The Disappearing Image Of Kathmandu


Yug Bahadur

Once upon a time there was a place called Kathmandu. It was a really beautiful place, rich in culture and heritage and with very religious people. The people here had plenty to eat and their land was rich and fertile. The lush green fields of paddies, leafy vegetables at other times, all were cooked by the people living here, which they ate with relish for good health and relaxation. Furthermore, the artistic arcades, the ‘dabalis’ where people gossiped and also held mostly cultural and religious programmes were daily meeting places for locals. 

The culture, art and the temples at every corners made one filled with happiness and joy. Though this article began with ‘once upon a time’, line, believe me this is not a fairytale. This is a ‘tale’ of one city where people lived in happiness and harmony. Even the low slung mud houses fitted in closely with the natural landscape of the Kathmandu Valley and the easy going lifestyle of the residents here. It is not for nothing that pioneer poet Bhanu Bhakta burst out in a poetry that said when he first entered Kathmandu, he found heaven on earth, and this was ‘Kantipuri as Kathmandu was called at that time’.

A ‘must visit’ place

Now to shift somewhat from describing the beauty of Kathmandu, it is sad to say this beautiful city is getting uglier day by the day at present. It could be a coincidence or simple demographic dynamics keeping in pace with times, there does seem to be development in the city, but not always for the better. Kathmandu was once a ‘must visit’ place for international travelers, and that also, when there were few international air connections and few airlines directly flying into this ancient city from abroad. But slowly the flights of international airlines increased and this writer remember the time even when a massive Boeing 747 was chartered to come to Kathmandu. 

In a similar instance, a Concorde jet at another time was also chartered to bring in high flying tourists. That was the first time a Concorde ever landed in this country. But with the steadily dwindling of air quality and the constant political violence, even reputed airlines like Singapore Airlines and Lufthansa stopped flying in to Kathmandu and this could be called the beginning of the present situation we are seeing when Nepali workers only and not tourists travelling to different destinations. But we will come to this later. First, the Nepal Airlines only got stuck in internal wrangling instead of taking advantage of the situation and flying short shuttle routes that were all profitable.

One serious question is, how has all these concrete buildings come up everywhere, not only making this once beautiful city into a squalid unmanaged place, but also decreasing ‘class’ tourists who before, always went back struck by the simplicity and beauty of this quaint place in a remote corner of the much travelled path. In the name of development, the fairytale like Kathmandu has been turned into a dirty concrete jungle. There has no research been done, nor is there any solid argument to prove the same, but it does seem that there has been a demographic escalation after every major political upheaval in Kathmandu.

It has almost become a habit for suburban dwellers to shift towards more urban places like Kathmandu and other more developed places. There is no question of anyone going back, except for family reunions during religious festivals like Dashain for instance. So it is pure speculation that this writer is saying that changes in the urban landscape, with also the movement of huge numbers of people have taken place during times like the referendum between multiparty democracy and the Panchayat system in 2036 BS did act like a catalyst for such human internal migration. In fact that was the time when open corruption started to take place and late Surya Bahadur Thapa was given a free hand to ensure the success of the Panchayat system. 

Ten years later after multiparty democracy was ushered in, again the same thing – movement of people and building of houses in places like Kathmandu - took place in a massive manner. It was the same thing when the Maoists started an armed rebellion for various reasons including in making Nepal a republic. The most annoying factor has been that with rising corruption, the landscape of places like Kathmandu has started to change in a drastic manner. Not that a Nepali does not have the right to settle in any place in Nepal, the thing is once beautiful cities are being spoilt purely due to bad planning.

Concrete structures

There was talk in the early 1970s, when it was said the hills surrounding Kathmandu would be joined by cable cars, there would be good public houses on the outskirts of the city and well run public vehicles would connect these apartments to the city where most people work like in any part of the world. This would have allowed unique Kathmandu to remain Kathmandu and at the same time allowed the people to live in comfort in modern complexes with easily available transport to take them to the city, not be packed like sardines in small vehicles not at all built for public transport or too big buses that find it hard to move around the small lanes of Kathmandu. 

This would have been a paradise both for tourists and those who lived here, but alas, it was rumoured the whole plan fell apart when some powerful individuals asked for illegal money to allow the project to go ahead. So like this writer has said many times before, corruption has really destroyed this beautiful nation which was largely self-sufficient as well. Now we know why clusters of concrete structures stand where open space, lush fields, intricate water spouts and temples stood. But there is no doubt Kathmandu has developed as well, but this development has come with destruction of pristine beauty, greenery and serenity.  

(Yug Bahadur is a freelance writer.)

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