|September 2011||Text by : Anil Chitrakar
Photograph by : ECS Media
Sometimes one wonders why so many people are willing to do anything and just about everything to become the Prime Minister of Nepal. Given the numerous challenges facing our country one would think we would have to go to individuals with a big pay package and perks…. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that the PM gets a very beautiful building as his office. Since 1903, when the Singh Durbar was constructed as the personal residence of then Prime Minister Chandra Shumsher, it has been the seat of power in Nepal. The magnificent building has been witness to over a century of Nepali history.
The construction of Singh Durbar amounted to 5 million Nepali rupees (1900AD value) and was spread over 50 hectares of land. The palace had nearly 1000 rooms and 7 major courtyards. The grounds also housed numerous gardens, a deer park, a polo playing ground, tennis courts, fountains and plenty of open and wooded areas. In 1903 it claimed to be the largest and most luxurious palace in Asia; and till 1973 was the largest government secretariat in Asia. What is really amazing about the history of Singh Durbar or “Lion Palace” is that it was built in 3 short years. Chandra Shumsher was a man of good taste and built his palace with Italian marble, Belgian mirrors, English stained glass doors, French crystal clocks and chandeliers, plants from China and Japan, all imported via the port in Calcutta to furnish Singh Durbar and its surroundings.
Chandra Shumsher ruled Nepal for 29 long years and made a real mark on Nepali society with his social reforms and development projects. Kathmandu had electricity from his time. He abolished slavery and the sati ritual where the widow had to follow her dead husband’s funeral pyre. He was the first high school graduated ruler of Nepal who excelled in the English language at the University in Calcutta. Later during his visit to England, he was awarded an honorary doctorate by Oxford University; on display at Baber Mahal Revisited. He also had the first railway system and rope way built in Nepal. After living in Singh Durbar for a few years, he declared it the official residence for the Prime Ministers of Nepal after him and sold the palace to the Nepali government for NRs 20 million.
In 1973, a huge fire destroyed Singh Durbar. The only part that could be salvaged was the front portion and half of one courtyard. The people of Kathmandu woke up with ashes of Singh Durbar all over their roofs and courtyards. Whatever the reasons and methods, Nepal has inherited this magnificent building that became the seat of His Majesty’s Government after 1951 at the end of Rana rule. This large palace, in those days, housed every government ministry and department. After 1973, they all moved out into rented spaces. The Prime Minister of the Republic of Nepal works in but does not live at Singh Durbar anymore. All state dinners in the past 100 years have been hosted at the main Baithak at Singh Durbar and the tradition continues to this day…Today many ministries have moved back into the compound where new building are going up with the old facades. Seeing this building for the first time could naturally make one want to have an office as large and beautiful as Singh Durbar. Can we really blame anyone for this?
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