NAGDAHA: A Visit to the Snake Lake

Features Issue 100 Jul, 2010
Text and Photo By Ravi Shankar

‘In the days of yore Lord Shiva used to reside at Nagdaha. The Goddess Bajrabarahi was worried. She thought if Lord Shiva stays in Nagdaha no one will worship her. Using her divine powers she transformed herself into a pig and started making grunting noises. Pigs are traditionally associated with dirt and squalor and hearing the grunting pig Lord Shiva thought the lake was a dirty place. He set out in search of cleanliness and tranquility and settled in Gosainkund Lake in Rasuwa district.’


Legends that unite and link various lakes in and around the Kathmandu Valley have always fascinated me. One says that the waters of the holy Gosainkund Lake are believed to appear at the Khumbeshwar Mahadev temple in Patan (Lalitpur) after a long journey through a subterranean channel. I had recently trekked to Gosainkund and I frequently visit Nagdaha (literally ‘Snake Lake’), the nearest lake to KIST Medical College in Gwarko, Lalitpur. There’s a similar lake called Taudaha, near Chobhar. Both are on the south side of Patan.

Another legend unites these two lakes. It goes like this: A female serpent stays in Nagdaha and a male serpent in Taudaha. Every year during the rainy season the male serpent visits Panauti to participate in a festival (jatra). As Nagdaha is on the way to Panauti the male serpent visits the female during both the onward and return journey, accompanied by heavy rains and thunder that are common during this season. In Nepal, the snakes (nagas) are traditionally believed to bring good rains and prosperity to the country.

Yet another legend tells that the great Manjushree drained the Kathmandu Valley with a clean sword cut through the Chobhar hill. After that, the ‘naga’, inhabitants of the vast lake were allowed to live in various small lakes in the newly created valley. Basuki Naga, for example, was allowed to stay in Nagdaha.

Dhapakhel village
Nagdaha is a natural pond located in Dhapakhel Village Development Committee (VDC). The area of the lake is approximately five hectares and the main inflow source is a natural spring, while the water flows out to form two small wetlands. I discovered this beautiful lake by accident. A colleague, Acish, and I were walking towards Chapagaon from Harisiddhi (on the road to Godavari). The land was dry and dusty and brick kilns and concrete block factories delineated the way. Traditional Newari temples and dwellings along the way here emphasize the rich cultural heritage of the valley. We saw the beginning of the Karmanasa River, known here as the Kodku Khola (a small stream in Nepali). The water was cleaner than at Gwarko and women were on the bank washing clothes. We climbed a small hill walking on a ‘kuccha’ (unpaved) road cut through a ravine, and reached the village of Dhapakhel. My first impression of the village was positive. Neat houses, clean air and open spaces, after the congestion, dust and dirt of the city. As we continued on towards Chapagaon we saw a sign with an arrow pointing to Nagdaha. We set off to explore it.

The lake
When we reached the lakeside, the water was reflecting the winter morning sunshine, with a light that has a magical quality in the open (non-urbanized) areas of the valley, especially after a heavy downpour when the dust is settled. The Impressionist painters would surely have loved the Kathmandu Valley and Nepal for the quality of the light and the idyllic pastoral scenes like those around Dhapakhel and Nagdaha. A light breeze was blowing. Women were washing clothes. Boats bobbed up and down on the water waiting for customers. And fashionable holiday makers from the city were sauntering along the shore.

On the far shore we saw a peaceful looking garden restaurant and decided to check it out. ‘Bishram Batika’ (literally, ‘Relaxation Garden’) was beautifully landscaped. Tables with Sun umbrellas and small huts with tables and chairs, or traditional Nepali seating inside, were scattered at various levels up the hillside. Roses, marigolds, and other flowering plants were blooming in a garden tended with care, and butterflies were flitting from flower to flower. I especially liked the models of herons scattered at random on the green inviting lawns – they looked so life like and I imagined they would get up and fly at any moment. Trees and towering bamboo bushes created a welcome green refuge so rare on the streets of the city. The restaurant is famous among the holiday crowd for serving tasty and homely Newari food. We decided to start our gastronomic journey by ordering two plates of chhoila, a Newari specialty of boiled meat mixed and marinated in spices. Various flavors fought for dominance as we chewed the meat. The beautiful outdoor location surely influenced the taste. The meat was tender in places, chewable in others. The spices were an intimate part of the meat being slowly released as you chewed along. Acish was postulating that the hotel prepares their chhoila the traditional way, roasting over a traditional fire and leaving the meat in the secret marinating mixture to absorb the rich flavors. The postulate was later confirmed during our talks with the hotel proprietor. Their other specialty is the Newari khaja set, a snacks plate. The aalu tama, a curry combining potatoes and tender bamboo shoots added a pungent tanginess to the chiura (dry beaten rice), chhoila, and various pulses that make up the set.

On to Chapagaon
From Nagdaha it was a long two hour walk on to Chapagaon. We passed through delightful rolling countryside, which is rapidly urbanizing. Still, the traffic was less and there were none of the city crowds out here – we walked freely without brushing and colliding with other pedestrians. On the way we passed through the Bajrabarahi temple, an architectural gem. The temple and the surrounding grove of trees serve as a delightful picnic spot (though, sadly, we saw lots of litter left behind by thoughtless picnickers). The trees cast their long shadows over the ground ensuring the place was delightfully cool even in the midday heat. The temple lent an atmosphere of devotion and history, far from the hustle and bustle of traffic. There is a Buddhist monastery near the temple and the monks were blowing the long Tibetan horns for a ritual.

Buses for Nagdaha start from the Lagankhel bus park in Lalitpur city, and on your return you can catch the bus back from the front of the Buddhist temple. The road diverts from the Godavari road at Satdobato and gradually climbs up to Dhapakhel and the lake. We have often walked along this road. Last May, my friends Acish, Raju and Sarang and I visited the lake one cool evening. The setting sun was painting the sky a rich shade of crimson. A cold breeze was sweeping down from the Pulchowki hills and we were beginning to feel chilly. Boats packed with ‘tourists’ were gliding about on the shimmering Nagdaha. We were at our favorite ‘Bishram Batika’ again, though there are also some other restaurants scattered around the lakeside. That evening we enjoyed the delightful bara, a Newari pancake, and chatamari, a Newari pizza. As darkness descended, we expected to take the bus back into town. The last bus was supposed to come at 7.30, but it played truant and we had a delightful night walk, about one and a half hours, back to Gwarko.

The AnkheDaha
I recently read Perceval Landon’s two-volume Nepal (1928) in which there is a description of the fiery Ankhedaha, a petroleum spring mentioned by early Chinese travelers to Nepal. (They called it “A-ki-po-li” and, for them, the valley of Nepal was “Ni-Po-Lo”.)  I am fascinated by the historical references in the book to many sites in the Kathmandu valley and am curious about the present state of various landmarks mentioned. Landon states that Ankhedaha is on the plain of Dhapakhel and that there were two ponds on the plain. The larger one filled with water lilies while the smaller one was probably the petroleum spring referred to. Landon writes how the Chinese travelers described it: “To the south-east of the capital there is a little pond. If one sets it alight, a brilliant flame rises at once on the surface of the water, and if one throws other things into it, whatever they are, they burn likewise.” I am not sure about what happened to Ankhedaha. It seems like it was the smaller lake, which eventually dried up. There is no evidence of any petroleum residues in Nagdaha. (Can our readers from Dhapakhel shed any light on the mystery? )

The people of the surrounding village use the lake (Nagdaha)  for a number of purposes. Washing clothes, bathing and religious purposes, fishing, irrigation, recreational activities, tourism and academic activities are a few.

Due to population pressure the lake is becoming polluted and the water quality deteriorating. Recently a youth organization called ‘Yatra’ started a project to conserve Nagdaha. The youths concentrate on research, documentation and promotion of Nagdaha’s cultural and historic value.

There is also a Nagdaha Conservation and Reform Committee, local people who work for the conservation of Nagdaha. This and other lakes and wetlands in the valley are important stopovers for birds during their fall and spring migrations. The lake is also located near the flight path of international jets coming to land at Tribhuvan International Airport.

Threats to the integrity of the lakes

The major threats to Nagdaha and other lakes have been mentioned as weakening of boundary walls by rodents and snakes, human encroachment, siltation and pollution by human activities. ‘Yatra’ and other groups organize various events to spread awareness about Nagdaha and lobby for its protection. Tree planting drives, essay competitions, cycle rallies and other interaction with local communities have been organized. With increasing urbanization and human pressure the valley’s water bodies are coming under threat. It is good to see that responsible and concerned citizens are joining hands to protect these much needed water bodies. Yatra maintains a website on Nagdaha that is a treasure trove of information about the lake and outlines ways in which the people can help conserve it.

In ancient times, when people required special utensils on festive occasions or ceremonies, they prayed to Nagdaha. Their prayers were answered and the utensils would miraculously float on the surface of the lake. The utensils were used for the ceremony and then returned to the lake property cleaned. One day, however, a person returned the utensils without properly cleaning them. The God of the lake got angry and stopped providing utensils.

The moral of the story is this -- Always respect the gods of lakes, other water bodies and Nature in general. Conserve them for others to enjoy in the natural urban-free countryside.

Ravi Shankar is a freelance writer and outdoorsman living in Kathmandu. He can be reached at The Nagdaha legends have been adapted from The Chinese description of Ankhedaha is from Perceval Landon’s Nepal (London, 1928).