethora of important structures and relics pertaining to the Mithila Kingdom—only seem to be relevant to and celebrated by the state when dignitaries come visiting.
Heritage preservation is an important contributor to our economic, social, and cultural wellbeing. The city fathers should pursue it with full vigour and support and immediately allot a budget to the reconstruction of Kumari Chhen. The abode of the living goddess cannot be left to rack and ruin for long.