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A TIME TO BUILD, MAHARAJAH BIR'S LEGACY

The Renaissance that transformed Nepal during the medieval Malla period is attested to by the magnificent royal cities of Kathmandu Valley classified under 'World Heritage Sites' by UNESCO. What is perhaps less well known is the neo-classical Renaissance that took place under the prime ministership of Maharajah Bir Shumsher Jung Bahadur Rana, 1885-1901 A.D. Unfortunately very few of those buildings remain for us to marvel at due to the vagaries of fortune.

Maharajah Bir Shumsher J. B. Rana with 2 daughters married to King Prithivi Bir Bikram Shah (center)
European style architecture was already prevalent in the palaces the first Rana prime minister Jung Bahadur built after his epochal visit to England in 1850 A.D. Thapathali Durbar had an expansive potpourri of European styles since sections were added on to the original building as the family grew larger and more and more living space was needed until Jung's death in 1877 A.D. The second Rana prime minister Maharajah Ranauddip Singh too had already built the Narayan Hiti Durbar as his prime ministerial berth by the time Bir Shumsher came to power after the bloody coup d'etat of 1885 A.D.

During Bir's watch an entire section of Kathmandu north and north-east of the old town of Basantapur leading up to the Narayan Hiti Durbar saw a building spree unparalleled in Nepal's history till then.  Fabulous palaces were built, each outdoing the other. Seto Durbar, Hiti Durbar, Phora Durbar and Lal Durbar captured the imagination of the rulers and the ruled alike as symbols of opulence and perhaps a little decadence. Bir also built the Upper or new Narayan Hiti Durbar and relocated the King from the Malla era Hanuman Dhoka Palace which time and termites had rendered uninhabitable. This building was demolished by King Mahendra circa 1967 A.D. and the modern palace often nicknamed the Railway Station was built in its stead.

Old Narayanhiti Royal Palace built by Bir for the King
What became of those palaces? The palace that is partially extant today having been incorporated into the Yak and Yeti Hotel complex is the Lal Durbar or the Red Palace, the magnificent abode of Maharajah Bir himself. Built in 1890 A.D. the palace, besides serving as the residence of the maharajah, also boasted grand state halls, a theater, aviary and riding stables. Belgian wall mirrors, glass lamps from Murano and Bohemian chandeliers adorned the interiors while Italian marble tiled the floors.


Seto Durbar (White Palace) and Lal Durbar (Red Palace) complex of Maharajah Bir

Char Burja Durbar better known today as Bahadur Bhawan was completed by Bir in 1889 A.D. His son Rudra Shumsher lived there until 1934 A.D. when he was removed from the Rana Roll of Succession and the property "nationalized", an euphemism for the ruling Maharajah usurping it. This is the building which housed the venerated Hotel Royal of Boris Lissanevich and currently houses the Election Commission and the Vice President's Office. Seto Durbar, the White Palace, was completed in 1890 A.D. This was the place where Bir breathed his last in 1901 A.D. Most of the Annapurna Hotel complex is built on these grounds. The palace was destroyed by fire in April 1933 A.D. (Baisakh 2090 B.S.) allegedly started by an errant hookah presaging a calamitous new year that culminated, people said, in the Great Earthquake of January 15, 1934 A.D. (Magh 2, 2090 B.S.). Phora Durbar was built in 1895 A.D. A large number of gardens with European style fountains adorned the rest home of Bir.

Phora Durbar where today the American Club is located
Lt. General Jeet Shumsher and wife

The original palace in the Keshar Mahal complex was also built during this period and completed around 1892 A.D. and the occupant was one of the sons of Commander-in-Chief Dhir Shumsher and younger brother of Bir, Lt. General Jeet Shumsher J. B. Rana. He later sold it to his brother Maharajah Chandra who demolished the old palace and built a new one for his son Kaiser Shumsher. It has been known as Keshar Mahal since then and has witnessed many changes to make it larger and grander. I am trying to find out its original name.

Hiti Durbar survives today as a skeletal ruin seen south of the Narayan Hiti compound, a symbol of family claims and counter-claims rendering this prime real estate in the heart of Kathmandu insolvent. We have lost a significant part of our history. Only a few buildings of the Rana period survive today as they were converted to important government offices with sufficient budgets allocated for their upkeep. Rana era palaces such as Singha Durbar secretariat building, Rastra Bank building and Sital Niwas, the office and residence of the President of Nepal provide us with but a glimpse of what was. One building of the period survived as it was converted to Shanker Hotel. Bir was a builder par excellence! Lady Fortune that once smiled upon Maharajah Bir Shumsher abandoned his legacy and we are so much the poorer for it.
The original durbar of Lt. General Jeet Shumsher,
part of it was later turned into the Shankar Hotel


Comments

  1. Subodh Ji,
    You have already corrected the dates of Seto Durbar fire hence I am not commenting on it.

    Keshar Mahal was occupied by Kedar Narsingh Rana who was the then Hazuria of Ranoddip Singh. Unfortunately he was absent the night he was asassinated choosing rather to drink and play the Esraj in his palace. One story goes that Rana Sumshere who was already a notorious alcoholic in his early twenties was deputed by Bir to keep Kedar Narsingh busy on that fateful night. However when he woke up from his drunken slumber it was already too late.

    The building may have been a part of the greater Narsingh Camp changing owners after the coup.
    Cheers
    Gautam

    ReplyDelete
  2. Gautam ji,
    Very interesting insight into what might have transpired! Now I can write a novel!
    Cheers,

    ReplyDelete
  3. Mr. Subodh,

    Please provide any details you have about what companies were involved in providing both raw materials and counsels to Ranas of Nepal for building these magnificent palaces. Details like, if those companies were based in India, how the British Residency played roles in making deals and influencing Ranas in building palaces, architects involved etc.And lastly the routes they were brought in the valley through.

    I have read how some European companies made a fortune by solely doing business with Prince-lings & Maharajahs of the Indian Subcontinent by providing cars, jewels, western exotic good and so forth.
    For example: While I was in Kaiser Mahal, looking for a Longest tiger ever been hunted, in the same room I gazed upon an abandoned dusty rotating-round silky couch and some umbrella styled dresses related to Victorian era. Most spaghetti western movies always have one of those in their saloon.
    It showed the multiple aspects of Brit's wishes behind keeping Shree 3's in Power. First procuring their martial assistance & then doing business.

    Your time will be much appreciated.

    ReplyDelete

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