A chat with the author of ThamelThrough Time
Recently, I had the chance to meet Benjamin Linder; the American has just written Thamel Through Time, put out by the Kathmandu Guest House this year to celebrate their 50th anniversary. Benjamin is also in the process of doing his PhD on Thamel, so he’s rapidly becoming quite the expert on the subject. We sat in the garden of another old Thamel institution, the Pumpernickel Bakery, to talk about the book, his future plans, and all things Thamel.
How did you become involved and interested in Thamel in the first place?
I came to Thamel for the first time in 2008 as a tourist, and I remember even then, I was a freshman in college and I was really struck by Thamel. Because, at that point in time, I had all the mediated images of Nepal in my head; I had come here for this particular imagery or imaginary [view] I had around the country, and Thamel just flew directly in the face of that. I wasn’t staying in Thamel, or spending much time there, but I always did remember it.
Then, when it time that I decided I wanted to study anthropology as a doctoral student, I started coming back with more academic eyes and trying to think, is there a project about this place? I started with a project about tourism, and then when I got to grad school at Illinois, Chicago, my advisor quickly suggested that tourism was maybe the least interesting thing about Thamel. Since then, it’s been ‘off to the races.’
When you say ‘the least interesting thing,’ do you mean that in your studies you’re focusing more on the cultural anthropological aspect than the tourism?
Yes, I think that what Nepalis get up to in Thamel—which is a whole diverse array of things; reputable and disreputable, high-class, low class, all these things—whatever differently situated Nepalis are getting up to in Thamel has received so much less attention than the tourist dimensions to the neighborhood. I’m interested in demonstrating that there are many different significances among differently situated Nepalis about Thamel. So I quickly became very interested in how differently situated Nepalis along class, caste, levels of mobility, levels of how long you’ve spent abroad or not - where you went abroad or where you didn’t go abroad, whether you’re coming from the village or whether you’re an urbanite in Kathmandu, all these things…data that is for the larger project I’m working on shows that depending on who you are, where you’re coming from, the space means something quite different. And so, I’m interested in exploring these different experiences of the same material place.
When I’ve mentioned to a few people that I heard someone is doing a PhD about Thamel, everyone is quite amused, and a little puzzled, like ‘why would anyone want to do that?’ I’m sure you’ve had that reaction too…
I absolutely have. Oh yeah. It’s also funny the way differently situated people react to my dissertation. I remember once before I ever got funding, I was interviewed by a panel of grant people in the States—and I didn’t end up getting the grant—but one guy in the interview sat there, he was looking at my application, and then the only question he asked was, “So, you’re applying to go hang out in bars for a year.” And I really didn’t have a good answer, because in some sense, yeah, I mean, but I really do believe there’s an academic and ethnographic value to highlighting these experiences of—certainly not what most Nepalis are getting up to—but this sort of other way of being Nepali in the 21st century that I think Thamel is really interestingly significant of.
And how did you come to be involved with the Kathmandu Guest House and the Sakyafamily, how did that come to be?
So, others had written about the history of Thamel, but I of course needed some kind of historical background in my dissertation, and I’d been trying to meet Karna Sakya, as a pioneering entrepreneur, for a long time. And, of course, he’s a busy person, and there was an acquaintance I knew from other research that I’d been doing in Thamel, and he said, ‘Oh, I’m related to him, I can get this off the ground.’ So, one day he set it all up, and before we went to meet him—I did end up doing a long interview with him that day—but I met Rajan and Saguni, his son and daughter-in-law who run the flagship Kathmandu Guest House now, and when I explained what I’m doing, they said that they were interested in commemorating the 50th anniversary in some way, and that maybe I could write it. So, it was this nice dovetailing of both of our interests, where I had to write this history that I probably wouldn’t publish outside the dissertation, and they wanted this history to commemorate this anniversary, and it really just kind of came together.
How do you see the Kathmandu Guest House in the context of the development of Thamel as a tourist hub?
It was the first in this area and it did spark a new, not only a new space, which it did, but also, and this is something my advisor Mark Lichty has written about, it changed the kind of tourism that Nepal was focused on. They absolutely were pioneers in the sense that, up until they started, Freak Street and high-end tourism were the only two dynamics that were going on in Kathmandu, which had really only been going on for less than 20 years. You had these sort of high-end retirees and alpine climbers on the one hand, these sort of high-class people staying at Boris’s Royal Hotel, and then on the other hand, you had this now-mythologized Freak Street and pig alley crowd, the Cat Stevens of the world, the hippies that were washing up in Kathmandu at the end of the trail, whose whole ethos was not to spend much money and live as one with the city, or whatever. The Kathmandu Guest House, when it opened, appears to have been really kind of in the middle between those.
There was a lot of serendipity in what the Kathmandu Guest House did. There was this perfect moment [at the time they opened] …. this is mostly the work of my advisor Mark Lichty, who’s written about this, and Rabi Thapa talks about it in his book also (Thamel, Dark Star of Kathmandu), there was this backlash against hippy culture in the late 60’s; at the same time, around 1972, the late King Birendra decided, ‘Tourism is going to be a big part of our economy. I want to do this actively,’ and that couldn’t be only people who could climb the big peaks, and then these hippies who are not really reflecting well on the city anyway. So, what do you do? Well, we’ve got all this beautiful nature. So there are these other kinds of machinations going on, creating the possibility of trekking tourism for middle-class Westerners who want to go and hike but don’t want to climb Everest. And the Kathmandu Guest House really specialized in Thamel, or what was then not Thamel but a sort of backwater on the north of the city. And, of course, they weren’t alone, there were other people who were serendipitously involved as well, like the Hotel Utse people, it wasn’t a hotel then, but they were there in 1971 right around NarshingChowk and they helped popularize Tibetan style momos in the city, which are of course now ubiquitous. It was certainly not one person’s effort, and Karna Sakya will be the first to tell you that, but, yes, Thamel [and the KGH] represented a new kind of tourism in the city, namely middle-class trekking tourism.
You’re also obviously continuing on with your studies—so when are you planning to publish the result of that? Something else about Thamel.
Yeah, absolutely. I’m hoping to finish my PhD dissertation within the next two years. That’s a much more contemporary project. So, this project with the Kathmandu Guest House is more or less the historical background, with more detail than what will be included in the dissertation. The long-term history going back to Manjushree, basically, will be chapter one in my dissertation, and then from there I launch off to say that, yes, Thamel developed as this place catering to a new type of tourist, but really— and I start the transformation with 1990, but it really doesn’t take root until the last ten years—since then Nepalis have steadily [claimed it]. I’m much more interested now in what particularly Nepali consumers, but also laborers at all scales from the entrepreneurs to the hash dealers and rickshaw drivers, I’m interested in the different ways that Thamel gets experienced by different subjects, and really just trying to reclaim Thamel as more than just this kind of unimportant foreign scab on the city. I really see it as more than that, and I think increasingly, Nepalis, particularly younger, middle and upper class Nepalis, also see it that way.
Anything final to add?
For how famous or notorious Thamel is, it hasn’t really received much concerted [literary] attention, particularly the ancient history, with the exception of Rabi Thapa’s book and Shiva Rijal’s essays on Thabahil, where Thamel gets its present name from, as far as I know.
In the book, the tourism begins in part three, so there are a lot of interesting developments in what we now know as Thamel, well before a tourist ever set foot here. It begins on the line where mythology and history gets blurry, in the time of Manjushree, when Gunakam Dev founded the Kathmandu Mandala, and when Atisha Shreejana ventures en route to Tibet to spread the Buddhist dharma, stops in Kathmandu and establishes Thabahil on the northern outskirts of the city, what he thought would be an international center of Buddhist learning…
If most of my dissertation is talking about the contemporary cultural politics of Thamel and this sort of contestation around identity and national culture, then this book gave me the opportunity to take it from the other side, and show that in this other way, Thamel has always been kind of imbricated in bigger political demographic shifts going on in Kathmandu, so I’m happy I had a chance to do this book.
I spend entirely too much time thinking about Thamel! It’s fascinating, you see the history not just of tourism and not just of Thamel, but you can kind of see the broader history of Kathmandu reflected and refracted in the building of Thamel, if you know where to look.