Print Edition - 2014-09-07  |  Free the Words

The Narayanhiti palimpsest

  • Though the erstwhile palace represents little except for a collection of royal household items, it symbolises the old nation
- Abhi Subedi
The Narayanhiti palimpsest

Sep 6, 2014-

The signification of a palace changes subtly and imperceptibly with changes in our outlook on life and legends that shape semi-mythical notions, such as calling the king of the country the incarnation of a guardian deity. Nepal is a case in point. I came to Kathmandu as a student in 1963 carrying that myth from my mother.

Built on another

Then, another Narayanhiti palace stood in a different shape. It acquired its present shape slowly, like a coral reef, with the consolidation of power by king Mahendra. It saw its perfection in 1970 when crown prince Birendra was getting married to Aishwarya, the daughter of a Rana general. This palace stood in the same space occupied by the erstwhile durbar designed by Jogbir Sthapit, a well-known architect of the time. Jogbir himself built his new design upon the demolished palace of prime minister Ranoddip Singh Kunwar, the last brother-prime minister of Jung Bahadur Rana, who founded the Rana dynasty in Nepal in 1846. Ranoddip’s palace was pulled down a year after his assassination in 1885 by his nephews, the sons of Jung’s youngest brother, Dhir Shumsher.

Layers of palaces, standing in some shape or demolished, form a palimpsest of architectural memory. The term palimpsest is very productively used in postcolonial studies. But as a student of theatre and art history, what interests me is the signification of layers. The idea is that you write new texts, new figures and new pictures on a surface acquired after erasing old shapes. But the old forms somehow remain. Some letters, human forms, eyes, lips or noses become discernible. So, the figure or text or picture that you see prominently is not the first mark; it is one several texts or figures put on the canvas or paper or wall before that. The history of any place, therefore, does not end completely with the writing of a new one. You, in fact, write a new text on the semi-erased shape of the old. That is the palimpsest for our purpose here.

Palace powers

The façade of the Narayanhiti palace, designed as the replica of a pagoda in a somewhat erratic way, stood against the skyline of the northern section of Kathmandu. Whatever happened there was seen as a blend of mystery, myth, religion, and power. The varieties of designs and successions, power and autocracy constituted the palimpsest. I saw that palace change its signification, its meaning and representation throughout the years. Its legendary tower, overlooking Kings Way down to the Tri-Chandra College structure, was said to have a window from where the king, with a ‘prismatic gaze’, would see what was going on outside in the world of the streets.

The 1979 movement forced king Birendra to announce a referendum, giving people a choice between the erstwhile Panchayat and a new multiparty system. A student in Britain at that time, I read in a paper there that the king looked out at the vast demonstrations from that very window of the palace and declared a referendum, ignoring contrary suggestions from his hardliner wife and his second brother Gyanendra, who later became king after the massacre of Birendra’s family on the deadly night of June l, 2001. The palimpsest palace spoke like Delphi; the king spoke, hiding in that pagoda like the priests of Apollo. Such was the power of the Narayanhiti palace.

King Gyanendra moved to this palace only after fulfilling certain conditions. His first target was the section of the earlier palace where the family of Birendra was massacred. When I visited this palace-turned-museum sometime after king Gyanendra left the palace after giving a press conference on  June 11, 2008, I saw a demolition site inside, creating a different kind of palimpsest of memory. Small slabs were created in place of the old building. It was a very eerie palimpsest, an uncanny layer of structures that represented the ambivalence between memory and its erasure. I saw, that day, a crude history of power and its erosion. Indeed, it had become a palimpsest of memories, structures and events.

But what struck me most was, or is, the palimpsest structure of a different order. This museum became a place of indecision and confusion. Successive prime ministers said that they would investigate the massacre of Birendra’s family and also restructure the museum. Such commitments were announced in programmes inside the palace, but they never returned because they either resigned or were forced to step down. There was everything and nothing to investigate. A palace of the House of Gorkha, which ruled for 240 years, however, would not melt just like that. It would stand there by taking on a new avatar.

A new form

The present avatar of the Narayanhiti is a ‘museum’, but it is not a museum because it does not represent anything. Museums have to represent power, ethnography, arts or politics. It represents none of these. Rita Dhital, my erstwhile student working in the Foreign Ministry, sent me to see the museum with a person in those difficult days and asked me what I saw. I replied, “I saw no poetics of museum but only politics, which is not what this palace represented but as something that represented the confusions of the political parties, how to define it.” I would abide by that statement even today.

Scholars see old monuments and cities as palimpsests, where historical traces are marked. The ambivalence itself speaks of power. I expected to see the Narayanhiti palace-turned-museum as a palimpsest of that order. But now, it is assuming another avatar. It has become the avatar of the indecision of Nepal’s political parties about the ways of writing the law of the land. Though this erstwhile palace represents nothing except a collection of old royal household items and poor poetics of a museum, it nonetheless represents the old nation, the cartography drawn by the likes of Prithvi Narayan Shah and Jung Bahadur. We work not with their ideas but upon their cartography, as written by Prof Krishna Khanal in Kantipur (August 31). The Narayanhiti palimpsest represents this stark choice.

Published: 07-09-2014 09:12

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