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HOTEL ROYAL AND THE UNVEILING OF SHANGRI-LA

The story of the first hotel of repute in Nepal starts with King Tribhuvan opening up the country after his return from a short exile in India. The year was 1951 A.D. Just a few years earlier King Tribhuvan was the first monarch in several generations to be granted permission to leave the country on a private visit since the Rana family started ruling Nepal. In 1944 Maharajah Juddha Shumsher the prime minister made arrangements for the king to leave for Calcutta on health grounds and my father Kiran Shumsher, Juddha's son then Major General was deputed to look after the royal visit.

Boris Lissanevitch was the purveyor of European style wining and dining to the metropolis that was Calcutta. The name of Boris's famed establishment was "Club 300", the name derived from his limiting its membership to 300 of Calcutta's elite while women too were allowed in bucking the Colonial trend. It became hugely successful. Soon it became as legendary as the bar in the movie "Casablanca" the Humphrey Bogart character presided over. I can vividly imagine the affable Boris telling tall tales of his flight from Odessa to Paris after the Bolshevik takeover, his successful stint with ballet master Serge Diaghilev's "Le Ballet Russes" and his later jaunts in pre-revolutionary Shanghai. He told stories of how he danced all the way to Calcutta with his dancing partner and first wife Kira before parting ways. King Tribhuvan, hitherto unexposed to life on the fast lane, must have been enraptured by the Calcutta glitterati and the charming Boris.

Boris & Kira in Ballet Russes
Soon after King Tribhuvan assumed power in 1951 it was his old acquaintance Boris of Club 300 fame the king would invite to open a hotel in Nepal. Boris Lissanevitch landed in Kathmandu in November 1953 with his newly-wed wife the Danish beauty Inger, 20 years his junior, and with their two small boys, Mischa and Alex. Nicholas my classmate in junior school was born in Nepal. Boris was handed over one wing of the large palace then known as Bahadur Bhawan, the residence of the eldest son of Maharajah Juddha, to open a hotel. He named it Hotel Royal in salient gratitude to royal patronage. It was never known as Royal Hotel as it might denote ownership of the Royal family, part of the calibrations a democratic post-Rana Nepal required.

Boris and Inger
The palace that Boris was given for opening a hotel had its own turbulent past. The palace known as "Char Burja" with four minarets on the roof following Mughal-era architectural tradition was built in 1889 by Maharajah Bir Shumsher Rana, prime minister of Nepal from 1885 to 1901. It was one of several opulent palaces Bir built to transform the landscape of Kathmandu Valley from ethnic Newari to European neo-classical. Tallo (or lower) Narayan Hiti, Lal Durbar, Seto Durbar and Phora Durbar were also built during his period. "Char Burja" was given to his son General Rudra Shumsher where he and his family resided until 1934 A.D. Rudra was the eldest son of the second wife of Bir Shumsher elevated to the rank of Maharani after he came to power and the sons were enlisted in the roll of succession as approved by the Privy Council.

Politics intervened cruelly to give new ownership to the building that was "Char Burja". On 18th of March 1934 A.D. Maharajah Juddha, succumbing to pressure from the restless "A" class Rana "nomenclatura", banished from the prime ministerial roll Commander-in-Chief Rudra Shumsher, second in line after the prime minister, and all other sons of Bir and Bhim Shumsher considered to have been born from their second wives and thus deemed unfit for the roll of succession. Their Kathmandu properties were confiscated by the state and they were exiled to albeit luxurious life of country squires but far away for the power center of Kathmandu. Rudra Shumsher was exiled to Palpa as the Bada Hakim or Governor of the province. Maharajah Juddha took over the palace and gave it to his eldest son Bahadur Shumsher.

Old Hotel Royal
The palace forlornly houses the National Election Commission today. Despite its recent whitewash it looks lifeless. Boris the bon vivant is missing, his tourists are missing, his royal guests do not visit anymore and his mother-in-law's antique shop does not bring in the curiosity hunters. Grey bureaucrats wander about aimlessly waiting for the next dubious election. Hotel Royal saw its halcyon days in the fifties and early sixties until newer hotels such as Soaltee and Annapurna opened to steal its thunder. But Boris and his Hotel Royal will always be remembered as the first among equals.

Boris in the background supervising a State Banquet

Comments

  1. Yes Mr. Rana those were the days. In the late fiftees a cup of tea and a slice of fruit cake at the Hotel Royal used to cost Nrs 3.50 and I still remember a lot of Nepali commoners having a feinting fit just hearing the price.

    Kahan ko Nepal kahan pugi sake.
    Cheers
    Gautam

    ReplyDelete
  2. Great story. Thanks for the post.

    Sadly, although the front of the building looks the same from Kantipath, it is now only a facade. The entire land comprising the rear of the compound has been sold off to developers. One wing is now used by the Election Commission and the other as the Vice President's office. The shells of numerous government vehicles litter the North side of the compound causing an eyesore.

    As with most GON offices, the bathrooms stink to high heaven as soon as one enters the building. It is pretty embarrassing, considering that a whole lot of foreign donors are giving the ECN money and have to visit the place quite regularly. And oh yes, the beautiful garden, which used to exist in the inside courtyard is now growing wild and unkempt.

    I could go on, but in these new times, there does seem much left to be proud of...

    ReplyDelete
  3. Thanks Kiran for your comment pointing out that the building today houses the office of the V.P. as well. The greyness is magnified by this!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Soo very sad, I stayed there in 1959, remember well the courtyard and the heavenly fragrance. She was a grand old place.

      Delete
  4. From Rana mansion to Madhise haveli -- so goes new Nepal.

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  5. Thanks for the insight into history!

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  6. How come Snow view hotel that was opened during 1954 by Tom Mendies never mentioned in the history of Hotel business in Nepal?

    ReplyDelete
  7. Dear Anon, pls read my blog

    http://historylessonsnepal.blogspot.com/2010/02/embassy-row.html

    Thank you!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I did read your blog. I am quite aware of Birth of Hotel and Boris in Nepal. I personally know Mr. Tom and Elizabeth Mendies very well. Sadly Mr and Mrs are both dead now, but looking back at the history of tourism and birth of Hotels in Nepal, Boris does get credit but Mr. Tom Mendies also had a large part in Hotel business and tourism in Nepal as well. If I am not mistaken. Mr. Mendies was invited by one of the Rana's to come to Nepal and help with catering to the tourists and hotel managements and what not. I just think when googling birth of Hotel and tourism in Nepal should also include Mr. Tom Mendies as a rising start just as Boris was. thanks

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    2. I am in the process of writing a book in the US: ie Mendies Haven Children's home. Founder Tom Mendies after snow view hotel was closed. Love to chat with Subodh ju via either skype or via email for some details on past history of snow view as well as other matters if this is possible. Oh! my very first book is coming out in the US very soon followed by Assam India and movie in Bollyhood.

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    3. My email ID is ranasubodh55@yahoo.com.sg
      Subodh

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  8. Dear Subodh,
    Thank you. History Lessons we all need in the way you present them...facts. Sad that Nepal has lost her identity. Who are we if we do not respect our ancestors our country & citizens. Walter Scott's Poem comes to mind.
    Breathes there the man with soul so dead
    Who never to himself hath said,
    This is my own, my native land!
    Whose heart hath ne’er within him burned,
    As home his footsteps he hath turned
    From wandering on a foreign strand!
    If such there breathe, go, mark him well;
    For him no minstrel raptures swell;
    High though his titles, proud his name,
    Boundless his wealth as wish can claim
    Despite those titles, power, and pelf,
    The wretch, concentred all in self,
    Living, shall forfeit fair renown,
    And, doubly dying, shall go down
    To the vile dust from whence he sprung,
    Unwept, unhonored , and unsung.
    Sushila

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hello Dijyu, this is my latest blog.

      http://historylessonsnepal.blogspot.com/2012/06/sisters-of-coorg-tale-from-raj.html

      Best wishes, Subodh

      Delete
  9. I have a painting done by Inger, from the Tanbochhe buddist monastery, does anyone know anything about her art work.

    thank you

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  10. Dear Anon. 19 June, I will try to find more details on Inger's painting from her son Alex. Best wishes, Subodh

    ReplyDelete

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