The government’s indifference to the plight of the country’s 19th century buildings damaged by the 2015 earthquake has left many tourism players and conservationists aghast.
--BY ASHIM NEUPANE
Historical buildings are regarded as monuments with a great a deal of importance to any country the world over. They exist to inspire and showcase a country’s feats in engineering, architecture and craftsmanship. Such monuments are preserved and maintained in optimal condition to attract the tourist dollar.
This is not the case in Nepal, however. Despite being home to a large number of palaces built during the Rana period showcasing neoclassical architecture, a building design from 18th century Europe which spread across the world in the British colonial era, the sad fact is that many of these historical palaces are presently in a sorry state of disrepair. The mismanagement behind this has become more evident after the devastating 2015 Gorkha Earthquake which partially or fully destroyed many of the palaces.
Just looking at the condition of many of the buildings, one can conclude that neither the government nor the local bodies are serious in preserving the buildings. The government agencies concerned and local bodies have been blaming each other over the delay in the reconstruction and renovation of the damaged sites.
One such example is the decision of the Kathmandu Metropolitan Corporation (KMC) to demolish the Bagh Durbar, which also houses the office of the metropolitan authority, ignoring the request from heritage experts and objections from the Department of Archaeology (DoA). KMC has set a plan to demolish the palace and construct a new building within the next four years at an estimated cost of around Rs 1.5 billion. Built by General Amar Singh Thapa in the mid-19th century, Bagh Durbar which is located at Sundhara is a complex of buildings, courtyards and gardens. It came under the ownership of the government in the 1950s. Despite having a neoclassical architecture, Bagh Durbar incorporates traditional Nepali designs in its interior. KMC has planned to replace the palace by constructing a multi-storey office complex and a tower that will incorporate Lichhavi, Malla and Neoclassical building designs.
When asked why Bagh Durbar was to be demolished, Mayor Bidya Sundar Shakya replied that the building is actually called Hari Bhawan which is less than a century old and Bagh Durbar no longer exists. The mayor also said that KMC is collaborating with different government bodies for the reconstruction of various damaged sites across Kathmandu. However, DoA officials say that the building KMC is planning to demolish is actually Bagh Durbar and not Hari Bhawan and that cooperation with KMC has been hard work.
Despite never being a colonial power or colonised by western powers, the Kathmandu Valley is home to a large number of such palaces. There are over 40 such buildings across the capital valley alone, according to official data.
The former royal palace Narayanhiti Durbar which was built in 1847 is considered to be the first building with neoclassical architecture in the country. It was demolished in the early 1960s and was replaced with the current structure.
Most of such buildings were built during the 104-year Rana rule. After the establishment of the democratic system in 2007 BS, many of the Rana era palaces were nationalised while some were sold by their former owners and others replaced with new structures. According to the veteran hotelier Karna Sakya, the Ranas constructed more than 100 buildings across various parts of the country during their time.
Ranas built the buildings as residences, administrative and military offices, educational institutions, and for other purposes. Though primarily of European design, the buildings have also incorporated Nepali architecture and craftsmanship in parts of the interior. It is generally believed that the Ranas were impressed with European architecture and started constructing similar structures in the country employing Nepali engineers and workers with foreign technical assistance.
“Despite being ruled by the British for around 200 years, India doesn’t have the same number of neoclassical buildings as Nepal. This shows that Nepali architects were as capable as their western peers,” says Karna Sakya who is the founder of KGH Group of Hotels. “Replicating a design is also an art and Nepali architects have shown what they are capable of by building the palaces,” he adds.
The construction materials like bricks, paste of lentils, cooking oils, limestone, mud, among others were locally resourced. Seen as Nepal’s first modern architect, Kumar Narsingh Rana, a University of Tokyo graduate, designed the Neoclassical palaces including the Singha Durbar, Lazimpat Durbar, Kaiser Mahal, Sheetal Niwas, among many others. Meanwhile, Ranasur Bista and Jogbir Sthapit are other architects and master masons known in history for designing and constructing neoclassical palaces here.
It’s been more than three years since the devastating earthquake of 2015, but most of the government-owned neoclassical palaces that were damaged or destroyed by the earthquake haven’t been repaired or reconstructed. Hanumandhoka Durbar, the historic Tri Chandra Campus tower, Harihar Bhawan and Thapathali Durbar (office of the central bank), for example, are still in a sorry state.
The government’s indifference has even left the country’s administrative centre Singha Durbar in a very precarious condition. Built by Rana Prime Minister Chandra Sumsher in 1908, the sprawling structure, said to replicate the Palace of Versailles in France, is a perfect example of a fusion of Neoclassical, Palladian, a mid-17th century European building design, and Nepali architecture.
Nevertheless, it is encouraging that most privately-owned neoclassical palaces have been well maintained with some becoming popular hotels and upscale restaurants over the last few decades. Hotels like Yak and Yeti, Kathmandu Guest House, Maya Manor Boutique Hotel and Shanker Hotel are some examples in this regard that were renovated by the owners keeping the original structure intact without any support from the government.
Constructed in 1885, Lal Durbar (Hotel Yak and Yeti) was built by the 11th prime minister of Nepal Bir Sumsher Jung Bahadur Rana as a theatre palace. Similarly, the palace of Kumar Narsingh Rana has been welcoming guests as the Kathmandu Guest House since the 1970s. The boutique hotel is credited for its contributions to the development of the Thamel area as the main tourist hub in Nepal. KGH Group of Hotels also owns the boutique hotel Maya Manor at Naxal which was constructed as the residence of the powerful General Toran Sumsher Rana in 1935.
Likewise, the Lazimpat Durbar (now Shanker Hotel) which is also known as Agni Bhawan was built by the first Rana Prime Minister Jung Bahadur Rana’s brother General Jit Sumsher Rana in 1894. The Babar Mahal Revisited complex is another neoclassical structure that was turned into a heritage centre in the early 2000s.
Currently, there are around 10 privately-owned neoclassical buildings being used as residences and commercial purposes, according to DoA. KGH founder Sakya says that the private sector has worked seriously hard to maintain the buildings. “If it was only about money, we would have replaced the old palaces with high rise structures,” he says.
According to him, a policy to incentivise the conservation of historical monuments such as exemption of tax for buildings over a century old would encourage the entrepreneurs. “Meanwhile, the government should work to purchase the buildings that are only being used for residential purposes to preserve the history and the architecture,” suggests Sakya. He is also of the view that the renovation approaches need to change with time. “Modern raw materials can be used to renovate the historic buildings which will ensure that the structures can withstand the nature’s powerful force like earthquake and other calamities. It also makes the regular maintenance works easier,” he says. “Many European countries, for instance, use modern constructing materials to renovate historic sites,” he adds.
Sakya asks the government to provide raw materials in subsidised rates to private sector entrepreneurs so that they can renovate the neoclassical buildings with ease. Sakya’s father bought the palace of Kumar Narsingh Rana in 1956 and established it as a hotel in 1970. Likewise, another residence of the Shakya family, the Maya Manor was turned into a hotel in 2014.
Sakya suggests for a government policy to stop anyone from demolishing buildings that are older than 100 years. “The government should only allow rebuilding the structures if the owners agree to keep the original form intact,” he stresses.
Despite many neoclassical buildings lying as ruins due to the state’s indifference and negligence, some government bodies have taken steps in conservation. One example in this regard is the ongoing reconstruction of the Chandra Military Hospital which is situated opposite to the Mahankal Temple. Nepal Army has been reconstructing the structure using modern raw materials, while also maintaining the original look of the building.