Kathmandu Valley and Its Historical Ponds

Features Issue 100 Jul, 2010
Text by Amar B. Shrestha / Photo: ECS Media

The mighty sword of Manjushree drained out the Kathmandu valley, which was once believed to be a lake. And ever since, Kathmandu has remained the home to its elaborate Pokharis (ponds)

Come Chaitra/Baisakh (mid-March/mid-April), thousands of people congregate around a pond in Handigaun. The crowd waits patiently for hours. The local womenfolk are especially well turned out and make up for a sizeable portion of the gathering. There are a few tourists too (as can be expected) as well as quite a few professional photographers moving around lugging their expensive-looking cameras with big lenses. The occasion is the famous Gahana Khojne (Search for Ornaments) festival, an annual event that is known for the robust nature of the festivities associated with it. The crowd is getting perceptibly impatient but no one has any intention of leaving. They have come to be a part of this unique festival, and they are determined to see it to the end.

Suddenly, the noisy clanging of cymbals and the distinctive beat of drums accompanied by the shrill sound of trumpets can be heard. Then the noise of loud shouting comes from numerous throats along with the sound of many rushing feet. And suddenly it appears – a tall wooden chariot carrying the image of a deity and pulled by means of sturdy ropes by scores of young men, many of them, invariably, quite inebriated. They pull the colorfully decorated chariot into the knee-deep pond and begin to drag it in circles in the water. They do this thrice before pulling the wooden contraption out of the water onto solid ground again. Then there is a melee as the devotees jostle around the chariot to pay homage and seek the blessings of the god inside. After sometime, again accompanied by much noise and revelry, the chariot is drawn back to the temple where the idol is put back in its rightful abode. It is undoubtedly an interesting festival, and Gahana Pokhari (Ornament Pond) is the centerpiece of the whole affair.

This famous pond in Handigaun’s Ward No. 5 of Kathmandu Metropolitan City is one of the many important sites in a locality that is steeped in history and culture. Handigaun was the ancient capital of Nepal during the reign of the Verma, Gupta and Lichhavi kings until the 8th century. Its cultural wealth is evident in the numerous sacred temples located here – all very important historical sites. But then, so is Gahana Pokhari, a pond that occupies an area of approximately 1,018 square meters, taking into account its immediate vicinity. This pond, like many others in the valley, has immense cultural and historical value.

Hitis and Pokharis
In fact one could say that the valley itself was born of a pond (albeit a very large one!). According to mythology, the Kathmandu Valley was originally a lake known as Nagdaha that was full of snakes (naga: snake deity, daha: lake). It was drained by a Buddhist sage named Manjushree who had come to Swayambhu for meditation. It is, of course, but a myth. What is true, however, is that in the architecturally rich eras of the Lichhavi (2nd to 9th century) and Malla (14th to 16th century) reigns, many wonderful stupas, temples, and monasteries were built along with numerous hitis (stone spouts) and pokharis (ponds) as well. Hitis and pokharis, incidentally, have a close association with each other.

Hitis are complexes having one or more stone spouts usually carved in the shape of crocodile heads (crocodile or makara in Sanskrit is the vehicle of Ganga, the Goddess of water). These are fed by rainwater collected in aquifers (layers of permeable rock, sand or gravel through which ground water flows). To maintain water flow even during the dry season, ponds were built nearby as reservoirs to recharge the aquifers. These ponds, in turn, were supplied water from one of three rajkulos, the canal systems built to provide water for everyday use, irrigate farmlands and fill the ponds. Today, only Lalitpur rajkulo has managed to survive the passage of time. It is assumed that most of the hitis and rajkulos were built during the Lichhavi period and King Mandev is believed to have built the first hiti in Handigaun in 550 AD. In Bhaktapur, Queen Tula Rani is credited with building the first rajkulo and numerous hitis, in fact one per tole (neighborhood). Sundhara, one of the best known hitis, was the last to be built in Kathmandu (by Bhimsen Thapa in 1829 AD). Similarly, in Bhaktapur, Bramhayani hiti was the last to be built in 1972.

The Major Ponds
Besides supplying water for general purposes, the ponds had another important function – they served as water reservoirs to fight fires as well. This was wise thinking as most of the houses constructed in those days were that of wood. And although there once were numerous ponds in the valley serving such important purposes, encroachments due to urbanization have resulted in only a few still surviving. One of Kathmandu’s biggest ponds, Lainchaur Pokhari, has long disappeared. Now, in its place stands the Nepal Scouts building. In Patan, among the few remaining ponds today (and fortunately the most ancient one) is Guita Pukhu (pukhu in Newari means pond) built by King Sarvananda. Similarly, Lagankhel Pukhu, which was built by King Ashok Varma, is another old and important pond. Among those in the valley that still remain, Taudaha (in Chobar), Nagdaha (in Dhapakhel), Siddha Pokhari (in Bhaktapur), Pim Bahal Pokhari (in Patan) and Kathmandu’s Rani Pokhari, Nag Pokhari, Kamal Pokhari and Gahana Pokhari are some of the better known ones.

Except for Kamal Pokhari, all the others mentioned above have a cultural significance that makes it mandatory for locals to visit them at least once a year. Taudaha, Nag Pokhari and Nagdaha, for example, are visited during the Nag Panchami festival in Shrawan (July-August), Rani Pokhari during Bhai Tika (Brother’s Day, a part of the Tihar festival in October-November) and Gahana Pokhari during Chaitra Purnima (March-April). Taudaha Lake in Chobar, some 6 km southwest of Kathmandu, not only holds cultural significance but is also important for its rich diversity of flora and fauna. According to experts, it is the valley’s only remaining natural lake that still serves as a habitat for a significant number of wetland birds and so is valuable from the ecological point of view.

Nagadaha in Dhapakhel VDC of Lalitpur District is a natural pond that covers an area of five hectares (around 100 ropanis). And some 8 km southwest of Kathmandu is situated Matatirtha Pokhari (mata: mother, tirtha: pilgrimage/sacred site), which is visited once a year in April-May by those whose mothers have passed away. The rituals here involve a dip in one of the two adjacent ponds followed by other rites. About 8 km north of Kathmandu, in Budhanilkantha at the base of the Shivapuri Hill, is a large 5th-century stone statue of the Sleeping Lord Vishnu reclining on a bed of snakes and seemingly floating on the water in the middle of a small pond. It is one of the most interesting of all religious sites (read ponds) in the valley.

The Ponds of Kathmandu
In Kathmandu itself, Rani Pokhari (literally, Queen Pond) is the best known and most beautiful of all the ponds in the valley. Its original Newari name was ‘Nhu Pukhu’ (New Pond) and it was probably named so because there already were numerous ornamental ponds in the valley before it was built. Rani Pokhari and its immediate vicinity encompass about three and a half hectares (62 ropanies). Located opposite Durbar High School in the Ratna Park area, it is rectangular in shape and has a Shiva temple (Balgopaleshwar Mahadev) at its center. Dating back to the 17th century, it was built by King Pratap Malla to console Queen Anantapriya on the demise of her youngest son. The temple is open to the public only once a year during Bhai Tika, the final day of the Tihar festival, when it is visited by those having no siblings. On the four corners of the pond stand temples dedicated to Ganesh, Bhairab, Narayan and Saraswati.

Nag Pokhari in Naxal, close to and on the eastern side the erstwhile Royal Palace (now a museum), has a tall statue of a Naga King (Serpent God) at its center. Nag Pokhari comes next only to  Rani Pokhari in terms of historical and cultural importance. And it’s not only because of its location, situated as it is in a very important locality with other significant heritages nearby, including, of course, the palace. This pond, now well preserved and with a park around it, especially comes to life during Nag Panchami. Gahana Pokhari is located but a short distance away and it, too, is maintained and well taken care of as a result of which it has become the centerpiece of the Handigaun area. Kamal Pokhari (literally, Lotus Pond) is also quite close to Nag Pokhari. Unlike the others, though, it does not hold much significance – either historical or cultural – but it does add to the beauty of the environment of the surrounding neighborhood.

The Ponds of Bhaktapur
Once upon a time, Bhaktapur, too, had numerous ponds or pukhus. Today, according to bhaktapursansar.com, there still are 33 of them in the city. Siddha Pokhari or Ta Pukhu (Big Pond) located at Dudhpati (at the entrance of the city), is said to have been built in the 15th century during the reign of King Yaksha Malla. It turns into a focal point especially during the Dashain festival (October-November). Considered to be the oldest pond in Bhaktapur, it measures 275 meters by 92 meters and there are quite a lot of fish in it. Another big pond is Barhe Pukhu (Lotus Pond) located at Kamal Vinayak northeast of the city. Ancha Pukhu, to the north of the city, has a stone image of the reclining Lord Vishnu at its center, and it is a place where many religious events take place.

Kancha Pukhu, to the south of the Dattatraya Square in Inacho Tol, is architecturally very interesting. Its uniqueness lies in the fact that one can see a perfectly reflected image of the Nayatapola temple on its surface although it is situated more than 500 meters away from the edifice. Nag Pokhari in the Palace of 55 Windows in Bhaktapur’s Durbar Square is encircled by writhing stone cobras rising up on pillars. Some of the other better known ponds in Bhaktapur are Paleswon Pukhu, Bhajya Pukhu, Guhya Pukhu, Bhanda Pukhu, Kaldah Pukhu and Dwinmaju Pukhu. Many of the ponds have been used in the past as sites for holy baths in reverence to various gods and goddesses. Ta Pukhu is associated with the Goddess Indrayani while the Bhanda Pukhu was where holy baths once used to be taken in reverence to Taleju Bhawani, the royal Goddess of the Malla kings. During the full moon day of August, people take baths in Kaldah Pukhu. And it is believed that ailments like loss of appetite and malnutrition among infants can be cured if they are bathed in Dwinmaju Pukhu.

Ponds in Patan
The Lalitpur Sub-Metropolitan City Office (LSMC) states that there are 25 pokharis in the city today with the major ones being Prayag, Jawalakhel and Pim Bahal. Pim Bahal Pokhari was built in the 14th century and is one of the more famous ponds in Patan. However, it had lain in a state of neglect for a long time. This ancient city has somehow had some trouble maintaining its historical ponds. According to a recent news report, however, three ponds – Nehoo, Saptapatal and Purnachandi – have been earmarked by the LSMC for extensive repair and renovation. This is mainly an attempt to recharge the ponds by harvesting rainwater in order to solve the city’s acute drinking water problem.

Not only in Patan, but all over the valley, authorities are making renewed efforts to conserve and maintain the remaining historical ponds. A great deal of success in the beautification and maintenance of ponds like Rani Pokhari, Gahana Pokhari, Nag Pokhari and Kamal Pokhari, as well as Siddha Pokhari in Bhaktapur, have been sources of great encouragement. Such sites can give a boost to tourism besides serving as inviting places to relax in for the locals as well.

Besides, pokharis offer the cities a better chance to breathe because of the open spaces they provide in the midst of concrete jungles. In addition, people are now realizing the wisdom of their ancient predecessors in that they had rightly given so much importance to conserve water through the extensive construction of such reservoirs. With the benefits that these ponds bring, it is not only historical pokharis that need to be preserved. The construction of new ones as well could augur well for the valley’s environment, and, by extention, its residents. Pokharis have many things to offer, not the least being the sight of cool water, which is always a soothing sight, especially for the perpetually harried citizens of the Kathmandu Valley.