Nepali Times
Renaissance of romance


Ah, Love! Could thou and I with Fate conspire
To grasp this sorry Scheme of Things entire,
Would not we shatter it to bits- and then
Re-mould it nearer to the Heart's Desire!

Omar Khayyam's stanza from The Rubaiyat is inscribed in marble just above a lover's seat for two. The cracks running through the stone slab, a legacy of the earthquake of 1934, is painted on either side with leaves and flowers to resemble a vine. Inside the Garden of Dreams you forget the world outside, which is probably what Field Marshall Kaiser Shumsher Jung Bahadur Rana intended when he lavished so much attention and detail on this remarkable garden.

It was supposed to echo the grandeur of the Versailles at France, but with a Nepali sensibility with its fine Newari art as well as Western neo-classical leanings. In one corner he put a figure of Laxmi with five conch shells overturned in a winning position.

The original garden and the palace built by Bir Shumsher in 1895 once spanned almost 10 hectares. It had six free standing pavilions, each representing Himalayan seasons: basanta (spring), grishma (early spring), barkha (summer-monsoon), sharad (early autumn), hemanta (late autumn) and shishir (winter). They formed the architectural framework around which the elaborate garden came together. Inspired by his passion for reading, to which his collection at the library stands testament, the Field Marshall commissioned European designs for the fountains, garden furniture and other elements like pools, pergolas, balustrades, urns and birdhouses. The original landscape included a lawn, wooded areas interspersed with formal gardens and a duck pond to accommodate more than 500 migratory ducks every winter.

But urbanisation took a toll on this island of tranquillity. The palace became the Ministry of Education and the garden lay neglected. All but three of the seasonal pavilions fell to Thamel's urban sprawl, reducing the garden to half its original size. It crumbled slowly into decay, almost forgotten under choking weeds and overgrown trees.

Sitting at prime real estate, just opposite the royal palace and the road into Thamel, some enterprising business people proposed tearing the gardens down to create a row of shutter shops. It seemed almost inevitable. But in 1998 a project for the renaissance of the garden was finalised through Austrian Development Aid with the support of the Ministry of Education and Sports and implemented by the project team from the Austrian group, Eco-Himal.

A team was put together that included Lok Bhakta Rana (Kaiser Shumsher's youngest son), G?tz Hagm?ller (the man behind the renovation of Patan Museum), Eric Theophile (the designer behind Baber Mahal Revisited) and architect Prabal Thapa.

The hard work is beginning to show. The renovations are recent but they hold the essence of the ancient aesthetics that was part of the original plan. The new entrance gate reads 'Dreams' on the inside and 'Garden' on the outside.

The Swapna Garden Development Board is modelling itself along the lines of Patan Museum for self-sufficiency. Head of landscape design, Helga Gropper, explains: "We have to design this garden for people, which means that there will be a lot of maintenance and upkeep." But its location near Thamel is expected to yield revenues from visitors which will pay for the running cost and anything left over will be spent on reviving the Kaiser Library. Project manager Ludmilla Hungerhuber agrees that future maintenance and management is the greatest challenge when the garden opens next year. "To get a garden like this, dormant and unattended for so long, restore it to its former glory, and open it up to the public is very satisfying. Now we have to make sure it also runs by itself."

Shishir, the lost winter pavilion, is being reconstructed to house a restaurant aptly called the 'The Six Seasons', along with a Viennese-style Kaiser Caf? at the Basanta pavilion. A gift shop selling quality handicrafts and garden products and a walk-in aviary showcasing a range of Himalayan birds is also planned. The garden, birds, trees, books: it all adds up to a Kaiser Shumsher Theme Park.

Kathmandu will soon have another oasis of tranquility right in the heart of the city, and rapt couples can sit beneath Omar Khayyam's immortal poem.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)