Restoring lives and heritage after the quake

Two of the Cash for Work participants of Dakchinkali ready to shift mud - Credit: Lucia de Vries/Oxfam
“When we restore the pond we don’t just restore the water sources; we in fact restore the home of the gods.”
Dil Maya Maharjan

By Lucia de Vries

When the women of Dakchinkali village restored an ancient pond they unearthed something precious – and a key to the community’s spiritual heritage.

On a cloudy Saturday in May, the people of ward 10 in Dakchinkali, a village on the outskirts of Kathmandu Valley, took out a procession to the historical Kamal Pokhari pond, preceded by musicians playing traditional instruments, to worship and to celebrate its restoration. It was a special moment for the community. Over the years the pond had filled up with mud and lied unused. As part of an Oxfam supported Cash for Work program, the pond got restored, acting once more a source of fresh drinking and irrigation water. 

Till a few weeks earlier Dakchinkali’s ancient pond had been in a sorry state. The reservoir was filled with mud and dirt and ignored by the village people. The 2015 earthquakes further deteriorated the pokhari, as some of the walls collapsed during the tremors. 

“The earthquakes did something strange to our water sources,” said Sunita Tamang, one of the 30 women who were paid a daily wage to remove the restore Kamal Pokhari. “The first quake of April increased the water flow, and suddenly there was water everywhere, even flooding the road leaving the village. But after the second quake of May the sources dried up, and we were left with hardly any access to fresh water. Now we don’t even have sufficient water to take a bath when returning from work.” 

Left high and dry

Sunita’s community suffered badly during the 2015 quakes. Out of 730 houses in the ward, 650 got fully or partially damaged. Most families live either in a temporary shelter or have moved into the ground floor of their unsafe house. Having no access to water meant little or no opportunities to grow crops, and much extra work for the women, who now had to carry water from emergency facilities or remote sources. 

When Oxfam’s partner Development Project Service Center Nepal (DEPROSC) selected Kamal Pokhari for a venue for Cash for Work, women like Sunita jumped on the occasion. Equipped with rubber boots, safety helmets and spades, the women started digging up mud, and carrying it to the roadside, from where it got distributed to farmers, to fertilize the fields. “It’s a tough job but we enjoy working together with friends and neighbours,” said Srijana Maharjan, a mother of two. 

The women received a daily wage of NPR 575 (£ 3.6), fixed by the district government. Since female daily wagers here normally only earn NPR 350, the salary was considered an attractive one. Priority was given to vulnerable women, including single mothers, widows and those from marginalized groups. 

Panchamaya Maharjan (32), a divorcee raising a 9-year old son, said she felt excited about earning the same wage of the participating men. “The money will help me to buy a new school uniform for my son as well as some food items and clothes for myself.”

Restoring the home of the gods

At Kamal Pokhari, for fifteen days in row, the women removed layer after layer of mud until the bottom of the pond came into view. 

And that was when something precious was found, and a key to the village’s cultural and religious heritage. 

“Kamal Pokhari is the home of Mahadev, our main god,” told Dil Maya Maharjan (50). “When we restore the pond we don’t just restore the water sources; we in fact restore the home of the gods.” 

Ponds like Kamal Pokhari play a significant role in Nepal’s spiritual heritage. According to mythology, supported by geological evidence, the Kathmandu Valley once was a lake. Now drained, the valley still features many ponds, some natural, some manmade. The ancient Lichhavi (2nd to 9th century) and Malla (14th till 16th century) kings build countless hitis (stone spouts) and pokharis (ponds) to meet the basic and spiritual needs to the people. 

The beautifully stone carved spouts are fed by rainwater collected in aquifers (layers of permeable rock, sand or gravel through which ground water flows). Ponds were built nearby as reservoirs to recharge the aquifers. These ponds in the past were fed by rain water as well as canal systems. They provided drinking and irrigation water all year round but unfortunately many are in disrepair. 

Holy trinity

No one knows exactly when Kamal Pokhari was built. It is fed by three sources, one of which is suitable for drinking water. But what makes the pond unique is that at the bottom a rare ancient three headed statue can be found. The trimurti portrays Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, Hinduism’s ‘holy trinity’. And it is only during times like these, when the pond gets a makeover, that the statue appears. 

“I remembered the statue from eighteen years ago, when we got together to clean the pond,” Dil Maya recollected, and added: “It was exciting for the younger women to see the god for the first time.” The statue was removed, cleaned up, and kept safe in one of the members’ homes, until the work was done. When the rains started, it got reinstated and soon submerged. By now the pre monsoon rains have filled up the pond and Kamal Pokhari’s mysterious statue once more lies hidden on the bottom of the ancient pond. 

The pond is being used to water nearby rice fields and has turned into the village's inofficial swimming pool. Ranjit Maharjan, ward chairman and volunteer coordinator of the project, is proud of the fact that the pond got restored during his tenure. He plans to improve children’s safety by building a railing around the pond, and to farm fish to generate income to invest in preparations for future disaster. 

“We will clean the pond every year before Gai Jatra festival,” he says, “and those households which don’t cooperate will be fined.” He added: “Now that the pond has been restored to its former glory we will make sure it remains clean and protected for generations to come.”

Post earthquake, in order to help communities rebuild community infrastructure such as water systems, irrigation channels and foot paths, Oxfam in Nepal has been providing Cash for Work programs for people belonging to vulnerable communities. A year on, over 20.400 families across the seven districts that make up Oxfam’s working area, benefited from the program. At least half of the participants are women.