Nepal's King a Commoner, His Palace a Tourist Stop

Pity the king.

He has had to flee his palace, with its Graceland-meets-the-Himalayas decor, and decamp to a house up the hill. His only son, the hard-living former crown prince, has moved to Singapore. And now, in a crowning indignity, tourists are traipsing through what was once a private world sealed off by soldiers and tall brick walls.

Just three years ago he was King Gyanendra, ruling this mountain nation with absolute power as the living embodiment of the Hindu god Vishnu. Today he is simply Mr. Gyanendra Shah, a 61-year-old businessman with interests in hotels and tea plantations who clings to the royal title only by tradition. He lives in a small house in the Katmandu hills with his wife, and doesn’t give interviews.

He has become a national shadow, a man seen only in Nepal’s tiny high society and known for his cocktail parties but little else.

And his Narayanhiti Palace? Tickets cost about $1.50, payable at the window out front.

Every day, hundreds of Nepalese arrive here to look into the last couple of decades of their country’s troubled history, with its royal intrigue, its family bloodshed and its isolated and deeply unpopular monarch who didn’t realize until things were beyond his control that history wasn’t with him anymore.

Inside, tourists stare at the dusty hunting trophies, the mirrored pillars and the royal portrait — a gift from the Chinese government — that looks like a pencil drawing but actually is made from human hair. They wander through room after room of vinyl furniture, gold carpets and decades-old silver-framed photographs (the Shah of Iran, Bobby Kennedy, various popes).

The palace, a pink concrete hulk built in the late 1960s, stretches across 52 rooms and nearly 41,000 square feet. It seems to go on forever.

“In this age of democracy, how can an enlightened person accept such an institution?” Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal asked in an interview. “The Nepali people are relaxed that they no longer have this burden.”

But it’s not that simple.

A year after the monarchy was abolished, following 2006 protests that brought back parliamentary democracy, Nepal remains battered by encyclopedic troubles that belie its reputation as a Shangri-La. Democracy has not been the curative that Nepalese had hoped for.

Nearly 70 percent of the country lives on less than $2 a day and its literacy rate ranks it between Yemen and Mauritania. Katmandu is better off than the countryside, but this city was enveloped years ago by traffic and smog and its infrastructure is on the verge of collapse. Power outages often last more than 18 hours.

Then there is the political scene, which is dominated by corrupt, squabbling parties and former Maoist guerrillas whose 10-year war left 13,000 people dead before the rebels entered mainstream politics.

So if most Nepalese seem happy to have left the monarchy behind, it’s also not hard to find people who miss the king — even if they are surprised to hear themselves admit it.

“After seeing all this, now I do feel sorry for him,” said Durga Shrestha, 31, as he walked through what used to be the private royal quarters. “He had all this, he lived so well, but now he has to live like an ordinary man,” said Shrestha, a stationery store owner who cheered on the anti-Gyanendra protests that helped usher in democracy.

Around him, other tourists nodded in agreement.

“I thought it was good the king was thrown out,” he said. “But now I wonder, a little, if we made the right choice. Maybe the king is an asset to the people.”

“It must have been so hard for him to leave this place,” he added.

With its carefully tended gardens and cavernous rooms, the palace can seem immune to the troubles that surround it. But it is also where the royal family turned against itself in a spasm of violence that changed Nepal’s history.

For many, the highlight of a visit is the site of something torn down years ago: the house where, in 2001, a drunken and drugged Crown Prince Dipendra apparently gunned down much of the royal family — including his father, the beloved King Birendra — before killing himself.

After that, the throne passed to Birendra’s brother, Gyanendra, a distant, scowling man who in 2005 dissolved parliament and seized absolute power, paving the way for his ultimate dethronement.

It was Gyanendra who ordered the massacre house torn down, leaving just an ankle-high brick outline of its rooms, along with a half-dozen bullet holes on surrounding buildings.

Visitors tend to stop there, debating lines of fire and conspiracy theories.

Most of those theories revolve around Gyanendra, who was out of town at the time of the shootings, or his son Paras, the former crown prince. Paras had long been unpopular because of allegations of his involvement in two vehicular homicides and frequent drunken brawls in nightclubs and discos. Paras and his mother, the former Queen Komal, both survived the shootings.

While the official investigation blamed Dipendra, years later many questions remain unanswered, and few of the survivors have spoken publicly.

At what is left of the massacre scene, signs are scattered about indicating where the bodies were found: Prince Nirajan, King Birendra, Queen Aishwarya, Princess Shruti and six others.

But if it’s a place where some Nepalese find sympathy for a monarchy they have cast aside, not everyone feels such pity.

Thakur Dangi, a government bureaucrat, simply shrugged. “The king’s time is over,” he said, walking away.