How much do we know about a location that we are familiar with? This is undoubtedly a topic on which we could spend a great deal of time debating.
Nonetheless, for the purposes of this post, let us argue that, if not essential, learning about a place we think we know about would be intriguing; after all, every place has a narrative. Every street we walk down, every house we pass, every stone we step on, and every bridge we pass across has a story to tell.
One of the most talked-about bridges, or should I say bridges, is the one that spans the Bagmati River in Thapathali. At this point, at the risk of overgeneralizing, I’d like to think that most of us in Kathmandu who are reading this post have traversed these bridges at least once.
With that sweeping, false statement in mind, I’d want to properly introduce the subject of this post by examining the stone pillar that stands between the two bridges. It isn’t the most appealing item.
The golden lion atop the pillar, on the other hand, attracts attention. When viewed from a distance, the pillar appears to be a solid block, but closer inspection reveals that it has words etched into it. And it is through these phrases that the bridge tries to tell its narrative (I will use the singular because the focus henceforth shall be on the single original bridge built).
As written by late historian and culture expert Madan Mohan Mishra in his paper ‘Lalitpur Bagmati Pulwari Kopundole Hanuman Thanko Shilalekh Nepali Anuvad’ (Nepali translation of the inscription at the Hanuman Temple in Kupondole), the words etched on the lion pillar (for lack of a better name) show that the original Bagmati Bridge had something in common with the Dharahara tower and the Sundhara water fountain in that it was built by Bhimsen Thapa at the request of Queen Lalit Tripura Sundari.
Lalit Tripura Sundari, King Rana Bahadur Shah’s youngest wife, requested that her uncle and then-Prime Minister Bhimsen Thapa construct a bridge over the Bagmati River near the Kalmochan Ghat to honor her departed husband’s memory and earn merit for his soul.
The foundation for the bridge was placed on the 11th day of the brilliant lunar fortnight of the Nepali month of Mangsir in 1867 BS by Thapa, who also held King Shah in great regard.
The bridge, which was erected on the Queen’s orders for the departed King’s merit and under the direct supervision of the Prime Minister, could be compared to a modern-day national pride project. Construction was carried out at a breakneck pace, with no expense spared.
As a result, the bridge was completed in a year and was opened on the seventh day of the dark fortnight of the month of Chaitra in 1868 BS by Girvan Yuddha Bikram Shah, Rana Bahadur Shah’s son and successor.
Girvan Yuddha staged many oblation rites at both ends of the bridge to commemorate the occasion, as well as making significant donations to Kathmandu’s destitute.
He is also thought to have been the first to cross the bridge. The original bridge was 1,353 hands (about 2,029.5 feet) long and was made of wood, according to Mishra, who based his research on a translation by historian Naya Raj Pant.
However, the true story begins once the bridge is finished. To learn more about this story, we must cross the bridge to the Lalitpur side and examine the stone inscription adjacent to the Hanuman idol.
The inscription describes the creation of Kupondole, or rather, Gusingal, a nearby hamlet. I read the inscription twice, but I couldn’t make much sense of it. Reading inscriptions is a profoundly humbling experience for anyone who has the desire and time to do so. These carved tablets demonstrate that you can read anything from top to bottom and still not understand it.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Returning to the issue at hand, historian Mishra also interprets this inscription, some of which is written in Nepali and some of which is written in Nepal Bhasa, in his 2004 book ‘Hamro Bagmati Sanskriti’ (Our Bagmati Culture), and a story emerges from it.
The area was just open fields until the Thapathali Bridge was erected. However, after the bridge was built, it became the primary link between Lalitpur and Kathmandu, and public transportation increased.
The former fields have now been turned into real estate that can be developed. The royal elites were concerned about this. The bridge was a cherished structure created in the name of a former king, and it could be jeopardized by unplanned development nearby.
So, just two months after the foundation for the bridge was laid, the royal court handed Hanuman Singh Amatya possession of 150 Ropanis of land on the Lalitpur side of the Bagmati.
While his name appears in the inscription, it is important to remember that the land was not granted to him alone. It was to be owned jointly by him and 24 other families, including his brothers Bhajudhan, Sadashiva, and Laxmi Narayan’s families.
These families could only pass the land on to their children; buying and selling was only permitted with royal permission, and all dwelling households were responsible for the Bagmati Bridge’s upkeep. They would be punished not just by the law, but also by the gods if they did not do so.
Anyone who uses the land but fails to fulfill his or her responsibility of maintaining the bridge is declared a sinner by the stone tablet, and is subjected to a variety of curses. This demonstrates how powerful religion was in the community at the time, since the authorities threatened potential rulebreakers with God’s wrath as well as legal consequences.
In any case, by 1870 BS, the settlement had grown to include 27 dwellings, as well as temples dedicated to Mahadev, Krishna, Ganesh, Bhagwati, Bhimsen, Kaumari, Nateshwor, and Saraswoti, as well as various Sattal shelters and Dharmashalas. At the settlement’s entry, which also happened to be the entrance to the city of Lalitpur, a Hanuman statue was erected, which we still have today.
Hanuman is revered as a guardian deity who protects homes and communities in Nepal, particularly Kathmandu. As a result, Hanuman statues may be found at the entrances of Kathmandu Valley’s three Durbar Squares.
The town near the bridge was given the name Hanumatpuri, maybe because of the Hanuman idol or because of the name Hanuman Singh. This name was changed to Gusingal in the same way that the shrine that borders it on one side was changed to Nhyapa Sya Dya (God who heals ear pains) from Nhyapa Swa Dya (God of communication).
It’s incredible how a half-letter shift transformed the demiurge who heard people’s petitions and took them to the heavens into the patron saint of painful ears.
Thank you for attending my Ted Talk on religious linguistics on religious linguistics. Now, let’s return to the story that has ended. Hanumatpuri’s foundation was as good as it got. From there, it was all downhill. The community grew in size and eventually became a commercial center.
With the rise of the Ranas, the royals lost power and their decree prohibiting the sale of the land lost its teeth. As the economic potential of the area grew, more and more people came in – people who were unaware of the need to maintain the Thapathali bridge in exchange for the privilege of living near it.
Furthermore, Jung Bahadur Rana’s construction of the Thapathali Palace “brought” the bridge under the control of the Shree 3 government – a government that had little affection for an edifice built by a family they despised (the Thapas) in the name of a king they despised.
So when Chandra Shumsher dismantled the wooden bridge and replaced it with an iron one, it was a long time coming.
Despite the fact that Chandra Shumsher destroyed the bridge, he did not destroy its spirit. The Gusingal community was still in control of the bridge, and while they were not allowed to do any renovations, they were in responsible of inspecting it and reporting any damages to the government.
However, with the fall of the Rana monarchy, the central government believed that it was in the best position to look after the “public properties.” It was so enamored with the edifice that it chose to demolish it in the 1960s and replace it with a concrete quagmire created with foreign funding and with foreign materials that bore no similarity to the original in any manner shape or form.
The government also demonstrated great attention to the ghat beneath the structure by using the space to dump sand and mud, which it did not bother to clean up after.
Then came the golden 1990s, when democratic administrations decided, in their infinite wisdom, that the people of Thapathali needed a second bridge across the Bagmati, and that it only had to be built over the Sattal that Hanuman Amatya had constructed at the Thapathali ghat.
It was also felt that the pillars should be driven into ghat stones, and that the lion pillar, which stood well out of the way, should be removed from its foundation and placed between the two Bagmati bridges, where it would be hidden by overgrown shrubs and seen by no one.
And so we have two bridges, none of which are original, scarcely any Bagmati flowing beneath them, and a ghat that’s turned into a road on one side and a squatter community on the other. What a happy conclusion!