“The idea is to fuse our tangible heritage like this temple premises with intangible heritage like ethnic music,” says Lochan Rijal, the head of the Kathmandu University’s Department of Music. “We want to restore this place to its former glory and give continuity to its traditions while also creating an environment for pure teaching and learning.”
The ambitious project has only crossed its infancy. The idea of an institution that preserves both ethnic Nepali music and an almost forgotten heritage site is commendable. But there is no shortage of vested interests that are hindering reconstruction. Squatters who have unlawfully taken over the guthi land refuse to move. Some of them are living with their families and some have established businesses within the premises.
Kathmandu University—an autonomous, not-for-profit, self-funding public institution—signed a formal agreement with the Guthi Sansthan in 2016 to use the Tripureshwor Mahadev temple premises for 30 years (five years for construction and 25 years for operation). The condition was that the university would rebuild all the physical properties in the area and give continuity to the temple’s traditions.
The temple property starts from the main Tripureshwor road and extends to the bank of the Bagmati River on the Kathmandu side. The temple itself was built in 1818 AD by Queen Tripura Sundari in the memory of her deceased husband King Rana Bahadur Shah. The queen is also recognized as the first female writer of the country and her other recognizable feats include the construction of a bridge that joined Kathmandu and Lalitpur (in Kunpodole) and commissioning Prime Minister Bhimsen Thapa to build the Dharahara.
On paper, the site, excluding the part of the river bank which KU has the permission to use, is 12 ropanis (approx. 65,700 sq. ft.). But when Rijal, who came up with the idea and took up the responsibility of completing it, began to inspect the area, he found squatters encroaching on most of the property. Around 20-25 families were living within the premises when he started reconstruction in 2016.
Brick by brick
“Many families have since moved,” Rijal says. “But there are a few rigid ones who took us to court. We have had more than half a dozen court cases, all of which we have won,” Rijal says. Moving them out is still difficult because of the pressure from the locals and other communities. He fears the project might not meet its five-year completion deadline despite his team’s
The project began with Rijal’s idea of creating an ideal environment where ethnic Nepali musicians from all over the country could be employed in teaching interested students. At the same time, if the idea caught on, at least one heritage site could be saved as a public institution.
The rebuilding of the Mahadev temple and the relocation of the KU Department of Music to the site is not profit-oriented, Rijal informs. “Gone are the days when people built temples and took care of them out of sheer devotion,” Rijal says. “To preserve a heritage site like this, a public institution needs to be involved. This is the KU’s vision. Moreover, we want to start a movement whereby all of our traditional heritages are protected by institutions that can care for them.”
At KU’s current Department of Music in Bhaktapur, the university permits only 27 students in the Bachelor’s program. For the Master’s, only a handful of students are chosen. KU also accommodates international students and has exchange programs for its own students. The department, when it starts operating from Tripureshwor, aims to enroll around 400 students in different courses. Rijal is also planning a Master’s program where students will research extensively on music from various parts of the country and create an ethnographic Nepali music atlas. The bigger plan is also to devise school curriculums that include Nepali ethnic music and to build learning centers in musical communities across the country.
From near and far
The Department of Archeology estimates resurrecting costs of Rs 290 million. But Rijal intends to complete the project with the Rs 200 million he has. After all, he began the ambitious project in 2016 with only Rs 1.9 million. At the time, Nepali as well as international musicians had organized concerts to collect funds. His PhD supervisors from the University of Massachusetts had also put together some funds. (Rijal is the first Nepali to get a PhD in Ethnomusicology, completed jointly from KU and UMass.)
KU approved his vision and gave him an additional Rs 20 million. He lost no time in getting his dream project started. The Thai government then gave him $1.49 million (roughly Rs 167 million). This Government of Thailand donation to KU’s Department of Music was put together by Thai citizens to help rebuild Nepal after the 2015 earthquake.
“Although we have a sizable budget, we will still took to stick to our budget and time limits. To help the cause, as a project director, I take no remuneration. The only remuneration I get is from my classes at KU,” Rijal says. “But there are people out there who want to ruin this project for their personal benefit.”
Rijal points to a private NGO that operates a folk music museum within the temple premises. The NGO’s contract with the Guthi Sansthan is up. Despite the countless efforts of the university as well as the government to relocate the museum, the owner refuses to do so. The NGO instead filed a lawsuit against KU, which the court has decided in the university’s favor. Yet the NGO continues to stay put and to defame KU.
“They have been spreading rumors that KU is a private organization which is going to misuse guthi property. But how can a university whose chancellor is the country’s prime minister be a private institution?” Rijal asks. “They even claim that I am an anti-Hindu and I am doing all this to destroy the temple’s heritage and promote some other religion.”
But Rijal himself comes from a Brahmin family who have followed Hinduism for generations. As for the traditions of the temple, Rijal informs that the university plans to give continuity to the old tantrik rituals at the temple. KU will also provide accommodations to the pujari family that has traditionally performed the rituals.
With technical support from his site supervisor Sushil Rajbhandari—who leads a team of more than 100 workers in both day and night shifts—and the knowledge of heritage expert Rohit Ranjitkar, the project’s chief architect, Rijal stays on site to ensure smooth rebuilding. There have been security issues in the past, but Rijal is determined to carry out his responsibility. Prime Minister KP Oli has himself visited the project site and applauded Rijal’s efforts. But the government is yet to provide security to the site and the workers.
For Rijal, there is nothing more important than completing the rebuilding by the target 2020 timeline.
“I am scared that if we fail to complete the project on time, many stakeholders will lose interest and a great dream will die. I have nothing to take from this project besides the satisfaction that I am involved in saving our country’s tangible and intangible heritages which otherwise might go extinct,” says the 40-year-old Rijal, who is also a passionate musician and one of Nepal’s most awarded singers.
The end goal is not only to preserve the temple while creating a space for musicians to study, but also to change music education. Musicians from local communities given opportunities to teach. “The music school will make our music inclusive. All religion-, race- and caste-based music that had been limited to particular communities will now be open to everyone,” Rijal says. With the right skills, anyone from any background will be able to become a musician or a music teacher, he adds. “The world will then recognize Nepali music as a single entity and Nepali musicians will flourish”