The Tragedy at TundikhelThere are those that describe Tundikhel as Kathmandu’s lungs. In a city that is swallowing itself whole, Tundikhel is one of the last surviving large public spaces in its inner core.
There are those that describe Tundikhel as Kathmandu’s lungs. In a city that is swallowing itself whole, Tundikhel is one of the last surviving large public spaces in its inner core. It is where people that had nowhere else to go, went to after the earthquakes. It is where those that can’t buy gym memberships go walk or run, or pretend to meditate, in the morning. From its periphery—at the RNAC, the Bus Park, Ratna Park and Shahid Gate—those that can’t afford cars or bikes tussle to be herded into sweaty microbuses and tempos.
Tundikhel is a lung and half to Kathmandu.
But for all its vast openness, Tundikhel is a surprisingly suffocating place. You don’t go for a morning jog at Tundikhel and come home refreshed. You don’t drive into its gridlocked streets without sacrificing a bit of your sanity. And god forbid should you be on foot, even at a mindfully brisk pace, you’re bound to bump into at least a dozen people, half of whom are trying to peddle you anything from Nepali translations of Mein Kampf to cut-price palm reading sessions.
Tundikhel, the field itself, is not much cheerier. There are four gates to Tundikhel, but there is only one that you and I can use. It is the one that has feces all around it. The other three are under lock and chain, open only to heavily-armed motorcades or heavy machinery. There is no hiding it, Tundikhel is the two halves of Kathmandu manifest. The grass is literally greener on the other side. There is a barb-wired fence that demarks the boundary. That divide is fuzzy; in fact there are several spots from where you can cross over quite easily. No one ever does it though. We have always been so good at toeing the line.
Tundikhel, you come to hear, wasn’t always as divided as it is today. Like most places in Kathmandu Valley, Tundikhel too has two names—the more sonorous Tinkhya (“a field of reeds”) being the original. When Tundikhel was Tinkhya, it had no fences keeping anyone out. Traders from the north came as they pleased, set up camp and allowed their chyangras to range freely as live advertisements to prospective buyers. Traders from the south did the same with wild jungle fowl. Back then, the grass was evenly green and sprawling. The field was large enough to merit being recorded as a physical landmark by some of the first western visitors to Kathmandu. Large enough to be considered one of the largest parade grounds in Asia. Once, large enough for even a plane to land.
When exactly Tinkhya became Tundikhel no one can definitively pinpoint but it must have been a slow, drawn out affair. One by one, the lands surrounding it were carved out and parcelled off to one government-run behemoth or another and it became a sparkling new boulevard, shimmering with all the important state apparatuses. The Kathmandu Metropolitan City office, the National Electricity Authority, the Tourism Board, the central post office, the central jail, Nepal’s first airline, the first hospital, the first school, the first college, the first stadium, the first auditorium, all flank Tundikhel and nibble at its heels. These edifices of “what-might-have-been” in large part contribute to the perpetually morbid air that hangs low over Tundikhel today. Tundikhel is a place like no other. It is ground zero of promises not delivered, of failed experiments, of squandered possibilities. An abrasive reminder that the country is neither of, or for its people.
Nor will it ever be.
This week made that abundantly clear.
Tundikhel, we all had forgotten, became not just a makeshift refugee camp after the earthquakes but also a temporary home for rubble accumulated from Kathmandu’s most important heritage sites. Stacked a storey high along the southern perimeter, no tallies were kept of which pile belonged to what temple, no lists drawn out of what potentially lay buried underneath. Then days became weeks, weeks became trees and underbrush.
The rubble at Tundikhel might have remained an afterthought had heavy bulldozers not stirred up the pile this week, angering the public already battle fatigued of being angered so often. Where else would several 25 tonne excavators be allowed to dig willy-nilly on archaeological footprints that are several hundreds if not a thousand years old? Where else would they be scattered to the winds so nonchalantly? Make no mistake, that rubble was important. The youngest of the buildings in the pile—the Dharahara—was 80 years old. The Nau Talle Durbar was built in 1770. Maju Dega in 1690. Trilokya Mohan Temple in 1680. Jaisi Dega in 1668. The Kasthamandap in the seventh century.
Whether the personnel operating the excavators were conducting a multiple-day heavy equipment training or hauling out debris to use to level ground at other construction sites depends on whose angry rant you are listening to. But within the first few hours, several stone sculptures were unearthed. By the first day, several saddle-stones—crucial to the eventual rebuilding of the structures—surfaced. Yet the bulldozing persisted. They would not stop until there was no mound left to claw at. One pile re-emerged at the Khula Manch next door. There is no telling if others were shuttled off farther.
No one said a word.
One bureaucrat sent out a tweet.
A few days later, at the other end of the parade grounds, the who’s-who of the new republic congregated to pat each other on the back for a constitution that is yet to be embraced. Just beyond the “cultural” dances put up for their viewing, along the perimeter cordoned off to the general public, lay scarred, freshly dug earth from the tragedy that transpired at the site this week. No one said a word. No one even sent out a tweet.
When Tundikhel was Tinkhya, an old nan’s tale about the ogre Gurumapa who lived there and feasted on misbehaving children made entire generations of people shiver and go promptly to bed. That practice continues to this day, just that it’s lost all its subtlety.
Tundikhel is Kathmandu’s two halves manifest. It is a place like no other.