Unholy developments at holy sites

Corruption and commerce threaten World Heritage Site status of Lumbini and Pashupati


Nepalis are proud to proclaim that the Buddha was born in Nepal, but the over-development of Lumbini may mean that the nativity site could be struck off the World Heritage Sites listing.    

Nepal is internationally recognised for its cultural landmarks and their protection, but  corruption, commercialisation and over-development are endangering sites like Lumbini and Pashupatinath Temple. 

World Heritage Sites are designated by UNESCO for their historical, cultural or natural significance, and Nepal has four landmarks in the listing: Kathmandu Valley, Sagarmatha National Park, Chitwan National Park and Lumbini. 

It is difficult to be struck off the list, but UNESCO can put some landmarks in the List of World Heritage in danger. The spotlight is now on Lumbini and Pashupati because of recent construction.

U Thant, the United Nations Secretary-General from Burma who visited Lumbini in 1977, hired famous Japanese architect Kenzō Tange to devise a masterplan for the site. It has taken nearly 40 years for Tange’s scheme to more or less be put together, but the Lumbini Development Trust (LDT) has been flouting the Tange design.

For example, a concrete and glass structure is coming up right next to Mayadevi Temple, an area of unexcavated archaeological significance. More recently, LDT announced that it was leasing out to a private company for 99 years the sacred Ramgram Stupa, 35km east of Lumbini, one of eight sites in the Subcontinent with corporeal remains of the Buddha.    

The plan was cancelled in January by Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee which also demanded a corruption probe into the Rs7 billion deal to lease 81 hectares around Ramgram for 99 years. The deal was to the Singapore-based Moksha Foundation and its Nepali counterpart The Promised Land, owned by Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s landlord’s son. 

LDT is now headed by political broker and shady former lawmaker Lharkyal Lama, who was appointed by Prime Minister Dahal despite knowledge about his murky past.  

Neither the Ministry of Culture nor the Department of Archaeology had prior knowledge of the Ramgram proposal, and this lack of oversight and accountability has further eroded the LDT’s credibility, increasing concern about conflict of interest and political patronage.After the controversy erupted, an LDT executive committee meeting shelved the Ramgram agreement.   

The Heritage Site listing doubts come just as another ancient Buddha-era settlement of Tilaurakot near Lumbini is about to be added to the UNESCO Heritage List. 

Meanwhile, in Kathmandu, the Pashupati Area Development Trust (PADT) also faces the risk of having one of Hinduism’s holiest shrines delisted from the World Heritage Sites. 

Pashupati NT

The reason is similar to what has tainted Lumbini: political interference. LDT and PADT are chaired by the Minister of Civil Aviation and Culture, but are supposed to operate autonomously from the government. The minister has just been replaced by another Maoist confidante of Dahal, Hit Man Tamang.

PADT’s director Laxmi Pun was suspended soon after her appointment because she did not meet qualifications for the job. There is also a brewing controversy involving the Digital Copyright Act about the right to film the Ganga Arati evening prayer ritual at Pashupati by the entertainment company Budha Subba Digital. 

The company says it signed a deal with PADT, but this is denied by spokesperson Rewati Raman Adhikari whose signature is on the agreement between Budha Subba Digital and PADT. Now, both PADT and Adhikari vehemently deny any ownership or knowledge of such an agreement. 

“We don’t know how they got the stamp, this is nonsense,” Adhikari told Nepali Times. He added that PADT is working on crowd management at the evening prayers after several near stampedes.  

Adhikari says the Ganga Arati is not under the jurisdiction of PADT, but organised by a separate entity. He notes that the prayer ritual adopted more than a decade ago is not inherently a part of Nepali culture. 

Our investigation shows that on 15 June, 2023 former Minister of Tourism and Culture Sudan Kirati signed an agreement permitting the Kirat ethnic group to bury their dead within the sacred Shleshmantak forest until a permanent burial site was found in three months. 

Six months have passed but no alternative site has been designated. Nabin Manandhar of Kathmandu Metropolitan Office had no idea about the agreement Kirati signed. Rewati Raman Adhikari also had no idea about an agreement.

PADT has already been wracked by a corruption scandal over missing gold used to make a new necklace for the main Pashupati deity. Thapa is facing charges related to corruption in that case which goes back to when K P Oli was Prime Minister in 2021.  

Alisha Sijapati


Alisha Sijapati is a correspondent at Nepali Times. With over a decade of experience she specialises in cultural heritage reporting with insights into socio and geo-politics. She holds an MA in Cultural Heritage Studies from Central European University. Alisha has made significant contributions to various newsrooms in Kathmandu. Beyond her journalistic endeavors, she is deeply engaged in discussions about the theft of Nepal's stolen heritage.

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