Bagh Durbar – The Tiger Palace
The Baghdurbar (also known as Bag Durbar or Hari Bhawan) is situated at Sundhara, the core of Kathmandu city, 150m southeast of Dharahara. It is an important historical monument regarding Nepali politics as it has been a witness to a number of treacherous events most of which are violent. The building had been a home to many powerful names in the political history of Nepal, including those of Prime Minister Bhimsen Thapa, Prime Minister Mathvarsingh Thapa and General Hari Shumsher JBR.
Bagh Durbar was built in 1805 by the then PM Bhimsen Thapa right after he rose into power, replacing a small house his father Amarsingh Thapa had built. Many additions to the building continued till the 1820s, expanding the complex to a whomping 120 ropanies of area. An inscription found in a temple inside Baghdurbar reveals the grandeur of the building complex when it was built. It talks about the general garden (Janarala Baga)- the first reference to a pleasure garden, with an oval pond and a couple of temples, including Bhimmukteshwara temple which legends say was built for the sake of Bhimsen’s personal glory. After the downfall of Thapas the building was nationalized but again repossessed by Thapas after Mathvarsingh Thapa rose into power eight years later. He turned the palace into an administrative center of the country. Historians say that he had kept two striped tigers caged at the entrance to the palace. It is quite obvious that the palace was popularly named Baghdurbar (The Tiger Palace) thanks to the presence of those tigers. This went on for two years until Mathvarsingh Thapa was murdered by his own nephew Janga Bahadur Kunwar. With volatile developments in Nepali politics, the palace paid host to many different powerful people. In 1885, PM Bir Shumsher renovated the palace in Neo-Gothic style with extensive use of white marble. But the palace was entirely devastated by the 1934 earthuake and nothing remains of the palace whatsoever. Then PM Juddha Shumsher seized the possession of the palace from his son-in-laws to rebuild it. The palace was rebuilt in neoclassical style, a common architectural style used extensively during the Rana period, using some of the characteristics of the Malla-Newar architecture, to present it to his son Hari Shumsher JBR, thus naming the palace Hari Bhawan. The palace, though some portion of it have been destroyed, currently houses the office of Kathmandu Metropolitan city.
Neoclassical architecture was an architectural style produced by the neoclassical movement that began in the mid-18th century. In its purest form it is a style principally derived from the architecture of classical Greece and Rome. Prominent architects addressed the concept of neoclassicism maintaining that a building should immediately communicate its function to the viewer. In form, neoclassical architecture emphasizes the wall of the building and maintains separate identities to each of its parts.
Neo-classicism in Nepal:
With the Rana family coming into power, a diversion in building principle could be seen during the mid-19th century. New buildings were being built and old buildings renovated in European style architecture, mostly neoclassical ones. A considerable number of palaces were built and renovated during that time some of which still exist. The Singha Durbar, Basantapur Durbar, Hari Bhawan can be taken as examples. These buildings feature white plastered walls, Corinthian order external columns used mostly for aesthetic values. But those buildings still relied upon local technologies for the interiors and structural basis of the buildings.
The Rana family was loyal to the Great Britain government and had great affinity towards British style of living. British influence on Nepali politics and social life changed the habitual practices and customs of the Rana family. Since the British had established some exemplary architectural monuments in India, no wonder that Ranas would’ve liked the same. So they fused the European architecture with local building techniques to be used for building residences for the most powerful family in the country. It can only be assumed that using local technology for structural purpose was just a compulsion as the materials and workforce needed were not readily available. While the United States was following the classic Roman and Greek architecture to build its important monuments like The US Capitol, The White House just to symbolize that it was following the ancient Roman/Greek democratic system of ruling it is quite an irony that Ranas, the most autocratic of rulers in Nepali history were doing the same for luxury and a cheap exhibition of power.
Interiors, exteriors and aesthetics of Hari Bhawan:
The Hari Bhawan, as it was a palace, was designed for a lot of people to stay, thus allowing a large number of rooms to be created. The passage throughout the palace forms a looplike structure probably for easier communication between different parts of the palace. Notably, the rooms’ width does not exceed the width of passages, thus giving more importance to the flow of visitors than luxury of the dwellers. The internal aesthetics of the building only depends upon the structural elements like beams and columns except for some oil paintings and expensive lamps.
The doors, windows and staircases are built in all-french styles. Doors that completely forbid visual communication with outside world are prevalent, which is obvious regarding the conservative society of those times. Windows exhibit a great deal of Nepali art with different types of carvings and designs on them. Inexperienced eyes may find uniformity in those designs but close observation reveals that each carving is a unique one. As a common characteristic of Nepali architecture, the wooden staircases are steep and narrow mostly leading to the next floor in a single turn. But at some points like the entrance, the staircases are modified so as to exhibit luxurious forms, ascending to one storey in 2-3 turnings.
We can find that a great deal of decorative elements is used in the interiors of the building so as to give it a more palace-like appearance.
The external colour code of white and green can be considered a fashion of those times as it is common in all its contemporary buildings. White colour is a symbol of power. Also, the readily available Kamero (white clay) in Kathmandu valley may have been the main reason why all the external walls, balconies and columns were painted white. The decoration in beams, walls, columns were mostly done by plastered surfaces which is a characteristic of neoclassical architecture. Lime-plaster (Bajra) is the basic element for plastering as it had been or centuries in Nepal. Bajra is a mixture of molasses, black pulse, jute, brick dust and lime. They are preferred over other materials because they have a strong resistance against humidity.
The inclusion of an internal courtyard with a badminton court inside it signifies the luxurious lifestyle and the love for recreation the Ranas had. Some old stories related to Rana families have mentioned that those internal courtyards were used for demonstration of dances, songs and other religious activities.
Structural basis of Hari Bhawan:
The Hari Bhawan, although was built in a European style, its structural elements are built and arranged quite similarly to the Malla architecture. Using the local resources available, the internal beams and columns of the palace were made up of Salla (Pinus roxburghii) wood. These trees can be found growing in the slopes around Kathmandu valley. Following the principles of Malla architecture, the pillars are lined in parallel rows. At the top they are joined to a double corbel and above that to a beam. This system develops to a structural frame supporting other vertical elements like the wall. All the wooden parts are joined without using nails or other metal pieces, following traditional construction methods of the Newar style. Since Nepal is always an earthquake-prone region, some crucial joints are made extra-strong by linking the vertical and horizontal structural components.
The floors are built using simple battens, rectangular in section, upon which planks are laid. These in-turn support the final floor finish of square shaped slates joined together with cement.
The walls, roof and slabs of the palace were built by using lime-mortar. Lime-mortar is composed of coarse brick powder and lime. However, since the building needed a fairly large amount of mortar, it was prepared by adding brick powder to black treacle to make the mortar harder and quick drying. Black treacle was an expensive material to build of, so only a few buildings had the fortune to be built of it, mostly palaces and residences of wealthy people. Similarly, saldhup (resinous oil from sal tree) for hardness, jute, methi, maas (black gram) powder were also added. This combination creates lime-mortar which is said to be of pure Nepali origin. Studies have suggested that lime-mortar was of better quality than present day cement-concrete mortar.
Hari Bhawan today and its conservation:
Though statistics show that Hari Bhawan was built to withstand fairly large degree of environmental hazards, it has not been successful in doing so. Recent observations show that the internal plasters of the building at some shady corners have fallen victim to humidity thus getting discoloured and/or skinned off. The Pinus beams and trusses at the southeastern blocks of the palace have severely been damaged due to termite attacks and are posing threats to the structural stability of the palace. Since the palace now houses the office of Kathmandu Metropolitan City, some positive steps have been taken to keep it in its original state, thus keeping it away from the danger of “unmanned extinction.”
After studying a whole lot about Hari Bhawan, we can conclude that the building with its bloody history and beautiful form is a monument that still speaks of the past. It depicts how diversions occurred in Nepali architecture and also makes it clear that we had and still have a tremendously reliable construction technology upon which many palaces were made and can be made furthermore
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