A Remarkable Journey through Time

Features Issue 156 Nov, 2014

Success breeds more success, and nowhere is this truer than in the case of Hotel Shanker—a hotel that is basking in the limelight because of its makers’ commitment to the preservation of the best of Nepali history, while balancing it with the needs of modern times.

Once upon a time, the wide corridors of the sprawling durbar in Lazimpat tinkled with the patter of tiny feet and rang out with the laughter of happy children, two of whom, Aishwarya and Komal, were destined to become queens of Nepal. Sadly, the former had a tragic ending, while the latter’s reign was extremely short-lived.

The durbar in which they lived and played as children is today a leading heritage hotel by the name of Hotel Shanker that is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. Fifty years ago, in 1964, an hotelier named Mr. Ram Shanker Shrestha struck a deal with General Agni Shumsher J.B. Rana’s family to take out a lease on the property. The deal helped Rana’s family wiggle out of a tight financial situation, and enabled Shrestha, who ran Green Hotel in New Road at the time, fulfill his ambition of making it big in the hotel business. 

According to his son Mr. Binod Shanker, the current managing director, the property was owned by four stakeholders. He says, “Initially, we leased two wings from General Agni Shumsher, then, another two wings from his son Mr. Keshab Shumsher and his wife Mrs. Tirtha Rajkumari. After that, another wing owned by Mr. Kendra Shumsher, the other son of General Agni Shumsher. In 1977, we bought the entire property except for the wing (having 39 rooms) owned by Mr. Kendra Shumsher, which was leased for 15 more years. Sadly, when we offered to buy it outright after the expiry of the lease, we couldn’t come to a settlement. Later, the Finance Ministry procured it to house the Internal Revenue and VAT office.”

In the beginning, the durbar was converted into a hotel having 23 rooms, and it was inaugurated by Prince Himalaya in 1964. However, the hotelier knew that 23 rooms weren’t enough to make the enterprise viable. Hotel Shanker urgently needed additional rooms, the construction of which wasn’t too complicated considering the size of the property. Yet, Mr. Ram Shanker was hesitant. What was the hitch? Under no circumstance, did he want to destroy the aesthetics of the original neoclassical façade; the astute hotelier knew that it was the biggest asset of the hotel. Wouldn’t tourists love to live in a durbar rather than just a regular hotel? His son shared his view, and this further strengthened his conviction. Yet, both agreed that more rooms and services would have to be somehow incorporated soon to make the project feasible. 
Enter Mr. Shanker Nath Rimal, one of the best civil engineers of the time, famed for the conception of the iconic Shahid Gate. After due consideration, his suggestion was to add two more stories to the three-storied durbar. That, of course, was easier said than done, because it had to be done without damaging the exterior. Mr. Shanker Nath’s creative mind conjured up a solution: two more floors could be constructed without changing the existing height of the durbar and its exterior, provided there was no objection to a proportionate reduction in the ceiling height of the existing three floors.  

It was a relatively small price to pay for preserving the durbar’s unique identity, at least from the outside. Inside, of course, some compromises could not be avoided.  As the eminent engineer admitted, “The façade was a typical old European one but we added local styles to the interior.” More importantly, according to Mr. Binod Shanker, “We made absolutely no changes to the exterior.” And, although renovations were of a pretty extensive, extreme care was taken to preserve some precious original interior integrity, such as the splendid Durbar Hall on the first floor. 

The going was tough, though. According to Mr. Binod Shanker, “It was a time-consuming affair. Special permission had to be taken from the government due to its proximity to the royal palace.” Midway through, they were ordered to stop further construction. It was an extremely trying time. However, they had a stroke of luck, a large stroke in fact, which came in the form of King Birendra’s coronation. Smilingly, he says, “We were told that we could go ahead with our work.” The realization dawned upon the concerned authorities that a lot of VIPs would be attending the coronation, and there weren’t very many good hotels in the capital to accommodate them.

Mr. Binod Shanker’s son, Mr. Prajwol Shanker, along with his brother Mr. Prabhu Shanker and sister Ms. Prina Shrestha Nepal, has another angle, “When the renovation of our hotel was in progress, two other big hotels, Soaltee and Annapurna, were also being built. The royal family had interests in them, and my guess is that they wanted to see how a big hotel was run.” Indeed, Hotel Shanker could be said to be the first ‘real’ hotel in the country. Front Desk Manager Mr. Bijay Man Shrestha, who has been with the hotel for the past 40 years, agrees, although he adds, “Boris’s Royal Hotel, and another, Coronation Hotel, were also there.” Both are no more in existence. Eventually, by 1977, after renovations were completed, the hotel had an additional 79 rooms, thus making a total of 102 rooms. However, according to Mr. Binod Shanker, “In due time, we felt the need for more space inside the hotel. We made the decision to sacrifice eight rooms, so now we have 94 rooms in all.” 

Speaking of the wing that they had to let go, Mr. Prajwol Shanker says, “It was unfortunate because that was the best part of the hotel; all the rooms had south-facing windows and were sunny and bright. I think, also, that around the time the lease ran out, things were not looking good for tourism in Nepal. That, too, could have played a part in my father sacrificing the property.” Today, when one looks at the whole durbar, one can observe that having this particular wing intact would have added much to Hotel Shanker’s charm. However, as a compensatory step, they bought the adjoining properties on the other side. 

The hotel has plenty of free space now (around 35 ropanis), which is a good thing, because there are plans for expansion. In addition to the new constructions around the swimming pool, two years earlier, extensions were made to the Kailash Hall on the ground floor, adding a banquet hall, the Mansarovar Hall, adjoining it. Mr. Bijay Man says, “This is a very useful addition that will enable us to transfer the banquet site inside if it rains during one being held in the gardens.” It should be pointed out here that Hotel Shanker is a preferred venue for wedding parties and also host to regular meetings of various institutions. One such wedding was a glittering affair in May this year, that of Nepali superstar Rajesh Hamal with Madhu Bhattarai. In fact, the engagement was also held there.

The Kailash Hall is a grand and ornate affair, and has the distinction of having hosted quite a few high profile events. In 1977, the Colombo Plan for Cooperative Economic and Social Development in Asia and the Pacific decided to hold its 26th Consultative Committee Meeting in Kathmandu. The story goes that King Birendra was pretty anxious, because at the time there were no suitable facilities in the capital to hold such an important meeting. To top it all, it was the very first time that an international conference of any sort was being held in the then kingdom. Mr. Ram Shanker’s help was requested; the country’s prestige was on the line. Rising to the occasion, the enterprising hotelier had the 4,558 sq ft Kailash Hall built as an adjunct to the main building. 

Now, let’s fast forward to April 27, 2003. The warring Maoists had finally agreed to sit down for peace talks with the government, and their dialogue team, headed by Baburam Bhattarai, met with government representatives for the first-round of peace talks in the secure environs of Kailash Hall. Following productive negotiations, they agreed to meet again on May 9, 2003. Again, Kailash Hall was the chosen venue. In between these momentous events in 1977 and 2003, this historic hall also witnessed press conferences by the likes of President Zia Ul Haque of Pakistan, Foreign Secretary Henry Kissinger of the United States, and President Giani Zail Singh and Prime Minister Narasimha Rao of India. Mr. Biajy Man reveals that many VIPs, including a number of Bollywood luminaries, have stayed in the hotel. Mr. Binod Shanker’s sister, Ms. Baiju, who manages the housekeeping, remembers actors Prem Nath, Daisy and Honey Irani, Tun Tun, and Dev Anand, as well as producers O P Nayar and Nasir Hussain staying there. Salman Khan, too, has been here for shooting a film sequence on the hotel’s spiral stairs. Mr. Binod Shanker’s daughter Prina discloses that rock star Sting also stayed in the hotel once, but that he preferred anonymity.  

While Kailash Hall basked in its glory, the equally ornate Durbar Hall and its neighbor, the One Eyed Hall, on the first floor, seemed satisfied with their own importance, that of hosting smaller but more regular events on most days of the month. Durbar Hall, however, has more of a proud lineage than the others, having been part of the original package, as it were, and being adorned with opulent life-sized mirrors and beautiful frescoes imported from Europe by the former maharajas.  

Aside from those mentioned above, Hotel Shanker’s famous guests have also included many well known mountaineers. According to Mr. Prajwol Shanker, “Mountaineer Reinhold Messner (the first to have climbed Everest without the use of bottled oxygen) has stayed here a couple of times.” Mr. Bijay Man has fond recollections of Tenzing Norgay Sherpa, the first conqueror of Everest, also staying at the hotel. Times have, of course, changed, and there are many other good hotels now, still, all said and done, Hotel Shanker has managed to keep hold of its prized place as one of the most preferred hotels in Kathmandu. It has not been an easy task, and both Mr. Prajwol Shanker and his brother Mr. Shanker have a lot to be commended for. 

As Jamuna Shrestha, a housekeeping supervisor who has been with the hotel for 30 years, says, “There have been many, many changes through the years, and more so in recent times. All the rooms have been renovated and furnished with all modern amenities expected of a deluxe hotel.” At the same time, the hotel’s use of traditional Nepali craftwork in the interiors remains intact, and one will see a lot of fantastic woodwork around, including the large wooden etchings in the lobby. The Kunti Bar, also on the ground floor, may be small, but it has a pretty exotic ambience due to the presence of huge hand-crafted Newari wooden windows. Additionally, numerous paintings by local artists adorn the walls of the corridors and the rooms.

Seeing how the hotel’s customers appear to be ever-growing, and with the hotel gaining in popularity year after year (it won the Trip Advisor Travelers’ Choice Awards consecutively in 2013 and 2014), it appears that Mr. Binod Shanker and family will have to soon start thinking seriously about adding more rooms. Mr. Prajwol Shanker agrees, and reveals that although he has certain plans, the problem is quite a complex one since any new additions will have to address the problem of keeping Hotel Shanker’s distinctive identity alive. 

And how apt that is, for 50 years ago, this was the very same problem that had given his grandfather, Mr. Ram Shanker, sleepless nights. He solved the problem admirably, turning a 120-year-old durbar into a beautiful heritage hotel. Now, let’s wait and see if history repeats itself and the third generation does what is necessary for the changing times without doing harm to the many unique charms of Hotel Shanker.