For many of us who live comfortable lives in cities, who don’t have to deal with the everyday drudgery of rural life, there is something romantic about remoteness. We seek out places seemingly at the edge of the world, either in person or virtually, such as in fiction or film. Similarly, there is something tantalizing about a place frozen in the past, distant in terms of space as well as time.
In May, a friend and I stumbled upon a half-deserted town in the jungle on the Nepal-India border. We were on our way to Kathmandu from the Far West, and had decided to explore the southern part of Dang District along the way. With no particular destination in mind, we drove our motorbike south through the Deukhuri Valley, across the Rapti River, into the Churia Hills. In Dang, as in much of Nepal, the Churia are sparsely populated due to their poor soils, which are unsuitable for farming. The jungle was wild and dark there, and the trees were covered by a thick network of vines that resembled Asan Tol telephone infrastructure. By late afternoon we reached an escarpment at the top of the range from which we could see the Indian Gangetic Plain stretching out to the horizon, the earth seemingly curving away over the edge. We descended the southern slopes of the Churia for another half hour or so, and then, rounding a bend, came upon a settlement along a dry ravine at the base of the hills. It was the first sign of civilization we had seen in over an hour.
We parked the bike and began to walk through the northern section of town, which we quickly realized was almost completely abandoned. It was built along two main streets, flanked by empty storefronts and once prominent two-story homes, now crumbling, with Mughal-style arches and facades of neo-classical columns. We wandered into an abandoned living room strewn with bricks, which now appeared to be used as a public toilet. Anomalously, there were tasteful alcoves built into the inner walls, and the ceiling was made of finely carpentered woodwork. We came to what must have once been a busy chowk, where a tree grew from the roof of a handsome brick house, its roots at once prying the bricks apart and holding them together. A man appeared with a herd of cows, which he led into an abandoned godown attached to one of the havelis to bed down for the night.
The sunset call to prayer issued from a mosque somewhere, and groups of men, and women wearing burqas, emerged onto the street. They came from the southern part of the town, which was apparently more populated. We talked to a group who informed us that we were in the town of Koilabas, and yes, indeed, we were still in Nepal, although India was just a couple of hundred meters down the road. This had been a major trading post, they said, for goods between India and the hill districts to the north. But all that had come to an end some time ago.
My friend and I exchanged a look that said, “How the hell did we end up here?” Despite a mutual desire to explore more, we needed to be on our way—we had left our stuff along the East-West Highway and had to return to the capital the next day. As darkness descended, we drove back over the Churia Hills. Lightning lit up the sky over Deukhuri ahead of us.
Over the next few months, images of Koilabas played over in my mind. I asked Nepali friends who had heard of the town what they knew about the place. I learned that it had been an important trading post on the route between India and Dang, Rolpa, Pyuthan, and Salyan. A Tharu man from Deukhuri, who now owns a Japanese restaurant chain in Kathmandu, said that his father used to make an annual trip to Koilabas to sell grain and ghee; others from his village would bring mustard, chyuri (a multipurpose fruit), honey, and medicinal plants. They bought the goods they needed for the year in Koilabas—salt, cloth, oil, kerosene, pots and pans. The bazaar was always bustling with Marwari, Muslim, Madhesi, Tharu, and Pahadi traders, farmers, and porters. Someone told me the name Koilabas originated from an aborted attempt to mine coal in the area (koila means coal in Nepali and Hindi). “From salt to gold, everything was available in Koilabas,” I was told.
In September, I convinced another friend, Nigam, a photographer and filmmaker, to return with me to Koilabas. (He is a fan of Sergio Leone Spaghetti Westerns, and I was able to entice him with the prospect of visiting a “ghost town.”)
The monsoon had left its mark: the road through the jungle was in much worse shape this time. We were struggling to navigate our bike around fallen boulders and knee-deep rills when a slender young man pulled up beside us and offered to ferry me through. He introduced himself as Abdul Malik Siddiqui, a native of Koilabas and owner of a mobile shop in Lamahi. We may not have made it were it not for him.
Arriving in Koilabas, we checked in at the Nepalgunj Hotel, the finest and only such hospitality establishment in town, run by a Mr. Budda who migrated from Nepalgunj some years ago. Facing eviction in the city, he had moved to Koilabas and took up residence in the abandoned home of an ex-Gurkha family, which he now runs as a hotel. (Given that he neither owned the building nor paid rent, I was happy to discover that he did not charge for the room.) The only other guests at the Nepalgunj Hotel were a middle-aged couple from a hill district, in town to visit a local jhankri (shaman). We ate dinner together in an open-air front room and watched geckos catch bugs around a fluorescent light on the wall. As we fell asleep on our rope beds, mosquitoes roared like trumpets and our host watched Hindi serials across the hall.
The next day, we visited the Nepali customs and postal office. It lies near the border, a few hundred meters below the old part of town, next to a bombed-out police station that locals told us was destroyed by the Maoists. The office was tidy and surrounded by tall trees, with a screened porch. A scale for weighing goods collected dust outside.
Om Prakash KC, the customs officer, and Gangaram Mishra, the postal officer, seemed happy to have visitors. When I asked if they were very busy, KC said, “No one in Koilabas is busy.”
Mishra, who is from Kapilvastu, said he has manned the post office in Koilabas for 22 years. In the old days, mail from Kathmandu would be sent to the border at Birgunj, whence it would travel by Indian rail to Jaruwa, five kilometers across the border. The postal officer in Koilabas would go to fetch it by autorickshaw. But these days, no mail comes. “People use SMS, or call people on their phones,” said Mishra. “Who sends letters?”
KC said that Koilabas was an important trading center from Rana times until 1986, when a bridge over the Rapti was completed at Bhaluwang, connecting Dang to the central Terai via the East-West Highway. After 1986, trade shifted to towns along the highway, and those who could—the wealthier Marwari families and others—picked up and left for places like Lamahi, Ghorahi, and Nepalgunj, where they helped establish new bazaars and local industry. Last year, KC said, only a few lakh rupees worth of goods came through his office. (Smuggling doesn’t appear to be significant. We later met someone who and had served in the APF in Koilabas for some months. He said he had never encountered any smuggling there—perhaps potential smugglers were deterred by the terrible road.)
KC and Mishra recommended that Nigam and I visit the town’s most famous edifice, a large Ram Janaki Mandir on the north side. The building and the compound walls were freshly painted white and pink. Terrified-looking lions stood at its entrance. A lonely pujari (priest) showed us around the temple, and said that most visitors come on Saturdays from Indian villages near the border. Inlaid into the marblework outside the temple were several old Indian one-rupee coins bearing the inscription “King George V: King and Emperor” (an internet search later revealed that these coins were minted between 1916 and 1932). Across the street, we met an older gentleman named Abdul Siddiqui who told us that the temple was built in 1885 AD using contributions from all members of the community, including the Muslim population.
Throughout our visit, we asked people about Muslim-Hindu relations, and all responded that there were no problems. A drunk Hindu man who visited us at our hotel one night said that the only fights that occur in Koilabas are due to drunkenness, not religion. (Given his inebriated state, he seemed a reliable informant.)
At mid-day, we ate chat wrapped in tree leaves served by a man named Nizam Siddiqui, who had stationed his pushcart under a tree outside the government primary school. He was taking orders from school kids, which he served through a window into a classroom that had devolved into chaos in the absence of a teacher.
We also visited the local madrasa, where things seemed much more orderly. There were three Indian teachers for forty or so students. Students are taught religious studies and Urdu as well as math and science. A teacher told us that one Hindu family sends their daughter to the madrasa because they thought it a better education than the government school could provide.
We met a group of young men in their late teens and early 20s who offered to show us around their neighborhood. Sibu Siddiqui, the most talkative of the three, was a student in Ghorahi, and was home on vacation. His two friends had finished SLC and were hoping to leave soon to find work.
Our guides led us to a suspension bridge over the nearly dry riverbed, where they said they sleep on hot nights in order to catch the breeze. They also showed us a building that they claimed had been a cinema hall. It had a foyer and a cavernous room in the back, much like the abandoned godowns we had seen around town. I tried to picture teenage romances forming and villagers from the hills splurging for their first moving picture before making the long journey home to Rolpa or Pyuthan. Later, we learned that the building was in fact just another warehouse, but I preferred Sibu and his friends’ story.
In conversations with locals about life in Koilabas today, two issues invariably came up: water and the road.
The area’s soils are very porous, full of sand and rock. As a result, the water table sinks quickly after monsoon. An old man with severe cataracts told us that he used to carry water from India during the dry season when it was in short supply. He had once supported his family as a porter, but now he lives alone, cooking his meals on the veranda of his house while his sons work in India.
Shakila Siddiqui, who married into Koilabas over 50 years ago, told us that water is the biggest challenge the town faces today, and that women spend hours each day fetching water from the handful of wells in town. There is a project to pipe in water from a source in the hills, but it hasn’t been successful. Sanjay Bhandari, the owner of the only shop that sells beer in town, claimed that the budget is “eaten” by local politicians. Wells run dry for several months per year, when people have to request water from the Sashastra Seema Bal (or SSB, the Indian border force), who have a deep boring well on their side of the border. In return, the SSB often take electricity from Nepal, since the area is off-grid on the Indian side.
The state of the road seemed to raise passions even more than the lack of water.
We met Abdul Malik Siddiqui, the young man who had helped us on the road, at his house on a cliff overlooking the river. When I asked him about life in Koilabas today, he immediately began to speak about the poor state of the road connecting his home to the rest of Nepal. It’s in such poor condition that cars can use it for only a few months per year. He had fallen off his bike several times, injuring his leg in two places.
Politicians made promises around the elections to fix the road, he said, which they quickly forgot once they returned to Kathmandu. Though the town is connected to better roads on the Indian side, the SSB give Nepalis a hard time crossing the border, and they strictly enforced last year’s blockade. Although there is a health post in town, the nearest hospital is in India, and if one falls ill in the middle of the night, it is difficult to get across. “It’s like Kashmir here in Koilabas,” he said, referring to the behavior of the SSB.
Abdul had spent some years in Qatar, where he worked long hours for little pay as a tailor. He speculated that if the road to Koilabas were properly paved, trade would resume and people wouldn’t need to leave for work.
The elder Abdul Siddiqui, whom we met nearby the Ram Janaki temple, also expressed frustration with the Nepali government. “These days Koilabas is destroyed. It’s ignored from the central level to the district level,” he said. He and several others we spoke to talked about the potential for tourism if the road were improved. Perhaps they were inspired by Bandipur in Tanahun District, where tourism has helped revive an old trading post that was left stranded after the construction of the Kathamandu-Pokhara road in the 1960s.
But Mishra, the post officer, told us he doubted Koilabas would ever return to its previous glory. For one, the lack of water would make it difficult to support a large population. And unlike other border towns, there is little room to expand—there is very little flat land on the Nepali side of the border, and the Churia Hills are notoriously prone to erosion.
After we left Koilabas, Nigam and I had a conversation about change and Darwin’s theory of evolution, and how losing a way of life resembles an extinction. I was holding forth with my romantic view that something irredeemable is lost when the modern world sweeps away a place like Koilabas. Nigam, a realist, was having none of it. He pointed out the hypocrisy of seeking out a town because it is in ruins while simultaneously lamenting its demise. “Sometimes,” he said, “things just end.”
Cover photo: A Hindu shrine and the mosque in Koilabas. All photos by Nigam Bhandari.