On a recent visit to the Bhaktapur Durbar Square, we overheard a local “guide” tell the “not so impressed” tourist that the king who built the fifty five window palace actually had 55 wives. This may sound quite logical if you think of inclusion and fairness of the ruler. What a nice idea to be able to allocate or dedicate a window for each queen. For the rest of the day everyone pointed at the rest of the houses and joked about the number of windows and corresponding number of wives the owner must have.
Climbing up the steps to the Swayambhu Stupa (Maha Chaitya), a story was narrated about a “western writer” who asked a group of women pilgrims, who had built the great monument. The women giggled and said, “Bhaya mathu” which in Newari means “do not know your language”. The visitor, it is said, duly took notes and wrote Swayambu was built by a local wealthy businessman by the name of Bhaya mathu. These stories are told for fun but the problems they raise are quite serious.
These are two good tales that illustrate the challenge we face in being able to preserve Nepal’s globally unique heritage. Most information is passed down in the oral tradition and over time, things get diluted and new pieces of information added. Many new angles are added to make the stories “interesting” and sellable. The challenge is to separate what is authentic and what is not.
We must also remember that referring to history books may not be the only solution. History is written by the winners; and the good side does not always win. This is even true in the present time as well. This is probably why all political parties wish to have the communication ministry to themselves so that they can tell their story, from their perspective. They want to have control over the “truth”. Remember George Orwell’s Ministry of Truth is his famous book 1984? Proper signage is going to have be a big part of the solution to help visitors and locals to understand our heritage. We must learn to tell the story much better and ensure authenticity.
By the way, the 55 window palace that is a major attraction of Bhaktapur Durbar Square was built during the reign of King Bhupatindra Malla. He ruled from 1696 to 1722 AD. The king was also a great composer and has 17 plays attributed to him. This great builder king also laid the foundation stone for the magnificent five storey temple of Bhaktapur, Nyatapau, in 1702. His son Ranjit Malla became the last king of his dynasty in Bhaktapur. There are good books being published in Nepal all the time. A good deal of research is being done by Nepalis and expats alike and there is no death of good sources to build a good story. Many visitors do not read books on Nepal on the way here. You can see them often with a copy of the Lonely Planet. Let us not take them to be as naïve as we think they are. n