Temple Trade

Features Issue 21 Aug, 2010
Text by Anil Chitrakar / Photo: ECS Media

As we walk around Kathmandu Valley and take photographs of ancient palaces, temples and houses, one wonders how it will ever be possible to pay for their upkeep. The issue is further aggravated by the fact that UNESCO may remove Kathmandu from the World Heritage list. Strolling around, one also comes across a few monuments being renovated and restored with a big sign that declares the aid provider or donor. One then cannot help ask the million dollar question:  how much aid will be required to restore a World Heritage City spread all over Kathmandu valley? It seems almost an impossible task.

Maybe a little insight into how we paid for the initial construction of these cities, palaces, monuments, bahas, bahis and houses will help guide us into the future.  Kathmandu’s globally unique built heritage was established and maintained using revenue from trade, not aid.

An example of a recently renovated bahal is the Gunakar Mahabihar (Chusya bahal).

The bahal’s original construction was paid for by Gunajyoti Bajracharya of Dhokha baha, a trader and Mahayana priest whose business and skills took him on numerous “profitable” trips to Lhasa. The inauguration of the Bahal took place in 1667 AD . In 1996 the baha was restored using the grants from bilateral agencies and local embassies.

Gunajyoti Bajracharya was one of many traders from Kathmandu Valley who ran extremely profitable businesses between the plains of India and the Tibetan plateau. The government taxed this trade successfully and used its resources to protect and enhance this trade as well as to design and build the monuments and elegant  homes that we take so much pride in today.

During the peak of this trade, Kathmandu was the hub of business activities in the region.  Traders from the southern plains crossed over the malaria-infested jungle during winter. Traders who took these goods into Tibet had to wait till spring to cross snow laden mountain passes. This made Kathmandu the main trading center. The palaces, temples, bahas and bahis and private homes were financed by this trade revenue. Unlike leaders of today, no one lamented that we were land-locked, instead we took full advantage of the fact that we were (and still are) land-linked.

During the 1630s Nepal was able to negotiate a trade agreement that was extremely favorable for Kathmandu’s traders. Bhim Malla led this initiative on behalf of the rulers in Kathmandu and was able to attain the following favorable conditions:

  • Nepali traders would be able to trade tax-free outside of Nepal; only Nepal had the right to tax them.

  • Nepal had a permanent commerce consul general in Lhasa who would look after the interest of Nepali traders as well as those of  Kashmiri traders.

  •  All legal cases concerning Nepali traders could be resolved by the Nepali side only.

  •  Only Nepali currency could be used for trade, and the exchange rate in gold, silver and salt was set by Nepal.

  • All traders between the plains and the north had to pass through Kathmandu Valley; this was strictly enforced.

  •  If any Nepali trader died, all his assets were repatriated to the families in Kathmandu.

As we prepare for Nepal’s entry into the WTO, let us hope we draw some inspiration  from Bhim Malla. We live between two markets with two billion consumers, whose economic growth rate averages 6-10 percent per annum. How much do we really need to renovate and re-build Kathmandu?

(Bhim Malla returned to Kathmandu in the late 1630s expecting a hero’s welcome. He was murdered by jealous rulers. The Bhulukha temple built in his memory in 1641 AD at Yetkha Tole has recently been renovated using Kathmandu’s municipal  budget, with no contributions from families who benefited from the trade regime negotiated by Bhim Malla in their favor. People believe we still suffer from the curse of his wife as she leaped into his funeral pyre…..)