Nepal’s soft power is its heritage

Cultural preservation needs to move beyond Kathmandu Valley to hidden historical sites in the Tarai

It is fitting that Kathmandu Valley’s living heritage is getting so much international exposure, and the restitution of its stolen artefacts has become a part of Nepal’s national agenda.

Nowhere else in Nepal is there so much cultural heritage crammed into such a small space. Yet, there are some equally important archaeological and heritage areas in the Tarai and the trans-Himalayan regions of Mustang and Dolpo.

Kathmandu Valley’s kingdoms had strong cultural and historical ties with the Mithila Kingdom to the south. It was that Malla-Mithila alliance that helped Kathmandu Valley avoid even worse destruction from the Tughlaq ruler of Delhi who razed the Milithla capital of Simraungad in 1326 established by the Karnatak king Nanya Deva three centuries previously.

Tarai heritage NT
One of the few relics left in Simraungadh of an empire that stretched across present day North India and Nepal.

Simraungad today is located in Bara district on the borderland between India and Nepal. The art and culture of Simraungad was enriched by Kathmandu and Tibet to the north and the Buddhist holy sites to the south. As the Moghuls arrived at the gates, King Harisingh Deva fled north to Kathmandu Valley along with his most precious possessions.

But much of his palace, its elaborate sculptures and artefacts lie scattered about and buried underground. Today the region is an open museum. Simraungad itself stretches across a dozen ancient villages, ruins of which lie half-buried in the plains.

These relics are more than 1,000 years old, and if it was to be excavated by Nepal’s Archaeology Department could have been as important as Nalanda in India as a centre of learning. But at the rate of its destruction, it will soon only remain in history books.  

Tarai heritage NT

Instead of protecting what is there, the Madhes Province government has declared Simraungad a ‘Fish Zone’ and helped locals construct ponds. Every dig unearths millenium-old statues, terracotta utensils, and other priceless artefacts all hints at aspects of the history and culture of this lost kingdom.

Aside from the ponds, there are concrete buildings going up, their foundations cutting through what should be an archaeological site destroying heritage that had a direct bearing on the later enrichment of the Kathmandu Valley civilisation.

While all the attention is on the stolen artefacts of the capital valley, Simraungad is suffering a second plunder of what remains of its heritage, this time by thieves and traffickers. The attention now needs to focus on protecting the hidden past of historic sites like Simraungad, Kapilvastu, Ramgram, Tilaurakot, Kakrevihar in Surkhet and other places we may not even have heard about.

Tarai heritage

A silver lining could be that local governments may be more interested in preserving their identities than Kathmandu, and we can see some evidence of that. 

In Rautahat recently the Maulapur Municipality excavated the Pataura site to unearth a thousand- year -old Mahadev temple. Archaeologists restored it, and locals now worship at the ancient shrine. Stolen religious items have been returned to Kathmandu where they are once more consecrated and venerated, but this is possibly the first time an entire temple has been unearthed from 5 metres below to be revered once more.

It is not just temples, there are ponds, rivers, forest groves cobblestone streets that have cultural importance that are also being preserved and restored. Just in Madhes, there are campaigns to revive the historically important Kamala, Jalad, Dudhmati, Lakhandeyi rivers.

But sometimes, although local officials have the right intentions, there are wrong outcomes. The Janaki Devi Temple in Janakpur, the birthplace of Sita, is a case in point. In a misguided effort to beautify the historical monument, thousands of holes have been drilled into its stucco facade to fix multicoloured LED lights just as efforts are afoot to include the temple in the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Tarai heritage

Making a temple look like a casino cannot preserve a living faith, nor will it help get the site into the UNESCO listing. As they say, if you want to know about a country, read its history but you want to truly understand it, visit its heritage sites. 

There is a need to work across the border with archaeologists in India, since Simraungad Kingdom predates the two nation states and a large part of it lies in what is now northern Bihar. Since archaeology does not respect modern political boundaries, relying on governments is not enough.

Cultural preservation does not just need money, it needs willpower which is now being shown by local communities.

Nepal’s soft power is its heritage, what unites the plains and the mountains is our shared history as exemplified by Simraungad-Kathmandu Valley and the mingling of Mithila and Malla histories.

Chandra Kishore is a Birganj-based media commentator and writes this monthly column Borderlines for Nepali Times. @kishore_chandra

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