Nepali Times
The resident's residence


BEFORE AND AFTER: The old residence (below) in 1918 before it was destroyed in the 1934 earthquake and the present residence of the British ambassador.

Following war in 1814-16 with the East India Company, concluded by the Treaty of Sugauli, Nepal was obliged to accept a British Resident at Kathmandu.

Edward Gardner presented his credentials to King Girvan Yudhha at the royal palace of Nuwakot in 1816 and the Residency was established on land gifted by the king-but believed locally to be 'ill-omened'.

The 50-acre site in Lainchaur (named from the English 'lines', the usual name for British enclaves throughout India), included a church, a greenhouse, a miniature zoo and a bird sanctuary.

But the 1934 earthquake caused severe damage to the residence, which was eventually demolished in late 1940. Work began the following year on a new building.

The Maharaja of Nepal laid the foundation stone on 1 May 1941, but a confidential despatch sent to London in February 1942 noted that construction work had been "sorely retarded owing to the difficulty of getting the material of the required standard through the Nepalese Government".

Eventually His Britannic Majesty's Minister, Lt Col Geoffrey Betham, moved in with his wife, reporting in a secret despatch: "It is a magnificent two-storied building constructed on the most up to date earthquake-proof plan and is fitted with electricity and modern sanitation."

But within six years, the building's shortcomings had become apparent, with a British government official complaining that the house was "built in the New Delhi style which is unsuitable to the climatic and general conditions in Kathmandu".

The embassy site had passed in 1858 from the East India Company to the government of British India, but with the independence of Pakistan and India in August 1947, properties formerly belonging to British India were apportioned between the new successor states.

India, as the only one of them represented in Nepal, appeared to have a reasonable claim to assume title over the old British embassy, but when negotiations became deadlocked over the desire of both India and Pakistan to acquire the Kabul embassy, India opened an embassy in 1948 at the small palace of Shital Niwas, further north on Maharajganj (today the official residence of Nepal's president).

The Maharaja offered Britain a new embassy site adjoining the old. Rough plans were drawn up, but a political crisis intervened, with the departure of King Tribhuvan and most of his family to India.

Tribhuvan returned to Kathmandu to assume full power on 18 February 1951, promising his people a democratic constitution framed by an elected Constituent Assembly (a promise finally delivered 57 years later, when an elected Constituent Assembly ratified the abolition of the monarchy in May 2008). Inevitably, amid such turmoil, plans to relocate the British embassy were not a high priority.

Finally, in December 1951, the British Foreign Office Minister, Herbert Morrison, wrote to the Indian and Pakistani prime ministers proposing to relinquish the Kathmandu embassy to India (while the Kabul property eventually did pass to Pakistan).

Negotiations between the Nepali government and the new British Ambassador, Sir Christopher Summerhayes, soon faced further problems. The British wished to move temporarily into Shital Niwas, effectively swapping with the Indian embassy, while they constructed their new embassy. Prime Minister M P Koirala was evasive, perhaps because he wanted Shital Niwas for his own use.

Koirala instead proposed that the British move temporarily to Bahadur Bhaban, a large palace off Kantipath (now housing the Election Commission). Summerhayes was not keen and tried to enlist the king's support, but to no avail, and the British finally decided simply to renovate the buildings already available on the new site.

More troublesome was the question of Plot 4, a spur of land attached to the old embassy site which projected southwards into the new site. Its particular importance to the British, given their need for accommodation, was that it was already the site of the Second Secretary's bungalow.

India proved reluctant to part with Plot 4: Summerhayes and his Indian counterpart Sir C P N Singh exchanged numerous polite but rather chilly letters. The Indian, not surprisingly, was impatient to take possession of the embassy to which his government was indisputably entitled but Summerhayes, backed by instructions from London, would not budge until the British had possession of Plot 4. The issue was finally resolved in 1952.

Forest House

The new British embassy was to be smaller than its predecessor. A Foreign Office report of 1948 called for a new residence "not of grandiose design, but sufficient to be representative and not to look too modest in comparison with the Indian Embassy, which will be next door".

The proposed construction cost was ?66,000, but the initial plans were soon scaled down, presumably due to lack of funds. Now Summerhayes came up with a much cheaper option: to adapt and refurbish the buildings already there. He envisaged the ambassador occupying Forest House, which had been occupied by Evelyn Smythies, the Chief Forest Adviser to Nepal in the 1940s.

When Smythies left in 1947, the house reverted to the Government of Nepal, and by 1952 was occupied by Koirala. During 'a mild rebellion' on the night of 22/23 January 1952, 'the Forest House with comparatively low walls round it was easily surrounded by the insurgents and the Prime Minister was lucky to escape', Summerhayes reported. Koirala immediately moved to a better protected house and the site was vacated for British use later that year.

In February 1953 the British Minister of Works and Khadgaman Singh Basnyat, Counsellor for Foreign Affairs, signed a sale agreement. The UK agreed to pay ?11,256 7s 6d. The following month, Summerhayes handed over the old embassy to India.

"It is hoped that this was done without significant loss of prestige and the move in any case took place in a friendly atmosphere after the previous wrangles," Summerhayes reported to British Foreign Secretary Sir Anthony Eden. The Indian charg? d'affaires wrote to "convey deep appreciation and thanks for the handing over of both the Embassy house and furnishings in it in such good condition".

Today uncertainty hangs over the future of Forest House. Structural surveys indicate that the building would perform extremely poorly in the event of another great earthquake, such as that of 1934. Further investigations continue to see if the building can be strengthened to meet accepted seismic standards.

Andrew Hall is currently British ambassador in Kathmandu. The views expressed here are his own.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)