There are two tigers in the lobby of Kathmandu’s Narayanhiti Palace Museum. Whichever taxidermist stuffed them chose to stand them on their hind legs. They tower over me with their front limbs lashing out, their jaws open and their eyes wild.
These tigers were left here by vacating royals as the Palace morphed into a museum. They greet visitors both as a reminder of that age-old aristocratic enthusiasm for shooting things and as a nod to a discarded function of royalty, that of protectors of the people. After all, for centuries desperate villagers called in their tiger problems to the local madras in much the same way that New Yorkers call the Ghost Busters.
See, tigers are basically walls of high speed fur and teeth. They’re exceptionally hard to kill with a spear and arrows just seem to make them angry. Even after the introduction of guns to the subcontinent, it still took teams of specialist tiger killers to kill them. Tiger hunts were expensive and flamboyant. They were financed by rich aristocrats who took pot-shots from elephant-back while specially trained peasants tried to lure, chase or harass a hapless target until it was killed.
Yet even today, as the world’s tiger population dwindles, it is not unheard of for the odd tiger to saunter towards Indian and Nepalese villages searching for the nearest snack-sized child. Sometimes they hunt in packs. However tigers are generally solitary creatures and usually attack people when they are out, say, collecting firewood. They may be shyer than leopards (and therefore, at least as far as body-counts go, less dangerous), but tiger attacks still have the power to send villagers to the local authorities demanding action. Earlier this year The Himalayan Times published a shocking story about one such tigress responsible for at least nine deaths across Northern India.
Elephants and Arms
And so it is that the curators of the Narayanhiti Palace Museum exhibit the two tigers near the doorway. It’s not meant to be the symbol of foppish extravagance most Westerners think it to be. Rather it is a statement on power that the family once enjoyed in the tiny landlocked kingdom of Nepal.
The palace itself is surprisingly new, having been rebuilt in the 1960s by King Mahendra after wrestling the keys to the kingdom from a rival arm of the family. It’s an odd place, mixing mid-20th century decor with much more ancient Asian styles. Photos of world leaders line the walls – including Queen Elizabeth II, who visited Nepal in 1961 and observed a royal hunt involving 376 elephants (according to author Michel Peissel they ‘lined up one behind the other these elephants would have made a chain two miles long!’)
But by far the most interesting, insightful and disturbing aspect of the museum is the insight it gives to the private lives of the royal family. The place is a quiet, dignified memorial to the royal family, which sat at the apex of the Nepali political system right up to the first decade of this millennium.
Everywhere are signs of the public and private lives of these royals. The personal effects of the family, their private gathering spaces and even the late King Birendra and his Queen’s bedchamber are juxtaposed against areas such as the Throne Room.
Murder in the Billiard Room
But if you look hard enough you notice an imperfection in this portrayal of royal life. There, in the background of one or two pictures strewn sporadically throughout the palace, is Crown Prince Dipendra. His dark eyes stare out of the picture and into the corridors.
It’s only when you leave these meandering rooms and walk around the back of the building that you find the patch of ground where the Monarchy effectively collapsed. It was here, in a mysterious and shocking fit of madness, that Crown Prince Dipendra apparently opened fire on his own family, killing eight people including his mother and father.
The massacre took place in 2001 in the Palace’s Billiard Room. Months later, the room was demolished as a sign of respect to those who lost their lives. But the concrete foundations remain and sign posts track the key moments of the massacre. I reconstruct it in my head. That sign tells me that this was the doorway where Dipendra entered three times over five minutes, where he must have stood and sprayed bullets. Another tells me where King Birendra lay dying, though it leaves out that Dipendra allegedly kicked him as he bled. There, at the remains of a staircase a sign tells me where the Queen was killed. She wasn’t in the billiard room when she fell. Dipendra seems to have mistaken her and his brother for a guard in the gloom of that corridor.
And there, near an ornamental pond, a sign tells me where Dipendra himself received gunshot wounds. It’s hard to know what to make of Dipendra’s death. The official reports say the wound was self-administered. But many in Nepal still believe an alternate theory in which the next man to ascend the throne, King Gyanendra (along with other conspicuous members of the royal family and palace guards), engineered the massacre.
Regardless, those five minutes of killing represent the moment the monarchy lost any credible claim to a stake in the governance of the country. By 2008 the monarchy had been abolished and Nepal had elected its first President.
I turn away from the foundations and walk for a while in the palace gardens. Then I head back to the palace gates thinking about tigers in doorways.
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But wait, there’s more: click here to view the Himalayan Times article I quoted in a text box above.