A city that remembersFor a man considered to be one of the most famous early missionaries to travel to Asia and the first European to have truly penetrated the Tibetan language and culture, Ippolito Desideri was largely unimpressed with Kathmandu.
For a man considered to be one of the most famous early missionaries to travel to Asia and the first European to have truly penetrated the Tibetan language and culture, Ippolito Desideri was largely unimpressed with Kathmandu. Following his expulsion from Tibet in 1721 CE, Desideri made a precarious journey over the Himalayas, passing “untamed places and terrifying precipices”, and was fortunate to have found the warm hospitality that he did during his month-long stopover in the Valley. The impressions he took back to Europe, however, were anything but flattering. The Neuârs of Kathmandu, he wrote, were “active, intelligent, and very industrious; clever at engraving and melting metal, but unstable, turbulent and treacherous.” Generally well-built and dark-skinned, nearly all of them bore such “deceit written in their faces,” that you could “pick out a Neuâr from among a thousand Indians.”
Ippolito Desideri, you can imagine, was a hard man to please.
Arriving in Kathmandu on 27th December 1721, a week after his 37th birthday, Desideri describes Mahendrasimha Malla as a “petty king” and his subjects as “cowardly, mean, and avaricious.” The Jesuit even blasphemously turned his nose up at the ai-la, calling it a “nasty liquor” drunk by “utter heathens.”
But if there was one thing that Ippolito Desideri genuinely appreciated about Kathmandu, it was its architecture and urban planning. “Their fine houses, of several floors, are well built,” he writes, “and the streets in the town are well laid out and paved with baked bricks set on end,” lined with many “handsome buildings.”
He uncharacteristically even marvels at the grandeur of Rani Pokhari, calling it a “large pond with flights of steps sloping into the water,” where, “In the centre is a tall column standing on a magnificent pedestal, under which, as people say, a former King buried a very considerable treasure.”
It then is fitting that the first ever western documentation of what was until recently one of the most iconic physical landmarks of Kathmandu was that of childlike awe.
When Rani Pokhari was commissioned in 1670 CE, it must have had been one of the most ambitious projects ever undertaken in the Valley. Spread out over 63 ropanies 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 made it ‘water proof’, its submerged wells perpetually recharged 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.
Rani Pokhari itself was just outside the city limits, close to its “principle gate” to the east. This meant that travellers to Kathmandu, like Desideri, were received at the ornate eight-cornered rest house that once stood on its banks. Waiting here, their dangerous journey over the mountains finally over, it was perhaps only natural that the imposing Shikhara-style temple floating over the emerald green waters left such a lasting impression on the uninitiated. It is perhaps why so many visitors over the centuries chose to record their first encounter with the pond—in writing, in sketches and photographs—even if they viscerally disliked the city itself. Rani Pokhari, they must have unconsciously registered, was more than just a pond or a water reservoir. It might have been called the Nhu Pukhu (or The New Pond) in the vernacular, but at its heart, Rani Pokhari has always tugged at the most primal of all human emotions.
Because even as stupendous a building achievement as Rani Pokhari was, it was never a monument that was celebrated. The pond was after all commissioned by a mourning father in the memory of a young son killed in a freak accident. Built adjacent to the then “Mohamadean” graveyard (now the Jame Masjid), Rani Pokhari was not an edifice of kingly vanity, far from it. Rani Pokhari was a place for sombre pilgrimage—a communal monument to love and to loss.
Even today, the pond is still visited by those wanting to honour and remember their lost siblings. Pratap Malla might have built Rani Pokhari for his son Chakravartendra, but it has been consecrated into Kathmandu’s collective memory with the tears of thousands of others who came, loved and lost, after him.
That is why the current defiling of Rani Pokhari by the Kathmandu Metropolitan City (KMC) hits so close to home. It is not just that the KMC forcefully drained a pond that had continually recharged itself for 350 years. It is not just that the KMC is encroaching on the pond by 10 metres on all sides, shrinking the water body by at least 20 percent. Or that the KMC is arguing that concrete, which has an average lifespan of 70 years, is absolutely necessary to fix a 300-year-old pond that didn’t need fixing in the first place. Not even that the KMC wants to make a quick buck by converting this venerated monument of mourning into an entertainment park replete with ‘dancing fountains’, boat rides and food courts.
It is that in the process the KMC is desecrating everything that Kathmandu represents as a city. Kathmandu might no longer be the sustainable, well-planned and close-knit city that it once was but if Rani Pokhari is lost, a bond that moors the city to that past will be severed forever. And a city without a mooring to its past, as a wise man puts it, is just a “sterile utilitarian cluster of infrastructure and people.”
So, when the modern-day Ippolito Desideris come to Kathmandu and Rani Pokhari is just a concrete swimming pool flanked by a Starbucks, what is left for them to write back home about? Cowardliness, Meanness and Avarice.