Creation to destruction, then revival

The ancient town of Panauti is preparing for its once-in-12-years Makar Mela this month, a festival that dates back 1,000 years. Despite the Omicron scare, the town 40km east of Kathmandu expects 6 million pilgrims from Nepal and India during the month of Magh.  

Although it is among the better preserved historic Newa towns, even here the sloping tile roofline is being replaced by flat-top concrete blocks that dwarf the temples and shrines. But the town is preserving its past, not just by restoring its monuments but also reviving its many festivals like the Makar Mela.

The recent release of the bilingual book Panauti: Passé– Présent Panauti Past- Present (1976-2020) is perfectly timed not just for the 12-year festival which starts on 15 January, but also to draw attention to the town’s many other festivals.

Indreswor Mahadev Temple. Photos: Gerard Toffin, 1976 (left) and Prasant Shrestha, 2020 (right)

With French and English text by Gérard Toffin of the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), and illustrated with before and after photographs by Toffin, the ethnologist Corneille Jest and Panauti-based photographer Prasant Shrestha, the book is a must-have guide to anyone interested in exploring the history of this unique town.

Toffin and Shrestha met in 2010 during the last Makar Mela and were both struck by the changes that Panauti was undergoing, mostly for the worse, and decided to make a photographic documentation before it was too late.

‘This book is a testimony to the mutations in Panauti,’ writes Toffin in the Introduction. ‘It gives a real importance to photography, aims at highlighting the local cultural heritage and how the current uncontrolled urbanisation threatens it.’

Panauti. While the town's roofline has changed, the surrounding hills have more forest. Photos by Gerard Toffin, 1976 (left) and Prasant Shrestha, 2011 (right). 

For Shrestha, it was a matter of using his profession to further the cause of the preservation of the heritage of his beloved hometown, and this passion shows in the meticulous care he has taken in repeat photography of shrines and landscapes.

Just as the German government undertook to restore Bhaktapur as a coronation gift to King Birendra, the French chose the out-of-the-way town of Panauti. Legend has it, Panauti was given by the king of Bhaktapur as dowry to his newly-married sister.  

Panauti is located in the sacred tri-junction of the Punyamati, Lilawati (Rosi Khola) and the mythical underground river, Rudrawati – a miniature replica of the holy confluence of the Ganga, Jamuna and Saraswati at Prayag in India. Which is why the Makar Mela is also called Nepal's own Kumbha Mela.

Tribeni Ghat as photographed by Gerard Toffin, 1976 (left) and Prasant Shrestha, 2020 (right)

Panauti’s Tribeni was so revered that it was among the sources from which holy water was poured into the Rani Pokhari by Pratap Malla when he consecrated the royal pond in Kathmandu in 1669.

Archaeological evidence points to Panauti having been settled from the early Kirat period 1,500 years ago. It escaped being conquered by Prithvi Narayan Shah, and was annexed when Bhaktapur fell in 1769. 

The town was on a ancient trade route to the Tarai, and with its Indreswar Mahadev, Bhadrakali and Unmatta Bhairav shrines it is predominantly Hindu. However, there are Buddhist influences.

Panauti Layaku Area. While the traditional houses have been replaced with concrete blocks, the temple appear to be in a better state.   Photos by: Gerard Toffin, 1976 (left) and Prasant Shrestha, 2020 (right). 

Panauti was the scene of a battle during the insurgency in 2006, and suffered damage in the 2015 earthquake. But now, its glorious past is threatened by modernisation, which is why this book by Toffin and Shrestha is so important. It does not just show us the changes in the past 40 years, but also encouraging signs of how its monuments and festivals are being restored.

The Makar Mela itself is a celebration of Panauti’s proud heritage during which there is a vigil for the king of the serpents, Vasuki Nag. (This is the reason the Shah kings never attended the Mela because they would have to compete with another ‘king’.)

Other examples of revival are the Devi Pyakhan masked dance which used to be performed in the past to ward off cholera, and the Jya Punhi full moon festival which is only celebrated here. And in 2015, Panauti also reinstated its own Kumari Living Goddess tradition.

The book reprints a scroll dating back to 1635 that depicts the sacred Tribeni confluence which we learn is now in the Virginia Museum of Fine Art in the United States. To draw attention to the stolen holy objects from Nepal, Bhaktapur-based architect Rabindra Puri has set up the Museum of Stolen Arts in Panauti with replicas of the statuary from this town, and other parts of the Valley.

Panauti with Gorakhnath Hill in the backdrop. Photos: Gerard Toffin, 1976 (left) and Prasant Shrestha, 2020 (right)

Under federalism, Panauti became a municipality that includes some of the surrounding villages. Mayor Bhim Neupane was elected in 2017, and says preparations are complete to manage the influx of pilgrims from 15 January – 12 February.

“Despite the pandemic, we are expecting about 200,000 people a day,” says Neupane. “We are directing everyone to take health precautions seriously, and have cleared the Tribeni area to make space. There is a bypass road and extra bus parks.”

Panauti: Passé– Présent Panauti Past- Present (1976-2020) is a book that proves to other towns in Nepal that it is indeed possible to save what is left of the country’s unique cultural heritage and diversity.

Panauti: Passé– Présent Panauti Past- Present (1976-2020)

Text:rard Toffin

Photos: Prasant Shrestha

Ambassade de France Népal and Alliance Française,2021

ISBN 978-9937-0-8212-9

114 pages     

Kunda Dixit


Kunda Dixit is the former editor and publisher of Nepali Times. He is the author of 'Dateline Earth: Journalism As If the Planet Mattered' and 'A People War' trilogy of the Nepal conflict. He has a Masters in Journalism from Columbia University and is Visiting Faculty at New York University (Abu Dhabi Campus).

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