The forgotten history of Nepal’s first hydropower project

hydropower station
The forgotten history of Nepal’s first hydropower project

On May 22, 1911, at around 6:30pm, the erstwhile King of Nepal, Prithvi Bir Bikram Shah, inaugurated Nepal’s first and South Asia’s second hydropower project in Kathmandu by turning on the lights in Tudikhel located at the centre of the city. The Chandra Jyoti Electric Power station, named after the then-Prime Minister Chandra Shumsher Rana, had an installed capacity of 500 kilowatts and took about four years and nearly one million days of work to complete. Built to light the palaces of the autocratic Rana rulers, the power station used water from two spring sources 12 kilometres south of Kathmandu.  

This was only 30 years after the installation of the world’s first hydropower plant on Fox River in Appleton, Wisconsin, in 1882, and a year before China built its first hydropower plant in 1912 in Yunnan province.

Despite this early start, Nepal failed to build its second hydropower project only 28 years later. In 1939, a second hydropower project of 640 kilowatts was built northeast of Kathmandu to allow the Rana rulers to live in luxury, rather than to provide electricity for the general population. The country only produced one megawatt of electricity in the first 50 years.

Over the past century, Nepal's hydropower development has been sluggish, with current power production only at 1,400 megawatts. Nearly one-third of the country’s power is met by importing energy from India — its southern neighbour.

Sadly, the history of Nepal's oldest hydropower project has been almost forgotten. It now only delivers water to residents of the southern Kathmandu valley. In 2011, the government of Nepal declared the plant a living heritage site but not much has been done to preserve the area around it. The old palace and guest houses have cracked or crumbled into pieces. The power station has been poorly maintained and the road to the site is yet to be completed. Rusted old metal pipes are scattered near the water storage pond. As one local said, “We Nepalis don’t understand the value of precious things.”

Rusted pipe
Rusted pipes that transport water from the pond to the powerhouse and the city of Kathmandu / Credit: Ramesh Bhushal
Locals talk about the pipe infrastructure
Raj Kumar Shrestha and Kanchha Balami chat next to the metal pipe near their homes. "There used to be a person who used to ride horse and do surveillance of these pipes day and night," recalled Kancha Balami about the early days of the project / Credit: Ramesh Bhushal
School children
Children from Sokhel village, where the hydropower project is located, go to school by using slippery and narrow pathways as a short cut / Credit: Ramesh Bhushal
A couple selling oranges
Ram Hari Khatri of Sokhel village sells oranges from his home to the visitors who come to see the hydropower station / Credit: Ramesh Bhushal
Laborer sleeping quarters
A temporary bed in one of the guest houses where some labourers recently slept while constructing staff quarters for the Nepal Electricity Authority (NEA). NEA manages the main power station, which was declared a living museum in 2010 by the government of Nepal / Credit: Ramesh Bhushal
Guesthouse owner
Kumar Acharya, 54, sits on the doorstep of a cracked guest house. He has been guarding the property and is an employee of Nepal Electricity Authority / Credit: Ramesh Bhushal
Abandoned working group
An abandoned guesthouse near the power station that used to accommodate guests of autocratic Rana rulers who liked to spend time in the countryside near the hydropower station / Credit: Ramesh Bhushal
One of the generators and various electrical parts kept to show visitors to the hydropower station / Credit: Ramesh Bhushal
Generator out of commission
Out of commission pumps and generators kept at the hydropower station for visitors / Credit: Ramesh Bhushal
The switchboard of the water supply system that currently carriees water to the southern part of Kathmandu valley. The water that was used previously for electricity generation now feeds drinking water supplies. The staff of the water supply department sleep next to the water supply switchboard during the night to guard the system / Credit: Ramesh Bhushal
First house to receive power
The first house that was provided with electricity in Khokana village, a few kilometres away from the power station. The Ranas wanted to test whether the power was safe to use before installing the wires in their palaces, so they provided electricity to Madan Krishna Maharjan’s house in Khokana. The house on the right is now abandoned due to damage during the 2015 earthquake, but a board above the door still reads, “Welcome to the Khokana Museum, this is the first house with electric light provided in Nepal” / Credit: Ramesh Bhushal

Banner image: The Chandra Jyoti Hydropower station is located a few hundred metres from the Bagmati River that flows through Kathmandu city / Credit: Ramesh Bhushal

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