Saving Nepal’s archives from oblivion

In June 2019, a team from the National Archives reached Taplejung in eastern Nepal to find decaying handwritten parchments, centuries-old manuscripts, and stone inscriptions all lying abandoned.

There were invaluable centuries-old lalmohar documents and deeds with official seals stacked in nooks and carnies of households, mouldy and decomposing.

The initial plan for the Archives team was just to copy the text from two historic bronze bells in front of the Nageshvar Temple, but they decided to stay for three more days, digitising 77 historic documents and 95 letters.

The images of those documents are now in the digital archives, even though the originals have been lost. And these were most likely just a tiny proportion of all the material still out there waiting to be discovered.

“With neither the resources nor expertise, we have been unable to collect and conserve other historic documents,” admits Bishwa Nath Sitaula, mayor of Aathrai Tribeni municipality in Taplejung.

The only documents in the municipality’s collection are government papers from four years ago. For anything older, one has to visit the ward or the district administration offices, where they are in no better condition.

Sitaula says, “We now need a separate budget just for the conservation of the archives.”

At the other end of the country in Gorkha, the situation is the same. The mayor of Gorkha Rajan Raj Panta says, “It would be a lot easier to budget and work if the responsibilities of the local governments were set out in the law itself.”

According to the Archives Conservation Act 1989 and the Archives Conservation Regulations 2006, it is up to the National Archives in Kathmandu to collect and conserve documents that are 25 years and older. A bill has been prepared to amend the Act so that the responsibility may be divided among all three levels of the government, which is currently under review in Parliament.

The Constitution also stipulates that the local governments should keep records of their documents and artifacts which the National Archives has repeatedly asked the provinces and the municipalities to send them, but to no avail.

And even as the five-year term of the elected officials is coming to a close, no budget has been set aside for the collection and conservation of historical and archaeological archives in their respective regions.

The Mayor of Rolpa’s Tribeni Rural Municipality Shanta Kumar Oli does not even have an inventory of the temples and archaeological artefacts in his region.

Read also: Adventures of a lone archivist, Alisha Sijapati

To be sure, all 753 local governments in the country are in the same boat to a greater or lesser degree. The oral tradition of Nepali history and culture is rich and vibrant. But without proper archaeological evidence and documentation, the country’s heritage and history are going from existence to extinction.

The National Archives wants a systematic effort with local governments to prevent further degradation and loss of historical records but it could only dispatch a single team last year for location research.

In October 2021, one such team was studying and photographing some 50 documents, inscriptions and copper-plate engravings in Kakani and Bidur municipalities of Nuwakot when it got word of a few more unrecorded historical objects nearby. But there was no time and money to extend the trip.

“Our limited budget is just enough to cover salaries and overheads,” laments Rajju Hada at the National Archives. “There really is no alternative to local governments taking up the responsibility.”

Outgoing MP Radheshyam Adhikari says the Act should be promulgated soon and this will open the process for local governments to take charge.

“But there is no need for them to sit around and wait for it to protect the archival heritage under their jurisdiction,” he adds. “Their priorities need to change from building view-towers to preserving our heritage.”

Birendranagar Municipality of Karnali Province is getting its own regional archive and museum. Work began in 2016 to preserve the region’s endangered inscriptions, genealogies, copper plates and documents.

Karnali is culturally, historically and anthropologically significant. It is rich in archaeological evidence since it was part of the ancient Khas kingdom, with its capital in the Sinja Valley. There in present-day Jumla is where some of the earliest written examples of the Nepali language can be found.

Birendranagar’s Rs10 million project will be completed this month, after which a team of experts will be formed to inspect and study the archaeological sites in Dailekh, Achham and Jumla

“I have been reaching out to the National Archives for advice and guidance,” says Arjun Shahi, chief of the Birendranagar Archive. “And we have asked the provincial government for a budget to bring in the necessary technology and human resources.”

Archivist Shamik Mishra at the Madan Puraskar Pustakalaya in Kathmandu sees this as a major step, adding that studying and conserving a document in the same environment where it was produced can help preserve its intrinsic context.

He says: “If the central archive collects and conserves every single record, inscription or object, it may be more difficult to recognise their original meaning and value in the future. Archiving must be decentralised.”

Read also:Documenting Loss, Stéphane Huët

Adapted from the Nepali original in Himalkhabar monthly by Ashish Dhakal.

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