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Trek View on Nepal: Himalayan Studies Gap Year Semester with Where There Be Dragons

Palace Musuem

February 25th we went on an excursion to the Narayanhiti Palace Museum. It was a bright day but hazy. After getting patted down by security we entered the grounds. We walked up wide steps flanked by black statues of horses, turtles, lions, and other animals and entered the palace through tall dark wood doors carved with Buddhist and Hindu symbols—lotuses and knots and containers for holy water and eyes. The first sight to greet you past the doors is a bear baring its teeth at you, the front of a taxidermied bear-skin rug in the center of the reception hall. Towards the back in front a stained-glass window with a peacock design is the chair the king would have sat in, flanked by two taxidermied tigers, frozen in mid-pounce, balanced on their hind legs with their jaws agape. There were two tiger-skin rugs in the throne room, too, also with heads, also in a similar mid-snarl position, but with one tiger’s eyes open a little too wide, looking almost shocked and threatened, not threatening.
Many of us had the impression that the palace museum was to show us how lavishly the royal family lived through how many nice things they had. There was little historical explanation of the most recent and preceding monarchs or the significance of the most of the objects, perhaps it was assumed the visitor would already have a knowledge of Nepali monarchal history. There was china all set up on the tables with the symbol of the royal family, a Star of David (unrelated to Judaism in this context, actually originally a Hindu symbol) pierced through by a dagger, engraved on it, and also engraved on the frosted windows. There were cases full of gifts from foreign ambassadors and dignitaries—statues of gods and goddesses, treasure boxes, metal lotuses, carved glass. One hallway was lined with pictures of the royal couple with leaders of various other states—India and China and Bangladesh and England and Japan and Luxembourg and various others, which perhaps gave the most historical information of anything in the palace, showing Nepal’s recent opening up to the rest of the world. In the bookshelves in the drawing rooms were Nepali titles, as well as Encyclopedia Brittanicas, Joseph Conrad, Dickens, Dumas, Victor Hugo, and several compediums of Agatha Christie crime novels. In the king’s private office there was a similar selection, along with books on Hinduism, Buddhism, Western and Chinese art and architecture, and one volume entitled ‘1001 Wonderful Things’. In the dining room were paintings on the paneling made to look like picture windows framing idealized vistas of the Himalayas–clear blue days, quaint villages and quiet temples, the country’s beauty captured and collected there. The ceiling in the throne room was painted with Hindu and Buddhist gods and goddesses. There were also several portraits of the family in a more traditional style, portraits that were larger than life. On one staircase there were also more modern twin portraits of the king and queen. They were done in muted green colors and their heads were both turned to either side, looking away from the viewer. Everything was dated, either from the 1800s on up to the 50s, 60s, 70s, etc–the electronics, the style of dress, furniture, decor.
One essentially sees the various trappings of their lifestyle and how nicely they lived, the dollhouse that they conducted their lives in–then the museum leads the visitor out of the palace and towards the grounds of the second home behind it, where their lives abruptly ended in mysterious violence. The story goes that the crown prince Dipendra killed several members of his family and then shot itself. The second building where it all occurred was destroyed shortly afterwards. I found out later that apparently a relative had it dismantled, unable to bear seeing it each day.
As I walked towards the grounds I passed one of several guards that milled around the palace, this one in a green-beige uniform standing watch over the entrance to the second house, a small cap on his head and a long gun making a diagonal across his body. I was looking at the guard and seeing mostly the gun and the violence it was capable of. The guard stared back at me. I walked past and entered the grounds of the second home, where a small sign informed me of the exact spots that could be found where the royal family was shot and killed less than 17 years ago. The trees were overgrown and dust and powder settled on every surface–the walkways, the remaining parts of the building, the broad leaves of shrubbery. It might have been peaceful, but the killing that happened here and the confusion and obfuscation around it reverberated into the present. To me it felt tense, as if a fresh violence could erupt at any moment.
I peered into the billiards room where one member was killed–the decor inside was “mod”, the walls painted teal, the seats’ legs and armrests tube-shape and turquoise. And here someone was killed. And here on the white plaster and brick foundation, what was left of the building, the queen was shot. And directly opposite, some greenery coming up out of the pavement, the prince was found in critical condition. And here the other prince was killed, and there a sign with red arrows helpfully pointing out the exact marks the bullets left in the powder-blue plaster walls. So many marks left by so many bullets shot at only one person. There were other signs, too, labeling the exact names of the plants to be found in the garden-combination killing grounds and botanical garden.
We walked past the area where everyone was killed and into the rest of the garden, where green and blue paint peeled off of wooden structures and lawns were fenced off by tall metal rods. Dogs were lying down on their sides in the shade underneath a drooping tree, still and silent. We came to a large fountain ringed with benches as in a public park. The water in the large basin of the fountain lay stagnant and was a green-brown color with lumps in it I didn’t care to investigate. Several pigeons stooped on its statuary and spouts. Coming out of the gardens I saw another guard with a huge gun, but this time he was talking and smiling with a family out on a day trip. The whole family was wearing bright clothing and had a little girl in tow, her eyes ringed in thick black makeup.
A couple weeks after we went to the Palace Museum Aditya lent me his copy of Forget Kathmandu, which I would highly recommend you all read if you’re interested in finding out more about the palace massacre, Nepali history and politics, the People’s Movement for democracy and the Maoist uprising. It helped me much better understand the context around the massacre–democracy was relatively young, there was much infighting and splintering of the political parties in power, the Maoist insurgency led to chaos and violence and the army’s campaign against them led to even more violence and death. It also talks in depth about the massacre-the information available to the public on it, what it had been like living through it, the hasty cremations and lack of thorough investigation, and the conspiracy theories that sprouted up around the lack of the government’s transparency about it. It gave me much more information about the massacre and the state of Nepali politics, however it also helped me learn how much the public doesn’t know and doesn’t hope of knowing about the massacre because of the lack of thorough government investigation and hasty destruction of evidence–body and building–all amidst the political turmoil at the time. The confusion the visitor feels upon visiting the museum, the lack of explanation and significance, is not unlike the confusion the author Majushree Thapa and several of her peers feel when confronted with Nepal’s history and politics–much is shrouded in haze, bad politics leading to bad historian-ship. Yet the palace was still worth a visit, to witness what there is still there to witness, however incomplete.