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A Dharahara story

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Kathmandu, April 26, 2016

On Saturday, April 23, two days before the first anniversary of the 7.8 magnitude earthquake that hit Nepal, I happened to find myself at the entrance to Dharahara. The first time I was there since the mega earthquake shook the Himalayan republic killing over 9000 people.

That tall tower, slender and white, was what we’d look for. “Dharahara there,” the fingers pointed from any distant spots from where we regarded Kathmandu valley. Even when the city shrouded in dust or fog, a thin streak of that white adamantly stuck itself out of the veil. It was at the heart of the city that had witnessed the tumultuous history of Nepali state. It became the heart of Kathmandu’s existence, its identity.

Perhaps, Dharahara was among the first structures to go down thatSaturday afternoon. Its fragility must not have withstood beyond a few seconds of the frightening shaking.

Beneath its rubble perished at least 70 people. Most of them young, tender lovers, who had waited for the beautiful, spring Saturday to climb Dharahara’s spiral, rickety stairs. They must have anticipated the feel of sweet breeze on their faces up there, and a feeling of standing tall, like Dharahara itself, and a view of Kathmandu as captured by birds’ eyes.

From the vantage point of the main entrance gate, Dharahara resembled a large bamboo sliced at an angle near its base, showing corrugation at the point where the upper portion cracked and toppled down. Facing the main gate and extending to the top is the barren, bare, brownish exposition, like skin peeled off by wound.

The enclosure within antique wall surrounding Dharahara imparted a melancholic ambiance. A teenage girl from my village was among those who perished under Dharahara. No, I never knew her, nor had I ever seen her. Had climbed up Dharahara with the boy she loved, my father told me two weeks after the earthquake. The boy was about to migrate abroad for work, and they wanted to see Kathmandu far and wide from atop Dharahara before he flew away.

When the devastating tremor stopped that day, one of the first things everyone heard was “Dharahara has gone down.” That it had collapsed was viewed as the benchmark to assess the intensity of the earthquake and the possible damages it might have wreacked. In its falling, Dharahara became the symbol of the disaster. Much like the tremors spreading hundreds of miles from its epicenter, Dharahara’s fate soon reached far corners of the country.

The way the earth shook, Dharahara should have been the first to go down, I thought. Its fragility had been questioned, and it had been disputed if visitors should be allowed in it. And so its fall failed to elicit even a tiny trace of empahty in me.

After the chaos and uncertainty inflicted by the quake gradually precipitated and calmness limped back and talks of rebuilding filled the air, there were those who wanted it rebuilt, and although a small voice, those who deemed it appropriate that it be left as it is. As the memorial to the disaster that had shaken Nepal and Nepalis.

Dharahara in ruin would remind us of the fear and pain of the disaster, our weaknesses and inactions that largely caused those emotions, and consequently motivate to shed weaknesses and take actions. In this discourse of whether we raise Dharahara or not, I inclined toward the latter.

Sitting near its ruins, I felt Dharahara to be more of a life, not merely a structure that had mercilessly forced breath out of at least 70 young lives. In front of the black, crafted wooden gate stood an information flex board supported on metal stands. Meticulously, it listed details of Dharahar’s interior, exterior and its history:

It was built in 1825 AD by Bhimsen Thapa; 61.88 meters tall; 213 stairs inside, 25 outside; Shiva Linga shrine at the topmost floor; built in Mughal architecture, but surrounding walls in European style; almost entire Kathmandu Valley can be seen from its top.

It is older than the Eiffel Tower and the Statue of Liberty, it proudly proclaimed.

It said the main building material used is Vajra (typical Nepali reinforcement material) made up of Surki (brick dust), chuna (lime),mas ko daal (black lentil) and chaku (caramel).

“Considering the building materials,” the board boasted at its tail, “the foundation and history of standing against the natural calamities, it evokes challenge to the modern architecture.”

And there it was in ruins. Dharahara seemed betrayed. It lay broken, exposed like a boy whose weakenss had been laid bare and taken to center stage to the gaze of everyone. Albeit the weakness he innocently didn’t understand was weakness, but instead took as quality to take big pride in.

Free from the noise of a usual Saturday afternoon, the atmosphere around Dharahara bore an uneasy calmness gripped with a sense of presence of at least 70 young hearts who died there. A year since the earthquake the atmosphere seems to have frozen at that precise moment when, within a matter of seconds, Kathmandu’s beloved tower toppled down over them, and carry spirit of loss and pain, of tragedy that had befallen our poor nation and its people.

Perhaps, we should raise Dharahara again. Or, perhaps preserve its ruins. As a memory to the tragedy.

 

By Prawash Gautam, Setopati