A Tale of Two Dahas

Destination Issue 88 Jul, 2010
Text and Photo By Rabi Thapa

A lake is the landscape’s most beautiful and expressive feature. It is earth’s eye; looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature.  (Henry David Thoreau, Walden, 1854)

Millennia have washed past since the bodhisattva Manjushree cleft the Chobhar gorge with his flaming sword. But it was only recently that I made my way to the area. It wasn’t for the dubious charms of the gorge itself, heralded by an all-too-familiar stench. On a clear winter’s day, the Bagmati River can still be seen as a springing fall down the face of Shivapuri in the north. It makes an inglorious exit here, having trawled its cargo of waste across the face of the Valley.

No, I was here for rather more pastoral pursuits. Water, birds and beer. Heading southwest from Patan, we left the concrete jungle behind, passed the battered gates of Tribhuvan University, zoomed up a cool, forested hill and out past the rusting hulk of the Himal Cement Factory. I smiled indulgently at some tiny, painted, bamboo cottages for young lovers (the signpost sporting a nubile, scantily clad maiden, belying the establishment’s claim to be a ‘Family Garden Resort’), and then we were gazing across the expanse of Taudaha.

Taudaha is believed by locals to be one of only two ponds (lakes, if you’re feeling generous) left behind when Manjushree (or Vishnu, if you’re feeling Hindu) carved through Chobhar, releasing the waters of the great lake of the Kathmandu Valley. Rather like the Loch Ness, Taudaha is believed to host a gigantic serpent: Karkotak, king of the Nag. The walls of the serpent-king’s submarine palace are said to be studded with sapphires, rubies and other precious stones. Twice a year, on Nag Panchami and Rishi Panchami, devotees throng Taudaha’s shores to pay homage to the serpent-king.

Geologists, of course, have a rather more mundane explanation for the existence of Taudaha. Research indicates that several lake outbursts drained the Valley, the last about 10,000 years ago. The waters of the lake drained through fissures in the Chobhar gorge. At the time, Taudaha was still in the course of the Bagmati. Over the years, the river’s channel shifted, leaving Taudaha stranded as an oxbow lake.

Whatever the case, the water body before us exuded peace. This day of dreary, cloudy January the depleted waters lay calmly among worn hillocks upon which perched the little straw and bamboo hut ‘resort’ we settled into for beer and dried meat (sukuti). The looming olive mountains to our back surveyed that rarest of things in the Valley today – space. Other rarities abounded. Scores of wild ducks floated on the surface of the water while large black cormorants weighed down the two bare trees on the tiny island to the left. And indeed, birds are what make Taudaha special. Over 100 species have been recorded in the Taudaha area, of which 48 species are dependent on wetlands, some wintering from as far afield as Siberia.

Whatever relief Taudaha has from land encroachment, agricultural run-off and the urban sprawl decimating just about every historical or natural monument in the Kathmandu Valley owes little to government action. Because the lake is considered sacred, swimming, boating and fishing are forbidden. This doesn’t deter the bi-annual devotees, picnickers and love doves from showing their appreciation in the form of the usual trash and offerings to the obese catfish squirming through the turbid waters. But local interest groups and non-governmental organisations have played a key part in raising awareness of the unique nature of Taudaha in the form of annual jamborees.

Much the same can be said of Nagdaha, the other leftover from the Kathmandu Valley lake. On a lazy day, we escaped from the dustbowl heading southeast from Patan to Dhapakhel, meeting with another body of water surrounded by low terraces of green and yellow. Another lazy day, and another pocket of peace that couldn’t help but remind us of Taudaha-by-Chobhar. Part of the pond was sectioned off as a patch of grassy wetland, where waddled wild ducks and coots and white storks. In the early evening they were joined by swallows swooping to meet their reflections. Facing onto the water, we shared a ragged garden with other picnickers – the usual assortment of loutish lads, families and couples in the corners, whispering salty somethings away from the disapproving darts of their well-wishers. We tasted tongue (jibro fry), guzzled beer, and cheered as a friend doled out luscious, spicy duck (has ko chwoela) picked up in a earthen brick eatery in Patan that I’d wouldn’t have picked for anything but demolition.

What urban sprawl could do to such unique wetlands as Taudaha and Nagdaha is perhaps obvious. Already, as in other wrinkles and folds of the Kathmandu Valley once considered outposts of the three medieval Newari kingdoms, land cultivated for centuries is being turned over to speculators, developers and any number of Nepalis trying to scratch out a space for their families. If past trends are anything to go by, these water bodies will one day be hemmed in not by rice paddies, mustard fields and bamboo groves, but apartment blocks, shopping centers and traffic snarls. Today Taudaha and Nagdaha play a vital role in replenishing the Valley’s water table; tomorrow hundreds of tube wells will draw this precious water up into the black plastic tanks that will be the new skyline of Chobhar. If this happens, and the local groups that are key to the survival of the lakes disperse or fall prey to the lure of  filthy lucre, then future generations will inherit little more than swampy garbage dumps. These prehistoric remnants of the Kathmandu Valley’s past will, like the Bagmati River itself, shrivel to fetid green pools. And those seeking to unearth jewels will find nothing but the churning lines of the serpent-king’s death throes, the lordly beast turned to mud.

These fatalistic imaginings came later, perhaps taking root in our visit to Chobhar gorge. It’s an equally remarkable spot, for all the wrong reasons. You tread onto the narrow suspension bridge, and look down to see what you have already wrinkled your nose at – the black waters of the river of Kathmandu, swirling with foamy white effluent. You dread what you might see if you stare too deeply into its viscosity and step back off, smiling weakly. Rather than reverence, visitors end up feeling rather sorry for the 400-year-old Jal Binayak temple forced to accept the putrid offerings of a god-fearing populace. This is surely one for the Visit Nepal billboards, a dystopia straight out of a comic book, unfortunately too real.

Perhaps my pessimism was misplaced. After all, despite the significant threats to both Nagdaha and Taudaha, they are still relatively pristine beauty spots. Local and not-so-local Nepalis along with a healthy smattering of foreigners – human and avian – continue to frequent the lakes. This gives me hope. Whatever their reasons, it is clear that locals and visitors alike appreciate the existence of these waters. It’s only a question then of understanding how the behavior of those using the lakes can be modified to ensure their continuity. Therein lies the challenge. As the 19th century transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau noted, ponds are:

…great crystals on the surface of the earth, Lakes of Light. If they were permanently congealed, and small enough to be clutched, they would, perchance, be carried off by slaves, like precious stones, to adorn the heads of emperors; but being liquid, and ample, and secured to us and our successors forever, we disregard them…They are too pure to have a market value; they contain no muck.

We must ensure that Taudaha and Nagdaha are secured to us and our successors forever, because (as we know too well) the lands around them certainly have a market value, and the ponds would surely be carried off – drained or polluted out of existence – if this is allowed. Thoreau believed we could gauge our own nature by looking into Nature. Surely there is a lesson here. If we are reduced to gazing into sunken mud instead of sparkling lakes alive with Nature’s bounty, we will know the extent of our fall from grace. This is the moral of the tale of two dahas.

Rabi Thapa is a freelance writer and editor. He runs The Last Word, an editorial company based in Kathmandu, and NepaliKukur, a local guide to Nepal. For more sniffs about the country, log onto http://nepalikukur.wordpress.com. Rabi can be contacted at rabithapa@gmail.com.