Saturday Features

A legend, a landmark

  • Thamel through Time provides the pleasures of a coffee table book while also offering a meditative and historical look at how tourism matured and transformed in a country that opened up to the outside world only in the 1950s

Sep 29, 2018-

I grew up in the 1970s in Lainchaur, so I closely witnessed the initial growth of Thamel that resulted in the bustling tourist district it is today. In my early teens I used to walk to Thamel to buy tarkari (there was a thriving vegetable market at its northern end, across the road that goes down the hill toward Samakhusi) and medicine and to rent Hero bicycles. But I was also attracted to Thamel for what it represented: a window into the wider world that I had already visited, in my mind, through Neil Young and the Grateful Dead, through Harold Robbins and Robert Ludlum, through Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I and my buddies from St Xavier’s used to play basketball and billiards at the GAA facility, then stroll over to central Thamel and end up hanging out at KC’s Restaurant, drinking coffee and eating cake. Thamel was the place to be. At that time, the makeup of the tourists coming to Nepal was changing: from the unshaven hippies of Jhonchhe (aka Freak Street) to the better dressed and boots-wearing trekking types who were flocking to Thamel, money in their travel pants.Even then, Kathmandu Guest House, with its celebrated clientele and an amazing garden, was already an icon, a symbol of legendary Nepali hospitality.

The centrality of Kathmandu Guest House in the development of Thamel, thereby in the reorientation and growth of Nepali tourism, is beautifully presented in a new coffee table book, written by Benjamin Linder and conceptualised and edited by Shaguni Singh Shakya. Thamel through Time: Commemorating 50 Years of Kathmandu Guest House and Thamel 1968-2018 guides readers through a photographic and textual journey of this iconic hotel and its absorbing history. Karna Shakya, the founder of KGH (and a popular author of inspirational books such as Soch) first got the idea of turning his family mansion, built by the Ranas, into a hotel after spending time in the restaurants and pie shops of Jhonchhe. When KGH opened in 1968, with 13 rooms at $5 per room, people doubted that foreigners would choose to stay so far away from the city’s core. Karna Shakya recalls, “Many friends, and my family, said, ‘Why would tourists come to such a lonely place?’” The ‘lonely place’ was not merely an expression: until the early 70s, Thamel was said to be haunted by ghosts, a spot where murderers lurked. This description rings true: Lainchour, I remember from my boyhood, was also said to be a place where “jackals howled on hilltops.”

Karna Shakya was a visionary, but more important, he was also a community builder, which is crucial in understanding how Thamel turned into the vibrant hub it is today. He knew it takes a village, so he encouraged others to open businesses in the area and forged connections with entrepreneurs, Nepalis and foreigners, who could add to the neighbourhood’s growth. Thus Thamel through Time also chronicles stories of “Nepali hippie” Ram Gopal KC, who became famous for cheesecakes and steak sizzlers he sold in KC’s Restaurant and Bambooze Bar, and of Ugen Tsering, whose Utse Restaurant made Tibetan-style momos popular.

Thamel through time

Author: Benjamin Linder

Editor: Shaguni Singh Shakya

The beauty of Thamel through Time is that it provides the pleasures of a coffee table book—easy browsing and captivating photographs—while also offering a meditative and historical look at how tourism matured and transformed—and proved transformative—in a country that opened up to the outside world only in the 1950s. For instance, the book dives into the etymology of the name Thamel, and in the process gives us insights into the difficulties of discerning fact from myth in the narratives of the city’s rich Newari cultural history. In describing the palace origin of the house that is now KGH, the book takes us through a short excursion through the Rana architectural aesthetics, which was imported from the West, and its impact on Kathmandu’s—and Thamel’s—landscape. Thamel through Time doesn’t shy away from the devastation that followed the 2015 Gorkha earthquake, which, although sparing Kathmandu Guest House of major structural damage, ushered in an era of reflection and restoration—and expansion.

KGH’s international reputation is reflected in its Walk of Fame, in the renowned guests, from near and far corners, who have stayed or visited here. British actor Jeremy Irons cut his teenage son’s hair in the hotel’s garden in 2001. Puerto Rican pop singer Ricky Martin visited the hotel twice, around the time when he rocketed into stardom. Australian actor Joel Edgerton stayed for one week in 2013 while doing some charity work. The hotel has also hosted numerous mountaineers, including Reinhold Messner. There are also reported, but unverified, sighting of other celebrities: George Harrison of the Beatles, John F. Kennedy, Jr., and Robert Redford.

Thamel through Time is a handsome book that should be proudly displayed on the coffee tables of all those who have visited Nepal, or have wanted to visit Nepal, or like me, who have strong familial and emotional ties in Nepal. For about a decade now, I have been chaperoning MFA writing students from Indiana University in the US, where I teach, to my home (and heart) country every year. Invariably, I lodge them in Thamel. The reason is simple: Thamel is safe (many of my students are young women); has first-rate hotels boasting of unmatched hospitality at affordable prices; is filled with shops and services that sell everything from masala to meditation; and offers an amazingly diverse food, from delicious dal-bhat to some of the best pizza anywhere. As Thamel through Time rightly notes, “Thamel very well might be one of the most densely transnational places in the world.” And at the heart of it sits Kathmandu Guest House, radiating Himalayan welcome and warmth.

- Samrat Upadhyay

Published: 29-09-2018 08:26

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