From Nepali Times (30 July 2023)
Kanak Mani Dixit in Kavre
Newar town has been bypassed by modern influences and can revive its fortunes through tourism
The town of Dapcha sits on a ridgeline stretching eastwards from the revered shrine of Namobuddha, its urbanscape left largely intact by inhabitants who have moved out.
But as the only Newar settlement in the Valley’s proximity that retains its old character, Dapcha can prosper as a getaway for visitors. This must happen before the brick houses are replaced by painted cement structures, as elsewhere.
Dapcha has survived, while Khokana, Bungamati, Sankhu, Banepa and other towns have lost their traditional character, either through rapid demographic change and modernisation, or the destruction of the April 2015 earthquake.
While the surrounding villages of Kavre were damaged in the earthquake, geological good fortune left Dapcha largely intact. The 45 or so ancient buildings of brick, carved wood and mud mortar still stand, though weakened by age.
Dapcha awaits entrepreneurs who understand the thirst of city folks for traditional Newar urbanscape, and international tourists who want to experience tangible and intangible heritage amidst the natural splendour of midhill Nepal.
Om Krishna Shrestha, a recently retired bureaucrat, who owns one of the larger homes in Dapcha agrees that the preservation of his town requires quick investment to retrofit the townhouses and provide the interiors with modern spaces and amenities. “We can revive the town, homeowners like me are convinced of this,” he says.
Dapcha’s main street is lined with old townhouses, and the settlement commands a view of 350km of peaks from Khumbu Himal to the Annapurnas. The surrounding hills and valleys are scenic, and the high Mahabharat Lek dominates the southern horizon. Nestled in a mountain cleft to the west of Dapcha is the shrine of Namobuddha, worshipped for what the jataka tales tell involve Shakyamuni Buddha.
Namobuddha’s Newar community revers not one but three temples dedicated to Bhimsen, and the east end of the town has a Kalika Devi temple on a dramatic wooded hilltop. There are jatra all year around, with the biggest one centred on Krishna Janmasthami. The surrounding villages have Tamang, Dalit, Bahun and Chhetri inhabitants.
The long 2,500m high ridge on which Dapcha is located is more or less level, making it perfect for mountain biking. The nearby villages of Phulbari and Patlekhet are the centre of Nepal’s organic farming movement, and host frequent training programs. The seasons are marked by the tint of the terrace fields, from the yellow mustard in autumn to the green of mid-monsoon maize.
Dapcha’s historical importance is as a trading town on the main route heading east from Kathmandu. Till just a decade ago, the trail nearby used to display ‘Jungay kos’ markers, indicating the distance from Hanuman Dhoka in Kathmandu.
Dapcha was on the route that pilgrims, traders, invaders and defenders used between the Valley and east Nepal, as also the Mithila region to the southeast via Sindhuli.
Dapcha can emulate the ‘tourism repurposing’ of Bandipur, the other Newar settlement located on a high saddle midway between Kathmandu and Pokhara. There are other historical trading posts from Doti in the west to Chainpur in the east that could also pick up the example.
Bandipur was left literally high and dry when the Tanahu district headquarters was moved down to Damauli during the Panchayat in 1968, with the opening of the Prithvi Highway. Traders and bureaucrats moved out, and for more than three decades Bandipur became a ghost town, until tourism experts came to the rescue.
The first concrete activity to uplift Bandipur’s prospects was a brochure produced in 1998 with the help of the Partnership for Quality Tourism, researched and written by Ujwal Sherchan. Tourism entrepreneur and expert Dilendra Shrestha who helped in the revival of the Swotha neighbourhood in Patan also got involved with Bandipur.
Says Shrestha, “Our job was to convince Bandipur homeowners, many of whom had moved to Narayanghat, that there was income from saving their ancient town. We persuaded them to preserve the old buildings, and convert the main thoroughfare into a pedestrian zone.”
Dapcha is only two hours from Kathmandu via Dhulikhel, and is less compact than Bandipur although its buildings are taller and more ornate. Dapcha is now connected by well-built roads down to the BP Highway and to the Namobuddha shrine.
Successive mayors of Namobuddha Municipality of which Dapcha is a part (TP Sharma and the incumbent Kunsang Lama) are alert to the tourism possibilities, and have helped build two bypass tracks north and south so that the town can also have a pedestrian boulevard.
Dapcha holds possibilities as a fine destination at a time when the mountain settlements of Nepal are losing their traditional architecture. What Dapcha needs is collaboration between home-owners, investors, conservation architects and marketing experts, to prove that preservation can bring prosperity.
All it takes to start it off is a couple of townhouses to be retrofitted and converted.