The women of Bhajya Pukhu

June 30, 2018

Siddhanta Phuyal, The Kathmandu Post, 30 June 2018

For decades, Bhajya Pukhu (Bhaju Pokhari), which lies across the road from Siddha Pokhari—one of Bhaktapur’s most famous landmarks—was more a field than it was a pond. The two levels of walkways made for the perfect running track for early morning joggers, its lush greens a great spot for kicking a football around. Over the years, Bhaju Pukhu has played host to picnics, sports days, even a motorcycle drag race; and when the 2015 earthquakes ravaged Bhaktapur’s old settlements, the pond transformed into a tent city housing hundreds of anxious residents.


But today this historic site is a space anew. On any given day, you can find Maili Garu and 24 other female co-workers wading through a thick layer of black mud in the pond basin. Sleeves rolled up, trousers folded, shawls wrapped tightly around their heads, these women of Bhajya Pukhu are on a mission to restore the pond to its original glory. Even if what the pond looked like when it was first built has been lost to history.

What is known is that Bhajya Pukhu was commissioned in the latter half of the 17th century by Bhagiram Pradhananga (known colloquially as Bhaju Kasaju), a powerful commander in Jatamitra Malla’s army. And according to Purushottam Lochan Shrestha, a professor of history at Khwopa College, the pond was not only constructed in the same period as the iconic Rani Pokhari in Kathmandu, but also had an identical layout and Vastu alignment. “When it was first commissioned, a Shikhar-styled temple rose from the centre of Rani Pokhari. Likewise, because Bhaju Pokhari is seen as a replica, it can be hypothesised that it too had a similar temple,” Shrestha says, adding that even though no images exist of the original layout of the pond, researchers have unearthed the foundations of a temple structure at the centre and nine pillars that suggest that there once was a walkway that led to it.

Empowering communities

Now the Bhajya Pukhu Reconstruction Sub-Committee, with backing from the Bhaktapur Municipality, has initiated a unique revitalisation effort that seeks not only to restore the Shikhar-style temple at the pond’s centre but to also convert the site into a thriving tourism and recreation space. And, what is more, the groundwork for the project is being laid by local women like Maili Garu.

Garu, who has been with the project since its inception in October 2017, is a local who has always lived a stone’s throw away from the pond. Before coming on board the project, she made ends meet by sewing traditional caps at home. Now, heaving to and fro, swinging her spade at mounds of mud, she says that the project has given her a sense of renewed purpose.

“This renovation has helped some of the poorest local residents in the neighbourhood to generate additional income,” Garu says, pointing towards a co-worker, “For example: Buddha Laxmi Jyaku is a local whose husband is missing. She has two small children to look after and she used to work as a tenant farmer. The money she is now making will go a long way for her family.”

Subhadra Dwaju, another local woman working on the project, adds that along with bringing in additional income, the revitalisation has brought the community together. “Only a year ago, nobody seemed interested in this pond. It was just something that was there,” she says, “But now we have this feeling of accomplishment. These are our historical monuments and we now feel that it is our duty to preserve them. We even volunteered 10 days worth of labour during the initial phases of the project.”  

‘Why use concrete?’

This transfer of ownership is one of the key reasons that the Bhaktapur Municipality has insisted that the locals be roped into the project, along with the experts, according to Rajani Joshi, the deputy mayor of Bhaktapur. Another key cornerstone for the initiative, she adds, is that the revitalisation is being done while staying true to the original design and traditional construction methods. For this purpose, workers have been packing down a layer of kalo mato (black mud) throughout the pond’s basin in two phases. And the results are already visible—water is once again beginning to pool up in the pond this monsoon.

“Kalo mato has a gum-like quality when extracted in its natural form from the earth, and it serves a dual purpose,” Joshi says, “First, it prevents seepage and is an extremely effective way to retain water. But at the same time, the mud also moisturises the surface, helping the ponds naturally replenish the water they hold. You can’t do that with concrete.”

Bhaktapur Muncipality’s insistence on sticking to traditional building techniques was in part because of the furor over the use of concrete at Rani Pokhari in Kathmandu, the pond that inspired Bhajya Pukhu in the first place. The Kathmandu Metropolitan City’s (KMC) plan to encroach upon the Rani Pokhari’s area last year by building concrete retention walls was squarely flayed by experts and activists. KMC initially planned to convert the pond into an ‘entertainment park’, with Kathmandu’s mayor even claiming that “Rani Pokhari will need a coffee shop.”  

“Concrete has a lifespan of 50-80 years; a layer of black mud is significantly cheaper and will last at least a 100 years,” Rajani Joshi points out, “If you build a pond with concrete, you’re building a swimming pool. It is expensive, short-sighted and drives up the cost in the long run as well because you have to keep pumping additional water in frequently. Not to mention, it is not in line with the techniques passed down to us. So why would we use concrete and hire outside workers, when we have all the resources and knowhow right here?”

In addition to keeping indigenous building techniques alive, professor Shrestha also argues that retaining heritage sites in as original a form as possible also helps maintain its reverence, and hence ownership, in the community that it is in. “If you look at it, lakes in the Kathmandu Valley served many utilitarian purposes and added to the city’s aesthetics. But they are also inextricably tied to local cultural practices,” he says, “There are temples and deities in, or near, every pond in the Valley and these water bodies still play a big role in many festivals and jatras. This is why I criticise the use of concrete; ponds and Kathmandu’s culture are inseparable, like nail and skin.”


Ponds and urbanisation

But even if you were to set aside religiosity, Padma Sundar Joshi, an environmentalist and programme manager at UN Habitat, says that water bodies played a crucial role in enabling Kathmandu Valley to flourish as a viable urban centre. He argues that without exception, all ancient Newar settlements in the Valley were located at the base of hills with three of its sides sloping towards the flood plains of various rivers. “And since the primary source of water in these settlements was rain, the hiti system (stone spouts) and wells were made near these settlements to collect and distribute water effectively,” Joshi says, “Ponds were like water reservoirs which would collect rain water, storm water, and water from Rajkulos (irrigation channels). Thus, these ponds were made in order to ensure a continuous flow of water through these conduits. Not only that, these ponds accumulated concentrated monsoon downpour which would prevent the flooding and landslides in settlements downstream as well as preventing soil erosion. Obviously these ponds not only provided water bodies to cool the surroundings and balance the ecosystem, but they also helped in domestic work like washing, cleaning, and duck farming.”

According to Joshi, the Valley’s ponds can be categorised into three types: Ponds located above settlements, ponds within settlements, and ponds below settlements. Ponds located in a higher elevation to settlements—like Rani Pokhari, Siddhi Pokhari and Bhajya Pukhu—were used for recharging aquifers and wells. They also prevented flooding during monsoons. Ponds inside settlements—like Nagdaha and Pimbaha Pukhu—were mostly used for domestic purposes like washing and cleaning, but also played a crucial role in recharging ground water to local aquifers. In contrast, ponds located at a lower elevation than settlements safe guarded the community from landslides and soil erosion. And since water in these ponds was comparatively dirtier, these were also set aside for animals to drink from and bathe in.

“So, you see, ponds were not just built at random. They were intricately tied to the urbanisation of Kathmandu Valley. And what happens if concrete is used in traditional ponds?” asks Joshi, before answering it herself, “First of all, if concrete is used, we are dependent solely on the rain to recharge the water. If not the rain then we have to continuously supply water to the pond to balance water loss due to evaporation, which is quite expensive. Secondly, concrete is a death knell for the aquatic ecosystem. A pond is not just some utensil that collects water; it is a separate ecosystem which contains fish, plants and zooplanktons. And their home is the mud. Now, if mud is replaced by concrete, then they will all die. In due time, the pond will be transformed into a dirty pool, rendering it unusable. It becomes useless. That is why so many ponds that have been rebuilt with concrete—even if with the best of intentions—are in various states of disrepair.”

Which is why Rajani Joshi takes immense pride in the fact that Bhaktapur has been able to chart a different course for Bhajya Pukhu than the one adopted by the Kathmandu Metropolitan City at Rani Pokhari. “This project will revitalise not just the pond but the community as well,” she says, “It is going to change how this place is perceived by locals and tourists alike.”

And changes are already visible. The pond’s periphery is now visibly cleaner and the birds have returned as well. If like Rani Pokhari, its replica Bhajya Pukhu also needed a coffee shop, it has a couple of them to boast already.

Bhajya Pukhu is like a forgotten twin of the more famous Rani Pokhari. Despite an identical start, the two locations have been subject to very different histories. Now the future of the two ponds will only diverge as one is reconstructed using traditional methods and local labour while other remains mired in controversy. What we can say for sure is that by employing local women in the reconstruction process, Bhaktapur Municipality has helped empower the poorest and most vulnerable members of their community, while showing that the Valley’s ancient knowledge is not obsolete yet.