Nepali Times
Guest Column
The angst of arches


There is a difference in the politics of those who erect victory towers and those who cope with commemorative gates and arches.

German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche racked his brains (literally: he suffered a mental breakdown) trying to understand the origins and function of values in human life. He distinguished between master and slave moralities and saw in the former a 'will to power' and in the latter its nihilistic absence. He feared that the emerging nationalism of late 19th Century Europe was a false god demanding slavish obedience rather than creating a liberated 'superman' with the proper will to power.

We have enough examples in Nepal of this sort of edifice complex running amok if we look at the dwars and stambhas around us. Bhimsen Thapa put up the Dharara, perhaps the first phallic symbol in Nepal's secular domain, unlike the myriad national religious protrusions of antiquity. It was followed by Bir Shamsher and his Ghanta Ghar. (Why ghar and not stambha?) Both the Thapas and the Ranas exhibited a stubborn will to rule that they appropriately flaunted even if the current of history was already flowing the other way.

After the Ranas, it seems to have become the age of gates. King Mahendra built the Sahid Gate (not a Sahid Minar!), but was it to domesticate the anarchic unruliness of virgin democracy? After all he built the tower inside the royal palace that even today has all of Nepal perplexed as to its meaning, almost like the Panchayat he instituted.

The Panchas, despite their bluster, were politically a hermaphroditic lot doing both arches and towers. They were famous for putting up welcome arches by the scores every time King Birendra went on a regional tour. So many of them had to be put up (and so much money siphoned off) that in Dharan once a football field had to be requisitioned just to put up gates that found no space on the main road. On their 25th anniversary, shortly before their demise, the Panchas dotted the land with celebratory erections aptly nicknamed Rajat Jayanti Pancha Lingas.

Unfortunately, when moral authority has slipped away, no amount of phallic brandishing will work. Or as Lenin is supposed to have said, "A revolutionary situation arises when the ones on the top can't rule and the ones at the bottom want not to be ruled." A crowning symbol of this anomie remains the Pancha Linga on the Ring Road between Maharajganj and Chabel (pictured) that is a white conch on a black, square pillar. With a missing base for the inverted conch to rest on (such as a blooming lotus), it looks like a botched circumcision carried out by an overzealous surgeon. But by then, with its political exclusion via the Gaun Pharka politburo, Panchayat had already lost its political base as well.

The trouble with obelisks is that form overtakes substance, and the angst with arches is that one does not know which direction is entry and which the exit, amplifying the confusion and hiding subliminal libidos that are symptomatic of psychic stress. The structure on the Ring Road below the airport is another example. As a 'gate' it neither closes off nor opens onto anything, and as an arch one is not sure if it is saying the Himalayan capital is happy to welcome you or glad to see you off. The country, on the other hand, would no doubt have been better off if that constructive energy was spent on rescuing Royal Nepal Airlines.

When it comes to confusion over history, however, a tower in Kolkata takes the cake. Shahid Minar on the Esplanade used to be called the Ochterlony Monument, after the British general who tried to invade Nepal in 1814. The monument was off-limits but with some cajoling the caretaker (paid by Brittania the biscuit maker, it turns out) allowed me in to look at a sign which said:

Ochterlony got no further than Hetauda in 1814 but the Raj had to tell its subjects and all who came there that they had conquered Nepal. The Marxist who came to power when it was re-named Shahid Minar, despite being imbued with socialist realism, found the myth worthy of promoting. If only the rulers of Writers' Building had corrected it to 'Ochterlony, conqueror of Darjeeling' they might have had fewer problems with the Supremo of the Hill Council. Mercifully, nobody thought of asking Nepali visitors to lay wreaths there in memory of the freedom fighters like we do at Tundikhel's Sahid Gate.

Shahid Minar
(Ochterlony Monument)

This 165 ft (50.3m) high monument was erected during the period from 1828 to 1830, as a victory tower in memory of General David Ochterlony, conqueror of Nepal.
In 1969, it was dedicated in memory of the freedom fighters
of India and renamed as
Shahid Minar.
Maintained by Executive Engineer, City Division, PWD, Writers' Building,
Kolkata 400 001

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)