Resurrecting Rani Pokhari Right

King Pratap Malla built Nhu Pukhoo, the ‘new pond’ on the northern outskirts of Kathmandu in the 17thcentury CE to console his grieving wife. To sanctify Rani Pokhari, as the pond was eventually called, he toiled four years to bring water from 51 holy rivers, ponds and oceans of the subcontinent.

Now, more than four years after the desecration of Ranipokhari by Kathmandu Metropolitan City (KMC) in the name of ‘beautification’, the pond remains unfilled. All is not lost, however. The ongoing rebuilding process of Rani Pokhari is to some extent fulfilling.

The 2015 earthquake damaged the Bal Gopaleswor Temple in the middle of the pond. The water body itself and the embankment walls remained intact, but the KMC misguidedly drained all the water, demolished the centuries-old brick embankment and replaced it with reinforced concrete in an effort to ‘modernise’ the pond.

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Photos: Alok Tuladhar

Despite public uproar over the vandalism of this holy site, Mayor Bidya Sundar Shakya refused to back down from the project, vowing to build a coffee shop and recreation facilities in and around Rani Pokhari. Outraged activists finally threw the construction workers out and locked the premises in December 2017. Mayor Shakya was forced to remove the concrete he had poured.

The National Reconstruction Authority (NRA) stepped in, taking responsibility for the reconstruction. It formed a local group to oversee the process and manage funds, and enlisted the technical expertise of Bhaktapur Municipality, which had recently revived several ponds on its lands that had dried up.

Read also: Reconstruction of Rani Pokhari halted

A team of 40 workers from Bhaktapur are now hard at work at Rani Pokhari every day. After clearing the overgrown vegetation, women are levelling the ground and lining the pond with a layer of impermeable black clay.  They are also building an embankment wall on the sides of the pond, using bricks specially manufactured with lime-and-brick-dust mortar.

Subhadra Dhoju from Bhaktapur says the black clay (‘dyo cha’) has been chosen for its water retention capability. Dyo cha means ‘god soil’ in Newa. The large surface area of Rain Pokhari poses a challenge not faced elsewhere.

“We have brought in 40 truckloads of black clay so far from Sankhu and Bhaktapur, but we need another 3,000,” says Ajay Sthapit, who heads the local group overseeing the project. Even though the NRA wanted to use cheaper ordinary bricks for the walls of the pond, Sthapit insisted on high quality custom-made one.

For now, Rani Pokhari reconstruction is progressing steadily, using appropriate technical knowhow and following ancient pond construction methods. But this is true only for preventing the pond water from seeping into the ground. Getting water into the pond will be another story altogether.

In addition to rainwater, the NRA is thinking of drilling a deep well and a dedicated Melamchi pipe to fill the pond. But the long-term sustainability of this method is contested by Sudarshan Raj Tiwari, a historian and member of the expert committee formed by KMC in 2018 to guide Rani Pokhari rehabilitation.

“According to Vastu principles, Pratap Malla must have dug separate wells to fill and to drain the pond in the northeast and southeast corners respectively,” says Tiwari. “This was the ancient, proven and sustainable way of keeping the water flow under human control. The present reconstruction method is not investigating this method.”

Cultural preservation activist Sudin Manandhar feels Rani Pokhari is being turned into a traditional swimming pool. “If the ancient system of natural water flow is not revived, the valuable engineering knowledge of our ancestors is lost forever. That lowers the value of the historical pond,” he says.

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Tiwari’s committee had also recommended that the Bal Gopaleswor temple be rebuilt in Shikhara architecture keeping with king Pratap Malla’s original style. The Department of Archaeology, however, ignored that advice and went on to rebuild the temple with a dome roof following the Rana-era reconstruction model. Once more, sustained public pressure forced the government to correct its mistake, and the NRA has now published a design to rebuild the temple in the Shikhara style. This is another major win for heritage conservation.

Maharshi Prasad Rajbhandari, a young heritage enthusiast from nearby Asan, sums up the resurrection: “We were about to forget what we stood on. But sustained activism prevented that from happening. From the Rani Pokhari episode, we have learnt that if we raise our voices and are persistent, we can bring even the most powerful government to heel and set things right.”

Rani Pokhari with the Bal Gopaleswar temple in Shikhar style, before it was destroyed by the 1934 earthquake. The sketch was drawn by an artist who accompanied Prince Waldemar of Prussia on his visit to Nepal in February 1845.

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