Getting Real: The Garden of Dreams

Features Issue 16 Aug, 2010
Text by Siddharth Lama / Photo: Jill Gocher

Few might dream that a hand of cowrie, a gambling game played with sixteen small pieces of shell (cowrie), could bring into existence one of the finest gardens that Kathmandu ever had. But that, according to legend, is what happened back in 1920, and the remnants of this garden are still in existence to this day. Located in the Keshar Mahal premises in Thamel, the former palace now houses the Ministry of Education and Sports. This former palace was built by Bir Shumsher in 1895 and later acquired by Chandra Shumsher for his son Keshar Shumsher Jung Bahadur Rana. The Garden of Dreams itself was an addition to the original palace made by Keshar Shumsher in 1920.

According to legend, the erudite Keshar Sumsher, won a fairly large amount of money in 1920, on the day of Laxmi Puja, in a hand of cowrie. With his winnings, the Field Marshal, as he was also known, decided to create something beautiful, and so the garden was born. This part of Keshar Mahal is not as widely known as the building itself and the Keshar Library, and the garden was almost lost to neglect before the current restoration work began.

 In its original splendor, the garden had six pavilions representing all of the six seasons that make up the Nepal year. These pavilions were arranged around a garden that covered ten hectares and extended all along the north side of what is now Tridevi Marg - beginning at the intersection to Kantipath. The western part of the garden consisted of three of the six pavilions, and was located in the area where the buildings of Thamel begin. Only three of the original pavilions remain inside the Keshar Mahal.

The place was an eclectic mix of European architectural style and the selection of plants was an equally fascinating blend. The end result was a surprisingly harmonious combination that made it one of the most beautiful gardens ever built in Nepal. A good part of the credit for this goes to the Keshar himself, who was a man of  learning, well-travelled, and a scholar and botanist.

The original structure and beauty of the garden now remains only in the memories of those who saw it in its original glory, and in the poignant faded old photographs that still exist in some collections. Even then, it gives a good idea of what it might have been like in its heydays, when royalty strolled amongst its walkways, and rested in the shade of the pergolas.

With the death of Keshar Shumsher in 1964, ownership of the property passed on to the government of Nepal and a decade later, the Ministry of Education and Sports moved office to this former palace, following the 1975 fire at Singha Durbar. Under their  management (or lack thereof) the garden slowly fell into ruin and soon became just another piece of crumbling government property.

Looking at some of the original photographs and the pictures that were taken prior to the reconstruction work, the more recent pictures depict an overgrown ruin, choked by vegetation, with just about all its former glory swallowed up by undergrowth and decay. The original photos show a picture of ruin and neglect, and had the garden not come to the attention of its rescuers in 1998, it could by now have degenerated into a jungle of sorts, beyond hope of repair or restoration.

However, through the efforts of its rescuers, in 2002 an agreement was signed between HMG Ministry of Education and Sports and the Austrian Government, allowing the Austrian Development Agency to initiate renovation work through Eco-Himal. The actual work began as early as the year 2000 and has since seen a fair amount of progress.

The work on the garden is planned over three phases and the first phase is complete, with the remaining scheduled to commence soon. Work is however slow, not from a lack of funding or enthusiasm, but more so because of the bureaucratic wrangling involved in working with officialdom. Once complete in 2006 however, the garden will have a walk-in aviary, envisaged as a geodesic dome; a cafe to be called The Kaiser Cafe; a market restaurant that will be a replica of the lost Basanta pavilion, which is to be called The Six Seasons; as well as gift shops and suchlike.  This work will lend a new lease of life to the garden. The current plan for the restoration work also.