Rendezvous With the Ranas

Features Issue 14 Aug, 2010
Text by Daniel B. Haber / Photo: Jill Gocher

"Grave Incident At Narayanhiti ­Royal Palace" with unaccustomed oriental understatement proclaimed the headlines of one of Kathmandu’s Nepali dailies that published the horrific news of the demise of Nepal’s royal family. June 1, 2001, the day before I checked into the Hotel Yak & Yeti, a short walk from the Narayanhiti Royal Palace, is a day that will be inscribed forever in the history of Nepal.

Having called the Himalayan Kingdom my home for over a decade, I was familiar with its history, and I recalled reading about another similar incident known to every Nepalese schoolchild as the “Kot Massacre”. Nepal’s first Rana prime minister, Jung Bahadur Rana had seized power in 1846 by murdering his brother in cold blood. He then massacred all those who opposed him, and thereby eliminated all the scions of the Nepalese aristocracy. After that bloody incident in which one hundred nobles perished, Nepal was to be ruled by its autocratic hereditary prime ministers of the Rana clan for over a century, while the monarchy and royal family, stripped of their power, were held hostage for all practical purposes. Jung B Rana survived ten plots on his life, but after him three prime ministers were assassinated. Even up to 50 years ago, assassination, was the most usual way to gain political power in Nepal, and patricide was not uncommon. The Rana regime lasted until 1951 and during this period, the profligate Ranas built a large number of ornate neo classical, Italianate palaces of now faded grandeur replete with furnishings and décor accumulated during their travels abroad. For a hermetic kingdom which developed the architectural style of the tiered pagoda which spread to China and faraway Japan and Bali, Baroque European architecture must have seemed exotic, and still seems incongruously out of place.

Despite haphazard modernization and unplanned urban development, Kathmandu still retains many architectural reminders of the century-long Rana period scattered throughout the capital. Several of these palaces have been turned into hotels while others into upscale restaurants and many others, unfortunately, became government offices and private residences, just left to dilapidation and decay. One of the grander former Rana palaces is Lal Durbar just off Durbar Marg in the heart of the city. The so-called “Red Palace” was constructed around 1855 with a red brick exterior by Bir Shumsher Jung Bahadur Rana, one of the more distinguished, less bloodthirsty Ranas who was a renowned builder and musician. Lal Durbar, now renovated as a wing of

the famed Hotel Yak & Yeti for its grand functions, also houses two historic restaurants, one of which is the Chimney established by the famous, late expatriate Russian hotelier, Boris Lissanevitch in the 1970s.

The legendary Boris, was a stateless White Russian, whose career spanned stints in the Russian army, Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, the Opera Monte Carlo, a Shanghai cabaret, and managing Calcutta’s 300 Club where fabulous maharajas outshone the ordinary guests. One of his regulars was Nepal’s King Tribhuvan who invited Boris to Kathmandu to open the country’s first international tourist hotel. For years, Boris’s Royal Hotel was the only show in town where “everyone stayed” after Tribhuvan assumed power - ending Rana rule - and opening up the Himalayan Kingdom to outsiders.

Boris’s restaurant and bar, called Yak & Yeti, after its namesake in the Royal Hotel—which closed down and reverted to His Majesty’s Government—was so successful that the idea of building a new hotel was conceived in the 1970s. The bar has since been renamed the Chimney-after a central copper chimney in the middle of the dining room which flickers with reflected firelight off the copper shields hanging on the wall. It is said that on a windy wintry night, if the moon and atmosphere are just right, one can fine tune into ghostly gossip, as the room was once part of the ladies chambers in the old palace. And Boris himself was such a renowned bon vivant and raconteur that his spirit also pervades the place. Ironically, his secret recipe Ukrainian borscht with sprinkles of chopped dill and dollops of sour cream, the beet-and potato staple of East European peasantry is still one of the featured dishes in this ritzy former Rana palace restaurant.

The other restaurant, known as the Naachgaar or “Dance Hall” was built by Bir Shumsher Jung Bahadur Rana as the most elegant palace theatre in the kingdom. Previously, it had been an indoor bathing pool for his 300 some-odd wives. A golden coin was thrown into the pool and the one who retrieved it would be the favored one for that night. Now, in its reincarnation as a theatre-themed restaurant, one can admire the discreet boxes set in a fantasy of neo-romantic plaster work, gilt Belgian mirrors, red velvets and Carrara marbles which were imported from Italy and transported across the forbidding Himalayas on the backs of porters, as up until the 1950s, there were no roads connecting the Kathmandu Valley with the outside world. The sunburst chandeliers were constructed locally from long abandoned crates of imported Belgian crystal. A former British ambassador’s wife painted the zodiac-themed murals on the ceiling in modernist 1950s style. A disparaging comment about the differing styles of design was dismissed with a wave of her hand by my broad-minded colleague who insisted that it was “all part of the rich tapestry of life.” Even richer, upstairs there is a former “Sulking Room” for the Prime Minister’s harem, later turned into a grand ballroom where today’s guests gather under the watchful portraits of highly-coiffed Rana ladies.

In the 1960s, after Boris had established the Royal, there was still a severe shortage of hotel rooms in Kathmandu. As there was also no money for constructing new buildings, it was only natural to convert these old palatial Rana residences into hotels. Already resembling some fin de siecle Grand Hotel that one might find anywhere from Marienbad to Tangier, the Agni Bhavan, built by Agni Shumshere Rana in 1894, was bought by a wealthy Newar family and converted into the 102 room, 10 suite Shankar Hotel in 1964. Just due north of the present royal palace, the sprawling palace in Lazimpat where the late Queen Aishwarya was born, the Shankar still resembles some fairytale palace of an elegant bygone era. Afternoon tea on its vast lawn can be a bit disorienting, close your eyes and inhale the overly perfumed gardenias, and for a precious moment you don’t quite know where you are. Nowadays, however, with too many rooms in Kathmandu, the all-but-forgotten Shankar receives lesser guests but does have its passionate habitues who often book its nostalgic 1960s “moderne” suites for a month at a time. Although don’t be misled, the Shanker is still supported well by faithful tour operators and agents here and overseas.

Not far from the Narayanhity Royal Palace and across from the Jai Nepal Cinema is another Rana masion, now a private home belonging to Karna Sakya, 58 year-old patriarch of the Sakya family of hoteliers, who in 1970 established the Kathmandu Guest House, arguably the best and most famous budget guest house in Asia. Coming from a traditional Buddhist Newar community, Karna rebelled against his family by going into the hithertofore unknown occupation of tourism by opening a guest house in Thamel, which at the time was a seriously undeveloped part of Kathmandu.

Today the Kathmandu Guest House sits at the heart of Thamel. Inspired by its success, just outside its gate there is a jumble of less distinguished guest houses, along with a myriad of signs advertising bakeries, cafes with fixed breakfasts, internet cafes, rafting and trekking agencies, cheap clothes, crafts, and loud music. It’s the most popular low-budget tourist section of Nepal with marked similarities to the other meccas of the world backpacker community such as Bangkok’s Khaosan Road and Bali’s Kuta Beach.

Speaking in the quiet garden of his home, Karna Sakya recalls, “When I first came to Thamel, it was a backwards area with open toilets in the streets. Nobody went there. The hippies were all in staying on ‘Freak Street’. Thamel had no street lamps or security and legends had it that the streets were full of ghosts.”

With considerable foresight, Karna Sakya’s father bought an old Rana mansion with 13 rooms (a lucky number for him) and turned it into a guest house. It had been the home of Kumar Narsingh Rana, Nepal’s first civil engineer, and the architect who designed Singha Durbar. Resembling Versailles with 1700 rooms and 17 courtyards, Singha Durbar was once the largest private residential palace in the East housing the 1,500 servants of the Rana Prime Minister, Mohan Shumsher Jung Bahadur Rana. Its architect, Kumar Narsingh Rana, also built a smaller version of a white stucco baroque building with crystal chandeliers and mirrors. From the back garden of the Kathmandu Guest House, one can still see the Rana architectural elements, the long stucco columns, the shutters and arched windows. And, unknown to most of the backpackers that inhabit the rest of its 115 rooms, there is still a Rana ballroom on the third floor where Rana ladies once dined and danced.

From the windows of my second storey room, on one side I can still see vestiges of a vanishing landscape of what once rural Thamel looked like-The back of traditional Newar houses with A-shaped roofs, brick walls and wooden beams and beside them patches of vegetable gardens, towering palmettos and Trees of Heaven. On the other side from the verandah outside my room overlooking the fragrant garden, pale Europeans sunbathe on the well-manicured lawn, as a tall lone palmetto casts a late afternoon shadow on the stucco wall. Inside, huddled around a television set in the lobby, amidst a clutter of backpacks, sleeping bags and hiking gear, curfew-bound guests listen to the BBC report on the death of a king and the state of the Nepalese monarchy.