REDISCOVERING BHIMPHEDI

Travelers destined for the much storied Kathmandu Valley, a veritable El Dorado lodged in the fertile valley of the Mahabharat range, reached the mid-point oasis of Bhimphedi amidst great relief. Crossing the dense jungles of the Terai with leopards, tigers and other wildlife ready to prey on humans the weary travelers could now rest for a couple of days at Bhimphedi before embarking upon the final heart-thumping climb along rickety old tracks via Chandragiri passes to Thankot and thence down onto the valley floor. From time immemorial Kathmandu was thus protected from marauders from the South. Only in Maharajah Chandra Shumsher’s time during the 1920’s a motorable road was built from Hetauda to Bhimphedi and a ropeway line was drawn for transportation of goods from Kathmandu to Dhursing near Bhimphedi.

Bhimphedi Bazaar in 1894 A.D.

Bhimphedi witnessed kings and maharajahs passing through amidst great fanfare. Traders and artisans, scholars and saints rested here before the final push north. King Rana Bahadur Shah abdicated and made his way to Benaras along this trail. One can but surmise what arrangements had been made for him and his entourage in Bhimphedi before reaching the Terai. King Rajendra Bikram Shah with his junior queen Rajya Luxmi Devi had also made their way to Benaras after failing to censure the ambitious Jung Bahadur Rana in the failed attempt at Bhandarkhal to oust him. Hunting parties of kings and maharajahs took the same route to camp in Chitwan. During Maharajah Jung Bahadur Rana’s time notable refugees from the failed Indian Mutiny made their way onto the Kathmandu valley after he bravely allowed these outlaws most wanted by the Raj to take asylum in Nepal. One can only conjecture what the reception was like in Bhimphedi and where they camped.

Porters carrying car to Kathmandu Valley from Bhimphedi to Thankot via Chandragiri Pass

These were the stories playing in my mind when I decided to visit Bhimphedi to see this historic town long since neglected and abandoned after the Tribhuvan Rajpath (1956) and later the Prithivi Highway (1974) connected Kathmandu Valley to the Terai by modern means of transport making the journey less arduous. By the time I started to travel inside Nepal I did not need to take the Bhimphedi route so I had never been on this trail.

What awaited me was a big surprise. Although many of the historic buildings have not been preserved and now fulfill wholly unintended functions, what is remaining is still noteworthy. One can only hope more attention can now be given to repairing and conserving these heritage sites to once again make Bhimphedi hark back to its glory days and provide an alternative route to tourists and travelers. Locals say that a building now occupied by an orphanage was actually built for King Surendra Bikram Shah for his travels. Only a part of the palace remains. Across the road from it is the palace built by Maharajah Juddha Shumsher Jung Bahadur Rana which incongruously now is part of the regional jail.

At the orphanage run by Awasuka, part of the palace of King Surendra
Prithivi-Chandra Hospital at Bhimphedi

A Prithivi-Chandra Hospital once the second largest in Nepal as per local knowledge still functions as a center for healing. Members of the Patan Newar Community migrated to these parts mostly inhabited by Tamangs for reasons forgotten and many transplanted their arts and crafts, deities and rituals that is visible today. A Bhimsen Temple blesses the passersby. A Newar building complex damaged by the earthquake awaits restorers as Bhimphedi badly needs guesthouses.

Bhimsen Temple

Newar housing complex affected by the earthquake of 2015

A noteworthy collection of elephant howdahs and saddles is housed in a large building from the time of Maharajah Juddha Shumsher the local caretaker says. We counted over 40 howdahs and 20 saddles of various designs and vintage. Elephants took the hunters from here to the jungles. A howdah used by Queen Elizabeth II still displaying the Coat-of-Arms of British Monarchy is found. Another one designed for himself by Maharajah Jung Bahadur Rana as per the caretaker is carelessly strewn about. What a great museum these collections would make with a little bit of ingenuity and scholarship!

 

Haatisar area with a building housing many elephant Howdahs and saddles
Howdah with British monarchy coat-of-arms
Single-seater howdah designed by Jung Bahadur Rana for himself

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