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Budhi Gandaki project turning Aarughat Bazar into ghost town

Budhi Gandaki project turning Aarughat Bazar into ghost town

Aarughat is a very ancient market town in Gorkha. Located 42 kilometers north of the Gorkha district headquarters, on the famous Manaslu trekking trail, the residents of Aarughat have evidence that the market was established there 328 years ago.

At one time, Aarughat was a larger commercial center than even the district headquarters itself. However, this bustling market started losing its charm after talks began about building the 1,200-megawatt Budhi Gandaki Hydroelectric Project.

Aarughat has a historical identity as it lies on the main trail that people from Gorkha and western hill districts used to take to reach the capital before the highway opened. Being comparatively larger than other markets on the trail from Pokhara to Kathmandu, Aarughat had a vast reputation for centuries. 

For a long time, it was renowned as the main market for the Tsum-Nubri region, which comprises over half of Gorkha district, as well as Dharche, Bhimsenthan, and Aarughat rural municipalities. The market did not lose its charm even after the Prithvi Highway, which links Pokhara with Kathmandu, was built as it was seated on the trekking trail to the famous Manaslu Circuit Trail.

Aarughat, which developed into a bustling market on the land gifted by the rulers to boatmen who helped people cross the mighty Budhi Gandaki River, has now started to wear a deserted look. When talks of building the mega reservoir project started in the 2010s, people started leaving this bustling place. The 2015 earthquakes, which floored many houses in the market, expedited the migration of people from Aarughat.

Ganesh Kumar Shrestha, a local, said most of the people from Aarughat have moved to Kathmandu. According to Shrestha, the rate of people abandoning Aarughat shot up drastically in the last five years after they received compensation for their land and houses from the project. “The well-off people already had land and houses in Kathmandu and other cities and were gradually abandoning Aarughat. The distribution of compensation expedited migration,” Shrestha added.

According to Krishna Pokharel, a local grocer, the houses of the Aarughat market used to be packed earlier. But now it looks as empty as a sheep-shed after the herd has moved on in winter.

Until a decade ago, Aarughat was a bustling market area. Businesses had occupied almost all the houses in the village. Even those who had houses in Kathmandu and Pokhara had not abandoned Aarughat. “There used to be a crowd of people going to Gorkha, Kathmandu, Pokhara, and towards the highlands every day. There would be a rush of employees and parents taking their children to schools,” Pokharel said. “But when talks of the Budhi Gandaki project started, people gradually started abandoning Aarughat. The 2015 earthquakes further compounded woes for this market.”

Now the old main market street of Aarughat has padlocks on the doors of houses on both sides. Weeds have grown over the yards of some houses, the plaster is peeling off others, and some look dilapidated. With no maintenance, the yards and porticos are overgrown like grazing meadows.

Buddha Prasad Shrestha, chairperson of Ward-9 of Aarughat Rural Municipality, said only about 50 percent of the 400 households are in Aarughat now. “It is said that Newar traders, who came from Kathmandu around 400 years ago, started their businesses in Aarughat, which was inhabited by boatmen. There are records that show this market existed 200 years ago,” Chairperson Shrestha said. “The market started expanding after people from Dharche and the Tsum-Nubri region started settling here after the 1990s.”

According to Chairperson Shrestha, the market is getting deserted because of the 2015 earthquakes and the Budhi Gandaki project. “Only those who can’t go elsewhere remain in Aarughat now,” he said. “The old main market area below the area police office is now largely deserted.”