Nepal’s first, and forgotten, tunnel

In all the current media hubbub about proposed highway tunnels in Thankot, Sanga, and the Tarai Fast Track, it may be worth remembering that Nepal’s first ever highway tunnel was built as far back as 1917 in Hetauda.

The 500m tunnel through the Chure ridge between Hetauda and Amlekhganj was constructed by army engineer Col Dilli Jang Thapa with local resources, and is still in good condition.

“The tunnel was built on orders of Prime Minister Chandra Shumshere Rana, and was supposed to reduce the time taken by horse-drawn carriages and lorries to travel from the Indian border to Bhimphedi,” says Col Thapa’s grand-daughter Chanda Rana, who wants to turn the tunnel into a heritage site.

Col Thapa himself was the great-grandson of Jang Bahadur Rana, and got his engineering degree at the Thomson College of Engineering in Rourkee in British India. He died at the age of 52 in 1946.

Although it is not clear how much the tunnel cost, historians say the military completed the job ahead of schedule and returned the unspent budget to the treasury.

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Rana, who is researching her grandfather’s life, says the government at that time was looking at several options, including a serpentine road over the Chure, a longer option around the mountain and the tunnel. Col Thapa is understood to have argued that although the tunnel would be costlier, it would save money in the long run because of lower maintenance cost.

The Chure is made up of soft sediment of sand and boulders, without bedrock, thus making it easier to drill. Parts of the tunnel that are still accessible and measure 2.7m wide and 3m high, just enough to allow vehicles at the time to pass.

Pedestrians used the tunnel to cross over to the other side till recently, but the army blocked it during the conflict. Parts of the tunnel collapsed in the 2015 earthquake, but the entrance is still intact. Engineers say that after repairs it could still be used for one-way motor traffic.

Built at a time when highway tunnels were a rarity in Asia, it cut travel time between Bhimphedi to the Indian railhead in Raxaul. Beyond Bhimphedi, it was possible to reach Kathmandu, three days away, by walking or on horseback.

In his book, Nepal, Swiss geologist Toni Hagen writes about seeing the tunnel during his walk to Kathmandu in 1950, expressing surprise at such a sophisticated tunnel in the largely underdeveloped country.

Hetauda Municipality and the government of Province 3 have declared the tunnel a site of historic importance, and plan to preserve it as a monument. Col Dilli Jung Thapa had also established a temple at Churiyamai, which is now an important religious site in Hetauda.

Besides the tunnel, Col Thapa was also involved in the construction of the first cargo ropeway between Kathmandu and Hetauda, the Chandra Irrigation Canal in Saptari, the Dharara tower in Kathmandu reconstructed after the 1934 earthquake, the sanatorium in Tokha, and the Janakpur-Jayanagar Railway.

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Says Col Thapa’s grandson Janak Jung Thapa: “If only Nepal’s planners had seen the potential and built more tunnels like this one, the country would have seen much more rapid development.”

Chanda Rana is annoyed that the Nepali media is describing the 2.5km Nagdhunga-Naubise tunnel to be built with Japanese assistance as Nepal’s first highway tunnel.

She says: “There is an attempt to airbrush history. My grandfather’s contribution should be duly acknowledged.”

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