I’ve been in Nepal for almost two months now. I haven’t done much in the way of museums or cultural attractions. So, I decided now’s the time to start looking into Kathmandu’s interesting sites. It didn’t take much digging to find the Narayanhiti Palace Museum, which memorializes the royal palace and the site where most of Nepal’s royal family was gunned down by Prince Dipendra on June 1, 2001.
The museum itself is inside the former royal palace. It cost 500 NRS (4.26 USD) to enter. The guards with the AK-47’s told me I can’t bring my phone or camera, so none of the photos in this post are mine.
I started out in a security line. I was relocated to the men’s line after a guard pointed out the signs that I had missed. It quickly became obvious during the aggressive pat-down by a Nepali soldier why the security lines were broken up by gender. When his hand felt the sketchbook in my back pocket, he didn’t ask me to show him what it was like a normal human. Instead he grabbed it and angrily asked, “What’s this? What’s this?” I showed him my notebook and he relaxed, though I was pretty happy to get out of there.
Once through the gate, I was in a wide-open walled field. It was one of the biggest greenspaces I’ve seen in Kathmandu, and was definitely the only one that was actually green and not a shade of brown. Anyone who actually ventured off the road and onto the grass had a whistle blown at them by one of the heavily armed guards. I stayed and sketched an old shrine under the boughs of a rhododendron tree for some time before continuing on.
The road wrapped around the field and eventually turned towards the main entrance of the palace. Statues of fish, peacocks, and elephants lined the staircase that led up to a massive ornate door. The roof above it had pointed corners that extended up to a single point in the middle, complete with a small statue in typical Nepali fashion. Most of the surfaces were gilded and mirrored, with etched depictions of various Hindu deities. Whatever surfaces weren’t decorated with metal and glass were dark wood, carved in complex traditional designs. At the door, a man stamped my ticket and waved me into the glamorous room.
Despite the over-the-top fanciness of the place, the first thing I really noticed was the tiger-skin rug complete with the tiger’s snarling head. I’d never actually seen one of those before. Before the day was done, I’d see several more tiger rugs, a bear rug, and an alligator — all with the heads still attached.
Arrows directed visitors through all the various rooms of the palace, some with artifacts on display. There was the dignitary tea room, the King’s study, the dignitary dining room, the ceremonial throne room, and the basement’s ceremony hall, just to name a few. Each was extravagant. Most had a painting of Mount Everest on the wall. Painted portraits of all the kings from the Shah dynasty were hung in every available space. Some were kings who ascended at the age of 5 and ruled for decades, and some were kings who held power for a few years at most.
As I walked from room to room, there was a family who was moving at the same pace. Parents with their 5-year-old daughter, and two who must have been the grandparents. A school group wasn’t far behind. As we walked, I took some glances at the grandparents. While their granddaughter and even their middle-aged companions seemed amused and mildly interested, respectively, they carried a different demeanor. They’d stop at each king’s portrait and sigh. At the portrait of the murdered King Birendra, the grandfather stared for a long while. There was a sort of quiet reverence in his posture that just wasn’t present in any of the other visitors. His eyes looked up sadly at the portrait, his hands clasped behind his back. His family had since moved into the subsequent rooms, and only when they were out of sight did he sigh and continue.
I held pace with that family for the rest of the walk through the palace. The whole time, I was wondering if we were actually going to see where the massacre took place. When the arrows eventually pointed us back outside, I figured I had hoped for too much. But the arrows kept pointing around a corner; one was labeled “Massacre Site.” I kept walking. The grandfather had left the group.
The Massacre Site
I was mistaken in thinking the shooting took place inside the palace. Instead, it was in a building near the palace gardens where the royal family was having their annual reunion. Signs were posted at each location where members of the royal family were found. There was no quiet reverence here. A group of Nepali men, including a soldier in uniform, ran to press their faces against the glass to look into the room where the king was shot by his son. I kept walking.
In the garden were three more signs — for Queen Aishwarya, Prince Nirajan, and Princess Shruti. At the site where Princess Shruti was found beneath a statue of a Hindu deity, there remained bullet holes in the plaster wall behind it.
The garden was incredibly peaceful. The air felt cleaner than the rest of Kathmandu, and the stone paths winding between ancient trees remove one from the chaotic center of the city and transport them outside to the forested mountains. Standing under the shade of the tree, breathing clean air, and looking at bullet holes in the wall was an uncomfortable contrast.
With the temperature rising as the sun got higher in the sky, I decided to leave and head back to Patan.
The exact details surrounding the royal family massacre are still subject to debate. The circumstances are, to put it lightly, mildly suspect. But here’s the facts about the event:
- Ten were killed, including the King and Queen and both of their children.
- The shooter, Dipendra, was crowned King while comatose after shooting himself as he had killed most of the line of succession.
- The King’s brother, Gyanendra, was proclaimed king after Dipendra died three days later.
For a shooting that killed the majority of the Nepali royal family, that’s really not a lot of concrete facts. Actually, there is some debate around whether Prince Dipendra was really the shooter at all. So here’s a few points that skeptics have raised:
- Both King Birendra and his son Prince Dipendra were immensely popular within Nepal.
- Birendra’s brother Gyanendra (who eventually became king) was not present at the event. Both Gyanendra and his son Prince Paras were incredibly unpopular in Nepal.
- None of Gyanendra’s family was killed, while virtually all of Birendra’s family was (including both his heirs, Nirajan and Dipendra). Gyanendra’s wife, son, and daughter were all at the event.
- The official report says that Dipendra shot himself in the head. However, two bullets were found in his temple instead of one. Moreover, they entered through his left temple and Dipendra was right-handed.
- There was an apparent lack of security at the event.
- The official investigation lasted only two weeks and included no major forensic investigation. Scotland Yard’s offer to carry out a forensic investigation was denied. Nonetheless, it concluded Dipendra was the shooter.
- The rumored cause was a conflict stemming from Dipendra’s desire to marry a woman from a rival family, which would have been politically inconvenient for the Shahs. A close aide of Dipendra said, “He can give up the throne for the sake of his love, but he can never do this kind of thing.”
Now, I’m new here in Nepal. I don’t understand the culture yet, and I definitely don’t understand the politics. But something definitely doesn’t feel right to me about the circumstances of the royal family massacre. There are very few facts, many unknowns, and the Nepali government isn’t exactly a shining beacon against corruption. Mild skeptics don’t accept the official story. Some of the more ardent skeptics assert that it was an assassination carried out by the Indian intelligence agency Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), or the CIA itself. I’m no conspiracy theorist, but given the CIA’s history abroad, it wouldn’t exactly surprise me.