The Architecture of Power: Some insights into the Narayanhiti Palace MuseumKathmandu has many striking architectural monuments; the Narayanhiti Palace Museum is undoubtedly one of them.
Bryony Whitmarsh, an art history lecturer at Portsmouth University and current doctoral candidate at the School of Oriental and Asian Studies (SOAS), is examining the architecture of this very palace museum as her dissertation subject. Through the lense of academia, the palace and the 3,794 square metres of ground it sits on (the total area of the palace grounds is 753 ropanis or 383,218 sq. m) represents a certain undeniable symbolism—the need for King Mahendra to show through his new seat of power that his reign was to be a breaking away from the Rana regime and the beginning of a new, forward-thinking modern era.
Little is known about the process of commissioning the design of Narayanhiti as it stands today. Shankar Nath Rimal, the engineer who saw through the building of the palace and is largely credited locally as the architect, reminisced to Whitmarsh that King Mahendra had invited various foreign architects to hand in designs for the palace. Benjamin Polk was eventually chosen, it is thought, on the basis of
his design of the Tripikata Buddhist Library in Yangon that pays
homage to traditional structures while reinventing the building itself in a modern way—a paradigm that undoubtedly won Polk the commission in Nepal.
There is very little that is known about the decade-long construction of the palace that began in 1961. We certainly do not know how much
the structure may have cost, nor the real thought processes that went
into the actual design—this kind of lack of information is typical of most things related to Narayanhiti. What we do know for certain is that this was a building designed to represent a new beginning.
Bryony Whitmarsh believes, fascinatingly, that the Narayanhiti structure was in fact, meant to represent opacity. It was meant to inspire awe, and to maintain a certain aura of secrecy, what she calls a “complicitous silence”, especially during its time as a seat of power. Today, the palace museum grounds and structure continue to fascinate and inspire great curiosity and speculation (due to indelible events that are not within the scope of this piece) even as it has opened to the public, albeit fairly selectively.
Which brings us to architecture and how it affects the public imagination: large government-related buildings are frequently constructed with the semantics of power in mind to make statements about the ethos at the time of the building’s inception. However, regardless of King Mahendra’s original intent, Narayanhiti, today, retains a great deal of ambiguity, having changed from the seat of power to a museum run by the government.
Whitmarsh has placed her finger on the key question that continues to figure in most of our minds: what exactly does lie behind the pink façade, and how are we to interpret it today after all that has gone on within the palace grounds, and that too with the lack of information that stymies even the research efforts of a PhD student? There is indeed a great deal of study and research still to be done before the Nepali people can have any real understanding and insight into the behemoth that lies at the heart of our city.
Byrony Whitmarsh would be thrilled to speak to people regarding their memories and experiences regarding the construction of the palace and visiting the palace or the museum. She can be reached at: [email protected]