Ancient Pond Reconstruction in Kathmandu Stirs Preservation Protests

Rani Pokhari pond before the 2015 earthquake. Image by Flickr user Anup Adhikari. CC BY-NC 2.0

Ponds in the Kathmandu Valley and the southern plains of Nepal have always been an integral part of culture and tradition. While some ponds have been preserved well in the valley, others have been encroached upon by modern construction or have disappeared completely due to negligence by authorities.

Rani Pokhari, ‘the Queen’s Pond,’ with historic Balgopaleswor Temple in the center, has been drained off to allow for the temple's reconstruction. Authorities decided to renovate the pond as a whole after the temple was partially damaged by the disastrous earthquake of 2015.

Now, activists and locals of Kathmandu Valley have come together to save this ancient pond in the heart of Kathmandu:

In few years’ time, we did this to Rani Pokhari. Two photos taken from the same point.

The beauty and historical significance of Rani Pokhari 

Rani Pokhari, a 17th-century heritage site, is believed to have been built by King Pratap Malla in 1670 AD to console Queen Anantapriya who was saddened by the death of her youngest son.

The Balgopaleswor Temple in the center of the pond opens up to the public once a year when people with no siblings visit the temple during Bhai Tika, the ‘festival of brothers and sisters,’ on the final day of the Tihar festival, a five-day Hindu festival of lights. The pond is also open to the public for the Hindu festival Chhath.

That Rani Pokhari. Old is Gold: Rani Pokhari before 1990's (Bikram Era) earthquake

Known for its beauty and historical significance, the pond is surrounded by Ghantaghar (the clock tower) and Trichandra College, Nepal’s first campus in the east, and Durbar High School, Nepal’s first high school in the west. On the southern bank lies a statue of King Pratap Malla and his two sons riding an elephant. Temples dedicated to Hindu gods and goddesses stand at all four corners.

Controversial, messy reconstruction

The reconstruction of the pond has been a bone of contention between the government's Department of Archaeology, local people and the Kathmandu Metropolitan City (KMC) looking after the task. Construction work on the temple was halted when activists protested against the use of concrete materials by the contractor.

The row resurfaced after the contractor started building a concrete wall around the pond:

Rani Pokhari held water for 350 years although there were no engineers at that time. But it has been a gargantuan task to hold water in Rani Pokhari today for modern engineering after the mayhem in Rani Pokhari in the name of reconstruction. Height of shamelessness.

Sanjit Bhakta Pradhananga wrote in The Kathmandu Post:

Built over a natural aquifer, Rani Pokhari’s tightly-packed topsoil made it ‘waterproof,’ its submerged wells perpetually recharged its water levels, while subterranean canals diverted water to stone spouts 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.

A ‘hiti’ is a complex with one or more stone spouts fed by rainwater collected in aquifers. Ponds were built nearby so as to recharge the aquifers and maintain the water flow even in the dry season. The canal systems supplied water to the ponds, hitis, and farms for everyday use and irrigation purposes.

After the brouhaha over reconstruction, the work was halted in 2016 and a committee has been formed to advise the government on restoring the pond to its original form.

As the row continues to delay the reconstruction of Rani Pokhari, anthropologist David Gellner says the controversy can serve as a case study in the handling of significant cultural heritage in Kathmandu.

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