150 Years Old and Counting

Features Issue 97 Jul, 2010
Text by Amar B. Shrestha / Photo: ECS Media

He was the Nepalese Ambassador to Belgium and Head of Mission to European Communities from 1992-97. In 2008, he was appointed Nepal’s Ambassador to India. Aside from these, he is also the proud owner of a 150-year-old house compound in Tinchule of Boudha, Kathmandu, once the summer home of the late Prime Minister Juddha Shumsher J.B. Rana.

Durgesh Man lives in a large European style mansion nearby which lies on some 40 ropani (about five acres) abounding in tall trees and thick foliage. North of the mansion and within the grounds on some 4.5 ropani lies the summer house of the late Juddha Shumsher. “Our family bought this site in 1955 from his son, Chet Shumsher,” says Durgesh Man. The summer home is not a single house but rather a complex of four separate houses: the main house, the stables/garage, guard quarters, and one edifice known as Langado Kolonelko Ghar (‘The Lame Colonel’s House’). “Why it was called that, I have no idea,” he says  frankly. “But I am told that it is the oldest among all the houses here   probably built around 1859, sometime before the others were constructed.”

The House on the Hill
From this, one surmises that the complex is exemplary of Rana Period (1846-1951) architecture. It is separated from the modern mansion by a wide expanse of green. We walk through a wrought iron gate and come across a curious brick structure: three pillar-like constructions arising from a broad common base. According to some, this could be the reason for the name of the place―‘Tinchule’, which loosely translated means ‘Three Peaks’. The site is the highest in the locality; from here one can see the airport quite clearly as well as numerous houses and monasteries near and far. In the 1800s, the complex must have stood proud in splendid isolation. Durgesh Man says, “They say that the Prime Minister used to come here on an elephant”. One can imagine a flamboyantly dressed Juddha Shumsher Jang Bahadur Rana wearing his peacock plumed helmet, riding atop a massive elephant, leading a convoy of family, guards and retainers making their way up to Tinchule heights.

Nearby to the three pillars is an old well besides which lies a large grey-black stone. “I believe there are some inscriptions on it. Could be from the Lichhavi period” (pre-13th century AD),” says Durgesh Man. After a walk around the perimeter we enter the summer house grounds through a small gate and immediately come to a standstill. Enclosed by an old brick wall, the complex in its entirety makes one acutely aware of stepping onto a medieval age theater. The houses in this historical arena are all made of either sun dried or fired bricks plastered with mud mortar. The only cement visible is on some of the extensions made in recent years. The edifice that was once the stables, and later, the garage, is a two-storied affair. Certain renovations have been made here: the new plywood on the ceilings, the fresh looking beams and the walls on one side plastered with cement.

Langado Colonel Ko Ghar
We continue on to the next building, the so-called ‘Lame Colonel’s House’. According to Dr Singh, it could have been a cowshed originally. An extension has been made to this building as well; again, cemented walls. He admits, “I realize now that I shouldn’t have used cement.” Traditionally built walls of yore were three-layered―the outer and inner layers of bricks and the middle filled with brick fragments. The whole was put together with mud or lime mortar. Such walls are pervious and provide much needed insulation to guard against extremes of temperature. Concrete is impervious, the walls thus plastered are thinner and of course, the look is out of place in such an historic setting.

The Hawa Ghar
The main living area is three-storied and the sloped roof is laid with long tiles. There are seven rooms in all and a sundeck with large glass windows with an eastern view on the rear of the middle floor. The sundeck has a narrow spiral staircase going down to the ground floor. “I think it led to a private toilet,” my host points out. All the rooms are low in height, none more than seven and a half feet high. One room on the upper floor has a fireplace with a small ancient looking chimney pipe protruding out through the wall. This room was perhaps the main room of the house, taking into consideration the presence of the fireplace and the low false ceiling with embossed designs. A wooden verandah juts out from the second floor facing the front of the building. The planked verandah is somewhat rickety.

While most of the rooms have tiled floors, one room on the upper floor has only a plain packed dry mud floor. Was this room used for storage? The ground floor is raised, and one can clearly see the wide vents running underneath. These were meant to ensure that the ground floors would not suffer from unwanted dampness as was often the case with Malla period houses (13th to mid-18th century AD). Durgesh Man points out some cracks on the square tiles of a ground floor room and says, “The cracks occurred during the great 1934 earthquake.”

A sheltered corridor runs in front from the main door of the house connecting it to a quite puzzling structure―the so-called hawa ghar (‘airy house’). From a small room on the ground floor one has to climb a very narrow spiral staircase leading to another tiny room. The staircase carries on up to a terrace, which is only slightly bigger than the rooms below. The staircase is covered on the outside by rusty tin plates―probably as ancient as the house itself. The nature of the staircase, too narrow for more than one person to climb at a time, and the location at the front of the main house forces one to surmise that it could in fact have been a fortification of sorts used to guard the living quarters. A huge and thriving rukh kamal tree (magnolia) adjacent to the ‘hawa ghar’ endows a portion of the terrace with welcome shade.

A Conscientious Task
Behind the main house, another extension is in the process of being built, the foundations and low walls have already been constructed. “We are thinking of making another sun deck here, like the one above,” says Dr Singh. A gazebo in sad disrepair stands forlornly on one side, notwithstanding the quite good condition of the lawns and garden on the grounds. In front of the main house and to one side, is the guard house, a two-roomed structure with a passageway between them. Seeing that a wall (now brought down) once stood from the guard house to the Lame Colonel’s House, and separated the main house from the others, it can be concluded that the passageway must have been the main entrance leading to the living quarters.

In summary, while one must thank Dr Singh for keeping intact such an important historical site, one must also say that perhaps he needs some expert assistance if it is to be restored to its original luxury.