Waiting at the ticket booth to Narayanhiti — Nepal’s Royal Palace — I felt like a Chinese commoner entering the Forbidden City for the first time. It’s not too much of a stretch. Nepali Kings, like Chinese Emperors, were touted as divine rulers: avatars of the Hindu god Narayana, the Great Preserver.
Ever since my first visit to Kathmandu in 1979, I had glimpsed Narayanhiti only through its high gates, or past the tall trees that shelter the grounds from view. But in February 2009 — less than a year after the former Kingdom became a Republic — the private residence was converted into a public museum.
Nepal was under royal rule for most of the past 500 years. What we need here, just to get it out of the way, is a brief history of Nepal’s king situation over the past 50-odd years.
In 1955, King Mahendra took the throne. He was an interesting guy who enjoyed black-and-white photography, admired Elvis Presley, and teased his subjects with the notion of democracy. Mahendra and the former kings didn’t live in Narayanhiti; they stayed in the old palace, or durbar, in what’s now Kathmandu’s historic quarter.
Shortly after Mahendra died in 1972, his eldest son — Birendra — was coronated, and moved into the recently completed Narayanhiti. As a leader Birendra was rather like George W. Bush, but without the wit and charm. The intelligentsia got fed up and in 1990, a massive “Peoples’ Movement” wrested power from the throne. But Birendra remained on as king; he was allowed to stay in Narayanhiti with his wife and family, serving as a unifying symbol of ethnically diverse Nepal. When he was killed in 2001 (more on this below), his brother, Gyanendra, took over. Nobody liked this guy — so in 2008 there was another People Power revolution. Gyanendra was shown the door, and the Palace became a museum. Whew.
After checking my daypack and passing through security, I entered the sprawling, grassy grounds. Far behind me, beyond the silver gates, lay Durbar Margh: Kathmandu’s frenetic boutique boulevard, sort of a cut-rate Champs d’Elysees. Its taxi horns and motorcycles faded into the background.
The architecture of Narayanhiti is hard to describe. Completed in 1969, it was designed by an American architect named Benjamin Polk. The building is grand without being impressive, stately without conveying any emotion, and the first reaction most people have when beholding the building is, “Hunh?” Still, it was a thrill to approach the sequestered palace and climb the marble stairway flanked by statues of horses and mythical beasts.
Though the building is grand from the outside, the inside felt cloistered and cold, with small windows, dark paneling and shabby decor that looks as though it hasn’t been changed since Paul McCartney and Wings recorded “Live and Let Die.” With its narrow corridors and stuffed tigers (not to mention crocodiles, deer and rhinoceroses), the place has a strange juju. One cannot use the word “comfy” to describe a single room. This applies especially to the bedroom for the “First Lady of the Visiting Head of State,” which features a macabre poster showing a little girl morphing into a wrinkled crone. Below, in Nepali, is the phrase (roughly translated) “Yikes! This is Our Fate!”
Knowing Birendra’s fate, it’s a poignant experience to stand at the roped-off threshold of the late king’s office — a retreat as modest as the throne room is ostentatious. There’s a large wooden desk, a middle-of-the-line bookshelf stereo, and shelves filled with a strange assortment of books: Freedom in Exile, by the Dalai Lama; 1001 Wonderful Things, by Hutchinson; Hindu Castes and Sects. There is a picture of Mount Kailash on the wall. The image of the holy mountain, long a pilgrimage spot for Tibetan Buddhists, intrigues me. Was Birendra a spiritual man? A king of hidden depths? We’ll never know — but I’m inclined to doubt it.
Perhaps the most surprising room in the palace is the office of former King Mahendra, with its art deco furniture, vintage photographs and large globes of the planet earth and celestial sphere. I’m not saying I could live in it, but it would be a great set for a sitcom about a gay Nepali ad man.
Much of it you’ve seen before, in other former palaces. There are the usual salons lined with glass cases filled with useless gifts from visiting dignitaries: bronze medallions, filigree peacocks, a crystal paperweight from New York City Mayor Edward Koch. The walls are arrayed with photographs of distinguished visitors — even the humblest of them more significant, on an international scale, than their host.
The opulent Gorkha Hall does everything it can to contradict this bit of realpolitik, with its soaring, Gaudi-esque columns and — most important — Ceremonial Throne. Every King needs one of these, and this one is a beauty. More than half a ton of silver and 30 tolas of gold (nearly a pound) were used to build the settee-sized, velvet-cushioned seat of power. Silver elephants support the legs. A canopy of nine gold nagas (snake gods) shaded the King’s head, and thick gold serpents served as his armrests.
But even these nagas, despite their best intentions, could not protect Birendra from his own son. On June 1, 2001, during a social function at the Palace, the drunk and besotted Crown Prince Dipendra allegedly went insane, and gunned down his entire family — the King, Queen Aiswarya, his sister, and several other relatives — with automatic weapons.
The venue for the infamous Royal Massacre, it turns out, was a separate building: an older complex of rooms on the grounds behind the palace. That structure has now been demolished. Only the foundation remains, as if it were an ancient ruin. Cardboard signs indicate, by number, the overgrown sites where the murders occurred – including the little garden bridge, still standing, upon which Dipendra reportedly took his own life. These landmarks are weird abstractions, and a sobering reminder of how the new government immediately destroyed every shred of evidence that might shed light on the real motives for (and perhaps the real perpetrators of) the killings.
It’s often true in Asia that places look better from a distance. I left Narayanhiti feeling underwhelmed and a bit sad. Partly it was for the palace itself: a place that seemed devoid of any warmth or vibrancy. But I was sad for Nepal as well. The one thing the floundering country most desperately needed, and truly deserved, was a great king, a leader who, like Thailand’s King Bhumibol or Bhutan’s Jigme Singye Wangchuck, inspired their subjects by example.
Instead, Nepal got kings like Mahendra — who told one of his engineers during Narayanhiti’s construction, “It is worthless to give grandeur to my palace, because the people will never be ready to admire it even if I make something as grand as the Taj Mahal.”
It’s bad practice, among kings, to blame your subjects for your own lack of imagination. That was Nepal’s story for the past few centuries. Today, the new republic’s commoners stagger out of Narayanhiti in a daze, having spied at last the man behind the curtain. He put on quite a show — but the show is over. I hope they find the heart, brains and courage to take over from here.
Jeff Greenwald is a writer and performance artist. His books include Mr. Raja’s Neighborhood: Letters from Nepal, Shopping for Buddhas, and The Size of the World. He has written for The New York Times Magazine, National Geographic Adventure, Outside, and Salon.com, among other publications. For more, visit jeffgreenwald.com.