Once upon a time there was a Maharaja. His name was Bir Sumshere, and he had three palaces. The marble for his palace was brought from Italy, the mirrors from Belgium, and the crystal for his chandeliers from Murano. One of these palaces was called Lal Darbar because of its red fa?ade, the others were Seto Darbar (The White Palace) and Phora Darbar (The Palace of the Fountains). Lal Darbar was built in 1890, the days when cars didn't carry men in Kathmandu, but men carried cars, through the hills surrounding the Valley.
Lal Darbar remains a prime example of the decadence of that era, although it presently exists as bits and pieces of the Yak & Yeti Hotel. The remains of the palace now enclose a casino on the lower level, the Regency Room on the second floor and the Dynasty Room on the third, top floor. The engineers and architects working on the restoration project took as their inspiration the original fa?ade of the Lal Darbar, and rebuilt it to complement the new functions of the rooms, in addition to adding an extra wing to both sides and restoring the interiors of Bir Sumshere's beloved residence.
The Dynasty Room, Bir Sumshere's private bedroom back in the day, is lavish to the extreme. The beautiful lush pink marble was shipped all the way from Italy to Calcutta and transported from the port all the way to Kathmandu by armies of porters. And it doesn't just stop at Italian marble-Bir Sumshere also had a hankering for Belgian mirrors, which are in evidence still, and all of the chandeliers are from Murano. Walk into Bir Sumshere's bedroom and you see what an extreme concentration of riches and indulgent tastes can do: this is where the nation's money went, all of it. That said, the combination of marble, crystal and glass is sheer brilliance, and makes the rooms glow with a kind of grandeur that we will probably never see attempted in our lifetime.
Building somewhat over the top, super-luxurious palaces became something of a trend after Jung Bahadur went on his famous trip to England and France in 1850, where he met Queen Victoria, cried copious tears at the opera, and developed a taste for high living. Suddenly there was a spate of palaces all built in the neo-classical style, most with well-proportioned columns ornamenting the elegant white stucco fa?ades housing the maharajas, their wives, mistresses and numerous progeny.
Lal Darbar, probably the best example of this kind of thing, is surrounded by its fair share of tall stories and anecdotes. It is said that Bir Sumshere built the palace for his favourite son Indu Sumshere, the offspring of his oldest legal wife. When it was built, Indu Sumshere is believed to have got more than just a palace-on the grounds were three wells, one full of gold bullion, one other with silver and the third with jewellery.
The palace also housed an aviary, stables, cowsheds, numerous rooms and dressing rooms for the various men and women living there, a naachghaar (theatre) and a separate luxurious garden for the wives and concubines to saunter in. A pity that the mongrel phrase high sancho hadn't been invented by then. It would have described the style of living perfectly.
The Lal Darbar's fascinating history does not peter out with the end of the Rana regime. The palace lay derelict and unused till 1970, and it was only with the birth of the restaurant called the Yak & Yeti, which was housed in what is presently called the Naachghar, that the eccentricity and decadence came full circle. The restaurant was founded by a Russian ?migr? called Boris Lissanevitch who has generated as many rumours and myths as some of the more infamous and oddball Rana rulers. They say he was a ballet dancer, a cook, a soldier who ran away from the Russian army, and that he had been recruited by King Tribhuvan himself who brought him from Calcutta where he had founded the famous 300 Club. The Yak & Yeti restaurant was where the most important people in Nepal, as well as members of the royal family dined on borsht and other exotic Boris concoctions.
Maila Budhathoki, a waiter who has worked at The Yak & Yeti since its humble restaurant beginnings, and who joined Boris at the Royal Hotel, says that his boss would put a dash of alcohol in everything he cooked and that he made his own peach and plum wine. Boris had a knack of flamboyantly carrying on the extravagant traditions of the Ranas (and the Romanovs?), and he added his own touch to what he deemed the "Kathmandu Baroque" of the old Rana Darbars. The present chandeliers in the Naachghar restaurant were brought from Belgium and installed by Boris, and the magnificently carved Nepali windows in the Chimney restaurant are also a part of Boris's legacy.
And thus were sown the seeds of what is now the Yak & Yeti Hotel. Eventually Boris would withdraw from cooking at the restaurant, and the hotel would continue towards it growth as a five-star property. The hotel acquired the remainder of the Lal Darbar in the early 1970s, but did not start renovations on it until 1994.
Today, the Yak & Yeti uses the Lal Darbar as a conference room and banquet hall. The thorough restoration is a remarkable job, and remains faithful to the original details and make up. The restorers who work for the hotel report that the rooms themselves were in surprisingly good condition and only needed a few careful touches of paint in order to be brought back to their original splendour. The chief engineer at the Yak & Yeti, Devasis Basu, credits the original architects of the Lal Darbar with making the job of restoring the rooms much easier, "The foundation of the Darbar goes incredibly deep into the ground" he says. Some say that it was meant to be as deep as the Darbar was high. Whether this is actually true or not, the foundation does indeed run very deep, as 15 ft, providing the Darbar with an incredibly strong base. In addition, there is a series of vents running through the foundation aerating it and protecting the walls of the Darbar from the insidious dampness that would otherwise have wreaked havoc on the walls, which are works of art themselves.
The Yak & Yeti Hotel has annexed the palace to the modern part of the hotel by means of a clever passageway that houses exotic, intricately-worked jewellery and textiles to tempt susceptible tourists, and connects the lobby with the atrium that is in turn connected to the Lal Darbar complex that now houses the Casino and the Regency and Dynasty rooms. The atrium itself is a graceful structure adorned with portraits of the various Shree Tiin Maharajas.
The elevators that take unsuspecting visitors up to the Regency and Dynasty rooms are wonderful glassed-in showpieces. As they ascend you get a view of the atrium, but when the doors open on the first floor there are more treasures. The Regency Room is impressive, with ceilings ornamented with gilt paint and chandeliers that turn the ceiling into a garden of light. Step out of the room and into a marble grove-this is the infamous Italian marble, and it is possible to just stand there, rooted to the spot. It almost makes you condone the extravagance that brought it to Kathmandu.
The Dynasty Room is still more dizzyingly beautiful. The chandeliers are even more lavish, the ceilings are alive with patterns in gold and other colours, and there are mirrors all around, each crowned with the picture of a wife or mistress. Quite a treat for the eyes, though you might come away feeling a little disoriented.
The Naachghar is a well-equipped modern theatre with a raised stage and lots of very interesting lighting devices. In Bir Sumshere's day the room was a little more primitive. The floor was mud, and there was a shallow rectangular pool in the middle where Bir Sumshere could take a dip to cool himself down during the summer as he watched the entertainment. In the evenings he would sit at one end while the entertainers stood across the room performing their various dance and song routines. It is easy to imagine Bir Sumshere turning in his grave when one hears that today the Naachghar hosts day time discos and other such activities. People who work at the Naachghaar swear that they have moments when Bir Sumshere glowers down at them from his portrait. One also wonders what he would think about the distinctly odd ceiling mural - a circle depicting all the different signs of the zodiac. It is quite a juxtaposition with the stucco and vaguely baroque d?cor of the rest of the room.
There's something about this d?cor that positively encourages slightly over-the-top behaviour. Of course, there's no telling what things these walls and mirrors have seen, and these wedding-cake light fixtures have illuminated, but it seems that the ghosts of indiscretions past have not yet been laid to rest. The people who work in the Regency and Dynasty rooms swear that the very heavy doors have this curious propensity for swinging shut, all by themselves, as the last man of the cleaning crew leaves after a function that has taken place there. The Naachghar has its own ghosts. Either that or the crystal chandeliers vibrate of their own accord. The Naachghaar staff tell us that even when everything else is still, and there is nobody in the room above the restaurant, the magnificent chandeliers shake, making tinkling sounds.
It's a shame that such graceful architecture, through no fault of its own, comes to be associated with the excesses of the Rana rule and a time of oppression. Actually, these buildings are worthy of preservation even if one doesn't think too highly of their baroque ornateness. As Pashupati Sumshere JB Rana says in his book Kathmandu: A Living Heritage, "Whether they conform to one's particular taste or not, the Rana palaces are a part of our cultural heritage." Ignoring or destroying reminders of history are not a way of dealing with it.
The Yak & Yeti hotel has found a perfect way to live with its physical surroundings. They have restored their building to its former glory and are using it in a modern context-as a casino, banquet hall and to promote tourism. Projects like this, Babar Mahal Revisited, and the Keshar Mahal Garden ( "Garden of dreams", #43), are good markers for the future of Kathmandu's aesthetic and commercial life.