Saturday, May 12, 2001

Capital’s mushrooming Gombas worry experts

By Razen Manandhar

KATHMANDU, May 11 – The tendency of Nepalis to overindulge in whatever is the flavour of the month is now extending to Buddhist gombas (monasteries), worrying archaeology and cultural experts.

The case in point is the construction of yet another monastery on the hill of Swoyambhunath, which critics say, is in violation of the Swoyambhunath Conservation Master Plan (Swoyambhu 2000), recognised by the Ministry of Culture in 1989.

The master plan proposed strict controls on new construction 11 years ago but no such check has been put in place. As a result, new gombas are sprouting here and there on the Swoyambhu hill and also across the Valley.

Devi Prasad Adhikari, the Archive Officer of Monastery Management and Development Committee (MMDC), said that the number of monasteries in the Capital has grown exponentially in the past decade.

A survey shows that there were only 49 monasteries in Kathmandu district a decade ago. "But the number might be between 200 to 300 by now," says Adhikari.

Even the community groups, which normally ought to welcome the emergence of new gombas, are not happy with this trend. Raju Lama, the chairperson of Ghyang Guthi, just one such group at Swoyambhu, said that the construction of Lamaistic monasteries in the central as well as surrounding foothills of the Kathmandu Valley has gone beyond control. "Their growth has hit the maximum limit," he said.

The director general of Department of Archaeology (DOA), Sanu Maiya Rana admits that the department has failed to control such activities. "We tried to control it, but couldn’t succeed."

No one can pinpoint exactly why so many monasteries are coming up, but they say that most of the funds are pouring in from outside for the construction of new monasteries. Even though, the permission to build new gombas is required from the municipality or the concerned Village Development Committee. Yet in many cases, construction is being carried out without such permission.

At the heart of the debate is whether such large number of monasteries are needed for the relatively small number of Lamaist Buddhist adherents in the Kathmandu Valley.

"How many gombas does this valley need," asks Buddha Ratna Bajracharya, a pilgrim at Swoyambhunath. "Why can’t they share the same gomba for praying?"

Bajracharya says that the growing number of Tibetan-style monasteries is the indication of the flow of migrants, either from neighbouring countries like Tibet (China) and Bhutan or from other mountainous districts of Nepal. "Making of a monastery gives them a means to live here permanently," he says, adding that it also provides them an opportunity to squat upon public land.

But such talk is brushed aside by other interest groups. Ratna Bahadur Bajracharya, the chairman of Swoyambhu Renovation and Management Federation, supports the construction of more such monasteries on the Swoyambhu hill saying that they at least protect the hills "from being messy."

Although Kathmandu Metropolitan City (KMC) has no specific programme to bring this mushrooming of monasteries under control, Mayor Keshav Sthapit said that he is prepared to take some necessary steps to control it.

"If nobody does anything to control this cultural encroachment in the city, I am ready to do something to bring them under regulation," he said.

Construction of a religious shrine compatible with the local surrounding can be taken as value-adding for conservation, he says. "But if this takes the shape of competition, it is sure to degrade the natural landscape."