The Cultural Significance of Dhrahara Tower in the Heart of Kathmandu, Nepal

Nepal is an old country. In this old country, there are many different buildings that have been erected for religious and cultural purposes. One such building is the Dharara Tower. Throughout the years, it has gone through many changes, but the significance it holds for the people in the country remains. It is considered a sacred building and has gone through many changes throughout the years. So, what exactly is Dharahara tower then?

What is Dharahara tower?

One of th only images of Dharahara tower before the 1934 earthquake
Image source: wikipedia.com

Built in 1832, the Dharahara tower is an impressive 203 ft tower. It was the pride and joy of many Nepali people in Kathmandu, Nepal. The tower was the tallest building in all of Nepal and was originally constructed for Queen Lalit Tripura Sundari. Over the years, it became useful as a watchtower for military use. Later it became a hot tourist spot once malls and other such buildings popped up around the spot. Inside the tower, there are over 200 steps on a spiraling staircase with no exit until you reach the very top.

In the view tower, which is located on the eighth level, there is an exit where one can look out onto the busy streets below. From there one can see the busy Kathmandu streets of thousands of people minding their business. There are stores of every kind, from selling clothes to food. You can also find buildings where people do office business. Best of all, there are also seats and a garden area surrounding the Dharahara tower where others sit to relax and take in the beauty around them. 

There is also a bronze mast at the very top of the building. The design and style of the building resemble European and Mughal architecture. The original tower was inspired by a mostly Mugal design and a Nepali gothic style.

Earthquake leads to destruction

Nepal lies on a large plate called the Indian plate. This leads to many earthquakes every few years, and while most are tame, some have been extremely destructive. Earthquakes are a common thing in Nepal and it is easy to ignore the small earthquakes that reach 3.5 on the Richter Scale (Latiff). There have also been instances where there were larger earthquakes that have caused major damage to the Dharaha tower.

1834 Earthquake

Two years after the tower was completed, Nepal was hit by an earthquake that measured 7.6-7.9 on the Richter scale. The main point of this earthquake was near the Kathmandu valley. This led to the death of approximately 500 people. The tower was broken in half during this catastrophe. It was not rebuilt, but, the year after, a second tower was built that would replace the original Dharahara tower.

1934 Earthquake

Almost a century later, another major earthquake rocked the country. This caused the first tower to completely topple over. It also caused two of the nine stories of the second tower to collapse. This time, it was an 8.0 magnitude earthquake. The death toll was up to 10,700 to 12,000 in total. Another difference from the first incident was that the new king made the decision to rebuild the tower right away.

2015 Earthquake

Image of Dharahara before and after the 2015 earthquake
Image source: sciencenews.com

In 2015, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit and turned the building into rubble. All that was left behind was the base of the tower. It is still being remembered as a tragic event to this day. Many people come to visit the place years after the chaos and destruction that took place that day, as well as the 6 lives that were lost in that building. In total, the 2015 Nepal earthquake took the lives of around 200 people and left many others injured. The government of Nepal did not make any decision to rebuild the tower until 2016. This time, they decided to make the very structure, from the base, earthquake resistance. The building did not begin until December of 2018 and was not open until April of 2021. 

New Dharahara tower

image blueprint of what the new dharahara tower will look like
image source: kathmandupost.com

While the new tower was built motivated by the original two, the new one does not use the material from the second tower. It is a separate tower. The new tower is built next to the original tower. This new Dharahara is 236 feet tall and 22 stories tall. It copies the design of the original, with a bronze top. It is now in the center of a new museum, a garden, and a fountain. Unfortunately, it is not open to visitors until November 2021.

The military use of the Dharahara tower

Decorative image of Nepali military
image source: indiaandrefrenceview.com

Originally, the Dharahara tower was built for military use. It was a way to assimilate all the military to the square. From the top of the tower, bugles would play from the viewing platform. The view tower was also useful as a lookout to see any incoming enemies, as it was high enough for the soldiers to look far out onto the Kathmandu valley. The tower was useful in making important announcements to a large group of people. Many people can gather in the square below and listen to the conversations. It was a way to show the significance of the harmony between the different religions that are popular in Nepal. The main ones are Hinduism, Muslim, and Christianity.

The tower signifies the unity of the country’s people. This is an important factor to remember, as this was around the time Nepal’s neighboring country, India, was going through British colonization. 20 years after the war in Nepal, India was officially under the rule of the British kingdom.

On the other side of Nepal, China was facing oppression by British rulers with a large amount of Opium. Nepal’s unity of people in such a small country that is in between these two powerhouse countries is a big deal. Nepal is a small country and yet, with the might of the Nepali military, it has never been colonized by foreign powers. King Prithvi Narayan Shah united the country and with it, they have instead grown in power and strength.

Why is Dharahara so important?

image blueprint of what the new dharahara tower will look like
Image source: bbc.com

Just like many other iconic buildings in other countries, the Dharahara tower is an important part of Nepal’s history.

Emperors, wars, and centuries later, these buildings still stand tall and proud, attracting millions of visitors every year. (Razack)

It is a sacred space for millions of Nepali citizens in Nepal. The cultural and historical importance and the events that have left their mark there are indescribable. As Knapp and Ashmore explain in their paper, Archaeological Landscapes: Constructed, Conceptualized, Ideational, “a landscape is a backdrop against which archeological remains are plotted… landscape is an entity that exists by virtue of its being perceived, experienced, and contextualized by people”. This means that even without the building, the landscape is what is most important.

There had to have been a reason for that building to be placed there and knowing the background that it was once used for military purposes. It can be easy to envision that the area was once an open area, where it was easy to spy on people from great distances. Just like the Aztec culture, where the rulers would place their homes on high mountain tops to preside and rule over their cities, this theory could hold the same for the tower. It is interesting to see how so many cultures that are worlds apart follow the same idea of building structures. 

This structure holds the love that an uncle has and the pride many have for their country. Most of all, it holds the history of the land that we could not even imagine.

Is it a sacred spot?

The question of whether the place is a sacred spot? Many would agree that it is. Sacred spots are often just religious places. They captivate people with their religious aura, but also their amazing architecture. There are countless different religious beliefs and even more places that are sacred to those (Rothenberger). Dharahara tower is not specific for one certain religion, but rather a place for anyone who believes in any religion. Religion does not have to make a site sacred per se. In this case, the ability to garner many religions in one place makes it sacred. The architecture of the building also relates to the time period and what the people then viewed as special.

Nepali gothic architecture, which got inspiration from British and Mugal architecture and also from a religious standpoint. It incorporates the Hindu and Buddhist culture of subdued colors that still manage to stand out. There are elaborate ornaments and stupa that represent the land and its people. Looking up at the tower can bring optimism to the viewers about what we can achieve. Looking down at the view can inspire just how significant each and every one of our lives is for the country. There is also a representation of Islam as it resembles a minaret.

Image comparing Dharahara tower and an Ismalic minaret
Image source: tourismkathmandu.com// wikipedia.org

Random facts about the tower

  • Dharahara tower is the second tower built by Bhismen Thapa, as an homage to his niece, Queen Lalit Tripura Sundari.
  • It was the tallest building in Nepal at the time until skyscrapers came into the picture many years later.
  • Many people believe that the tower is a view tower, but that was not its main purpose until many years later.
  • At the top of the Dharahara tower, there is a stupa of the Hindu God Shiva.
  • Jung Bahadur Rana is said to have ridden on horseback to the top of the tower and then jumped off the balcony.
  • The tower was not open for public use until after 2005, with a small entry fee.
  • There are 213 steps to reach the view tower with a panoramic view of the Kathmandu valley.
  • During the 2015 earthquake, it is said to have split into two pieces before falling to the ground.
  • The 2015 earthquake killed more than 60 people.
  • The new Dharahara is similar in structure to the original tower but has a lot of modern equipment. These include:
    • mini-theatre on the 18th floor
    • mint museum
    • musical fountain
    • vehicle parking area
    • souvenir shop
    • food court

The Sacred significance of the Dharahara tower to its people

Built in the heart of Kathmandu, Nepal, the monument holds memories for many people who came to visit it. It wasn’t important just because of the historical aspect of it, but it was also becoming a popular spot for people of all ages to come and hang out. The rich history and the new memories created in this place every day definitely make it a must-go tourist attraction. The monument holds so many emotions and memories in it that when it toppled over, so many people were heartbroken and helped to restore it to its once glorious days. The evidence that so many people still go there to visit shows just how important it was in the hearts of Nepalese all over the world.

The history of the Dharahara tower has been passed down through many generations. It stays in the minds of so many Nepali kids to this day. It is a site that people still go to visit for a quick break or just as a tourist. There also aren’t that many non-Nepalis that come there, so it’s like a secret place for us just to go to.

Is it valuable to know all this?

It holds the value of a place that kept Nepal safe from other nations trying to colonize us and destroy our beautiful homes. It represents strength and is a motivation for people who view it. The monument is sacred because the land it is placed upon is a place where Nepali people can stand on and feel proud of the nation and all its glory and victories. It is a place that makes me proud to be a Nepali and gives me the motivation to see how small the world really is. It helps me define the meaning of strength and see that I should never give up, and I’m sure it is the same for so many other people that have come before and after me.

Dharahara also teaches us the strength it lends to others every hour. For history, it teaches Nepali people every day; that no matter what happens, you should never crumble and fall down, that you should always pick yourself back up.

Cultural significance to Anthropology

iamge of Dharahara with the sun setting in the background
image source: pintrest.com

The history of Dharahara signifies a lot more than just a site-seeing tower. It holds a place in the history of the capital of Nepal and how it came to be what it is today. The changes that it has made through the years show how the country has developed throughout the century. The amount of history we can learn from just one structure is incredible. It is worth noting things that we may not see as significant because we never know when they eventually will. The Dharahara tower is definitely an example of that.

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