Nepal: Deposed royals' palace opened to the people

March 28, 2009

For a country among the world's poorest, Nepal has some impressive architecture.

For instance, there is the Singha Durba, once among the biggest buildings in South Asia.

An enormous structure, it is an example of the fact that, when an entire nation's budget is the personal plaything of one family, truly amazing feats of architecture can be achieved — at the expense of the well being of millions of people.

The most striking evidence of this is the Narayanhiti Palace, which until just a few months ago was the private dwelling of the Shah royal family.

This is an enormous complex that looks out over the city, symbolically dominating the surrounding area.

However, the monarchy that ruled Nepal for centuries has now been deposed following a decade-long armed struggle by the Maoist People's Liberation Army and a mass pro-democracy uprising in 2006.

This forced the monarchy into a negotiated settlement that allowed for the election for a new constituent assembly.

Elected in April last year, with the Maoists winning the largest number of seats, the assembly declared Nepal a republic as people celebrated on the streets.

For the first time, the palace has been opened to the public as a museum.

Almost as striking as the palace itself is the enormous line of people waiting to get their chance to witness the living conditions of their previous rulers.

This line, a couple of hundred metres long, exists from the time it opens in the morning until it closes at night — months after it was first opened.

The Nepalese people are flocking to see what is now theirs, to personally see the reclaimed treasures of their nation — at a site they were previously forbidden to even walk along the footpath in front of.

I walked along the line and talked to people lining up. I cannot really describe the excitement that people had to see the palace for the first time.

The feeling was enhanced by a sense of achievement. The people had earned this.

The king was only overthrown after the "people's war" and the 2006 "people's movement" uprising. The latter, led by the Maoists and other parties, raged for 19 days before people's power finally sent the monarchy into history's dustbin.

I cannot give justice with words to the luxury inside the palace. It is truly an enormous complex, filled with riches the likes of which I had never seen before.

I think I could say that even Australia does not have a private residence that could rival the Narayanhiti Palace. And I only saw half the palace — the rest is yet to be opened to the public.

As people from all walks of life went through the palace, there were three distinct emotions.

Firstly, amazement.

The average person in Nepal lives on less than $1 a day, yet here was wealth on a scale they never dreamed possible — especially in Nepal. It was even more striking considering that a 10-15 minute walk away, people lived with absolutley nothing.

The reality of the palace and the lives of the royal family exceeded even the wildest of rumours on the streets.

Secondly, disgust. Once people got over the "wealth-shock", amazement gave way to anger.

This is how they lived?! And all of this on the backs of the hard-working people! The royals enjoyed this lifestyle while most people can't even read!

But the third, and I think strongest emotion, was a sense of pride and achievement.

After more than two centuries of rule by the royal family, now all of this was the people's!

And it was directly on the basis of their struggle and sacrifice that the monarchy fell. This was very clear to the people I spoke to, all of whom had played some role in the people's movement.

Also, despite the abject poverty people were familiar with, it was refreshing for them to see that Nepal does have wealth. If its resources were focused on the interests of the many, rather than kept in pockets of the few, then anything is possible.

The Nepalese people I have spoken to are optimistic. People are committed to, and have high hopes for, the "New Nepal" being now being struggled for.

While it isn't certain what this will be yet, if the masses who have fought for a better life have anything to say about it, the New Nepal will be something radically different to anything this tiny Himalayan nation has ever seen before.

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