I always had a strange affinity for Mangalsen Palace, even before I ever visited Achham district. My introduction to the historic building, which stood guard on the northern flanks of the mountain above Kailash Khola, was through photographs sent to me by colleagues in Achham. The three-storey brick building housing the District Administration Office always featured as the backdrop in district-level activities, and the red brick against the pristine blue sky caught my fancy.
It was in February 2002 that I read about the Maoist attack on Mangalsen. It was one of the most brutal attacks of the armed conflict. The siege of Mangalsen, just after midnight on 17†February, took the lives of nearly 140 soldiers, policemen and civilians (including the Chief District Officer), in addition to an unknown number of Maoists. The Maoists also shelled and torched all government buildings in Achham district headquarters, including Mangalsen Palace. All that remained was a smouldering building, its red bricks blackened by fire.
When I finally visited Achham in 2008, the building I had become so attached to had been reduced to huge rectangular stones at plinth level, already overgrown. Scraping away the dried winter grass over the ruins, I could see a layer of charcoal, testimony to the inferno that brought the building down.
I felt an inexplicable sense of loss, as if part of my memories and my patriotic pride had gone up in smoke with the building.
It was not a just a district administration building that was reduced to ashes on 17 February. The nearly 150-year-old palace had been a real survivor, and symbolised the importance of Mangalsen, once within the baisey rajya that fought against the Gorkhali army.
Going back to Mangalsen recently, I was in for a pleasant surprise. The palace was being rebuilt! A board at the site said the building was supposed to have been completed by mid-June 2010, with a budget of Rs 2.25 million. So far the construction has only crept up to lintel level. But being built it was, with walls of brick and lime mortar and solid doors and windows.
Most of the government offices that were destroyed that fateful night have found new homes in Mangalsen. The collapsed skeletons of some buildings still remain, a sombre reminder. But Mangalsen Palace is moving on. There were a dozen or so boys practicing karate near the construction site. These youngsters, many of whom would not remember the battle of Mangalsen, were carefully following the commands of their instructor. They looked full of hope as they learned how to defend themselves.
Mangalsen seems to be casting off its old skin. Peace and stability may still be out of reach for much of the country, but perhaps the rebuilding of the palace is a sign of things to come. Slowly but surely the phoenix is rising from the ashes of Mangalsen.