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The lake that was once Kathmandu

30,000 YEARS AGO: This panorama by Dinesh Shrestha, taken from Lakuri Bhanjyang in 2008, was manipulated to visualise what the Kathmandu Valley must have looked like when it was a huge lake.


Kathmandu Valley is where mythology and geology intertwine. The former holds that the Tibetan saint, Manjushree, flew down to Kathmandu. Upon seeing the huge lake, he cut the Chobhar ridge in half with his mighty sword and drained the waters to allow civilisation to flourish in the fertile sacred valley.

There is ample geological evidence to prove that the Kathmandu Valley was once a lake. But geologists piecing together the genesis and demise of the primordial lake now think it may not have been drained all at once, but in phases.

The lake was formed over one million years ago with the tectonic uplift of the southern edge of the Valley and the damming up of the proto-Bagmati River, probably where Katuwal Daha is today. As the southern rim of the Valley rose at a geologically rapid 3cm a year, the lake shifted northwards. The level of the lake ebbed and rose between 1,400-1,440m, depending on the prevailing climate, making it about 200m deep in places.

Geologists have found the fossil remains of the extinct ancestors of mammoths, hippos and crocodiles in the Kathmandu Valley. They have pollen-dated the sediment, indicating that the shoreline of the Kathmandu Lake was heavily forested with pine and hemlock and teeming with wildlife.

The last Ice Age cooled and dried the Himalaya and the lake started to shrink starting 30,000 years ago. The main water body carved its way through the soft limestone at Chobhar, leaving behind a shrinking lake and three smaller ones at Gokarna, Pashupati and Kitni. These lakes later carved 'mini-Chobhars' and emptied into the main lake.

As the lake receded, flats emerged above the water that were later separated by the tributaries of the Bagmati, which sliced  channels through the soft clay. The airport is one such flat from the Gokarna Period 30,000 years ago, and geologists think Thimi and Patan surfaced 25,000 and 18,000 years ago respectively.

The Kathmandu Valley civilisation with Lichhavi and and then Newar settlements grew and prospered because of the fertility of the soil, and later because of the Valley's location along the ancient trade route between India and Tibet. In their wisdom the early settlers set up towns along ridgelines, leaving the fertile slopes for farms. This unique urban-rural symbiosis and the agricultural surplus it resulted in enriched the kingdoms of the Valley, and they ploughed back the wealth into the  unique cultural and architectural heritage of their towns.

Kunda Dixit

The rise and fall

Approximate extension of the proto-Kathmandu Lake overlaid on a current Google Earth image of the valley. The shoreline of the lake is loosely based on a composite of geological studies by Japanese and Nepali experts, and may not correspond to contemporary contours because of tectonic uplift in the last 100,000 years.

120,000 years ago Upliftment of the southern edge of what is now Lalitpur district and blockage of the proto-Bagmati river at present-day Katuwal Daha, leading to the impounding of water in the Kathmandu basin.

30,000 years ago Continued tilting of the Kathmandu basin moves the lake towards the north and the lake level, blocked by the Chobhar ridge, is at its maximum height of 1,440m. Bhaktapur, Patan, Manohara Valley and Gokarna are all under water.

15,000 years ago Climate change and seepage through rocks at Chobhar lower the level of the water, exposing the Gokarna, Thimi and Gauchar (present-day airport) flats, and leaving three smaller lakes behind bedrock ridges at Gokarna, Pashupati and Kitni.

Stuff Nepali People Like - I
Take me to the river

1. Kamal Ratna Tuladhar
It's not correct to attribute the prosperity of the Kathmandu Valley to its fertile soil and its position on the India-Tibet trade route. The hard work put in by its people is the real reason why it is the most developed part of the country. Trade routes connecting India and Tibet exist all along the length of Nepal, not only in Kathmandu.

2. Geolog, Munich
Very dramatic effect to be able to go back in "Time Maschine" to see Kathmandu Valley like this. There is evidence to suggest the lake did not drain completely at once, but slowly drained out over a period of 15,000 years which means there must have been a lot of marshes along what are now the rivers. The lake probably didn't extend as much to the south as is depcited in the second map, though, because even without later erosion, the Chapagaun and Harisiddhi formations would have been at a higher elevation than 1440m.

3. Gauri Nath Rimal
MANJUSHREE. -Manjushreenaath Ghose.
Majushreenaath Ghose is said to have come from Tibet/great China. Narayan Prashad Shresta in his book Kathmandu- The Eternal Kumari,has given very interesting findings about his whereabouts."his name unmistakenly betrays an Indian origin.......his  surname  bears a Bengali caste,...a region in India which had been the hub of Buddhism,... ...It is possible that Manjushreenaath Ghose may have come from the Chin hills of what is Myanmar today which ,in those days was probably part of Greater China., It is equally possible that his home may have been located in what is today Bangladesh."
Paharpur and Bicramshila in Bengal  were the great centre of Buddhist learning,till they were destroyed by Muslim invasions.


4. marsyangdi salala

marsyangdi valley could be as big and prosperous as kathmandu valley, if there is good planning. Geologists have stated that urbanization is more feasible in marsyangdi valley because of its flat and earthquake proof solid surfaces.

5. nirmal kafle
Manjushri was a Chinese Monk who belonged to the legendary era. He is known as Wen Shu Pu Sha in Chinese. He is originally from Wu Tai Shan of Shanxi Province. It is said that the Monk travelled across the Himalayas to Nepal in search of eternal knowledge and wisdom.

Wu Tai Shan is also famous for giant White Pagoda (Bai Ta Si) constructed by Araniko (A Ni Ge), a renowned Nepalese architectural maestro of the 14th century. 

6. Akanchhya Gurung
Interesting write-up.......!!! I hope that these created photographs to be displayed in a museum dedicated for "Kathmandu Valley Origin".

7. srinkhala sharma
imagine if an earthquake blocked the chobhar passage tomorrow.. we will have a smelly black lake that grows bit by bit...

8. jange
Time to restore the Kathmandu valley to its original format and undo the ecological vandalism of Manjushree. Let's build dams at Chobhar, Pashupati and Gokarna.

9. Anonymous
Thanks to Kundajee these pictures take us back to time, and help restore the primordial lake of Kathmandu at least in our imagination. These pictures should be included in our school curriculum. It is the resultant effect of the geology, mythology, and anthropomorphic activities that have created the narrative KTM. It is not only the physical dimension such as the fertile quality of the soil (year-round crops), the high altitude from the sea-level (no malaria), the geo-strategic location (bridge between two great civilizations), but also the unique attitude and culture of the native inhabitants of the ancient valley (spiritual dimension) that gave rise to the prominence of KTM. Sadly, over the last six decades, our myopic vision and "utilitarian" and "imported" consumer culture have caused great insult to this ancient land. Looking at these pictures one gets a sense of how pristine the valley may have been once; and, over the decades how badly our personal ego and collective greed for capital have distorted the beauty. In the name of development, we turned the pristine rivers into sewers; the air we breathe is poisoned, the water we drink  is polluted, the land is contaminated. In the name of "development" our very existence is in  jeopardy, this is the legacy we are going to leave to our children and grand children !! Someone once wrote "Biswa saanguriera aagan banyo, maanab sanguriera maanchhe banna pugyo!" May we have courage to restore harmony in our thinking, and also in our living with nature. The Land of the Buddha can offer a fresh perspective, indeed, a new paradigm to the entire world!

10. Ammar Raj Guni
Time to restore the Kathmandu valley  on it's original structures. Then let's build good dams at Chobhar, Pashupati and Gokarna. What will happen ?

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)