As the community continues to battle for the survival of ancient archeological lands, their beauty is captured in an intimate, black and white project, After Eden.
It is believed that the settlement that used to lie between Khokana and Bungamati in Nepal’s Kathmandu Valley was founded by a Hindu goddess. The land has been proposed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, being as it is a rich archaeological site waiting for restoration and preservation. It also sits in the proposed path of the Kathmandu-Tarai Expressway, a 78-kilometre “fast track” road conceived to bring tourists from the city of Lalitpur to a not-yet-built airport in Tarai in just 90 minutes, a velocity whose casualty would be the displacement of the settlements that remain dotted across the sacred land.
The people living in these settlements are resisting. “It’s a social-political fight that’s been happening since 2007,” explains Aakriti Chandervanshi, the photographer whose ongoing project After Eden is a document of these lands on the cusp of potential destruction. “There was a masked protest as recently as July. The battle is still ongoing.” Chandervanshi’s photographic project has been to reflect the stakes of the battle for these communities. “They get up, they worship, they plough the fields, they get crops, that’s their whole life cycle,” she says. “People have a lot to lose.”
As a former trainee of architecture, Chandervanshi came to realise that her interest was in conservation rather than construction, and eventually came to photography as a way, “to evoke feelings, to help people understand.” In 2019 she joined the International Semester program at Pathshala South Asian Media Institute and moved to Nepal where she began work on After Eden. She cycled from her homestead to the valley’s foothills at around 4.30am, in pitch dark, and photographed as much of the surreal landscape as she could while the sun rose behind the mountains.
In the images, fog softens the edges of the landscape, indistinguishable from the dust stirred up by the beginnings of the development of the fast track. The choice to use black and white was a practical one: “It was too breathtakingly beautiful to showcase in colour,” Chandervanshi says. “In black and white you’re made to see the contrast of the destruction.” It also lends the images a historical, fabled quality, as thought we’re looking at something that has already disappeared.
Despite the fact that Chandervanshi spent days on site with the locals and their children, getting to know them and asking their opinions on the fast track, human presence is sparse within the images themselves. Instead, the overwhelming focus of After Eden would reflect what she saw as its protagonist. “I chose to photograph the land, and what it had to say,” Chandervanshi explains. “It was the land that the people were fighting for. It was the land which was going under all this turmoil. And it was because of the land they worshipped that [the people] wanted to stand for it.” The landscapes as depicted by Chandervanshi are as beautiful as they are balefully portentous, warning – as the photographer does – “you will not be able to get this back.”
After Eden is Chandervanshi’s way of standing in solidarity with the people who stand to lose so much, and raising the voices of the cause. “The notion of progress is trumping the people. It’s erasing and overriding the land and the memory itself,” she says. The work will continue until a decision is made, to either forge ahead with the expressway, or to redirect it and protect the site. The photographer is steeling herself: “I know it’s a long road ahead.”
Alice Zoo is a photographer and writer based in London. She is interested in the processes by which people construct meaning for themselves, often focussing on its expression in ritual, celebration, and recounted memory. Her work has been exhibited in public institutions such as the National Portrait Gallery, Royal Photographic Society, and Royal Albert Hall, and published in British Journal of Photography, FT Weekend Magazine, The New Yorker, and elsewhere.