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India adds a strong dose of cultural diplomacy to reinforce ties with Nepal

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Nepal PM KP Sharma Oli during his visit to Kathmandu in 2018. PM Modi had said that friendship with Nepal will always remain everlasting

With a spurt of new initiatives, India has begun to tap its shared, deep-rooted cultural and religious bonds with Nepal to strongly reinforce a deeply enmeshed political relationship. On Sunday, the bhoomi pooja (ceremonial breaking of ground) to mark the starting of work of conservation and restoration of Seto Machindranath temple in Kathmandu kicked off New Delhi's massive effort to preserve the cultural heritage sites in the Himalayan country.

Believed to have been built in the 10th Century AD during the Malla era, the temple was damaged during the 2015 earthquake. It is located in Jana Bahal, the heart of Kathmandu city, and is visited by Hindus and Buddhist devotees to worship Seto Machindranath who is considered to be one of the protectors of the Kathmandu Valley.

It is the first of 28 cultural heritage conservation and restoration projects being undertaken with a grant assistance of NRs 5800 million committed by the Indian government for post-earthquake reconstruction of the cultural heritage sites across eight districts of Nepal. All the 28 sites were identified by Nepal and India, the MoU for which was signed in August 2017.

India Nepal partnership

The rituals were performed jointly by Vinay Mohan Kwatra, the Indian ambassador to Nepal, Chief Executive Officer of National Reconstruction Authority of Government of Nepal and Mayor of Kathmandu Metropolitan City. Community members of Jan Bahal area where Seto Machindranath temple is located, also participated with fervour and enthusiasm in the ceremony.

The conservation and retrofitting of the temple will be carried out at a cost of NRs 626 million. It will be conserved as per Nepal's Ancient Monument Preservation Act, and Department of Archaeology’s Basic Guidelines and Manual for conservation and reconstruction of heritage affected by 2015 earthquake using material close to the original building material at the time of its construction as per the traditional ethos, local traditions and values that sustains and enriches such living heritage sites in Nepal.

Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) has been engaged to provide technical support during the conservation and restoration work.

Along with Seto Machindranath Temple, three contract agreements were also signed last month for construction of dharamshala at Budhaneelkantha and conservation and development of Kumari Chhen and Kumari Niwas.

Located inside Ratnakar Mahavihara, the Kumari Chhen is a historic house of the living goddess of Patan. The living goddess is central to culture and traditions of Buddhist community. Kumari Niwas has an important place in the rituals associated with the living goddess. The conservation and development of Kumari Chhen and Kumari Niwas stands at NRs 456 million.

Dharmashala at Budhaneelkantha lies within the heritage precinct of Budhanilkantha temple locally known as Narayanthan. It will be constructed at a cost of NRs 334 million and is expected to facilitate visit of pilgrims and tourists visiting the sacred temple. Earlier in November 2019, India had also built Mathadish building for Budhanilkantha temple at a cost of NRs 21.8 million.

The projects highlight India's large-scale efforts to not just conserve the common cultural heritage but also to rebuild Nepal after the deadly 2015 earthquake which killed nearly 9,000 people and injured close to 22,000 citizens.

"We are friends since Treta Yug (since ages). King Janak and King Dashrath tied not only Janakpur and Ayodhya but India and Nepal also in the bonds of friendship and partnership. This is the bond of Ram-Sita and of Buddha and also of Mahavir. This is the bond which pulls the people of Rameshwaram to Pashupatinath. This is the bond which pulls the people of Lumbini to Bodh Gaya and this is the bond, the religious belief, and this is that affection which has brought me to Janakpur today," Prime Minister Narendra Modi had said in his speech in Janakpur during his visit to Nepal in May 2018.

As part of its 'Neighborhood First' policy, India has been playing a key role in the all-round development of Nepal. Increasing cross-border connectivity remains one of the main goals of the policy as India and Nepal are working on several projects such as road, rail and transmission lines.

India had said last year that it has spent nearly Rs 550 crores to extend the Jayanagar-Kurtha rail connectivity between India and Nepal up to Bijalpura by March 2021. The train service would cover a distance of 35 kilometres from Jayanagar in Bihar to Kurtha in Janakpur. Jayanagar is just four Kms from the India-Nepal border and has Janakpur, the famous pilgrim centre in Nepal which is 29 Kms from Jayanagar.

India has also committed a total grant of US$ 250 million for reconstruction projects in the education, health, cultural heritage and housing sectors in Nepal.

As 'true friend' India continues to supply the 'Made in India' vaccines to various countries all over the world during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, Nepal too had received a gift of one million doses in January for the immediate requirement of the country's healthcare and frontline workers. Nepal's Health Minister Hridayesh Tripathi said yesterday the country is planning to purchase an additional two million doses from India before the second phase of vaccination drive starting Sunday.

The assistance isn't just limited to supplying vaccines. India is also helping Nepal build a robust healthcare sector. The Narendra Modi government is helping Nepal reconstruct 147 health sector projects in 10 districts under a grant of US$ 50 million. The Government of India has also gifted over 823 ambulances to governmental, non-governmental/non-profit making organisations in Nepal since 1994.

For the education sector, India has committed a grant of US$ 50 million under which 71 educational institutions damaged during the 2015 earthquake are being reconstructed in eight districts of Nepal.

In spite of the frequent political turmoil in Kathmandu, the Indian government has remained committed to continue its development partnership with Nepal which, it has reiterated time and again, is long-standing, unwavering, unmatched and multidimensional in nature.

As PM Modi said during his Nepal visit, "The relations of Nepal with India have been tied by the politics, diplomacy and strategy and even beyond that they have been tied through our deities. Individuals and governments will continue to come and go, but this relationship is everlasting."