Time is ticking: Ghantaghar may just give up due to the lack of technical support and the government’s indifferenceFor the past 124 years, Ghantaghar has been projecting accurate time—with occasional dysfunctions—throughout the years. But that may change soon, as the man who ensured that the monumental time teller is up and running is set to retire.
The sound of brass gong from the Ghantaghar, which literally translates to ‘bell tower’ in Nepali, reverberates through the surrounding areas every hour. The five-storey white monument stands right across Kathmandu’s Rani Pokhari, and within the premises of Tri-Chandra Multiple Campus. Situated in the heart of the city, the tower that was built in 1894 has been keeping track of changing times—quite literally.
For the past 124 years, Ghantaghar has been projecting accurate time—with occasional dysfunctions—throughout the years. But that may change soon, as the man who ensured that the monumental time teller is up and running is set to retire.
“Initially I was employed as an electrician for Tri-Chandra Campus in 1980. Now, it's been 32 years since I have been looking after the clock,” says Ganesh Sapkota, 58, who is retiring in the next five years. His replacement is yet be found.
The only help he gets is to wind the clock, which needs to be done in pairs of two—twice every week. For this, four security staffs of the Campus are commissioned—Natibabu Thapa, Baburam Lamichhane, Bhim KC, and Maan Bahadur Budathoki.
Thapa, now in his late 50s, says he recalls his early teen days ploughing field with a heavyweight tractor, whenever he winds the clock. “Winding the clocks at Ghantaghar is as tough and pressuring as using the old tractor back in the days,” he says.
While the four staff look after the winding, Sapkota is the only one responsible for the technical side and the state of the clock—ensuring its function without unusual halts. But he hadn’t anticipated that his employment at the Campus as an electrician would lead him to be the only technician for the historic clock tower.
When Sapkota started his job, Rameshwor Dhakal was the technician who knew the interiors of the vintage clock. According to him, in 1982, the residential space separated for the guards on the first floor of Ghantaghar caught fire at night. The firefighters, seeing the fumes coming out of the chimney from the top of the tower, broke in from the clock.
After the incident, Tri-Chandra Multiple Campus invited an expert technician from India to fix the clock, recalls Sapkota. However, it only functioned for a few months and in the meantime, Dhakal also passed away without imparting his technical skills. The clock then stopped working and was frozen for a few years.
“I was then brought in to urgently fix the clock by the Campus in 1987, just a week before SAARC summit was to take place in Kathmandu,” says Sapkota.
Without having any knowledge on the mechanical aspects of a clock, he says he agreed to experiment, for which, he stayed at the monument for a total of 13 days and 13 nights during the SAARC summit.
“I didn’t go home. I stayed at the tower and kept observing the clock and its pendulum swinging,” says Sapkota.
He did figure out the errors and fixed it, but it only worked for a few hours in the beginning. But his conviction to fix it along with his persistent attempts led the clock to start functioning smoothly. After that, he has been the one responsible for its operation.
But apart from not having an apprentice to whom Sapkota can transfer his knowledge, which he says he learnt solely through experimentation and experience, he says that there isn’t much hope for the clock to sustain with the parts that are currently in use.
The clocks were imported to Nepal from London by the Rana Prime Minister Bir Shumsher Jung Bahadur Rana, whose name is carved in the yellow background right below each clock in the tower. According to Thapa, Bir Shumsher’s original intention wasn’t to build a public clock tower, instead, he had ordered four huge clocks to be installed in the residences of each of his four sons.
But when the clocks arrived in Nepal, they worked only through an assembled engine. Then the Rana Prime Minister decided to build a specific clock tower in the premises of his durbar. The architect of Ghantaghar was influenced by European architecture of creating dome and arches in the chimney and hollow spaces to adapt the intricate design. Historian Sudarshan Raj Tiwari assumes that Jogbir Sthapit may be behind the architectural work of the original Ghantaghar, as Sthapit is renowned for designing monuments during Bir Shumsher's reign.
Once the tower was complete, it was the only means to know time in Kathmandu. Nepal Army personnel used to check the clock from Tudikhel using their binoculars and when the clock struck 12 in the noon, they would fire a cannonball making everyone aware of the mid-day.
But after the 1934 earthquake, Ghantaghar was torn to pieces, especially the chimney, but the clock’s engine was left unaffected according to clock-winders Thapa and KC. The modern day Ghantaghar was then built on new architectural designs.
The recent earthquake in April 2015, however, did not cause any altering damage to the clock tower.
The engine, which still remains fairly unscathed from many natural disasters, is made of iron and brass wheels of varying sizes connected to plates and their respective pinions, while a pendulum oscillates below it. The cluster of wheels is categorised into three sections enabling one to wind the metal wires of second, minute, and hour separately which are connected to their respective weights of approximately 390kgs, 90kgs and 270kgs. Without the periodic winding, the engine would not function after a week as, by the time, its weights would reach the monument’s first floor and come to a halt.
The clock-winders take an iron handle to fit it at the winding drum of a section and the pair take turns in winding each of them until the pulley stations tighten all the loose metal wires at the rod of the engine, resulting the weights to hang at the third floor of Ghantaghar.
With each quarter of an hour, the minute weight falls down by a step making the four out of five bells above the clocks chime. Similarly, with the quarterly passing of other time units, respective weight fall down by a step, and when a clock strikes to an hour, the clapper hits the major bell—placed at the middle of the four bells—the number of times as the hour.
The old-grown tower-clock appears bright from the outside, adding to the grandeur of the building. But contrary to the tower’s exterior, the interior is in a dire state. The monument’s first floor appears as if it’s a home for birds—with their faeces all over the place to nests housed at the twisting corners of the stairs—and as a storehouse for the campus’ broken fans and chair.
The tiny metal stairs at the corner—which can only welcome the visitors of breadth equivalent to its own radius—direct till the third floor revealing the insides of the four giant clocks, its engine, and the weights.
Today, the clock tower is looked after by the Campus but there isn’t any legal document that states the Campus is responsible for its upkeep. Although the college has deployed its staff for cleaning, winding and even repairing, it needs more care and attention.
Sapkota says that the Campus doesn’t have any budget for its maintenance. Nor does the Department of Archeology (DOA) seem to care for its state.
“The college is somehow managing it so far, but it’s only because it lies in its premises,” he says. “When approached, the department said only those monuments which are dated over a 100 years, in their original form, are their responsibility.”
Even though the clock tower seems to be the least of state’s priorities, its caretakers have grown a remarkable bond with it.
“Ghantaghar is more valuable for me than my home, as I’ve spent my childhood visiting this place to look after the wheels of this clock,” says Thapa, one of the clock-winders. “I would also come to watch Ghode Jatra from the top.”
His elder brother had also worked as a clock-winder. Thapa’s visits to Ghantaghar, often bringing food for his brother, became one of his favourite things to do which—in 1986—paved the way for him to join the Campus as a staffer and to be one of the clock-winders after his brother’s retirement. And even though he is paid Rs1,000 a month for the rigorous duty, he seems satisfied and proud to be able to do it.
For Sapkota, his worries for the clock’s functioning and maintenance is growing with each passing year. During his tenure, Sapkota has changed a couple of elements of this once unfamiliar engine and fixed the letters that came off of the clock. He periodically does the oiling and greasing and mends the time of the main clock from the mini one that’s attached to the engine.
But he fears that without his substitute and a lack of concern from the government to buy parts that are not available in Nepal, it might just give up.
“This clock has been both a teacher and friend to me,” says Sapkota.