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The greatest building of them all

DESMOND DOIG


Visitors to Kathmandu are invariably told that the great Rana palaces that rise like huge wedding cakes above the lesser confections of the city, were designed by French or British architects. Certainly they emulate the grand classical styles of Europe and are completely unlike the traditional Newari architecture - of the Kathmandu valley. What comes as a surprise is to discover that the \'French\' and \'British architects were Nepali, foremost among them the amazing brothers Kumar and Kishore Narshing, who were responsible for almost every palace of consequence in the valley. How they could have turned so easily, so conversantly, to this completely foreign style is remarkable, particularly as every palace they raised, either singly or together, had a distinct character of its own.

When the first Rana prime minisier. Jung Bahadur journeyed to England and me Continent in 1850, he was deeply impressed not only by the extravagance of court life, the awesome military pageantry, and the personalities he met, like Queen Victoria and the Duke of Wellington, but by the lifestyle that centred about the great houses. Returning to Nepal he soon set about introducing the fashions of Europe into the Nepalese court. Military uniforms became flamboyantly Puritarian, ladies of the court adopted Western hairstyles and wore their sarees in amazing approximation to crinolines and bustle. And modern palaces Were built employing all the embellishments of Corinthian and Rococco, Baroque, and neo-Cothic, high renaissance and Empire, and happily, an undeniable touch of Nepali. Singha Durbar has it all: Corinthian, Rococco, Baroque, high renaissance and Empire, and an undeniable Nepalifiess.

Having piled their extravagances all over the cities of kathmaridu and Patan, the Ranas dream of raising the ultimate great palace as an official residence for the prime minister crystallized in the mind of Prime Minister Chandra Sumsher Jung Bahadur Rana who ordered work to begin in 1901. Acres of land had to be levelled, for what was to be a building of almost 1,800 rooms with well appointed parks and gardens all around. The rooms were built around seven courtyards, which beginning behind the magnificent facade, slowly - diminished in importance. Here, in this amazing building considered to be the largest in Asia if not in all the-world, lived the reigning Maharaja, his numerous children and their families, retainers of various ranks, concubines and servants. Since retainers had retainers and concubines had servants of their own, there had to be a provision for them all.

The Singha Durbar palace is reached through imposing gates in the French style, and up a drive beside reflecting pools in which fountain nymphs disport themselves. Bronze alligators yawn ominously on the banks of the pool, and pigeons forever preen themselves in silver painted iron. Great pillars, wreathed with plaster flowers, rise two floors above the ample porch which is itself embellished with foliated pillars, decorative urns and a marble balustrade. When one\'s eyes finally come to rest after exploring tiers of pillared galleries, arches, decorated pedestals and trees of wrought iron lamp bearers, it focuses on a large gilded lion, rampant, which holds aloft the national flag.

But if the outside is overpowering, the interior is incredible. I remember the grand marble stairway, the huge murals-of the tiger hunt, when the prime minister was flung from his howdah to stand eye to eve in tall grass with a maddened tiger until rescued by his elephant. Gilt, priceless marble. Venetian mirrors, bohemian - chandeliers, paintings and statuary are everywhere. Then, quite unexpectedly and uproariously is a hall of distorted mirrors as if it was felt necessary to include a touch of comic relief among such magnificence I leave it to Percival Langdon, friend of the Then ruling maharaja and author of a couple of the most fascinating books on Nepal, to describe \'the experience of shock\' in seeing the great reception hall for the first time:

Its rich decoration may seem to many too rich; but it is only right to say that there is not in all India a hall of such magnificence. One wonders how all these enormous minors, these statues, these chandeliers of branching crystal, were brought over the mountain passes of Sisagarhi and Chandragiri. The heaviest pieces ever carried over are said to be the statues of the prime ministers. They weigh about four tons each.

There is a grand theatre, the Baithak Gallery, now used for sessions of the Rashtriya Panchayat. I have seen the overpowering Durbar Hall with its crystal chandeliers almost touching the crystal fountains that legend has playing champagne, used for banquets to President Rajendra Prasad and Queen Elizabeth. There could have been no more glittering occasions, as what jewelled detail had been omitted in the decor was more than amply made up for by the jeweller}\' of the guests. It was incredible to know that all the sumptuous food being served in relays by livened servants was being cooked on charcoal fires on a back verandah by Boris and his Hotel Royal staff, since the palace kitchen was miles away.

I remember visiting various government departments in days gone by when one entered, I think, the second courtyard through a side gate hung with the most tangled confusion of electric wires. It was a difficult job finding the room one wanted in that maze of corridors, all hung with skeins of electric wires. I recall someone once telling me that it was amazing the whole thing didn\'t go up in smoke. It did, in 1974, though the cause is still unknown. All Kathmandu turned out to watch and try to put out the flames that relentlessly devoured the buildings. Many wept.

By the timely command of the present king, Birendra Bir Bikram Shah, a part of the doomed building was dynamited to save the historic facade. It worked. And painstaking rebuilding has resulted in a new courtyard being erected behind the first. Others may follow.


LATEST ISSUE
638
(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)


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