Swoyambhu: A Buddhist Disneyland?

By Ananda P Srestha, The Rising Nepal, April 20, 2007

Kathmandu, Nepal -- The now "historic" Teen Kune crossing, just beyond new Baneshwor, though centrally located, lies virtually neglected and uncared for after being haphazardly made up for the Eleventh SAARC Summit held in Kathmandu to remotely resemble a desert oasis of sorts with even a few palm trees implanted overnight.

Today, the "oasis" has dried up and lies in a pathetic state, a haven for squatters and demonstrators. Thanks to the stubborn stand and difference of opinion said to have cropped up between then Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba and Mayor Sthapit. The disagreement was said to be over whether a giant statue of legendary Manjushree, the founder of Kathmandu Valley, or that of the Buddha, the apostle of peace and non-violence should occupy the strategic Teen Kune crossing. Actually, either would have been equally appropriate and eye-catching, though an image of the Bodhisatva Manjushree could have been a better choice considering the site, place and the spirit behind the ill-fated project.

If on the one hand our policy and decision makers quarrel over trifles that could have otherwise added character to the Kathmandu Valley landscape, we also go to the other ridiculous extreme of allowing illegal constructions of massive concrete statues of Tibetan saints, right in the World Heritage Site of Swoyambhu hill! The "credit" ironically goes to no other than two former ministers who were in the government some three or four years ago for doing the "honors" by laying the foundation stone for the same! The massive statues that virtually dominate the base of Swoyambhu hill on the ring road side according to reports, are placed on massive pedestals and the statues according to the members of the construction committee stand some 60 plus feet tall!

No doubt, the project has every right to be implemented considering the religious beliefs of the people behind it, but certainly not in an area that could well endanger the Swoyambhu hill site being delisted from the world heritage list! Surprisingly, the illegal foundations were laid at a time when cultural experts at home and abroad saw a threat of the delisting of all monuments of Kathmandu from the world heritage sites-list by the year 2004, due to government(s) negligence and failure to conserve the sites of archaeological and cultural importance.

The government, in 1979, had forbidden any new construction on the 2000-year-old Swoyambhu hill enlisted as a world heritage site. To maintain and live up to the prestigious title and the standards that go with it, the ministry of culture in 1989, drew up a Swoyambhunath Conservation Master Plan commonly known as "Swoyambhu 2000" that aimed at freeing the area from illegal construction and encroachment.

Two German experts, Niels Gutschow and Goetz Hagmuller along with Ramesh Jung Thapa and Saphalya Amatya, two Nepali archaeologists, prepared the plan. The plan strictly prohibits any new construction on the sacred hill and the surrounding area and upholds the view that the country's indigenous Buddhism and practices should be kept free from Tibetan and other influences. But going by how the area has been disfigured of late, the report must be gathering dust in some dingy room in the Singha Durbar if not somewhere in the Department of Archaeology, the places that should be monitoring the conservation of heritage sites and monuments of archaeological and cultural importance. That the present eight-party government, including the Maoists, will look into this very sensitive issue of national concern, or that it will fall in their list of priorities probably stands very little chance.

The locals are of the opinion that such illegal and grotesque concrete constructions have killed the very spirit of the surroundings. The peace and tranquility once associated with such places of worship according to them is something of the past. The people living in and around the vicinity are even more surprised by the fact that "the present day political leaders and the government authorities are protecting such illegal constructions in the name of religious freedom!"

According to them, the huge concrete statues of Buddhas and Bodhisatvas that virtually dominate the once quiet landscape were erected despite protests by the Department of Archaeology. Being a world heritage site, any construction work there needs prior permission but the DoA and UNESCO, Kathmandu office authorities complain of not even being informed about such illegal structures coming up!

After 1990, in the name of religious freedom the sacred Swoyambhu hill has been a virtual playground for most political leaders and politicians. The locals still remember an incident that took place a couple of years ago when the then Minister for Culture ordered the demolition of illegal constructions that had mushroomed there. In retaliation, another minister appeared on the site and protected the squatters.

According to Niels Gutschow, a German Scholar and expert on Buddhist monasteries in Kathmandu and one of the planners of the Swoyambhu Master Plan, the whole idea is to save the fragile hill from further deterioration by checking new construction on the site. According to him, there is an urgent need to conserve the history, architecture and the green forest of the heritage site. But at the rate things are going, it seems doubtful whether the Swoyambhu hill can really be saved from being struck off the world's heritage list.

The UNESCO Mission has now and then sought improvement in conservation of Nepal's heritage sites and has made prescriptions to continue their inclusion in the globally important heritage list. But negligence on the part of the Nepalese government to conserve its prestigious world heritage sites go against such efforts and therefore provide little hope. According to reports, the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation, has not been able to conserve the world heritage sites, due to lack of clear legal provisions. The thinking is that the lack of total authority to either the Department of Archaeology or the District Administration Office has led to a situation where despite recommenda-tions for demolition, nothing actually happens despite the Heritage Conservation Unit (HCU) recommenda-tions for demolitions of constructions that violate the provisions.

According to the authorities concerned, the unclear legal provisions have proved to be the main obstacle. They are of the opinion that the Archaeology Department can only issue notice to stop such constructions, but the DAO needs to do the demolition work. The DAO, on the other hand complains of not having enough funds and the manpower to demolish the illegal constructions.

The Heritage Conservation Unit manned only by some two dozen staff complains of being assigned to monitor the construction around the heritage sites but under separate guidelines. The ministry of Culture and Tourism says it has published a detailed list of encroachment around the heritage sites but the people responsible refuse to accept the subsidy provided by the government. The inconsistencies are indeed endless! Meanwhile, the character, peace, sanctity and tranquility of Swoyambhu Hill continue to be eroded. As it is, the place has already acquired the grotesque looks of a Buddhist Disneyland of sorts!