Monday, July 06, 2009

Visiting Palace-Museum in Nepal

A year after Nepal’s last king, Gyanendra Shah, vacated the royal palace in Kathmandu, I queued up for hours to see behind the walls of the building that for years remained shrouded in mystery. Soon I noticed that it’s not the large, ornate rooms that draw the most attention, but the site of a royal massacre eight years ago that threw the country into political upheaval.

It had been three and a half months since the government opened the palace-turned-museum to the public. Three teenage girls stood before me. One of them peeked through the iron fences for a glimpse of the sprawling palace area. Inside, manicured lawns were visible, birds were chirping in the spacious garden. I overheard the girls talk about former princess Himani Shah’s recent adventure at paragliding in Pokhara, a popular tourist town. The cacophony of vendors scrambling to sell mineral water bottles and ice-cream seemed to be subdued by endless honking of the vehicles on the adjacent road. It was just past noon and the sun was merciless.

Lonely amidst the crowd that moved in snail’s pace, I mulled over the ill-fated monarchy. I was in Dubai’s International Airport in an early June 2001 night when I heard the news of the royal massacre. I lived there in a self-imposed exile, working at a McDonald’s, hoping to earn some petro dollars, trying to gain my share of the Arabian boom. A combination of circumstances—joblessness and the desire to cross the oceans—had taken me to United Arab Emirates in the autumn of 1998.

At the outset, I could not believe the news of the massacre. I thought it could be one of the rumors circulating back home. It was mid-night in Dubai’s state of the art airport that welcomed the passengers from almost every corner of the world.

In the night of June 1, 2001, Crown Prince Dipendra, clad in combat fatigues, armed with assault rifles and pistols, and high on drugs and alcohol, killed most of his family including King Birendra and Queen Aishwarya. Upset, apparently because his mother did not let him marry his sweetheart, he had entered the shooting frenzy. He later shot himself. The prince was anointed king as he lay unconscious in a military hospital. He died two days later. The throne passed to his uncle Gyanendra who was absent from the royal banquet, fueling the suspicion among common people.

It was a difficult time for Nepal’s monarchy. The virtual obliteration of royalty happened in the midst of a ruthless Maoist “people’s war.” The country seemed on the brink of collapse. One Maoist ideologue even wrote an obituary of the institution of monarchy. A year after the mass murder, I was planning to return home winding up my four year sojourn in the Gulf.

Many of my well-wishers said it was not the right time to go back to Nepal. I did not pay heed to them. But even as I was booking my airline ticket, King Gyanendra dismissed the elected government and formed a caretaker government headed by his loyalists. His bloodless coup of February 1, 2005 was the final act in his effort to begin an autocratic rule in the country. A joint struggle by political parties and Maoists a year later forced him to step down. Following the Constituent Assembly elections in April 2008 in which Maoists won by 38 percent, the king was booted out of the palace. The king’s exit fulfilled one of the major demands of the former rebels.

As I stood in line, these recollections and images of the past flashed in mind. After paying 100 Nepali Rupees (USD 1.33), I entered into the palace. On my way, the security men asked to switch my cell phone off; taking picture was strictly prohibited, they told me. Visitors comprised kids, young men, women and the elderly. School children, ferried in buses, easily outnumbered them.

A big hall down the entrance overwhelmed me. I was greeted by huge portraits of former kings in their heavily jeweled regal garbs. There the walls are mirrored while the floor is covered with red carpet. As I negotiated the narrow passageways, I came across several rooms named after Nepal’s 75 districts. Most of them seemed reserved for the visiting dignitaries. Other rooms have porcelain knickknacks and family snapshots.

I learned that currently the museum employs, but it does not have trained guides for the tour. Employees are stationed each room to guard the valuables. The museum, it appears, will soon be able to collect its own resources to afford to recruit the needed personnel. In the four months since February end this year when it opened to the public, the museum has earned over USD 1, 25, 000 from entry tickets. So far, 1, 56, 087 people have visited the landmark.

In a corner of a shelf, in the book-lined room, I found a series of tomes by Joseph Conrad, Agatha Christie, Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo and William Shakespeare. I wondered if any of the royal members read those classics. After the massacre, a few writers drew an analogy between Shakespearean tragedies and the bloodbath that took place inside the palace.

I entered the royal bedchamber which actually underwhelmed me. It’s not very big and the room is rather congested. Many middle class urban Nepalis favor king-sized bed and theirs can easily outsize the one I saw for the king. But the banquet hall with a capacity of 110 guests turned out to be impressive. Another attraction was the gold-and-silver crafted ceremonial throne. But the specter and the crown were mysteriously missing. A palace official told me it will be on display soon. But his body language betrayed his assurance.

Still, the most important item—the site of the shooting—turned up only at the end of the tour. An army man, with an assault rifle slung in his body and dressed in battle fatigues, guarded the entrance. This eerily reminded me of Dipendra whose action on the midsummer night paved the way for the end of monarchy in Nepal.

It is an open site, without most of the original structure. The building was dismantled after Gyanendra took over as monarch. At the time, nobody could question anything that happened inside the palace, which remained inaccessible even to the Prime Minister, let alone the common folk. A culture of secrecy pervaded the royal premises. But even in this newfound freedom after my country was declared a republic, I was dismayed at what lay ahead of me.

It’s a patch of a leveled-ground beside the main palace. Visitors threw curious glances and tried to locate the spots where each royal was killed.

A tall man who was guiding his elderly parents seemed like a perfect guide.

The queen died here, the king fell there, he told them, matter-of-factly.

The barren land looked an unlikely site for the nation-shattering massacre. Bullet marks were visible at the wall of the palace. I could not believe that an entire clan was wiped out in this non-descript place.

It is a small part of the 753-ropani (over 37 ha) Narayanhiti palace, named after a water-tap (“hiti”) for Narayan, the Hindu god of preservation, remains off-limits to the public. The area also includes royal gardens, foreign ministry offices, military quarters, and a home for Ratna Rajya Laxmi, the former queen mother. The actual museum area occupies only 219 ropanis (about 11 ha). The museum is still in the making for a wider public access. Officials told me so far 44 sets of CCTVs have been installed in the interior of the palace. More will be added. A Daimler Benz car gifted by Hitler to late king Tribhuvan, too, will be on display.

The palace I saw betrayed the grand public perceptions of monarchy and its institutions. I guess it's got to do with our culture in that we are in awe with someone who rules. In Nepali language, someone pampered or important is called “raja” (king). Similarly, “sarkar” also denotes both to government and royal members. A raja cannot be ordinary, although he could be just like everyone else living in his ordinary palace.

As I came out of the ill-fated building, I found out that people had varied reasons for visiting it. Some came out of reverence for monarchy. Others, like me, out of curiosity. I found myself contemplating about my country, an awkward republic we have where the talk of revival of monarchy haunts us, every now and then.

Originally published in Nepal Monitor.

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