Let there be light

Features Issue 118 Aug, 2011
Text by Kapil Bisht / Photo: ECS Media

The story of how electricity came to Nepal - over the hills and on the backs of porters

On 22 May 1911, a crowd had gathered on Kathmandu’s central Tundikhel. Among the guests were the then British Resident, Lt. Col. J. Manor Smith, and numerous high-ranking Ranas. King Prithivi Bir Bikram Shah and Prime Minister Chandra Sumsher were also in attendance. Hundreds of civil servants, some foreign guests, and ladies of the Rana court had also been invited to witness the historic event. At 6:30 p.m., king Prithivi turned a switch at the Tundikhel substation and a light bulb lit up. Soon the bulbs fitted in the dais where the Maharaja sat were also lit. For the first time, Nepal had electricity.

Whether to etch the memory of the glorious day in the minds of the people or to grant those living in the surrounding hills of Kathmandu the privilege of witnessing the glimmer of lights, the Prime Minister ordered for the lights fitted in the substation to stay lit for a week. The national mood was festive. The Nepal Army was granted a two-day holiday. All government offices were closed for a day. During the Rana rule, it was a tradition to mark certain occasions by lifting the prohibition on gambling, so the people were allowed to gamble on the day after the first electrical lights went on. The state-owned newspaper, Gorkhapatra, eulogized the momentous event in an article entitled ‘Amazing Light Chandra Batti’. Perhaps it was one of the few times when the praise for the ruler’s action was earnest: By the absolute grace of God, who has added some more years to our life, we were highly fortunate today and overjoyed that the amazing thing that even the educated and wealthy were not able to see is in front of us due to the grace of His Highness. India only had a single hydropower plant, in Darjeeling. China was still without electricity.

Four years earlier, Chandra Sumsher had returned from his trip to the well-lit streets and dazzling palaces of England to his own dark palace still illumined only with primitive oil wick lamps and lanterns. The sybaritic lifestyle of the Ranas lacked the very thing that defined ‘luxury’ in the outer world. An oligarch’s ego was roused, and Nepal took a great leap forward. Chandra Sumsher decided it was time Nepal had electricity—if only to light his own palace and that of his relatives and, not least, to illumine his name in history. In 1907, Chandra Sumsher decreed the construction of a hydropower station in the Kathmandu Valley.

A Scheme To Stand Alone In History
Kishor Narsingh Rana, a colonel of the Nepal Army, was given the responsibility of designing the project. He chose the project location for a reservoir and a powerhouse at Seti Devi (Pharping), a village around 17 kilometers southwest of Kathmandu city. The place was ideal: there were two perennial springs in the vicinity and the topography consisted of steep hills. Col. Rana had his plans ready. He now awaited permission from the Maharaja to start work on the project.

What had started as a work of immense pride for Kishor Narsingh and what would surely have been his finest contribution in the service of the Ranas, however, soon turned into a bitter episode. When the surveying of the project was completed and the plans for the construction of the powerhouse prepared, Chandra Sumsher decided to recruit an English engineer to implement it. Kishor Narsingh tried to convince the ruler that he could construct the station without foreign assistance. But the prime minister wouldn’t change his stance, and hired foreign expertise. A certain Mr. Barnau Puwante arrived from England, and took over the project’s supervision. Kishor Narsingh’s plans proved to be immaculate, as Puwante only had to make a few minor changes to the original. The entire work of the project, including the fitting of the pipes from the springs to the reservoir and from the reservoir to the powerhouse, the erection of the poles from the powerhouse to the substation in Tundikhel, building the substation to the rigging of lights for the inauguration ceremony was conducted by Puwante. The colonel was cruelly displaced from the high esteem that he would have doubtlessly acquired had he been given the responsibility to carry out the work he envisioned. It is not certain whether he attended the ceremony or not. Perhaps he chose to remain at home, which he refused to light up with electricity, adamantly keeping it in darkness until Chandra Sumsher died.

Chandra Sumsher’s decision to bring in a foreign engineer wasn’t due to his lack of faith in Kishor Narsingh, however. Neither was it motivated by concerns of guaranteeing the project’s success. It was, in fact, his fear of Kishor Narsingh’s ability that was behind the move. Purushottam S.J.B. Rana, a historian and author of several books on the Ranas, believes that Chandra Sumsher had no intention of sharing the lofty heights to which he would be propelled for his push to generate electricity in Nepal. “Chandra Sumsher was a wily man. He knew that if he handed over sole responsibility of the powerhouse construction to Kishor Narsingh Rana, he would have to share a place in history with the latter. By bringing in a British engineer, he blocked out the honor and respect that he would otherwise have to bestow on Kishor Narsingh Rana,” says Purushottam Rana. Denying something as harmless as honor and recognition to the man who helped put Chadra Sumsher’s name in history seems puzzling. Purushottam Rana knows the reason behind this, too. “Recognizing and honoring a Rana that was below him in the hierarchy was unthinkable to a Rana Prime Minister. Appointing the British engineer in-charge of the project was Chandra Sumsher’s scheme to avoid condescension.”

An engineer wasn’t the project’s only import. Every single piece of the power station, including the pipes that would conduct water into the turbine, were shipped from England to India, then carried into Kathmandu on the backs of porters. Today, as one stands and looks at the huge, rusty pipes plunging downhill from the reservoir to the powerhouse, it seems more impressive a feat of human strength than of engineering. The equipment and components were brought to the capital like so many of the foreign-made objects that were brought to Kathmandu during the days when the country had no motor roads—in pieces, on the backs of porters. The gigantic pieces of machinery arrived over the high hills, via Bhimphedi, the route that visiting foreigners glorified in their accounts and porters loathed. “Everything you see here, with the exception of the wood of the doors and windows and the bricks, was carried here over Bhimphedi,” says Shyam Krishna Basnet, head electrician of the powerhouse. The only other material from Nepal to have been used was probably concrete, from which the reservoir was constructed. Even the corrugated iron roof of the powerhouse was brought from India. It cost the government more to have the material carried from Bhimphedi to the construction site than to have the equipment shipped from London to Calcutta, packing and the agent’s commission included.

Nepal may have had a dearth of equipment, but it had an abundance of laborers. The total number of people that worked in the project was 950,000. Rudra Narayan Sthapit, a former Chief Electrician at the powerhouse, remembers his father telling him that the porters were paid six paisa for a day’s work. All those hired, however, were not paid laborers. Some of the laborers were convicts, who had been forced to work on the project as part of their prison terms. “People from every district of Nepal worked here,” says Narayan Basnet, another former head of the powerhouse.

The first phase of the construction of the powerhouse consisted of channeling water into the reservoir. It had been decided that two nearby springs – Sheshnarayan and Satmool – would be sources of water for the reservoir. Underground pipes were laid to bring the water from the springs to the reservoir. The reservoir, which was 200 feet in diameter and 18 feet deep, was made of cement and brick and could hold 528,783 cubic feet of water. To maximize the force of water flowing from the reservoir to the powerhouse, the main transmission pipe was designed to plunge 678 feet down into the powerhouse, creating a pressure on the turbines of 288 pounds per square inch.

The apparatus of the powerhouse consisted of a pair of turbines and generators. The total capacity of the plant was 500 kilowatts. The turbines, each of which revolved 600 times per minute, were connected to a 11,000 volt generator. The makers of the machines, the General Electric Company, had sent a Mr. Linzale to install the machinery. When the work of installing the turbines and generators had been completed, preparations began for rigging transmission poles and lines. Both steel and wooden poles were erected to carry the six miles of transmission lines to the substation in Tundikhel. Some of the steel poles still stand today, erect and unscathed even after a century of bearing the weight of Nepal’s first power lines.

Four years after the plan was conceived, Nepal’s first powerhouse began generating and supplying electricity. The powerhouse was named Chandra Jyoti Griha in honor of the incumbent ruler. In later years, it became more popular as the Pharping Hydro Power Station. The project was completed at the total cost of Company Rs. 713, 274 (in those days the currency of the East India Company was called ‘Company’). Of this total, Rs. 367,984 was spent in Nepal. When the Gorkhapatra published details of the project budget it didn’t mention the cost of the powerhouse machinery. This is widely understood to mean that the equipment was donated by the British.

Agreement Over Dinner
The first threat to the powerhouse, as to all other structures of Kathmandu, came in the form of the devastating earthquake of 1934. The powerhouse survived, and over the decades that followed Nepal increased its electricity generation significantly. But, while Kathmandu had ample electricity, the capital began to face shortages of drinking water. The Nepal Electricity Corporation (NEC) and the institution responsible for providing drinking water to the capital were headed by brothers. One night, the younger of the two told his brother, who was head of the NEC, about the pressure he was experiencing in trying to address the scarcity of drinking water in Kathmandu. He also suggested that since the electricity from the Pharping Hydro Power Station could easily be supplanted from any of the numerous sources available, the water in the Pharping reservoir could be diverted into the drinking water pipelines. The older brother agreed to support the idea on the condition that later a water recycling plant be built in order to filter the water that would emerge from the powerhouse. That way the powerhouse would remain functional and the water from it could be made drinkable. Thus, the water began to be diverted to the Lalitpur district to feed its population from 1981onwards, and the powerhouse became dormant.

The Maharaja’s favorite water
Water from the Satmool spring had been drunk in the Prime Minister’s palace for years. Jung Bahadur Rana (ruled 1846 to 1877) was known to have drunk the water once when he had passed through the area. He had liked its taste so much that he had ordered to have jars of the spring’s water carried daily to his palace. While carrying out the Maharaja’s orders, the water porters carried locked jars. A man stationed at the spring had the duplicate keys to the jars. He would unlock the jars, allow the porters to fill them, and then lock them again before the porters headed back. The jars were then unlocked in the palace, and Jung Bahadur could drink his favorite water. This tradition continued to the days of Chandra Sumsher (ruled 1901 to 1929). His last drink is believed to have been that of this same water.

Today, hoards of people visit the idyllic reservoir. It has become a favorite with Kathmanduites seeking to spend time away from the din of urban life. When I was there on a recent visit I watched a film crew shoot a song for a Nepali movie. The cavernous powerhouse is less visited. It produces the same sense of awe as one may get when looking at the skeleton of a dinosaur—everything seems to be there except life.

The local community has spurred into action as the powerhouse entered its hundredth year. Their efforts have succeeded in getting the government to set aside money to turn the powerhouse into a ‘living energy museum’. The plant, which has generated 74 million units of electricity until the end of last year, has been handed a lifeline. A master plan has been prepared that will turn the entire area into a tourist attraction. There are plans to build swimming pools, artificial waterfalls, and gardens. A centenary gate and a tower have already been constructed. The plans sound promising, but they do little to fill the emptiness that haunts the powerhouse today. It came alive for a few seconds when Shyam Krishna Basnet turned the wheels to let in water. The turbines filled the building with its ancient whirring. Then, he turned the wheel again, and the water was diverted to the pipes that take it to Lalitpur. With the water went the life and all was left was the sense of wonder and the smell of oil. A poem in the journal published on the occasion of the powerhouse’s centenary beckons the powerhouse to regain to its old glory:
[Pharping Powerhouse] return as the eyes that bring Nepal fame / return and bring back the light.