Released this week, Thomas Bell’s Kathmandu follows his past decade in Nepal’s capital
Thomas Bell unravels Kathmandu’s history through reinventions of itself. The many layers of the city’s development are reflected in the successive generations of its gods and goddesses, and lately the destabilisation of consumerism, and communism. In this chapter, protagonists Dhana Laxmi Shrestha (pic) and Himalaya Shamsher Rana describe the great 1934 earthquake that killed 10,000. people in the Valley.
‘I had heard—everyone knew—that something was going to happen that day but nobody knew exactly what.’
‘How did they know?’
‘The astrologers had said. The nine planets were going to fight that day, they were coming towards the same place. The astrologers had said. We were wondering if the entire Valley would be flooded with water,’ said Dhana Laksmi. ‘So my mother and I went around all the temples and we ended up at Tabahal, where the gatekeeper was my mother’s friend, and she said “Panju, what’s going to happen today?”
‘The panju said, “Anything could happen, I don’t know what’s going to happen.”
‘We walked up to Khumbeshwar. There’s a small pati where they used to sell meat. I was leaning against it. They sell meat there to this day. My mother’s friend came and she also asked, “What’s going to happen today?” and my mother said, “I don’t know. Everyone says something’s going to happen . . . ” and as I was leaning against that pati something pushed me and I went flying!’
As she was sitting in front of me Dhana Laksmi pitched violently forward, with alarming force for such an old woman.
‘Then something pulled me . . .’
She threw herself backwards as if she’d been shot in the chest.
Kathmandu by Thomas Bell
Random House India, 2014
‘ . . . and I went BANG against the pati!
‘I said, “Mother, Mother, look!” The whole temple, the top, it swayed down and touched the ground then it went back up again. The whole earth twisted! It felt like it was twisting! The whole temple came all the way down again—then suddenly there was no road. But the pati didn’t fall and that’s how I survived.
‘To go back home there was no road. How to go? What had happened to our house? The house where my grandmother lived had collapsed. And my grandmother had asked me to stay back!
Many people died!’
After the earthquake there were mass cremations at Shankamul.
‘I thought about the Mahabharat and all the people that died, and the river of blood that flowed. People died like that! There were so many dead that all the men could do was carry the bodies and throw them at the cremation ground,’ Dhana Laksmi said. ‘How many people? How many! In every house one or two. If I had stayed with my grandmother I would have died, but because it was not my time I was pulled away from the scene.
‘It was on an aunsi that it happened, so you must not have meat on an aunsi.’
I checked the date in the moon charts. The great earthquake did happen on an aunsi. The deep lakebed clays of the Valley floor were liquefied by the 8.1 magnitude shock. Some people heard a gurgling from the earth, which ran under the city in stormy waves. Houses imploded block by block into heaps of bricks and broken timber. Fountains of dust turned the day black. Tides rose in still ponds. Trees bent like in a hurricane. Within a minute many thousands of people were crushed to death.
On the other side of the river the young Himalaya Shamsher Rana was playing carom with his cousin in a room near where he was born, beside the great hall of the Thapathali Durbar. The first thing he noticed was that the striker did not run straight.
‘The ladies were shouting “Ram! Ram!” and we ran outside to see the ground going like this,’ he told me, and he waved his arms from side to side. ‘Just near there Khadka Shamsher had built his Gol Baitak [a circular palace building] and it collapsed, just collapsed, and there was a cloud of dust like an atom bomb.’
That night Himalaya Shamsher’s family camped in one of the palace gardens. Two weeks later they built wooden cottages there. They never moved back into the palace. The garden was divided between his father and his uncle and later it was further divided. Thapathali began to become the neighbourhood of bungalows that it was when I lived there. ‘I was so terrified of earthquakes, of being buried alive,’ said Himalaya Shamsher, ‘that even years later if I felt tremors I would flee the building, even leaving my wife and children inside. When I built the house I have now I made it earthquake resistant.’ That awful January of 1934 the Tundikhel parade ground became a refugee camp for people fleeing the ruins of their homes. They must have been poorly dressed, and everyone agrees that Kathmandu was colder in those days than it is now.
The prime minister, Juddha Shamsher, built the street called New Road (Juddha Road, he called it) through the wreckage of eastern Kathmandu, to open a European boulevard into the Malla durbar square. The new shops that lined New Road had elaborate classical facades and he placed his own statue in the classical plaza at the end, between the earthquake memorial park and the theatre, which later became the first cinema hall, where the Bishal Bazar shopping centre now stands.
It was after the earthquake that residential areas began to spread in earnest beyond the boundaries of the old Malla cities. ‘A lot of damage was done to the houses in the very tightly packed city, you see,’ said Himalaya Shamsher. ‘So then they started moving out.’
‘To places like Maiti Devi, Naya Bazar, Putalisadak?’ ‘Yes. And the roads were not there. You needed roads to move. So the roads were constructed by Juddha Shamsher.’
The orientation towards streets instead of squares was a novelty in Kathmandu’s planning. The houses along the new roads were built on the traditional scale, using the old structural methods of brick and timber. But they had stucco pediments with cherubs above the windows, string courses and cornices between the floors, and quoins and pilasters at the corners, in imitation of the fashion for European classicism introduced by the palaces of the Ranas.