Bajhang's philosopher king, Jaya Prithbi Bahadur Singh, left a legacy of humanism and education that was way ahead of its time.
The district's capital, Chainpur, became one of the centres of learning in this otherwise illiterate region of remote western Nepal. Narendra Bahadur Rawal is the headmaster of the Satyabadi High School that Jaya Prithbi Bahadur set up 80 years ago.
But Rawal now lives in Chainpur and hasn't been back for three years after Maoists bombed the school when he refused to close it down. "There is no one to take care of it and the quality of education is falling," says Rawal.
In terms of education, health and infrastructure, far-western Nepal has been pushed back decades. Even the modest achievements after 1990 have, by now, been all but obliterated.
Walking towards Chainpur past the ruggedly beautiful mountains and the dazzling presence of Saipal Himal on the northern horizon, we are jerked back to present-day reality. Three Maoists, one of them wielding a revolver and the other scanning the mountains with a binocular stop us. The young comrade, Raktim, is furious because a local journalist filed a report saying he had been killed in an encounter.
"Journalists are being used by the reactionary old regime to spread slander. They are spies," he said angrily. Across western Nepal, journalists are often regarded as suspects, which reflects a growing insecurity and intolerance.
Bajhang has an airport, but it has no schedules. The Maoists take pot shots from across the Seti River at occasional helicopters that bring in foodgrain. The choppers are out of range, but they shoot anyway to scare the passengers and show their presence. The airport tower is still in ruins after attacks last year, telecommunication is out and the government offices are still gutted.
The army has shifted its base to Hemantabada because it is more secure and has intensified patrols. It killed four Maoists in Tamoil and Bhande village recently and the rebels retaliated with a blockade of Chainpur since September. This has created serious shortages of food and medicine essentials in the run-up to Dasain. Malumela, a wholesale market and the only supply point for the district, is closed and the Maoists guard all entry points.
Bed Prakash Joshi used to be a Nepali Congress member but gave up all political work in order to survive. He was paying his Maoist taxes regularly and trying to keep a low profile. Last month, the Maoists dragged him from his home at night and killed him near a school. They ordered that his body not be removed and forbade his family from performing last rites.
Most other kangresis have fled to Dhangadi, Nepalganj or to India and the rebels have confiscated the property of those who have left. Forty-two of the 57 VDCs in Bajhang are not in control of the government. Dil Bahadur Singh, former vice chairperson of Bajhang DDC told us "We don't know what is happening in the other VDCs, no one can go there. Most schools have become Maoist training centres."
The UML has not been spared. Its network has been smashed and no party activist dares go back to the village after the rebels killed UML worker Man Bahadur Dhami last year. Since the UML joined the government, locals say it has become more dangerous for the party in the district.
Krishna Bohora of Surama is now a refugee in Chainpur. He doesn't know why he was singled out. "I am neither an active political worker nor a feudal landlord. I just inherited a little property from my ancestors. They looted everything, took away even the rags," he says.
The Maoists have been on a bridge-destroying spree, cutting off road links and making it difficult for the army. They destroyed a 36-year-old British-built bridge linking Darchula and Bajhang and also tried to blow up the only suspension bridge over Babli River near Chainpur.
Asked what Bajhang's main problem has been, Dil Bahadur Singh says without hesitation: "Transportation." But this roadless district has been pushed further back because of the destruction of existing bridges and the Maoists' prevention of the completion of the highway linking Chainpur to Darchula. Singh adds "Forget about roads, for now our only desire is peace."