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The gates to the Royal Palace


DESMOND DOIG


Theold palace has gone, but the gate remains like a giant's wedding cake that the party somehow forgot to devour. In its fussy, faded white way it remains a monument to the great house that the first Rana prime minister, Jung Bahadur, had built for his brother Rana Udip Singh in 1847. For a site, he chose an area then outside the city limits, beside a historic spring and a famous temple to Narayan. One or perhaps both of the famous Narsingh brothers, who had been trained at the Roorkee Engineering College, were responsible for the building and they appear to have been inspired by more than one of Calcutta's grand colonial piles: a snatch of Government House which in turn was a copy of Keddleston Hall in Derbyshire, and a trace of the high court fa?ade, sans stone.

Rana Udip Singh, who succeeded Jung Bahadur as prime minister, was assassinated in the palace by his nephews. Their motivation was simple. Jung Bahadur had decreed that succession to the post of prime minister would pass from brother to brother, then to the eldest nephew and his brothers thereafter. Which meant an inordinately long wait for those who desired the office. It is common in Kathmandu to hear reference to the families of Seven and Seventeen. Every Rana is descended from them. The seven are the brothers of Jung Bahadur, who after the murder of Rana Udip Singh disappeared from the official scene to be replaced by their seventeen nephews.

Ironically, the palace built by the first Rana prime minister became the official residence of the kings of Nepal after the murder of Rang Udip Singh. It was handsomely enlarged by Kumar Narsingh in 1899 and landscaped in the European manner with reflecting pools and follies, a bandstand and garden sculpture. This is how I saw it when Chou En-lai visited Kathmandu and was given a lavish reception in the old palace by the late King Mahendra. Red carpets climbed its twin marble stairways. Gurkha guards stood smartly in twin sentry boxes by the stairs and magnificent chandeliers blazed in the regal reception rooms. But no doubt about it, the old building trembled quite alarmingly below the weight of hundreds of guests. It was that threat of eventual collapse, perhaps, that prompted the tearing down of the splendid old palace and replacing it with a modern complex of uncertain architecture. At the same time as that was done, a modern road called Darbar Marg was bulldozed through parks and other palaces, to lead to the new front gate of the brand new Narayanhiti Darbar.

What perhaps the old palace lacked, the new one has in plenty-a limited but clear public view of the royal residence. Past the tall, wrought iron gates the loyal approach passes through manicured gardens to marble stairs that climb to large silver doors. Above the doors is a tower of modern Nepali design with a full-length window through which, on occasion, can be seen the glitter of vast chandeliers.
Two of the original gates remain. A yellow concrete, art nouveau confection capped with white concrete snow, and the lovely old giant's wedding cake. I remember, when I first came to Kathmandu, crowds collecting outside the yellow concrete gate every morning for darshan. They seldom, if ever, caught a glimpse of the king, but they were there out of tradition and the ancient loyalty that binds the Nepali monarch to his people. After standing about, almost reverently, for a while, they would disperse as if on some given signal - voluble again, smiling, satisfied. Village folk often stand outside the new gates, peering in wonder at the abode of their king, while foreign tourists pose for photographs. I never fail to feel a sense of disappointment for them, because someone somewhere in this land of the famous Gurkha soldiers, should have devised a small daily pageant of changing of the guard.

While I sketched the old rococo gate, a group of Spanish tourists persuaded the khaki and scarlet uniformed guards to pose with them. A great deal of fun was had by all, as everyone took turns to photograph the others and in an amazing mixture of Spanish and Nepali addresses w?r? exchanged. I hope the photographs arrive safely.

It was probably through this old gate, then flying banners and bunting, that the extravagant marriage procession of Jung Bahadur's eight-year-old son and a royal princess of six, passed on its way to Jung Bahadur's palace at Thapathali. And through the same gate, came a similar procession to finally carry the bride away. According to contemporary records, they were occasions of great grandeur and celebration as cannons boomed and fireworks exploded in the Kathmandu night.
Legend has a king of old sacrificing himself, so that water would fill the new tank he had had built at Narayanhiti at a time of great drought. He chose his eldest son to be his unsuspecting murderer and it is believed that the carved foundations in the grounds of the Narayan temple close by the palace gate, turned their heads to heaven in horror. They are there still. And there is water in the tank. Perhaps, it was no mere chance that made Jung Bahadur choose this site for his brother's palace and no strange coincidence that had it become the residence of Nepal's kings.


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


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