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From Darkness to Light: The legacy of Chandra Jyoti Hydropower

While the world had already resolved the AC/DC war between Tesla and Edison in electrical power distribution, and Europe was experimenting with a myriad of electrical miracles, Nepal was still living in the dark. The country, isolated from external contact for decades, did not enter the electricity era until the 7th king of the Shah dynasty, Prithvi Bir Bikram Shah Dev, inaugurated the Chandrajyoti Hydropower on May 12th, 1911.

Chandrajyoti, named after the contemporaneous prime minister Chandra Shamsher Jung Bahadur Rana, was the first hydroelectric plant in Nepal and the second in all of Asia. The idea to establish a hydroelectric plant in the country arose from a visit that the prime minister, Chandra Shamsher, made to England in 1899. Among all other elements of astonishment to the delegate in London, the bright lights that lined the street captured his attention the most. Since then, the desire to illuminate his palace with these lights had consumed his daydreams. Eight years later, in 1907, he commissioned the project's construction and completed it after four years in 1911. The completion of the project took 900,050 man-days and cost Rs. 713,273.82 in total.

The process was not easy, given Nepal's situation in the early 1900s, and the British government granted significant equipment, including two turbines, generators, and electrical switchgear, along with some qualified engineers and an interest-free loan of £25,000. It also helped to train Nepali engineers and technicians at the Thomason College of Civil Engineering in Roorkee, India. 

The chief designer, Mr. Brahma Dev Acharya was a British-trained engineer who created the 500-kW hydropower plant comprising a reservoir with a 200' diameter and 18' depth with a capacity of 528,733 cu. Ft. The power station, fitted with two generating units capable of producing 250 kW each, utilized spring water from Satmule and Sheshnarayan areas to run the turbines and create power. The electricity generated was transmitted through a 6-mile-long 12kV transmission line directly to Singha Durbar (Lion Palace). The transmission line mainly consisted of wooden poles with the sporadic presence of some steel poles. Finally, a step-down substation at the Durbar reduced the voltage to 230V.

Though a minor undertaking from the engineering point of view, the lack of skilled manpower and the unavailability of good roads made the project a challenging endeavor. All the penstock pipes and turbines were shipped to Calcutta, brought by land to Bhimphedi, and carried by hand over the steep hills and valleys to the construction site by porters. 

Though considered a milestone in Nepal's electrification, Chandrajyoti did nothing more than brighten the palaces of the ruling family of Ranas for most of its early life. For 28 years, it remained the only electrical power source in Nepal until 1939, when a second hydropower project capable of 640 kilowatts was built northeast of Kathmandu. However, just like the previous power plant, it only added to the Rana dynasty's sybarite list of luxuries. 

The Nepal Electricity Authority (NEA), established in 1985, ultimately took over Chandra Jyoti Hydro Power and renamed it Pharping Hydro Power running it smoothly till the late 1990s. However, rapid urbanization led to water scarcity in some regions of Lalitpur, and the water from the reservoir had to be redirected for drinking purposes to the various places of the district. 

Once the largest hydropower in Asia, Pharping Hydro Power Plant is now a heritage site. In 2010, it was declared a living museum by the Nepal Government and is now open to the public.

By Adarsha Bohora