Arts and Entertainment

Visitors to the Narayanhiti Museum hoping to learn history leave disappointed

  • Opened to the public in 2009 as museum, the Narayanhiti Museum is more of a repository for artifacts, photos and belongings than a museum

Apr 8, 2019-

At 94 years of age, Renu Thapa is among the few people alive who remember the old Narayanhiti Palace, an English-inspired neoclassical palace that once stood where the contemporary pink palace now stands. The former palace, with its numerous porticos and Ionic columns, was a sight to behold, said Thapa. The new palace has none of that charm and it just doesn’t compare, she said.

The Narayanhiti Palace complex sits in the heart of Kathmandu, at the end of the city’s most upmarket street Durbar Marg. Spread out over 754 ropanis of land, this former home of the royal family was turned into a museum after the fall of the monarchy, formally opening its doors to the public on February 27, 2009. But despite its storied, often scandalous history, the museum is little more than a simple repository for artifacts and a harkening back to a monarchical past.

Before the country was declared a republic, the Narayanhiti Palace was only open to the public on Dashain, when thousands would line up for hours to receive tika from the hands of the Vishnu-incarnate. Now, it is open to the public every day, except for Tuesdays and Wednesdays, from 11am to 4pm. But visitors hoping to find an informative guide to the life and times of the erstwhile Shah rulers are bound to be disappointed.

“The word 'museum' is perhaps misleading, since there is limited information available,” says one Dutch visitor’s review on TripAdvisor. “It is more like visiting a National Trust property. However, if you take time to read a little on Wikipedia, especially about the massacre, you will not be disappointed.”

The original neoclassical palace was built by Rana Prime Minister Bir Shumsher over 444 ropanis of land for then Shah King Prithvi Bir, who lived in a “narrow, ruined” palace in Basantapur, according to Purusottam Rana’s Ranakaalin pramuk etihaasik durbarharu. Most of that palace was destroyed in the 1934 earthquake and rebuilt later.

During the reign of King Mahendra, a modern, contemporary palace was constructed, which took about six years to complete, from 1964 to 1969, under the leadership of the Californian architect Benjamin Polk. This new palace replaced the old one, which was torn down in 1958. In 1972, Mahendra sold his new palace to the Nepal government for Rs 70 million, even though it still remained a home for the royals. Narayanhiti was finally declared national property after the abdication of the last Shah king, Gyanendra.

Entering the museum

The entrance to the museum is a door embedded with gold and silver. The stairs leading up to the entrance have giant statues of fish, peacocks, horses, elephants and lions on both sides. It takes precisely 33 steps to reach the door, which is actually at a height of 15 feet.   

The entrance leads you to the Kaski room, a large baithak that was used to receive visiting heads-of-state and also for the oath-taking ceremony. This large open drawing room also includes two massive staircases with stuffed Bengal tigers and a large polar bear rug on the floor, which Mahendra received as a gift from Iceland in 1967, according to Hasta Bahadur Tamang, a museum employee.    

Tamang has been working in the palace for over 35 years, since 1984, and now does odd jobs around the museum. He is always eager to answer visitor questions.  

“I am still assigned as a palace employee because only the old employees know the details and whereabouts of the artefacts that are placed now,” said Tamang.

Inside the palace

The Kaski baithak leads you to the Mygadi and Parbat rooms, which have nothing but furniture and portraits of foreign dignitaries. The corridors also include larger-than-life portraits of former Shah kings, hung in chronological order, painted by the artist Amar Chitrakar.

Of many portraits, books and gifts on display in the Myagdi and Parbat rooms, a rare family portrait of King Tribhuvan’s first wife Queen Kanti, Mahendra, Birendra and the infant Dipendra commands attention.

From Myagdi and Parbat, several rooms follow--Dailekh, Baitadi, Accham, Karnali, Bajura and Dolpa; these were meeting rooms and sleeping chambers for the foreign dignitaries visiting Nepal. All these rooms are designed according to their district themes and come in a variety of green, pink and blue hues with floral wallpaper that matches the bedsheets and furniture.  

Next is the Lamjung room, which was a state banquet hall that could fit 100 to 150 guests. This room’s theme is blue with blue chairs and blue walls.

A picture of King Birendra and his family, which used to hang in many Kathmandu homes, is the backdrop of a throne in the Gorkha Hall. This hall has paintings of nine Durga goddesses, also painted by Amar Chitrakar, on the ceiling, and it is where the new constitution was proclaimed in 1990, said Tamang. The royal throne, made out of gold and silver, commands the centre of the hall, sitting under a Belgian chandelier.

“King Mahendra apparently imported this chandelier from Belgium for six crore rupees,” said Tamang.

Showcasing the royals’ penchant for hunting, most of the corridors are lined with the heads of animals, from buffaloes and deer to one-horned rhinoceros, along with innumerable tiger and cheetah skins decorated on the floor.

Other rooms, such as Jhapa, Ilam, Sunsari, Siraha, Pyuthan, Parsa, Kapilvastu and Chitwan, have little that is interesting. However, the Rupandehi room displays the crown jewels, which were unveiled on October 15, 2018.

The plumes in the crown of the Nepali kings come from the Australian bird of paradise, according to cultural historian Satya Mohan Joshi. The crown contains 730 diamonds and 372 pearls. In comparison to the king’s crown, the queen’s tiara appeared cheap by comparison.

Dhankuta is the sleeping chamber of the former king and queen, and it is small and cramped. The room was small because of security concerns, said Tamang. The queen’s dressing room was larger than their bedroom.

“Is this where they slept? My room is bigger than this,” said one visitor who had come to the museum with his six-year-old child.  

A royal disappointment

“The former royals never lived in the central palace,” said Adwait Prakash Shrestha, museum chief. “Everyone lived in their own houses and came here during formal occasions.”

King Birendra and Queen Aishwarya lived in the Tribhuvan Sadan, behind the central palace, where the 2001 massacre took place, said Shrestha, while Queen Mother Ratna continues to live in Mahendra Manzil within the premises of the palace. When Gyanendra was king, he came in every day for formal meetings, but otherwise, chose to live in Nirmal Niwas in Maharajgunj and his other residence in the Nagarjuna hills.

However, the museum fails to mention any of this anywhere. There are few informational plaques, brochures or boards that detail what exactly the museum represents. Without being explicitly told, a visitor would assume that the museum is where the royals lived, ate and slept, even though that was rarely the case.

In one instance, visitors were even provided false information by a museum employee. In the Dhanusa room, when one visitor asked for the names of Tribhuvan’s daughters, a museum employee said, “Bharati, Parbati and Devaki”, and claimed that one of them was married to the royal family of Jaipur in India. Tribhuvan had no daughters named Parbati and Devaki, according to the book, Erika and the King, written by Erika Leuchtag, who was the physiotherapist of Tribhuvan’s wife Kanti. According to Leuchtag, Tribhuvan’s three daughters were named Bharati, Nalini and Vijaya. Wikipedia lists one more daughter, Trilokya.

The biggest disappointment for visitors, however, comes from the spot where the 2001 royal massacre took place. That entire building, the Tribhuvan Sadan, has been demolished and a new building erected where a plaque claims that in this “Billiard Baithak, King Birendra, Princess Shruti, Kumar Gorakh, Princess Jayanti, Prince Dhirendra” were shot by crown prince Dipendra. The building was demolished at the request of the Queen Mother, who couldn’t bear to look at the spot where her family was massacred, said Tamang.

The ground floor of the newly constructed building mentions that Queen Aishwarya died here. A few metres away, in a shabby garden, a statue with bullet holes marks where Dipendra shot his brother Nirajan. And in a small pond, called the Jhilke Pokhari, it is mentioned that “King Dipendra was found in a critical state.”

The massacre spots come at the very end of the museum tour, leading one visitors to remark, “Is this it?”

Unfortunately, it was.

The impression

The Narayanhiti Museum appears to be more of a repository for artefacts, pictures, and clothes, rather than a museum.

“The importance of the museum is to preserve and collect historically and culturally significant materials and put it on display,” said Shrestha.

Many people leave the museum disappointed, said Tamang. Many came to see the spot where Dipendra massacred his family, but there is little to commemorate, contextualise or comment on the grisly murders that took place on those premises. Sometimes, they even complain that it isn’t worth the money, said Tamang.  

“Students from various schools flock to the palace to learn about our history, and we hope as museum employees we have done our job well,” said Shrestha.

However, Shrestha himself is circumspect about the museum and wonders if the government shouldn’t have rushed to open it to the public.

“Visitors, especially foreigners, do say that they are disappointed,” he said. “But all I can say is that the decision made by the government to open it was hasty.”

Published: 09-04-2019 06:00

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