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The Transformation of a Royal Palace

Chapter 1: Introduction


A model of cultural cooperation by Shaphalya Amatya

“Isn’t it heaven on earth?” In these words, the poet Kunu Sharma described Patan Darbar Square in 1652 A.D. and devoted two stanzas to the beauty of Keshav Narayan Chowk which is now the Patan Museum.

Around the same time, in 1660, the first-ever Western visitor came to Nepal: it was the Austrian Jesuit (and mathematician) Johannes Grueber whose published reports were the first eyewitness accounts of our country and culture in Europe. His gift to King Pratap Malla is said to have been not a cross but a telescope - probably the first piece of western technology in Nepal.

Some 300 years later, more contemporary relations between Nepal and Austria were established during the sixties and seventies by Austrian individuals in their personal and professional capacities. Carl Pruscha, a physical planner and architect in the services of UNDP, helped Nepal in preparing a detailed inventory of the Kathmandu Valley’s monuments and cultural sites. The two volumes, entitled “Kathmandu Valley: Preservation of the Physical Environment and Cultural Heritage, a Protective Inventory” were published with Austrian financial support in Vienna 1975.

When preparing this inventory, Carl Pruscha was supported by his scholarly friend and mentor Professor Eduard Sekler, the eminent Austrian architectural historian at Harvard University. From the first of his frequent visits to Nepal, Eduard Sekler had cultivated a deep sense of attachment to our country and more particularly to the Kathmandu Valley culture. In 1975, upon request from His Majesty’s Government of Nepal, UNESCO sent a team of consultants under his leadership to Kathmandu to prepare a Conservation Master Plan of the Cultural Heritage in the Kathmandu Valley. Published in 1977 by UNESCO, this basic document is still the blueprint for the government’s efforts in heritage conservation. This Master Plan has helped Nepal to nominate seven historical sites of the Kathmandu Valley to UNESCO’s World Heritage List - among them the Patan Darbar.

This in turn enabled Eduard Sekler to persuade the Austrian government to take a lead and to contribute a part of its official aid to cultural conservation. He chose Patan Darbar Square as one of the most beautiful squares of the world. His proposal to restore the most damaged part of the “Golden Window Palace” with Austrian aid was accepted in 1982 and the project began with the repair of the Northern Wing of Keshav Narayan Chowk.

From the beginning in 1982 to its completion in 1997, the project was developed in cooperation between the Department of Archaeology (DOA) of His Majesty’s Government of Nepal and Austria’s Institute of International Cooperation (IIZ). During these 15 years, the project coordinator was Götz Hagmüller, the third architect in the succession of Austrian conservation advisors to His Majesty’s Government of Nepal. He had come to Nepal earlier, in 1979, as manager of the Bhaktapur Development Project, the first and most comprehensive urban conservation programme in Nepal undertaken with German assistance. This experience in Bhaktapur, and his choice of residence there, in a historical Math, has kept him living and working in Nepal, with assignments in various bilateral projects. Worth mentioning is his part in preparing the Swayambunath Conservation Masterplan and in reconstructing the Cyasilin Mandap, the “Pavilion of the Eight Corners” on Bhaktapur Darbar (against which, independently, both Professor Sekler and I had originally voiced our reservations: luckily, we conservationists do not always agree).

With regard to the DOA-IIZ cooperation project in Patan, Götz Hagmüller had widened its scope early on, from the mere renovation of the palace to its conversion into a museum complex, and he later succeeded in convincing both countries concerned to a change of project definition - from the previous bilateral mode of funding and implementation to a project on “turn-key” basis. That means that Austria during the last seven years supplied the entire budget and technical assistance, with the Department of Archaeology, as the custodian of the national heritage of Nepal, retaining its legal authority of conservation control.

Instrumental in bringing about these improvements were the IIZ and its project administrator Mrs. Gertrude Leibrecht, backed by the good efforts of Austria’s aid-department officials Mrs. Heide Fenzel and Mr. Günther Stachel who have been behind the project from its beginning.

Under this intensified cooperation programme, additional manpower was provided not only from the local resource base of Nepalese craftsmen and consultants but also from abroad. Another Austrian expert, Thomas Schrom, joined the project full-time as its manager, construction supervisor and visual design specialist - as well as a range of other Austrian and American short-term consultants. Most prominent among these was Mary S. Slusser, and we are grateful that her successive project assignments made possible by Austrian funding. Her conceptual and scientific work for the Patan Museum has given us a powerful impulse to look at our cultural history with new focus and appreciation.

Another unique feature of this museum is its operational concept. For the first time in Nepal, a museum of the public domain has been conceived as a semi-autonomous and economically self-sustaining institution. Only a year after its opening to the general public, its performance can be judged as a solid success. With 15 years of mutual efforts and generous help of the Austrian Government, not only a palace has been restored to its original beauty, but also a museum of international attraction has been established in Nepal.

The Patan Museum was finally inaugurated on October 28, 1997 by His Majesty King Birendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev in the presence of Mrs. Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the Austrian Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, with a festive concert given by Austrian and Nepalese music ensembles. The audience was enchanted by the harmonious blend of ancient ritual, architecture and music, and by the meeting of two so far-away cultures of the same historical time: the ambience of a candle-lit Malla palace court with its sounds of tabla and flute, enwrapping the highlights of Vienna’s classical era of music.

(Dr. Shaphalaya Amatya was Director General of Nepal’s Department of Archaeology and later Chairman of the Patan Museum Board. He stood firmly behind the development of the museum from its inception.)

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