Reigning the River: Urban Ecologies and Political Transformation in Kathmandu

Reigning the River: Urban Ecologies and Political Transformation in Kathmandu

by Anne Rademacher

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822394525
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 10/01/2011
Series: New ecologies for the twenty-first century
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Anne M. Rademacher is Assistant Professor of Environmental and Metropolitan Studies in the Department of Social and Cultural Analysis at New York University.

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Reigning the River


Duke University Press

Copyright © 2011 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-5080-4

Chapter One

Creating Nepal in the Kathmandu Valley

IN THE HEART OF KATHMANDU's old urban center, the braided, seasonally shifting flows of the Bagmati and the Bishnumati rivers converge. Depending on the season of the year, the rivers may swell and churn with monsoon rains, or they may barely form a trickle. Depending on your route, you may find the banks and riverbed laden with foul-smelling heaps—mounds of garbage flecked with colorful plastics, shiny chemical slicks, and discarded consumer goods that persist beyond their utility or fashion. You may find the banks host to human settlements: some are the makeshift huts of those just arrived or just barely surviving; some are the more permanent homes of those who have saved enough to build shelters of brick or concrete on the eroded riverbed; still others are the imposing mansions of the urban elite. Settlements give way to temples—some crumble under the weight of passing time and neglect, while others are alive with the sounds, colors, and meaning of ritual activity.

The wastes of contemporary urban life, the settlements of thousands of urban residents, and the vast ancient templescape that line much of the rivers' urban reaches do not fit into neatly defined territories. They overlap, stretching into and out of one another in uneven, and often unpredictable, ways. To walk the banks of the Bagmati and Bishnumati rivers is to encounter simultaneously the natural, cultural, and political history of a city and the nation-state it dominates. It is to observe grand temples, the surviving built forms of the past, and to see the sometimes desperate shanties that make up the built forms of the present. Amid both lay deposits of waste that a contemporary city has expelled in hopes that they will simply disappear. It is to witness before you the tensions between land and water, past and future, and waste and wealth being lived in this growing, changing city.

Teku Dovan, a large temple complex, marks the confluence of the Bagmati and Bishnumati, and it descends into the river waters by a steep ladder of stone stairs. The complex is the mythological place of origin of Kathmandu, a cultural birthplace for the city. According to a vamshavali, an ancient text that ascribes pious beginnings to Nepal's early history, the then-king Gunakamadeva (ruled 980–998) founded Kathmandu, called Kantipur at the time, in accordance with a vision. In a dream a goddess instructed him to build a city at the junction of the two rivers. According to the vamshavali, it "was the sacred place where, in former times, Ne Muni had performed devotions and practiced austerities, and here was the image of Kanteswara devata. To this spot Indra and the other gods came daily, to visit Lokeswara and hear puranas recited." The king thus moved his court from Patan to Kathmandu (Wright 2000 [1877]:154).

Like walking the riverscape, tracing the social and natural threads that weave the ecology of this site demands flexibility; we are at once compelled to understand the present situation, in which the environmental state of the rivers seems primary and urgent but also to find the roots of that urgency in the history of the rivers and of the larger city that envelops them. Kathmandu is, after all, a point of convergence itself. Politically, it is the capital of a nation-state, and as such it has long served as the center of the state's bureaucratic apparatus. Economically, it is a locus of concentrated wealth and elite privilege, especially in relation to the rest of Nepal. Since the eighteenth century, Kathmandu has served as the most important center of political and economic power in the country. It has also been the seat of the monarchy. In short, the city is in many ways the center of material and symbolic power in Nepal.

Yet by the beginning of the twenty-first century the Bagmati and Bishnumati were regarded as almost intractably degraded. Environmental conditions declined as political dissatisfaction intensified, and the two rivers were increasingly regarded as being connected in some ways. Engaging environmental degradation inevitably required attention to broader debates about the political past, present, and future of Nepal. The question of the environment, then, turned on a question of the polity, and how change could happen within it. Would the monarchy, the international development apparatus, the democratic Parliament, or some other entity eventually rise to the enormity of the problem and reverse river decline? Just who held the power to make change in Kathmandu, and when and how would that power be mobilized?

These questions point to the nation-state's history, in both the capital and the larger territory over which it held sway. By beginning this inquiry with a focus on power, specifically the power to enact environmental change, we move away, for the moment, from the biophysical features of the riverscape and toward the people who organize it and, in so doing, organize themselves. To do so is also to note historical continuities between contemporary concentrations of power in the capital and longstanding processes.


In fact, political and symbolic power have long radiated outward from the center that is the Kathmandu Valley and from Teku Dovan within it. I return to the idea of the mandala for conceptual orientation in a historical moment riddled with turbulence, dissatisfaction, and environmental decline. Recall from the introduction that various schools of analysis engaged the form and symbolic meanings of Valley architecture through the conceptual and diagrammatic dimensions of the mandala. This work extends from the German tradition of approaching the city as a unitary built system (e.g., Gutschow and Kolver 1975; Mary Slusser's famous cultural historical work, Nepal Mandala [1982]; and many others). Much related scholarship develops analytical associations between cartographic space and the organization of political and social life; scholars use the mandala primarily as a means for understanding how the physical spaces of the Kathmandu Valley's cities were historically arranged, in concentric circles, along a gradient of socioreligious purity and impurity (Bledsoe 2004:5). As I suggested previously, the idea of tracing power as its concentrations radiate outward lends important insights to an analysis of the politics of improving the Bagmati and Bishnumati rivers in Kathmandu, and also to understanding Kathmandu in the broader nation-state of Nepal, and, at key historical junctures, Nepal in the larger South Asian region.

Slusser, in particular, famously emphasized the relationship between historical Kathmandu and a mandala, in terms of urban design and social organization. Prior to Prithvi Narayan Shah's territorial conquest and creation of what is now called Nepal, the term "Nepal" referred only to the Kathmandu Valley itself—then called the Nepal Valley, or Nepalmandala. Slusser and others showed that, in part, the organization of Nepalmandala inscribed caste, and related prescriptions for political harmony, into geographical space. Centered on the king's residence, concentric and outward radiating circles organized the ancient polity along a discernible gradient of descending ritual and political rank.

Recall from the introduction that Slusser's work and the scholarly traditions that have followed it underline the utility of the mandala as a window on the spatial and symbolic history of power relations in the Kathmandu Valley. This utility, however, and the precise historical uses and meanings of the mandala in the architectural and physical context of Nepal, are points of ongoing scholarly and popular debates. These debates are often framed by the very politics suggested by invoking the mandala itself; both the place and concept of Nepalmandala are recounted sentimentally by modern Newar intellectuals as a way to recall the Malla era, when they imagine a lost period of Valley unity. Although it is unlikely that perfect political and social harmony existed at that time, present- day nostalgia for the Malla era plays an important role in contemporary identity formation for the ethnic group that claims indigenous status in Kathmandu Valley, the Newar (Bledsoe 2004:60).

In my study, the mandala reappeared in the practice of urban ecology through state spatial practices and performances of citizenship. As I will describe in more detail later in the book (chapter 5), the emergency and loktantra periods witnessed specific uses of, and encounters with, a physical mandala constructed in a new urban park. On this physical mandala, however, groups from Nepal's furthest sociopolitical margins gathered to articulate and amplify political demands. Citizens who occupied it were from Nepal's furthest margins and were contemporary "outcasts" in social, economic, political, and a host of other ways. Yet in the turmoil of political transformation, they took over—both physically and profoundly symbolically—the very center of Kathmandu's Maitighar mandala. In doing so, they inverted the historical power relations suggested by the mandala, remapping (through the practice of urban ecology) old landscapes of caste position and political power. They conveyed, therefore, the tremendous extent to which the social order implied by the mandala was itself transforming. Thus, the processes that we must grapple with to fully address environmental change in Kathmandu involve even the very social and political changes that eventually led to the occupation of one of the state's own modern mandalas.

Before proceeding to that case, however, and before addressing who, in the end, would reign over the rivers (and in so doing assume symbolic and active power to make positive change) we must review the legacy of those who controlled the polity and its landscape in the past, and we must consider the enduring effects of that control on the politics of contemporary river restoration in Kathmandu.


To understand legacies of political power, I begin by briefly historicizing the political organization of the Kathmandu Valley over time, addressing the key elements of monarchy, nation building, the rise of an international development apparatus for Nepal, and democracy. I do so with studied caution, however, since every retelling of history is fragmentary and is animated primarily by the voices of those powerful enough to have made themselves heard as history makers. My discussion here is in no way immune to the partiality of historical narrative; the form and content of national history are actively contested among scholars and Nepali citizens alike, perhaps never more fervently than in the contemporary present. A great deal of Nepal's history was silenced in the more conventional, and historically dominant, accounts to which my tracing of history will refer. There is much to recover. Limited though they are for gleaning a full and detailed history of Nepal, conventional accounts do provide useful anchors for making sense of Kathmandu's political and environmental present at the turn of the twenty-first century.

To begin, the first dated reference to Nepalmandala is found in seventh-century inscriptions from the Lichhavi Dynasty; these references are followed by mention of a sacred realm, or desa. References to Nepala Desa, or Nepalmandala, signify the Valley as a Hindu realm, which Burghart (1984:104) describes as "an auspicious icon of the universe centered on the temple of the king's tutelary deity [Taleju] and demarcated on the perimeter by temples—often four or eight, which were situated at the four cardinal directions or eight points on the compass."

A templescape formed the boundaries of the desa, designating the space inside as being pure and the space outside as being impure. Burghart refers to Hamilton's (1819:192) description of a Brahmanical scheme with fifty-six universal desas in the Sacred Land of Hindus. Nepalmandala's sacred landscape contained 5,600,000 bhairavs and bhairavis—male and female spirits of Shiva and Shakti. Kings in the Malla (1200–1769) and Gorkhali-Shah (1769–1990) eras acted symbolically as protectors of this desa.

Wealth from trade provided the material basis for three major city-states in the Valley: Kathmandu, Patan, and Bhaktapur. At first a single kingdom, the three became autonomous following a period of complicated Malla succession between 1484 and 1619. While they prospered, the later years of the Malla era saw these city-states increasingly marred by rivalries that weakened the Valley and made it vulnerable to conquest by the "Great Unifier" from Gorkah, Prithvi Narayan Shah, in 1744 (e.g., Rai 2002). Kathmandu, Patan, and Bhaktapur did not unite against Shah, whose campaign in the three cities of the Valley was completed by 1769.

The conquest of Kathmandu was a central part of a general Gorkhali campaign of regional expansion. Prithvi Narayan Shah based his new court in Kathmandu, claiming kingship over all three Malla kingdoms. The throne of the Shah Dynasty was brought from Gorkha, and the new king assumed his place in the compound of the deposed king (Burghart 1984: 111). This moment fixed the Nepal Valley as the core of power and authority for the Gorkhali nation-state; at the same time, it relegated the territory outside of the Valley to the margins of political power.

In the early period of the Shah kingship, former designations of who could live where in Nepalmandala were blurred. In particular, the lowest caste groups that were previously forbidden to live inside the city were joined by social groups once found exclusively inside it. A Newar ritual that traced the city walls during the Malla era (upako vanegu—Newar for "walking the town") was adapted by Gorkha rulers as desa ghumne, performed annually during the Indra Jatra festival, reproducing ritually that which had been lost in physical space.

While growth and change reshaped the previous boundaries of Nepalmandala, policies related to ideas of realm purity intensified the distinction between that which was considered inside and outside it. Mark Liechty (1997) noted that, by the early 1700s, Gorkhalis self-consciously thought of their region as being distinct from, and ritually superior to, much of the territory to the south, mainly because it had remained "uncontaminated" by Muslim and British rule in much of India. For Prithvi Narayan Shah, assuming the role of protector of the realm involved maintaining the region's status as the "pure, true Hindustan" (asal Hindustan). As territory to the south was increasingly consolidated under British colonial power, Shah rulers intensified their distinction between land inside the Valley (pure) and outside it (impure). Impurity was to be kept outside the realm, and that which was non-Hindu, foreign, or considered immoral was to be vigilantly repelled. After 1817, Gorkhali rulers saw theirs as the only remaining "pure" realm in the entire region.

While Prithvi Narayan Shah was not the first ruler to espouse ideas of realm purity, he enacted them through policies that would later be interpreted as the beginning of Rana isolationism. By the Rana period, the exclusion of all dealings with foreigners from public life became policy. When Rana rule (1846–1951) commenced under Jung Bahadur, state and nation building started to mirror some of the European colonial policies seen elsewhere on the subcontinent. For example, with the declaration in 1854 of the Civil Code, or Muluki Ain, a national caste system was codified and diverse ethnic groups organized according to a hierarchy of state-defined purity. The Muluki Ain also replaced the Hindu Laws of Manu for forming legal judgments (Hofer 1979; Levine 1987). All peoples were assigned a jat (caste) and categorized into one of five hierarchically arranged groups. Whereas previously the territories that diverse peoples occupied determined their distinctiveness, the new code classed everyone according to their "species" (Burghart's translation of jat) and assumed that they inhabited a singular and common territorial unit (Burghart 1984:117). Caste thus became a unifying tool of state making, and scheduled difference among castes became an important logic for imagining national unity. Not incidentally, this social arrangement also reproduced and sustained high-caste Hindu dominance in state affairs.


Excerpted from Reigning the River by ANNE M. RADEMACHER Copyright © 2011 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

About the Series viii

Foreword ix

Acknowledgments xiii

Introduction. A Riverscape Undone 1

1. Creating Nepal in the Kathmandu Valley 42

2. Knowing the Problem 57

3. War, Emergency, and an Unsettled City 91

4. Emergency Ecology and the Order of Renewal 116

5. Ecologies of Invasion 139

6. Local Rivers, Global Reaches 155

Conclusion. Anticipating Restoration 175

Notes 185

References 211

Index 237

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