The cost of reconstructionThe Rani Pokhari was once a Kathmandu icon, a large lush pond, green and resplendent, in the heart of the city engulfing the distinctive pale Balgopaleshwor temple. Locals like Naresh Bir Shakya, who grew up in Jamal just across the Rani Pokhari, looked out at the pond every day. On his morning walks, he would marvel at the colourful fish and the flock of ducks that treaded the waters, scooping up those very fish.
The Rani Pokhari was once a Kathmandu icon, a large lush pond, green and resplendent, in the heart of the city engulfing the distinctive pale Balgopaleshwor temple. Locals like Naresh Bir Shakya, who grew up in Jamal just across the Rani Pokhari, looked out at the pond every day. On his morning walks, he would marvel at the colourful fish and the flock of ducks that treaded the waters, scooping up those very fish.
Today, there are no fish and there are no ducks. There is no water in the pond and instead, large unruly vegetation has sprung up on the pond bed. Oftentimes, there is even a bulldozer or excavator resting among the reeds. The Balgopaleshwor temple is part under repair and part dilapidated.
“I avoid looking at the pond these days,” says Shakya. “I feel sad whenever I pass through the area.”
It has been over two years since President Bidya Devi Bhandari laid the foundation stone to mark the beginning of the Rani Pokhari’s reconstruction, on January 16, 2016, following the 2015 earthquake that had badly damaged the structure. And little actual work has been done. Instead, the reconstruction campaign has been mired in controversy after controversy.
In 2016, over 4,000 fish from the Rani Pokhari were relocated to the Balaju Basidhar Park and Kamal Pokhari. All of those that were moved to Kamal Pokhari died last year due to a drop in the oxygen level and the chilly cold. An ill omen, if anything.
Then, the Kathmandu Metropolitan City (KMC) began reconstruction work, immediately inviting the ire of conservation activists for using modern material, namely concrete in the rebuilding of the Balgopaleshwor temple. According to the Ancient Monument Preservation Act 2013, any historic building or heritage site built over a hundred years ago must be preserved in its original form. Widespread protests and one letter from Unesco later, the KMC handed over reconstruction responsibility to the Department of Archaeology (DoA) on September 21, 2016, citing a lack of funds, even though the National Reconstruction Authority had allocated Rs 120 million for Rani Pokhari. The DoA was now going to be responsible for the reconstruction of the temple while the KMC would work on the surrounding pond and premises.
As reconstruction stalled, Bidhya Sundar Shakya was elected mayor of Kathmandu on May 28, 2017, among high hopes for the faithful reconstruction of Newar heritage that had been damaged and destroyed in the 2015 earthquake. Shakya too earned the anger of activists after proposing that a coffee shop be built on the Rani Pokhari premises. Locals, activists and cultural experts all accused the new mayor of attempting to commercialise a priceless cultural monument, detracting from the value and significance it held to locals. The mayor was deaf to all criticism.
The KMC went ahead and built a 10-foot concrete boundary wall on the southeastern side of the historic pond, again distressing many. This was too much even for Deputy Mayor Hari Prabha Khadgi, who padlocked the main gate to prevent further desecration, on December 27, 2017. Within an hour, mayor Shakya had broken the padlock and was at loggerheads with his own deputy.
As protests grew louder and criticism began to make headlines, mayor Shakya retreated. An 11-member expert committee, led by former DoA director-general Bishnu Raj Karki, was formed to study reconstruction without compromising on its integrity. Then Defence Minister Bhimsen Das Pradhan, former KMC mayor Keshav Sthapit and politician Ranju Darshana were advisors to the committee. The committee conducted a ‘generic excavation’ of the pond for three days, beginning January 3 this year, in the western part of the pond. Engineers discovered the ‘original’ water level, among other findings.
On January 21, the committee submitted its report to Mayor Shakya and he assured that reconstruction of the Balgopaleshwor temple would be based on its original design as constructed by Pratap Malla in the Granthakut style. The temple design that most of us are familiar with was in the Gumbaz style, reconstructed in turn by the Ranas after the
1934 earthquake damaged the original Granthakut design. Shakya also vowed to consult with the Nepal Reconstruction Authority (NRA) and the DoA.
For months, no progress had been made. Finally, in the first week of April, a meeting between Minister for Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation Rabindra Adhikari, Mayor Shakya and DoA chief Bhesh Narayan Adhikari announced that the concrete wall would be removed and reconstruction would begin. The KMC spent Rs 1.6 million destroying the wall that it had itself constructed. Till date, the KMC has spent Rs 25 million on the Rani Pokhari, with nothing tangible to show for it.
“They have squandered the taxpayers’ hard-earned money,” says Alok Siddhi Tuladhar, cultural activist and one of the leaders of the Save Heritage campaign.
Shakya was approached repeatedly by the Post for comment on the KMC’s exorbitant spending over the Rani Pokhari when little has been done. Mayor Shakya refused to comment, asking in turn, “Who will take action against those who’ve accused the mayor of selling heritage?”
In April, the KMC terminated its contract with contractor Worldwide Kandel KNKG Joint Venture, citing a failure to carry out work. The construction company then sued KMC citing losses. KMC, on the lookout for another contractor, mulled over handing over reconstruction to the Nepal Army. On July 26, Defence Minister Ishwar Pokhrel, Culture Minister Adhikari, Mayor Shakya and DoA Director General Bhesh Narayan Dahal tentatively discussed the Army as a potential contractor. Again, public outcry and opposition from deputy mayor Khadgi led to the withdrawal of the proposal and a public call for a tender.
Currently, the reconstruction work lies in limbo, with the weeds and brush on the pond bed as testament to the inability and callous disregard by the authorities for the preservation of a symbol of Kathmandu.
“There was a time when we would listen to the peals of the Ghanta Ghar and look to at the beauty of Rani Pokhari,” says Suresh Kiran Manandhar, 52, an Ason resident. “There is nothing to look out at anymore.”