A former Nepali diplomat is the proud owner of a house in Tinchule, near Bouddha of Kathmandu, that once belonged to Juddha Shumsher Jung Bahadur Rana, one of the more famous Rana prime ministers of the country. More than 150 years old, it was the prime minister’s summer house, and it is a property that anybody would cherish. However, it is only a small legacy compared to the great architectural legacies of the Ranas during the Rana Period (1846-1951), principally, the magnificent durbars that are strewn all over Kathmandu.
What sets them apart, aside from their huge sizes, is their completely different style of architecture from the hereto traditional styles of the Newars and the Shahs. The Ranas, indeed, introduced as radical a change as was possible in both scale and design from the existing architecture in Kathmandu. Built in neo-classical or Baroque style, these grand durbars were generally white-plastered and with arresting French windows. Grecian columns were everywhere, and they came in different sizes, the more imposing ones adorning the spacious porticos.
The Narayanhiti Durbar is, of course, what first comes to mind when talking about Rana Period architecture. Prime Minister Jung Bahadur Rana built it in 1847 as a gift for his brother Rana Uddip Singh. Originally, the style was totally neo-classical, but after it became the royal palace of the Shah Kings, renovations and remodelling followed in 1889, along with quite a bit of expansion. Later still, in 1969, King Mahendra Bir Bikram Shah constructed a more modern-style palace.
Today, the Shah Kings have become part of history, and the royal palace is now a museum, with one part taken over by the Foreign Ministry. For himself, Jung Bahadur built another grand durbar, the Thapathali Durbar, besides the Bagmati River in Thapathali. This one was primarily designed in the colonial style, and with the passage of time, much of it has been demolished. However, the main part remains to remind us of what was once Jung Bahadur’ grand durbar. Today, Nepal Rastra Bank’s Currency Management Department has its offices there.
The earliest durbar to be converted into a hotel was Bahadur Bhawan in Kantipath, near the former royal palace. Constructed in 1889, it was later refurbished into what is believed to be the first hotel in the country, and appropriately enough, it was named the Royal Hotel. For reasons unknown, the hotel closed down later, and today, the durbar is home to the Election Commission. Another durbar that went on to become a hotel was Lal Durbar near Durbar Marg, which was built by Prime Minister Bir Sumsher In 1890. Much later, extensive renovations were made to a part of this impressive durbar to convert it into the famous Hotel Yak & Yeti, a luxurious five-star property.
Bir Shumsher was also responsible for making the Seto Durbar on Durbar Marg in 1893, as well as the Phora Durbar in front of the royal palace in 1895. Unfortunatly, during the great earthquake of 1934, fire broke out, and most of Seto Durbar was destroyed, leaving only a small wing intact. Phora Durbar was famous for its lovely gardens and its many beautiful fountains. Today, it is a club for Americans in Nepal. Around the time Phora Durbar was built, another durbar was built nearby around a courtyard with beautiful gardens and water bodies. It was named Keshar Mahal, and today, besides the Ministry of Education and the Keshar Library, which are lodged there, the garden has been lovingly renovated into what is now called the ‘Garden of Dreams’. .
In 1903, the biggest durbar of them all was built by Chandra Shumsher. He called it Singha Durbar, and it was where he set up his residence. Arranged around seven quadrangles were more than a thousand rooms. So large was the durbar that it ranked high amongt the largest buildings in South Asia. Then, in 1973, a fire raged through the durbar, and except for the front wing, everything else was destroyed.
Today, Singha Durbar is the focal point of governance in the country, with the parliament and many ministeries inside its premises, which also houses the Nepal Television and Nepal Planning Commission establishments. Another historic durbar to sustain extensive damages during the great earthquale of 1934 was Sital Niwas in Maharajgunj. The construction of the original durbar was completed in 1923, and after the earthquake, much of it had to be rebuilt. Today, it houses the President of Nepal and is known as Rastrapati Bhawan.
And, finally, how can an article on durbars be complete without mentioning the 120-year-old Agni Bhawan in Lazimpat, which was built by General Jit Shumsher Rana, brother of Jung Bahadur Rana, in 1894? Furnished with the finest accessories imported from Europe, Agni Bhawan was one of the most elegant of all durbars in Kathmandu. In due time, it became the property of General Agni Shumsher Rana, son of Juddha Shumsher JB Rana, and grandfather of the late Queen Aishwarya, former Queen Komal, and the late Princess Prekshya, who were all born here. Historical to the extreme, it was taken over in 1964 by an enterprising hotelier, the late Mr. Ram Shanker Shrestha, who converted it into the country’s premier heritage hotel—Hotel Shanker—by keeping its unique identity intact even while ensuring most modern amenities to its guests.
Well, there’s a lot to be said for the Rana years, not everything was good, of course. However, one cannot deny that the durbars they built were truly fitting tributes to their high ambitions and love for the grandiose.