Basantapur Darbar A Personal Eulogy

Features Issue 166 Sep, 2015
Text by Dipesh Risal

A historic fiction writer mourns the loss of Basantapur tower, and recalls its public past and a personal history only fleetingly mentioned in official accounts.


The petulant prince of Gorkha stopped at the top of Chandragiri. He was returning home after a tumultuous year at his sasurali, Makawanpur, where he had wed the kingdom’s princess two years ago. He was still smarting from the many insults he had borne while there, a result of differences in marriage practices between the kingdoms, as well as unrealistic expectations on his part. From the high vantage point of Chandragiri he looked down towards the large valley sprawled below, and his minders approximately pointed out the boundaries of the famed towns of Nepal amidst the scattered cluster of houses and temples below: “Uuuuuu tyo Bhadgaun, uuu tyo Patan, ani u tyo Kathmandu”.  His injured ego probably added more conviction, or at least a fervent quiver, to his voice as he solemnly pledged: “One day I will make all this mine.” Unfortunately for Nepal, the prince of Gorkha was also an unparalleled genius statesmanship.

So it was after thirty years of scheming, planning and numerous setbacks, on September 25, 1768, that Prithvinarayan Shah broke through the poorly guarded city gates of Kathmandu and attacked the Malla palace of Hanumandhoka from three sides: Bhimsensthan on the southwest, Tundikhel on the east and himself leading the pack from Naradevi. The ruler of Kathmandu, Jayaprakash Malla, might not have been drunk from the free flowing Indra Jatra aila that night, but was certainly drunk from the centuries-old decadence and lethargy that came from the Malla preference for art over the art of war. (The same Malla preference which incidentally fuelled dazzling Newa achievements of aesthetic perfection matching the best of the Italian Renaissance. Aesthetic perfection, however, was poor bulwark against hungry Gorkha rage.)

At around 10:30pm that night, Prithvinarayan Shah entered Hanuman Dhoka palace and became the de facto king of Kathmandu, almost without a drop of blood being shed. The besieged Jayaprakash Malla was probably out around town celebrating Indra Jatra, and soon escaped to Patan through a city gate left obligingly open by Pritnvinarayan. The people of Kathmandu, weary and starved from years of economic blockade by none other than Prithvinarayan Shah himself, slighted by Jayaprakash Malla’s hiring of Nagarkoti soldiers from India, and further scandalized by the Malla king’s pillaging of sacred Pashupatinath to fund his war operations, readily accepted Prithvinarayan Shah as their new king.

The shrewd Prithvinarayan Shah had already flooded Kathmandu with spies and emissaries many years ago. He therefore knew that a blessing from Goddess Kumari during Indra Jatra would essentially seal the deal of his regnal authority over Kathmandu. And so it was. By early October, Patan was also his. A year later, he took over Bhaktapur.

Less than two years after entering Hanumandhoka Darbar, Prithvinarayan Shah had commissioned a stunning tower at the southern edge of the palace complex, build upon a foundation of lower floors that had already existed for centuries. Built as a pleasure pavilion, this lavish nine-story structure called Basantapur stood out prominently in the Kathmandu cityscape.

It was in this Basantapur tower, popularly also known as the Nautalle Darbar, that an eight-year-old girl from Gorakhpur, India was brought much later, in May, 1840 as a bride-to-be for Prithvinarayan Shah’s great-great-great grandson, Surendra Bikram Shah. This girl, whose original name has been lost to history, was to see horrors and bear torture within the confines of Basantapur that was unfit for any war-hardened Gorkhali fighter, let alone a tender alien soul of eight years. She likely spent many a day listlessly pacing the upper floors of Basantapur Darbar, trying to numb herself to the tortures heaped upon her by this brute darbar, and especially by the brute prince, her newlywed husband. She must have leaned out of the carved windows to take a closer look at what she thought were utterly, utterly disgusting images carved into the struts that supported the roofs on many of the floors. Maybe she felt a tinge of her childish happiness returning as she walked across the strange low ceiling of the dollhouse-like space that existed between the sixth and seventh floors of the tower. She probably spent much time on the ninth floor, with its spectacular all-encompassing view of the surrounding land that was mysterious and terrifying for this lonely little girl. What went through her head as she was thrust into the strained, oppressive lifestyle of the darbar? How did her tender eyes respond when she was subjected to the abject cruelties of the imbecile prince, her husband?

For five years, I had been working on a project to bring the characters and monuments surrounding Basantapur tower to life in the form of a historic fiction narrative. In the process, I was hoping to do justice to the little girl, to give her a voice in posterity that she never had when alive. The little girl who, as it happens, was the same age when she entered Kathmandu as my own older daughter is today. I was going to see the little girl’s world through my daughter’s eyes. I was also aiming to do justice to the tower itself, an elegant testament of Newa art, and finally justice to the entire historic landscape of Kathmandu.

But suddenly on April 25, 2015, the top three floors of Basantapur Durbar crumbled and vanished into rubble. The stage on which the little girl was going to make her case was no more. One of the most prominent landmarks of the Kathmandu skyline was no more. A living proof and boisterous example of late Malla architectural genius was no more. Along with Basantapur fell the other iconic structure of the valley, the venerable Kasthamandap. After mourning this loss, I had to do what I could to raise awareness about the loss of my stage and the loss of Nepal’s heritage. Once there is a firm commitment to rebuild these precious national treasures, I hope to go back to the story of the little girl from Gorakhpur and to the thousand other voices that spoke, usually unheard, in the Nepal of mid-nineteenth century.