An oasis in the urban concrete jungle
Added At: 2011-05-15 10:13 PM
Last Updated At: 2011-05-15 10:13 PM
On the southern outskirts of Patan city the quiet and unnoticed town of Khokana lies surrounded by paddy fields. It is the only ancient Newari settlement inside the Kathmandu Valley, which has preserved the traditional Newari lifestyle. The people of Khokana people still maintain their age-old customs, festivals and rituals as their forefathers did hundreds of years ago.
Long ago the area was covered by dense forest. It has been more than four hundred years since the first house was built at the present day settlement.
Legend has it that once, a man from a peasant family in Brahma tole, Kathmandu, fell sick with typhoid fever. After several days of illness he died. His funeral procession was taken to the cremation ground in Pachali Bharab, located at Teku. As soon as his funeral pyre was lit, a very severe storm with rain and thunder started. It was so strong that all the members of his funeral procession fled from the funeral site. The warmth from the fire caused the inert body to move. Slowly he came back to life.
In those days it was strongly believed that should a dead person come alive it would be a bad omen for the whole community and he should not be allowed to enter his house again. It was only his wife who did not abandon him. They sadly started walking along the bank of the Bagmati river and when they arrived at the Shikali ground (also known as Shiva Kali, the female incarnation of god Shiva) it was already dark so they decided to spend the night there. That same night Shikali came to the man in a dream and she told him to settle down at the lower ground next to the Shikali ground know as Kudesh, where the remains of the an early settlement can still be found a few feet below the ground. After some time, however, they were harassed and robbed by Sapas, the hill people, who came from across the river Bagmati. The goddess Shikali then told the man in a dream that they should move to the higher ground at the east side. Thus they became the first settlers at the present day Khokana village.
In the old days, each of the small Newari towns scattered around the Kathmandu Valley were renowned for particular products or crafts. Likewise, Khokana has been famous for its legendary mustard oil (tori ko tel). The fragrance of the fresh Khokana mustard oil could be smelled in the kitchens of a common man to the royal kitchen. Khokana oil, which is still considered as the best mustard oil, got its trade mark due to the unique process of pressing the mustard seed into oil. They still follow the same procedure since several hundred years. That is the reason why when anyone mentions mustard oil, the name of Khokana is bound to come up.
Originally, there were three traditional oil press mills in Khokana village, and a fourth one was added later on as a result of good business. These community-run mustard oil mills were established and managed as per the cooperative system by its members or share holders. They are still there to see today.
Khokana being one of the old Newar settlements, many unique traditions, culture festivals and way of life can be discerned even by a casual observer. Like every Newar community or settlement, festivals remain the binding feature. There are many interesting festivals celebrated all the year round in Khokana village. Among them, the Shikalai festival is a very distinct and unique festival within the entire Kathmandu Valley. Apart from celebrating the many festivals, the people of Khokana have been maintaining their precious ancient culture and lifestyle. However, the elderly people of Khokana sometimes express their fear that, due to the gradual adaptation of modern lifestyle by the younger generation, no one will be interested to play the traditional musical instruments, wear the traditional costumes and masks and dance in the future. This is a matter of common worry and brings to focus the need for urgent steps to preserve the traditional art, architecture, festivals and crafts. However, whilst many of the younger, educated villagers do travel to Lalitpur or Kathmandu to make a living, few have moved away and the majority return to their homes each evening.
Despite being next-door neighbours of the ultra modern cities of Kathmandu and Lalitpur, changes are flowing in albeit slowly.
Having seen the devastation reaped by appallingly ugly concrete jungle construction in much of the rest of the Valley, there is an awareness that the wonderful old traditional architectural style of the village needs to be retained and nourished. Thus, where rebuilding is taking place, the house façades are being maintained with the use of carved wood, darche appa bricks and mud mortar. To date the worries of the elders have not become the reality, the festivals are maintained, traditional clothing is generally worn by the villagers and old crafts sustain.
Support from all the interested people to save Khokana with its traditions, heritage, music, festivals and crafts from becoming another concrete jungle will be a very valuable gift to Nepal.
Bista is an anthropologist and historian.