Sunday, June 10, 2001

After eight years, World Heritage Site beckons visitors

[Sundari Chowk]
By Razen Manandhar

LALITPUR, June 8 - A period of eight years is too long for any beautiful heritage site to remain closed for common people and tourists citing renovation works. But not by the standard of Department of Archaeology (DoA), which has closed Sundari Chowk or the Royal Bath, one of the best parts of Patan Durbar Square, a site in the World Heritage List.

The Sundari Chowk or ‘the beautiful courtyard’, constructed in 1627 AD by King Siddhi Narsimha Malla, was used as a bathing place for the Malla kings and their families. At the centre of the courtyard, is a water sprout with a replica of Krishna Mandir. The Chowk is flanked by scores of stone idols of Hindu deities for the kings to pray gods after their bathe. Surrounded by magnificent wood pillars, door and windows and adored by finest woodcarving, the Chowk in itself is a symbol of art and splendour.

Founder president of Tourist Guides Association of Nepal (TURGAN) Dwarika Das Rajbhandari says, without access to the Chowk, visitors are denied of the grandeur view of the Patan Durbar Square. "We ought to show them this historical treasure that we have."

But the tourists have no options but to go through the old pictures in the guide books and wander what a beautiful opportunity it would have been to be in the historic site.

Mandankini Shrestha, Chief of the Durbar Protection Office, a wing of the DoA says that the Chowk is closed for conservation works. According to her, the DoA decided to close the 375-year old courtyard’s door for visitors because it was crumbling down and there was no project to renovate it. She reiterated the same old reason: "We lack budget for such a grand project."

In 1996, DoA and UNESCO jointly carried out a feasibility study for the renovation works, which billed the project cost at 265,800 US dollars.

Besides, she added that lack of security was another reason behind closing down of the courtyard. "The other problem is security. The courtyard has no security staff from army or police for one of the mighty World Heritage Sites," she said.

Mayor of Lalitpur Sub-metropolitan City, Buddhi Raj Bajracharya has been arguing the government to open the courtyard since several years.

"I had asked the DoA , the concerning government body, to open the ancient courtyard for the locals and visiting tourists. I even proposed to spend one or two million rupees to renovate it if necessary, but they refused it," said Bajracharya.

The conservation experts suspect that several artefacts could have been stolen from the World Heritage Site by now. They say there are security lapses since the nearby Ward Police Office was removed from the Durbar Square.

The courtyard was documented in detail in 1993, which lasted for 15 months, with the support of United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) headquarters. Hariratna Ranjitkar, a conservationist, who was also involved in the project, said that though people were not allowed to climb upstairs then, the courtyard was okay and people came and went freely there.

"We worked as per the project and left it open. But after the completion of the project the courtyard was closed. I see no reason why the tourists and local people should be prevented from visiting such a beautiful place", he says.

Rajbhandari also thinks that the Chowk should be opened for tourists since they pay Rs 200 as entrance fee to enter the Patan Durbar Square.