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Kathmandu Mayor’s quest for cultural renaissance: How far can he go?

Balen Shah had promised to revive the architecture, infrastructure, and heritage of Kathmandu during his election campaign. He has started the cultural renaissance of the valley. Will he succeed?

Photo: Kimkim

Kathmandu: Recently, the Kathmandu Metropolitan City approved a working procedure related to construction, under which it will grant Rs 3.2 million for the construction of facades featuring traditional architecture on houses. This decision was made to revive the traditional architecture of core areas of Kathmandu using modern techniques.

The metropolis has begun constructing falcha—a traditional resting place—on busy streets, replacing modern bus stops. This fiscal year, it aims to complete the construction of 10 falchas.  

Shortly after assuming the office in May, 2022, the mayor of Kathmandu Metropolitan City Balen Shah, in an interview with RSS, said that he was studying the Lichhavi and Malla era history of Nepal, and was planning to link culture with tourism. “We are considering increasing the budget of tourism, arts, culture and heritage conservation sectors,” he had said.

Photo: Kathmandu Metropolitan City Office

Under the Dhungedhara Hiti Pokhari Conservation Program, KMC aims to restore and conserve hiti–a traditional stone tap water supply system–in all 32 wards of Kathmandu.

According to Kathmandu Metropolis, these are just a few steps toward a cultural renaissance and giving Kathmandu a traditional facelift.

Despite being a living example for its rich culture on a global forum, Kathmandu has somewhat lost its true essence in the name of ‘development’. The indigenous culture and heritage of Kathmandu is slowly fading. While the neighboring cities–Bhaktapur and Lalitpur–take pride in preserving its heritage, Kathmandu has limited itself to concrete buildings and tall walls.

In this context, the Kathmandu Metropolitan City has a bunch of plans to revive the  heritage of the first and the largest metropolis of the country.

Restoring architectural heritage

Mayor Balen Shah had promised to revive the architecture, infrastructure, and heritage of Kathmandu during his election campaign. As promised, he has started with the clean up, and renovation of hiti.

According to the Mayor’s Secretariat, the clean up of all dhungedhara (traditional water spouts) of Kathmandu is almost over. “For the same, the KMC has launched ‘Smart Tole’ campaign as a part of Smart City. We have 24 indicators in each tole (area) and the metropolitan has allocated Rs 10 million for each ward to complete this smart project,” said Surendra Bajagain who works at the mayor’s Secretariat.

Traditional water spout gets a new look after clean-up and renovation by the Kathmandu Metropolitan City. Photo: KMC

Another important project that KMC is eyeing on is the renovating Bhadrakali Temple and transforming the site as a destination for locals and tourists. “Bhadrakali is an important architectural site of Kathmandu. Though an important heritage of Kathmandu, people, even locals, have not paid much attention in preserving the temple but now KMC wants to renovate the temple as an attraction spot for locals and even foreigners so that revenue can be generated,” said Bajagain. 

Falcha, paati, and sattal hold much significance for local Kathmanduities. Falcha and Paati were the rest houses made of stone, clay, timber, mud, carved wood, jhingati, burned bricks, and tiles whereas sattal used to be for travelers to stay at night.  “A sattal is being constructed in Dhumbarahi using traditional methods by the City Planning Commission. Though we are slowly reviving falcha and paati, our main challenge is to preserve the timber wood from rain and weather challenges,” said Kumari Rai, Head of the Heritage and Tourism Department at the KMC.  

Locals pose for a photograph in front of the newly inaugurated falcha-style bus stop in Babarmahal, Kathmandu, on Tuesday, May 14, 2024. Photo: Kathmandu Metropolitan City Office

Experts agree that traditional architecture is a hallmark of Nepal’s rich culture.

According to Professor Beena Poudyal, Head of Department at the Central Department of Nepalese History, Culture, and Archaeology, falcha and paati hold utmost significance in social, cultural and religious domains of Nepal. “Falcha and paati follow the concept of an open museum. It means something that cannot be kept in a museum but is very much out in the open,” said Poudyal, adding that some of these structures are today being used as  private properties by some. “In a few places, falchas that were constructed by great grandfathers and gifted to the community for public use are now being claimed and used by their grandsons privately for lack of a clear document,” she said. 

Falchas were mostly used for theatre performance, and orchestra back then or just for relaxation and witnessing Jatra, she informed.

According to KMC, in collaboration with Nepal Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA), it has started the ‘Sundar Mahanagar’ project. “It is a government-to-government project and the metropolis will be collaborating with various veteran artists from NAFA to create murals along the walls of exhibition road, Dashrath Stadium, Dharahara, and in front of KMC office,” said Rai. 

KMC’s passion project is to rename the heritage sites with original names–the names with which they used to be referred to in the earlier times. “The ancient names had a meaning whereas the names replaced now as per the convenience has no proper meaning. These names were linked to our age-old history and need to be told. We want to re-establish the same traditional culture and original names and archive them as our history for our future generation,” added Rai.   

“The main motive of KMC is to compile the data and facts of these heritage sites including the original name of heritage sites as this is our 2000 year old history.” 

According to Rai, the KMC is collaborating with the Department of Archeology and natives living around these heritage sites and collecting the data of these age-old names. The researchers from the Centre for Integrated Urban Development (CIUD) are collaborating with KMC to collect and confirm the data. “So far, we have retrieved 150 names. The plan is to complete this project in about two years.”

Professor Poudyal hails the KMC’s initiative as a bid to restore the originality of Kathmandu culture. “The language and script were influenced after the Baaise and Chaubise Rajya. The script changed. The language changed. The typical Newari script was influenced after the Gorkha conquest of Kathmandu,” she said. “So, bringing back the originality is a significant move. We might take time to adapt to the original name but we will eventually get used to it.” 

Reviving culture

Nepal is already recognized for its local alcoholic drink. Branding the traditional Newari alcohol drink is another project that KMC wants to revive. However, it is not the bottled beverage but the traditional process of making the drink, which the Metropolis wants to brand. “This is to integrate indigenous knowledge in our  modern youth as we want to keep this legacy alive,” Rai added.

Similarly, Indra Jatra used to be just another holiday for people living in Kathmandu. But, after Mayor Balen Shah internationalized the festival and started inviting many foreign dignitaries and experts, the festival made a hype in the international arena as well.  Nepali youths started having a positive outlook towards the festival. “This interlinkage of local culture and foreigners grabbed a lot of attention, which added to the cultural tourism of Nepal. The metropolis also plans to involve the foreigners in pulling the chariot during the festival,” said Rai.

Locals pull the chariot during Indra Jatra festival in Kathmandu. Photo: trekteamgroup/Twitter

KMC has started ‘Samayuva Project’ wherein the metropolis provides training to the youth and teaches them about the ancient heritage of Kathmandu so that they can utilize their knowledge and teach the future generation about the same. 

KMC is reviving the traditional orchestra culture in the core areas of Kathmandu. Back then, the locals would bring their own musical instruments from their home, gather at a ‘Dabu’ and play the orchestra in the evening or during festivals. Following the same, the KMC had organized a musical program in all wards in which the locals performed ‘jhaanki’. The winners were awarded with Rs. 100,000.  

Deputy Mayor of Kathmandu Metropolis Sunita Dangol motivates the crowd at a traditional orchestra performance in Kathmandu. Photo: KMC Office

Unfinished works 

The Metropolis still laments about the water piping system of Rani Pokhari, which was an engineering achievement of the Malla-era. Back then, Rani Pokhari used to be a source of water for nearby stone spouts because of its underground water network channels even during dry season. 

As the site was reconstructed after the 2015 earthquake, the then Mayor Bidya Sundar Shakya in collaboration with the Ministry of Water Supply had used water from Sundarijal (Bagmati River) to fill up the pond. An old drinking water pipe connected from Sundarijal to Panipokhari and a new pipeline made to distribute Melamchi water was used to connect the water lining.

The excavation of Tukucha tunnel is another halted project that KMC was relentlessly working on. However, the Patan High Court declared the tunnel as an archaeological site holding historical value. The Court then ordered the Metropolis to immediately stop further ‘interference’ on the site.

Photo: National Reconstruction Authority/Facebook

Will and reluctance 

According to Balen’s Secretariat, the main challenge is collaborating with the government and the head of government authorities. “Our main challenge is collaborating with the government bodies and people in authority. When we hold meetings with the government bodies, they show positive responses, but when it is time to fulfill the promises and implement the ideas, they back out,” said Surendra Bajagain. “The reason being Balen getting all the credit in the public eye.” 

“Even if the government bodies collaborate in the project, the work will be recognised as Balen’s doing and not the government’s. Those who hold positions in the government think they will not be given credit for the work. Therefore, they refuse to implement the idea despite having several positive sides to it,” he added. 

Meanwhile, it remains to be seen how far the KMC can take these projects forward and when it will be completed.