Building back Rani Pokhari even better
Five years after the earthquake destroyed its central temple, the 350-year-old Rani Pokhari royal pond at the centre of Kathmandu is finally getting back its original look.
The temple had been rebuilt after previous earthquakes in the Moghul stucco dome style, and was going to be converted into a concrete-lined structure. But today, the shrine, the causeway and pond perimeter gleam with russet brick.
Rani Pokhari has gone through many avatars in the past centuries. The earliest, an engraving commemorating the visit to Kathmandu by Prince Waldemar of Prussia in 1845, shows the Balgopaleswar Temple having a Shikhara style spire. After it came down in an earthquake, Jang Bahadur Rana had it rebuilt with the Moghul dome architecture of north India that he admired so much.
This structure came down again in the 1934 mega-quake, and Juddha Sumsher Rana had it reconstructed and whitewashed, adding a metal fence around the pond. This structure, too, was destroyed in the 2015 earthquake, and Kathmandu Mayor Bidya Sundar Shakya’s attempt to surround the pond with cafes and shops was vehemently opposed by the local community.
Finally, the National Reconstruction Authority (NRA) is giving Rani Pokhari more or less its original look. After delays due to the lockdown, reconstruction is finally nearing completion.
The pond was built in 1671 by King Pratap Malla after his consort, Queen Anantapriya was devastated by the sudden death of her son, Prince Chakrawatendra Malla. The king could not bear to see his queen so distraught, so he built Rani Pokhari to soothe her, and memorialise their lost son.
It was an exquisite architectural and ecological masterpiece showcasing the meticulous craftsmanship of the Malla era. The pond was consecrated with the crystal clear waters from 51 sacred sites from all over the subcontinent.
On the south side of the pond there still stands a statue of an elephant bearing King Pratap Malla and his two sons Chakrawatendra and Mahipatendra. Four smaller temples protect the central temple from the four cardinal points.
Besides its beauty, the pond was also an engineering feat. It was fed by an intricate underground network of channels to keep it full throughout the year. It also served to manage the surface water around in the area during monsoon, so that runoff from as far as Asan market would empty into the pond and overflow past farmlands down to Tukucha Rivulet in the east.
Because Rani Pokhari recharged ground water, it kept the water sources like hitis and wells in the surroundings flowing even in the dry season. The pond bed was lined with semi-permeable black clay (dyo cha) so it retained water but also allowed some of it to seep through. The pond thus served as a rainwater reservoir that not just replenished groundwater, but also irrigated nearby farms.
“Rani Pokhari shaped the water management system around the area at that time,” says Sudarshan Tiwari, professor at the Institute of Engineering and a conservation architect.
Kathmandu Valley traditionally had an urban-rural symbiosis with densely-packed towns situated on higher ground, with intensive farming in the fertile soil below. The pond is a reminder of the wisdom of Kathmandu’s rulers who understood this ecological balance, as well as its cultural significance.
“Since the day of its inauguration the pond was already considered a sacred site due to the temple in the centre and because water from 51 holy places were ceremonially poured into it,” says heritage conservationist Alok Siddhi Tuladhar.
After it was damaged again in the 2015 earthquake, President Bidya Devi Bhandari inaugurated the reconstruction of Rani Pokhari in January 2016. The Kathmandu Metropolitan City got a budget of Rs120 million for the job, but it started to line the perimeter with cement for shops, and used concrete to rebuild the temple. After opposition, the work was stopped and handed over to the NRA.
“We wanted to make sure everyone involved had a say in the reconstruction, as the NRA is just a temporary organisation, so we formed a committee consisting of people from KMC, Department of Archaeology and local experts,” explained the NRA’s Sushil Gyawali.
After much debate the NRA decided to rebuild the temple in the original 1671 Shikhara style, and also revive the original hydrological elements used in the pond. This was not an easy job. Experts from Bhaktapur were brought in to line the pond with black clay and bricks.
The biggest challenge was to revive the previous water management system. The artesian wells and underground channels that fed the pond have dried up or have been destroyed by surrounding building construction.
“We will do our best to fill the pond through natural means but we will have to take extreme measures if the plan fails,” explained Gyawali.
One of those “extreme measures” was to start filling the pond last week with muddy water from a nearby tube well. But this was also stopped after local opposition.
“It was a mistake. Rani Pokhari is a holy site and using tubewell water diminishes its religious, cultural and ecological value,” said Tuladhar. The NRA stopped using the tubewell water, but Gyewali says that even the heavy monsoon rains will not be enough to fill the pond.
Other options are to use the trial feed from the Melamchi tunnel, or rainwater harvesting from the reconstructed Darbar High School and Tri Chandra College.
Another problem might be that the bed of the pond is lined with trapezoid dachhi appa bricks and the gaps between them could over time be blocked by debris and prevent seepage of water for recharging.
“This will not only defeat the purpose of recharging the underground channels but it will also make the pond dirty, so money has to be spent in cleaning it,” says Sudarshan Tiwari.
Despite the compromises during its reconstruction, Rani Pokhari has become a symbol of what proper restoration should look like. Relentless activism and communities uniting to preserve this heritage has saved Kathmandu’s past for its future.