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Remembering Rara

Monday, October 2nd, 2017

Pic: Kunda Dixit

Tufan Neupane in Himal Khabarpatrika, 24 September-7 October

Lok Bahadur Shah used to run a small store near Rara Lake. One day 40 years ago, a government clerk came door to door ordering him and everyone else in the village to pack up and move out. They were being resettled in the Tarai to make way for Rara National Park.

This was in the days of the Panchayat and there was no question about disobeying a royal decree issued by King Mahendra himself. Mahendra was mesmerized by Rara, and penned his famous poem Rara Ki Apsara sitting under a juniper tree on the southern shore of the lake in 1964. The king died before his dream of creating a pristine nature reserve could be realised, but his son Birendra fulfilled his father’s vision by evicting 314 families from around Rara Lake which was declared a national park in 1976.

Lok Bahadur, now 82, still remembers the day he had to leave his home for good. That morning, he lit a lamp, and put enough oil in it for the whole day. He secured his house with a big padlock as if his family was just going on a vacation, and would return soon.

The family had lots of cows, buffalos, sheep, mountain goats and mules. There were rumours that the sooner they reached the Tarai the larger would be the plot of land they would get. So he sold all his livestock at throwaway prices and headed down to Motipur village of Bardiya district in the mid-western plains.

Rara’s displaced families were told that the government had already built concrete houses for them. But that turned out to be just one of the many lies as they settled down in the malaria-infested jungles of Bardiya.

Not only were there no houses, there was no drinking water, and no easy access to nearby towns. The mountain dwellers could not adjust to the heat of the Tarai, and moved to Chisapani without asking for government permission.

Chisapani was a better place, but the Rara families faced resentment from locals. After a five-year long struggle, they finally got the land they were promised. The younger generation adapted to the new life, but those who had social, economic and cultural roots in Rara still pine for what they consider home.

Gagan kumari shahaGagan Kumari Shahi (pic right), now 86, was among those displaced and recalls it was snowing when she said goodbye to her lake-side home. In Rara, she used to go to the nearby woods to worship her deity every month, or so. But in the Tarai, the festivals and temples were unfamiliar.

“Even the gods were different in the Tarai,” she says. “It is like moving to another country.”

The heat of the Tarai is not the only thing that makes families yearn for their lost paradise. The identity crisis that they have faced here is equally more acute.

Lalit Jung Shah (pic below), now 81, was the head of the Shrikot village council, and was twice elected to the Mugu district council. Shah went back to Mugu to contest elections, but was defeated because his voters were no longer there.

Lok Bd shaha“Even today, whenever I go there, people respect me, and do not charge me a penny for food and lodging,” he says. “But here, I am nobody and nobody knows me.”

There have been some benefits of the forced transmigration to the Tarai. Shah’s grandfather died at 61 and father at 62. Had he stayed on in Mugu, one of the districts with lowest life expectancy, he says he would have probably gone by now.

Life around Rara was basic, with no hospital, school or roads. People depended on shamans. Today, the children of some of the Rara families have become doctors. Yet, for many of the elderly there is a deep dull ache for home that never goes away.

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