Last week I visited the former royal palace in Kathmandu, which was opened to the public for the first time last month, less than a year after the royal family was deposed by the Maoists. It seems like the perfect revenge for the new Maoist-led government- turning the royal household into a tourist attraction. Andwhat better way to bury the past than by thoroughly memorializing it? On a hot Sunday, I stood in a long line of Nepalis and a few tourists to get a glimpse of the compound where the royal family lived and died. The current palace was built in the 1960’s and is an imposing and dramatic structure. It sits halfway between traditional Nepali style and Jetsons-style modernism.
I entered through the high-ceilinged mirrored hall that once received heads of state and government ministers. Stuffed tigers reared up from the corners and full length portraits of the kings of Nepal lined the walls. I wound my way through the official entertaining rooms, the royal bedroom and diningroom, and the rooms reserved for visiting guests. The walls of long snaking corridors were lined with photographs of the late King Birendra and Queen Aiswarya smiling next to presidents, dictators, emirs, princes. On the lower level, a vast room held the various medals and honorary awards given out by the king. The furniture and decorations inside were fine quality but clearly dated, like the living room of someone’s rich grandparents. Somerooms bore a closer resemblance to Hugh Hefner’s Playboy mansion.
Behind the palace where the royals lived was the field where they died. The story of the Royal Massacre is the stuff of Shakespeare. The crown prince Dipendra burst into the royal family’s weekly evening of billiards, armed with machine gun, shotgun, and pistol and opened fire on his relatives. He killed King Birendra, Queen Aiswarya, and others before turning the gun on himself in the garden. The building where the massacre happened has been torn down but the foundation remains and the exact location of the deaths are noted by numbered markers.
Between the strange monomaniacal faded glamour of the palace and the starck morbidity of the site of the massacre, I struggled to imagine the lives of this royal family or to draw out their humanity from the political history they helped to shape. Outside the high palace walls, congested traffic snarled through the dirty streets, boys huffed glue from paper bags and North Face-clad trekkers were propositioned with hashish and paid sex. Taxi drivers must wait in line for petrol for five hours each day because of fuel shortages. Power is on for only a few hours for the same reason. And this is in Kathmandu; conditions outside the valley are much worse. Inside the palace, all that seemed a world away.