Giving Tundikhel back to the people
Over the centuries, as Kathmandu expanded, the vast open space of Tundikhel that was once on the fringes of the old town has become the heart of the new city.
The name comes from the Newa Tinkhya, a ‘khya’ means large open space on the outskirts of town set aside for social and cultural events.
As dynasties came and went, Nepal’s rulers used the public space for their own convenience, and Tundikhel went from a place for festivals, to supposedly being the largest military parade ground in Asia, and started being occupied piecemeal by the Army.
Today, not even 15% of Tundikhel’s original expanse is open to the public. It is fragmented into sections under either institutional and/or military control. After the 2015 earthquake, even the area with public access has mounds of debris and is fenced off to park tipper trucks.
In the latest instance of blatant encroachment, Kathmandu Metropolitan City (KMC) under its new mayor Balen Shah has revived the idea of turning Khula Manch in Tundikhel into a parking facility.
The area behind the Army pavilion with its Panchayat-era open air theatre has been the site for historical events like the People’s Movements of 1990 and 2006, and political rallies. After the earthquake it housed a tent city for survivors.
Earlier this month, the 10th executive meeting of KMC set aside a budget to prepare a detailed project report for a three-storey underground parking in Khula Manch.
Activists and experts are up in arms, saying the decision was taken without proper homework and consultation, and would threaten one of the last remaining open public spaces in Kathmandu.
“The authorities have never understood the essence of Tundikhel,” says activist Ganapati Lal Shrestha of Occupy Tundikhel, a citizen-led movement to reclaim encroached open spaces. “We had hoped that at least the newly elected local representatives would understand its importance, but even they have not.”
The KMC has not divulged details, but activists are concerned that an underground parking will be detrimental to Kathmadu’s ecology and culture.
“Underground parking will disturb the aquifer and water flow in the hiti around the area,” says Shrestha. “If it is about managing traffic, the basement of the commercial buildings which the Mayor previously cleared, and new parking facilities would be enough. Why target Tundikhel? And they should have consulted local stakeholders.”
Kathmandu’s historic heart does not have much space left for new development. The plan should have been to use and improve what already exists.
“Traffic management in the city core has been a challenge for KMC, and adding parking space makes sense. But from an ecological point of view, underground parking would impact the environment. How much are you willing to compromise on that front is a political decision,” says land and water management engineer Padma Sundar Joshi.
Like other open spaces in Kathmandu Valley, Tundikhel plays an important role in the groundwater recharge system While surface water is replenished every monsoon, deep aquifers need to be recharged.
“Underground parking can help in traffic management but there has to be a proper design and it should be carried out only after conducting a geological study,” says Joshi. “If the new mayor does not follow due process and consult the public, how is he any different from the previous mayors?”
KMC spokesperson Nabin Manandhar admits that an economic feasibility study and geological investigation has not been conducted.
Apart from the ecological impact, Khula Manch is also culturally important. To its northwest is Dui Maju, the goddess of grain which is considered the unseen energy linked to Goddess Taleju.
According to Uddhab Karmacharya, the priest of Taleju temple, Dui Maju is always established where the goddess Taleju Bhawani exists. A special worship for Dui Maju takes place in April to coincide with special puja at Hanuman Dhoka.
“The state cannot do whatever it likes, but they need to understand the importance of the space for Dui Maju and work to preserve it,” says Karmacharya. “They are turning Kathmandu into concrete with no regard for heritage conservation. They should leave Khula Manch alone.”
This is not the first time the KMC has tried to turn the place into a parking lot. A feasibility study was conducted in 2016 for underground parking coverinf 23,133 sq m for 2,000 light vehicles.
That year, the KMC started work on the 17-storey Kathmandu View Tower across the road, and moved the bus park from there to Khula Manch. After the bus park moved out, the area became a dumping site for construction material and temporary rooms for contractors. The KMC only acted to clear the area in 2019 after a public outcry by activists and heritage conservationists.
The plot belonging to Dui Maju was leased for five years by the Guthi Sansthan to a certain Amrita Bhattarai who was supposed to upkeep the holy site. Instead, she leased the prime real estate to Marin Thakur International which sublet it to vendors.
After widespread public protests in 2019, then Deputy Mayor Hari Prabha Khadgi padlocked the gates and announced that the city would take charge of the upkeep and cleanliness of the religious site.
Urban Planner and Former VC of National Planning Commission Jagadish C Pokharel says adding underground parking will not ease congestion in Kathmandu’s core.
“Underground parking is not a good idea in Kathmandu. We must keep in mind the soil condition and seismic aspects, and also how it will impact the water table,” says Pokharel.
Concentrated parking there will affect the traffic in the surrounding roads, and it will need other infrastructure to ease traffic flow in and out.
“The wiser route to go”, says Pokharel “is to decentralise traffic and study pocket parking areas above-ground with earthquake resistant technology.”
Fragments of Tundikhel
The first mention of Tundikhel was in a 1709 scripture engraved in Taleju Bhawani temple by Queen Bhuwan Laxmi. This was during the Malla period, when Tinkhyo (Tundikhel) was a vast open space set aside by Kathmandu's rulers for social and cultural events.
The Italian Jesuit Ippolito Desderi who visited Kathmandu in 1721 in his chronicles mentions a two- mile long plain. In the 1850s, Henry Ambrose Oldfield, the British resident surgeon in Kathmandu, wrote in his book Sketches of Nepal that Tundikhel originally stretched from where the stadium is today to Rani Pokhari in the north. He estimated that it measured 2-3 miles in length, and 300 yards in width.
Over the centuries, rulers as far back as Pratap Malla divided it up for their own convenience. Today only 15% of the space is open to the public.
In 1671, King Pratap Malla constructed Rani Pokhari on the northern part of Tundikhel. In the 1800s and early 1900s the Rana Regime used Tundikhel mostly for military parades and the pronouncements of edicts.
When Bhimsen Thapa built a palace for himself in Lagan Tole south-west of Tundikhel, it brought the army even closer to Tundikhel. Barracks were constructed, and a canon foundry went up on the south-western side.
Before Jang Bahadur, it used to be Chhauni that military drills were held. Once he returned from England, he turned Tundikhel into a parade ground for the Nepali army.
There were two trees that stood at the centre of Tundikhel for many years, and one of them was a Chakala sima (खरीबोट in Nepal) around which a marble platform was later built. The other tree was called Yaka sima, the lone tree. Both are now gone.
Major proclamations were made by the Rana rulers from the platform. In 1885, Bir Shumshere proclaimed himself prime minister from there, an in 1924, Chandra Shumshere announced the emancipation of the slave. In 1945, the end of World War 2 in which 20,000 Nepali soldiers fighting for the British Army were killed in action, was announced in the same place.
In 1956, the southern part of Tundikhel was turned into a stadium for sporting events to mark the coronation of King Mahendra. In 1960, Sahid Gate was constructed with a road dividing Tundikhel into two halves. The Nepal Army then built a permanent pavilion for parades, and this Panchayat era structure is still used and is fenced off from the public.
In 1962, Tundikhel was further fragmented to build Ratna Park dedicated to Queen Ratna and in 1973 Khula Manch was added with an open-air theatre.
The demon of Tinkhya
Tundikhel is steeped in folklore in which demons and deities once inhabited its open spaces
One of the more popular stories about Tundikhel begin in the monastery in Itumbaha.
Keshchandra came from an affluent family, but was addicted to gambling. Over time he frittered away his posessions until he had no money even to buy food. He went to his sister’s home in Bhagawan Bahal where his sister gave him food in a plate made of solid gold.
After eating the food, he gambles away the golden plate. A few days later he goes to his sister’s house again. This time she serves him food in silverware. Keshchandra once again gambles it away.
The next time he goes to his sister, she serves him food on the floor. Humiliated and chastised, Keshchandra picks up the food food in a piece of cloth and goes on a pilgrimage to Gosaikunda.
A few days into his journey, he becomes hungry and opens the cloth bundle. But the food is mouldy and he goes to sleep on an empty stomach. While Keshchandra is asleep, birds feast on the food. A voice comes from the heavens, ordering the birds to compensate Keshchandra for the food.
The birds offer him droppings which turn into gold flakes. The shrewd Keshchandra pleads with Gurumapa to help him take the gold home, calling the demon his paju (mother’s brother).
After much persuasion Gurumapa agrees, but on one condition, Keshchandra must feed him. Keshchandra permits him to eat any child in Kathmandu who cries. The two make their way to Itumbaha, where Gurumapa lived on the top floor of the northern wing of the monastery complex.
Gurumapa proceeded to eat disobedient children, terrorising Kathmandu. Mothers would warn their children that if they were disobedient and cried, the Gurumapa would gobble them up.
Soon, the demon had devoured most of the children in the town. Keshchandra was not bothered, until one day his own son cried and Gurumapa ate him up as well.
Bereft with grief Keshchandra banishes Gurumapa to the open fields of Tinkhya, present day Tundikhel, in return for a feast of rice and buffalo meat.
It is said that Gurumapa lived under the yaka sima, the lone tree in Tundikhel. And to this day, every year, in keeping with the deal made in Kathmandu's mythical past, a feast of rice and meat is laid out for him.
As told by Amrit Man Shakya, priest of Keshchandrakrit Paarawat Mahavihar.