Sunakothi: Exemplifying Neglected Historic Settlements

Dec 14, 2017 |

Text & Photo: Kai Weise

The Kathmandu Valley is scattered with medieval settlements. These settlements flourished from the overall wealth of the valley which developed particularly between the 15th and 18th century due to the highly fertile land and lucrative regional trade. These settlements that had distinctly defined physical and spiritual boundaries were surrounded by an agricultural landscape, in many cases terraced paddy fields. Things have changed and when you are cycling towards the southern part of the Kathmandu Valley beyond the Ring Road, you encounter a landscape of suburban chaos. Passing through Sunakhoti you come across a desolate scene of destruction.

A survey carried out by ICO MOS Nepal after the devastating Gorkha Earthquake of 2015 registered 53 historic settlements in and around the Kathmandu Valley. Many of these settlements were affected by the earthquake but in most cases we see that it is only an acceleration of an already established process of degeneration and neglects. Particularly devastating has been development drives such as the widening of roads that have been tearing apart the very heart of these settlements. In the blind drive towards infrastructure development, unsustainable planning and inappropriate buildings regulations the heritage of these historic settlements are totally neglected.

Sunakhoti is an ancient settlement on the road from Lalitpur to Tikabhairab. Licchavi inscriptions from the 5th century found near the main temple of Bringareshwor refer to a settlement named after the temple: Bhringar Grama. It is however said that the proper settlement was founded by King Ratna Malla in the late 15th century with the boundaries defined by marker stones. There are various myths relating to the name Sunakothi. In many older documents and maps, even for example in the Protective Inventory of 1975 and in Mary Slusser’s 1982 Nepal Mandala the name Sunaguthi is used. It was in the 16th century that the Bhringeshwor Mahadev was rebuilt in a traditional three tiered structure. This temple however collapsed during the 1934 earthquake. The structure was rebuilt with a white plastered dome and some remains of the original temple such as the wooden struts can be seen exhibited around the temple complex.

The settlement with some ten thousand inhabitants is still a homogeneous community of Newars. Regular celebrations are still carried out particularly those of Yomari Purnima and Balkumari Jatra. In both these festivals gods are carried around the town along specific routes and to specific locations in palanquins. The routes also link to shrines and temples in the surrounding areas. The temple dedicated to mother Balkumari is located in a forested area to the southeast of the town while the daughter Balkumari resides within the town.

The settlement of Sunakoti consists of the main north south road that passing along the western side of the settlement. The main road is aligned with rows of buildings which look down a slope towards the fields to the west. To the east the main settlement is defined by several parallel and perpendicular roads lined with rows of traditional houses in burned or sundried bricks. The settlement is further defined by various open spaces with ponds, patis, shrines and the more prominent temples of Bringareshwor Mahadev and Balkumari. A water canal curves past the settlement to the east.

The rather clearly defined extent of the compact traditional settlement has now been diluted through scattered building in the surrounding fields. From within the settlement the main road is being widened which has become disastrous for the integrity of the settlements. The 1975 Protective Inventory proposes that the main road be diverted to the east along the water canal to make sure that the settlement is not effected by growing traffic.

The widening of the main road has begun to deface the streetscape. Traditional buildings are being left to deteriorate while cement and glass structures are waiting to emerge from behind. A section of such as row of traditional structures consigned to destruction has been documented through photogrammetry and presented here (credit to Ar. Anie Joshi). Once these buildings are removed an entire new set of buildings with no traditional identity will emerge changing the character of the historic settlement. Furthermore ancient shrines, chaityas and even an old well are condemned to be destroyed or relocated. A woman pulling up water from the well exclaimed that the road widening was going to destroy the well which is one of the few sources of water. There are of course all kinds of promises made that with the new road other services will follow. This is something the inhabitants seem to be very sceptical about.

There is always a traffic jam within the old settlements where the roads are still narrow. Every driver will curse the constraint of the streets and complain about the government not improving the roads. It is exactly such mentality that highlights the total lack of any interest or understanding towards the heritage of ancient settlements. The road widening drive carried out by the government is a priority project for the Kathmandu Valley Development Authority (KVDA). There have been protests from various community groups against such drastic measures. The response has however been very heavy-handed with the Chief of KVDA stating that he has always supported development and that they are trying to modernise the towns. In respect to the protest against the destruction of the ancient towns through road widening he stated that the government always wins despite local opposition, although there could be delays due of lawsuits.

This short-sighted and authoritarian approach is the main threat to the historic settlements. There doesn’t seem to be any interest to look for more appropriate solutions that prioritizes the safeguarding of cultural heritage. It is said that “growth for growth’s sake is the philosophy of the cancer cell”. Clearly the type of growth that does not consider the long-term is cancerous growth.

The earthquake affected most of the historic settlements within the Kathmandu Valley. The focus on response and rehabilitation was however mainly on the twin settlements of Bungamati and Kokhana. This is where a lot of international involvement has taken place for example by the UN agencies such as UN Habitat and UNESCO along with various Japanese research organizations. This could be because there was great news coverage on the Rato Macchendranath chariot festival that was to start in Bungamati, something that only happens every 12 years. The earthquake however disrupted this procession and it took many months for the chariot to reach its destination in Patan. The Sri Lankan government funded the reconstruction of the Macchendranath Temple. Certain interest could also be noted for the nearby medieval town of Kokhana, known for its production of mustard seed oil, because it is on the tentative list for World Heritage.

Many of the less highlighted settlements such as Sunakothi are waiting for their faith to be decided. There were efforts made to establish procedures for the appropriate rehabilitation of historic settlements. UN Habitat took a lead role in discussing this issue particularly together with the National Reconstruction Authority (NRA) and the Department of Urban Development and Building Construction (DUDBC). It even led to draft bylaws being prepared. Further such exercises were carried out by other organizations; however there doesn’t seem to be any procedures nor legislation put in place to ensure the historic settlements are safeguarded.

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