Between the narrow lanes and wide courtyards of old Kathmandu hides a cultural treasure. This is where one will find the house of Rajamati, the legendary beauty who has been immortalized in song but forgotten by history
Oftentimes, unless carefully recorded, history becomes memory and memory slowly turns into legend, until what was fact is blurred, overridden by myth. Such has been the case with countless tales across the world and similar is the story of Rajamati.
Rajamati’s song is a traditional Newari ballad; it isn’t just one of the most well-known tunes in Newa culture but also one that those on the outside associate most with the community. The lyrics are from the point of view of a man smitten with a local beauty, Rajamati. Composed some 200 years ago, its writer unknown, the song has seen its fair share of renditions. ‘Rajamati’ was first recorded by singer/composer Seturam Shrestha in 1908 and popularized in modern times by Prem Dhoj Pradhan in 1964. Earlier, it was also played by Prime Minister Jung Bahadur Rana’s guard of honor during his state visit to England in 1850. Still, despite the song’s popularity, few people today are aware Rajamati was an actual person. And fewer still probably know that her house still stands.
A lane behind the Akash Bhairab temple in Indra Chowk leads to Naradevi. Halfway between the two areas is a low doorway. This unassuming entrance opens up to Itumbahal, the largest courtyard in old Kathmandu. On the left is the way to Kichandra Bahal, also known as the Keshchandra Paravarta Mahavihar. It is here that the house of Rajamati is located.
It was a pleasant surprise when Punya Ratna Shakya, the gentleman who guided me to Rajamati’s abode, introduced himself as a descendant of the fabled beauty. “Rajamati was my grandfather’s aunt,” he said, with a hint of pride in his voice. “She lived a long time ago, of course. Even my father, who would have been more than a hundred, never saw her.” Shakya still lives and works in the neighborhood, but the house, his ancestral home, is no longer in the possession of his family. Today, it’s owned by Prithvi Narayan Maharjan, who bought it in the 1990s. However, a part of it still resides with the Shakya family in the form of wood carving designs that Punya Ratna’s father copied for his new home.
Shakya knows that most people today aren’t aware that his ancestor really existed. Perhaps that’s why he seemed eager to open up about his family history. “There’s a line in the song - ‘Sakumi ya mhyaya macha la’, meaning ‘Is she the daughter of a man from Saakhu?’ A Sakumi is a person from Saakhu, my family’s ancestral hometown. We were brought here to take care of the vihar,” he explained. The courtyard is ancient, it’s history going back to 1381 and the man is unaware of the exact year his family arrived at Kichandra Bahal, but, according to Shakya, they still perform their traditional priestly duties once a year.
Another line in the song describes Rajamati’s curly locks and the two moles on her face, features that could be hereditary, Shakya said. “My father had curly hair and so does my daughter,” he mentioned. “Many members of my family share similar characteristics, right down to the moles described in the song.”
No one knows what happened to Rajamati after her wedding. According to legend, a devious matchmaker got her married off to a poor family, one without a traditional aankhi jhyaal (a traditional latticed Newari window). Shakya, though, believes this is more of a metaphor. “It probably means no one knows what kind of place she ended up in. We certainly don’t.”
Shakya’s father, known as Mukhiya in the locality, was a close associate of Ganesh Man Singh, known as the Father of Democracy in Nepal, who also hailed from Itumbahal. With him comes a political connection to Rajamati’s house. “Back when they were fighting for democracy, Ganesh Man Singh and Pushpa Lal Shrestha used to hold secret meetings inside,” he claimed. “They usually did this when people were preparing for feasts. When the police showed up, they just told them they were helping.”
The house narrowly escaped a raging fire that devastated seven residences surrounding it in 1967. It survived thanks to a newly constructed building nearby that shielded it from the inferno. In 1995, a movie based on the song was released. Simply called ‘Rajamati,’ it had Hisila Maharjan in the title role, supported by Shree Krishna Shrestha, Maniraj, Madan Krishna Shrestha and Hari Bansha Acharya. Directed by Nir Shah, it was the second big screen film to be made in Newari. The opening scene, which showed an aged man narrating Rajamati’s story, was shot right outside her actual home. Today, like most of the houses in the area, its exterior does not appear to be in the best of conditions. In any case, this is not the facade that existed during Rajamati’s time, and despite renovations, it continues to deteriorate. The jewelry that she purportedly left behind before leaving is also gone, familial poverty took care of that. All that remains of the legendary beauty is a song. And an old crumbling house.