Corridors assembled with rows of oil painted regal visages and unfathomable expressions. We try to extract a story from each gaze... “She looks as if she could not cope with it”…“ or perhaps she took everyone else for a spin”…“ coquettish”… “vulnerable”… “He looks arrogant…a debauch”… “a scholarly inclination…” “a smirk with a touch of coldness…”, “a thinking statesman” the imagination begins to churn plots and characters.
A stroll through old mansions and palaces bring a heavy sense of decadent power and grandeur, vastness, quietness.
Awed by their size, their lavishness and above all, what made them come into being, what led to their transition or abandonment - it’s the urge to know the story that lurks within the space and architecture of these grand structures.
Early medieval constructions in Nepal were inspired by deities and religious ideals, but as much as religious intent was behind the purpose, it also brought reverence to the patrons. Architectural abilities rested in the construction of temples rather than palaces.
In his anthology of history - Medieval Nepal, D. R. Regmi writes about the royal palaces of the three city kingdoms of Nepal Valley, “These palaces were not ostentatious judged by the modern standard. They were not also imposing on account of tallness or their span. The palace was just an ordinary house in many respects including accommodation if a single building was to be taken into account…”
But over the centuries and changing dynasties, palaces and mansions were to take on a different character.
Architectural preferences came with a combination of power, privilege and regal exchanges acquired through royal travels. Constructions continued with a hierarchical tacit code of conduct for limits on flaunting, based on tiers of rank and power; With Lower rungs of aristocracy and power-takers waiting on the edge of constructions that could take them one-up each time an opportunity dug a new foundation.
Architecture of the Malla Kings, from the medieval period, which brought into prominence the Shikara and Pagoda style of temple structures and the intricate newari window craft embedded into brick facades, (The style reached a high level of proficiency during the reign of Kings like Siddhi Narsing Malla) was by-passed after a few centuries and gradually gave way to the neo-classical structures, inspired by the European visits of Nepal’s Rana rulers. Stucco architecture (traditionally the use of plaster and mortar, which later got replaced with cement, lime and sand) began in the 19th century and picked up pace into the early 20th century. Layers of material hardened into solid dense shapes, columned porticos & anterior landscaped gardens, corniced slopes of roofs dropping down towards arches and lintel topped bay windows.
The 1850 visit of Jung Bahadur Rana to England, brought changes in the lifestyle of the ruling class as much as in architecture. From administrative norms, to carpets, to pets and palanquins, everything got infused with anglophilic influences.
This influence of western architecture was further heightened by visits of Chandra Shumsher Jung Bahadur Rana to England and France in the first decade of the 20th century, who also got the 1000 roomed Singh Durbar built in 1903, currently housing governmental secretariat buildings.
At some point of time in the early part of the 20th century, the 200 square miles of Kathmandu valley had 41 palaces and big mansions of different sizes. Ornate white structures sitting amidst very few roads cross cutting among greenery of fields and gardens.
After a century of Rana rule, their demise saw the opening up of the country to the first tourists, the quick arrival of aid agencies and better roads, more air connectivity, which began to give Kathmandu more hubbub. This was a time when social climbing began to pick up with Kathmandu as the prime destination of building and owning real estate, mansions and houses. The mansions and palaces began to have the company of regular houses, as they stood either neglected, nationalized or converted into landmark hotels or official buildings.
Keshar Mahal, the Garden of Dreams and a Library
About a hundred meters short off the tourist area of Thamel, over 200 persons walk every day through the quite passage set in an ordinary looking white washed boundary wall; An inconspicuous corner right across the Narayanhiti Museum (erstwhile palace of the former King of Nepal)
Its not until they have bought a ticket (worth a 100 Nepalese rupees for locals and 200 for foreigners) at the counter, and stepped another couple of yards that the imperceptible entrance suddenly opens up to a beautiful dream garden, blossoming, trimmed and laid out with white benches, pathways twining around a tiered landscape, punctuated with statues and urns, and surrounded by tall columned porticos; A garden with fountains, balustrades and several distinct pavilions that add to the luxuriant feeling of leisure among the pathways. The garden was given a beautiful facelift in 2006 and currently houses the grand white-columned Kaiser Café along with other garden settings to relax and dine in.
This is the exquisite 1920s construction by Field Marshal Kaiser Shumsher Jung Bahadur Rana, who at various points of his career held positions as an ambassador to the UK, and defense, finance minister of Nepal in the 1950s. Kaiser Shumshere had a particular interest in books, paintings and taxidermy. The garden is an extension to his private home the Kaiser Mahal. Part of building was converted into Kaiser library in 1969 with books donated by Krishana Chandra Devi Rana from the personal collection of her husband. Walls of the building remain adorned with painted wall-hangings depicting scenes of historic visages and deeds, and many hunting trophies in the form of taxidermies of animals. Besides this the building holds a good collection of rare photographs of diplomats, philosophers & poets, along with weapons and painted battle scenes, which makes it more than a library - a repository of history. The library is managed by the Ministry of Education, government of Nepal and stocks more than fifty thousand books and manuscripts open to the public.
From the Durbar of Agni Shamsher Jang Bahadur Rana to Shanker Hotel
Several hundred yards from the British & Indian Embassies in Kathmandu, turning off the road that passes through Lazimpat, stands the magnificently designed former palace of Jeet Shamsher Rana, the Southern Commanding General of the army. The over hundred years old building was designed by Nepal’s first Civil Engineer, Kumar Narsing Rana in 1894. After Jeet Shamsher Rana’s death the palace came into the possession of Prime Minister Juddha Shamsher Rana, and went on to his son Agni Shamsher Jung Bahadur Rana, whose daughters, the former queen Aishwarya and her sister queen Komal were born here.
The hotel has served guests from all over the world. Personalities from show business - Salman Khan to Sting have stayed here and from the former presidents of India, Gaini Zial Singh, Narsimha Rao, and former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger have held important conferences in the hotel.
In 1964 AD, it was bought by the Late Ram Shanker Shrestha and converted into Shanker Hotel as we know it today, retaining and embellishing its historical and architectural character. Surprisingly Ram Shanker Shrestha had till then run a modest hotel by the name of Green Hotel in New Road, which was no where close to the experience that he was to create through Shanker Hotel. Operations started with a mere 23 rooms and gradually expanded to its full capacity. For his distinguished service to the country Ram Shanker Shrestha, posthumously received the Order of the Gorkha Dakshin Bahu (an order equivalent to a knighthood of Nepal). It is one of the highest honors which traditionally was given by the King, and now by the President of the country.
Lal Durbar to Hotel Yak and Yeti
The Rana rule which lasted for a 104 years, saw the construction of many neo-classical palaces and mansions, laden with an ensemble of exquisite interiors - crystalline and enameled glassware from the Venetian island of Murano, Italian marble, Belgium mirrors, and a desire to dazzle in grandeur.
Built in 1885, the Lal Durbar, converted into the five star hotel Yak and Yeti in 1977. At present the building houses a casino on the ground floor, while the second floor houses the Regency Room and the third floor, the Dynasty Room which are part of the hotel’s Lal Durbar Convention Center. Built by Bir Shumsher Jung Bahadur Rana, Lal Durbar is less than five minutes walk from King’s Way in downtown Kathmandu. The rooms in particular are embellished with ornate frescoed ceilings, with the walls showing rows of royal ladies painted into gilt frames, sitting atop rows of painted mirrors, with stories of intrigue, passion and relationships attached with most. Today it serves as an exquisite banquet and conference hall for guests of the hotel.
Lal Durbar also houses the famous Naachghaar, which now serves as one of the restaurants of the hotel. This was the place where Bir Shumsher Jang Bahadur Rana use to get entertained. The contemporary setting has an equipped stage for performance and a traditionally set dining area which in earlier times had a rectangular pool from where the ruler would relax submerged in fragrant water, as he would watch the performances.
Babar Mahal to Babar Mahal Revisted
This magnificent palace was the work of Chandra Shumshere Jang Bahadur Rana for his second son Baber Shamshere, and is located right next to the Singh Durbar. The property with its out-buildings of cowsheds, stables and palace got a splendid reconstruction make-over now known as Babar Mahal Revisited. Baber Mahal was taken over by the government in 1966. While parts of the property where sold back to Aditya Shamshere Rana. It was in 1995 that Gautam SJB Rana recreated the structures into the present complex rendering a revival of Nepal’s regal glory.
Besides the elegant rows of buildings, lining the spaces which were originally the ‘galli’ (narrow pathways) besides the ‘goths’ (cowsheds) the complex has five courtyards which house some of the finest shopping and dinning outlets in Kathmandu. The buildings and courtyards are a blend of representations from lucknavi Mughal style, Victorian and Newari architectural influences, a mix of classical columns, louvered grills and low diminutive passages.
In 2000 Babar Mahal Revisited was listed in UNESCO Asia-Pacific Heritage Awards Project, as a successful large scale preservation of cultural heritage undertaken by the private sector in Nepal.