The end of history

Our text books and teachers are so boring, no one is enrolling to study Nepal’s diverse past

Singha Darbar

The news that no student went to enroll for graduate studies at the History Department of Tribhuvan University is disturbing. How can anyone not love history in a country so steeped in it? All those colourful characters, events, places, plots, wars, treaties, have inspired so much research and books.

We have not even begun to scratch the surface of what we can turn our history into. Imagine a tele-serial movie with Jung Bahadur or Tripura Sundari as the main protagonists? How about an animated classic about Bhrikuti or Arniko and their expeditions and adventures to Tibet and China. Perhaps this is the problem: our history text books and teachers are boring, and the exams that rely on rote memorization rather than understanding the annals of the past are the last nails on the History Department’s coffin.

The future of the new airport at Lumbini depends on how well we know and tell the history of Gautam Buddha, his nativity site and the lore surrounding it. Janakpur is going to prosper as the home of Sita and the links to Ram and his birthplace across the border in Ayodhya.

Many of the newly created 753 local governments could become financially viable by reviving their historical sites, creating the needed infrastructure and services for visitors, and organising annual trips for schools and colleges. Without any students in the History Department where will we get the needed human capital for this work?

We are missing out even on Nepal’s recent political history. Who will now conduct research and tell the story of how the Kosi Barrage came to be, and why it was a folly. The story of Nepal’s early attempts at industrialisation with Biratnagar Jute Mill is worth a museum. And across Nepal are ruins of The Gorkha Conquest and the Ango-Nepal Wars that can be restored and serve as historical landmarks.

Read also: Lest we forget, David Seddon

How many Nepalis are aware that Rana Mukteswar and Bhim Mukteswar in Kathmandu are where King Rana Bahadur Shah and Prime Minister Bhimsen Thapa died? Have you recently been to Hanuman Dhoka and noticed the state of the courtyard where the Kot massacre took place? Will we forget and loose these sites because no one wants to study history anymore?

In the absence of academic discourse, the narrative on social media is swayed by emotion and identity. History as it is taught in high school text books is being challenged. What really happened in Kirtipur in 1767? How did Nepal negotiate the 1816 Sugauli Treaty? How did the Mallas come to power and how were the Kirats and Lichavis displaced? Is there a market for a ‘people’s history of Nepal’? Our history books today have no mention of the 1996-2006 conflict.

The time may be right to make the History Department attractive to students by combining it with other related subjects like tourism, art and craft, museums, research academies, planning commissions. This will help make history learning the base from which students can branch out to more lucrative jobs. What can’t we teach Japanese and Korean history to those going to these countries for work?

Can we teach the history and language of the Gulf states as the new wave of more qualified Nepalis will begin to migrate to the region? We could even run special classes on the war history of Nepal and other parts of the world where Nepali peacekeepers will be assigned.  Nepal Army could even pay the History Department for this service.

Identity politics is here to stay and the provinces and local governments will have to incorporate a new curriculum that includes the histories of the local people in addition to Nepal’s national narrative. This is a lot of work, and we will need to train teachers and print books. Much of this can happen on-line, which means there is a good future for learning and teaching history.

Ward 16 of Patan is organising an art and culture festival on 27-31 March where it hopes to promote the world heritage site, famous temples like the Hiranya Varna Mahavihar (Golden Temple) and the creations of the numerous artists who live and work here. They are looking for historians to help in this task.

Anil Chitrakar is President of Siddharthinc

Anil Chitrakar