The history of The Dwarika’s Hotel is intertwined with the life and times of its founder, Dwarika Das Shrestha. Dwarika Das Shrestha was an extraordinary human being – a true visionary who was acutely aware of his own identity, the changing world around him and his responsibility towards it. His story is one of inspiration borne out of struggle and torment, the relentless pursuit of an aesthetic ideal, and one man’s determination to make a difference.
Early beginningsBeing born into a relatively affluent Newar family, Dwarika Das Shrestha was sent to school in India at the tender age of six. With less than one percent of the Nepali population being literate, in the early 1950s, as Nepal took its first steps towards democracy, it was ill equipped to face the challenges of modernisation. It stood at a position where it could neither fully embrace the dramatic changes that modernity brought, nor fully comprehend the value and potential of its ancient cultural heritage.
Dwarika Das Shrestha completed his education with a degree in law and commerce in the early 1950s, and returned to Nepal with the dream of helping Nepal regain its past glory. His first business was the establishment of the first hotel in Nepal, Paras Hotel, in 1952, at a time when Nepal was yet to establish itself as a tourist destination. The hotel’s primary patrons were Indian and Nepali pilgrims who came to visit the Pashupati Temple. Back then, charging religious pilgrims for shelter was considered sacrilegious and earned Dwarika Das the wrath of his family.
In the late 1950s, Dwarika Das Shrestha bought the land upon which The Dwarika’s Hotel is now located and built on it a small family home, incorporating into the design some of the ancient windows he had collected. The first window that he used can be seen even today in the Fusion Bar. This was a revolution in building style and many people discouraged him from using the old window frames, seeing it as a reflection of poverty rather than an appreciation of cultural wealth. But Dwarika Das stood his ground; by then he had already started his collection of wood work and was beginning to understand the true value of Nepal’s rich cultural heritage, and the role it could play in building a prosperous Nepal.
An Unusual Passion EmergesThis vision was born in Basantapur on a cold morning in 1952. Change was entering Nepal, and all around, century-old mud, brick, and wood houses were making way for the concrete structures of modernity. Dwarika Das Shrestha was jogging past the ruins of an old building in front of the ancient palatial complex of Kathmandu’s Newar kings, when he saw, huddled in front of a small fire, two carpenters sawing off the intricate carvings on an old wooden pillar and using it to keep the fire going.
The reduction of his heritage into firewood stopped him in his tracks. The weight of his heritage fell upon his shoulders and knew he had to act. The carpenters explained that they were extracting the “good wood” from the carved pillar to make a door frame; the rest was good only as firewood. Shocked, he bought the ancient old wooden pillars from the carpenters. This impulsive decision turned into a calling that was to define Dwarika Das Shrestha’s life and initiate the revival of Nepal’s pride in its Newari cultural heritage.
The magnitude of that impulse in 1952 was not even fully understood by Dwarika Das Shrestha himself. Yet, over the years, he persevered with this passion and continued to collect wood works. Whenever an old building was brought down, he would buy as much of the carved windows, doors and pillars as he could afford. As his collection grew, he reflected:
"There [his home] they lay wounded for years, but I saw them every day. They communicated with me. They compelled me to visit monuments and temples in an attempt to understand them."
Dwarika Das would later give his shares in Paras Hotel to his brothers, and join the government service. This, however, did not stop him from dreaming and continuing to collect wooden masterpieces. As his collection grew, he was able to understand these works of art with a greater degree of appreciation. He realised that these wood works were not individual artistic endeavours but a product of a larger cultural tradition. These works were not made in isolation but made in collaboration and communion with a variety of different craftsmen. Dwarika Das came to see that in order to preserve his heritage, just collecting these pieces would not be sufficient. To some degree, a renaissance of the cultural context within which these works were produced was necessary, which included most essentially, the revival of traditional skills. The guiding philosophy of the Dwarika’s Hotel comes from this realisation.
Restoration WorkshopAs his collection grew, Dwarika Das Shrestha knew that he had to find a way to finance such an expensive collection and ensure the wood works were properly restored, preserved and displayed. In 1964, he constructed a small apartment above the family cowshed using some of the pieces from his collection. The rental income allowed him to continue expanding his collection, but more importantly, it gave him the resources to hire three master carvers who still recalled the ancient knowledge and techniques of traditional Newari wood carving. With the master carvers, he started a heritage workshop to restore his collection of wood work to their former glory.
By the 1960s, few of the traditional wood carving families of the valley still continued their ancient profession, and thus the knowledge that his master carvers possessed was in danger of being lost. He hired young apprentices to work and learn under the three senior carvers and ensure their knowledge was passed down to a new generation of craftsmen. The workshop continues until today and over the years, scores of master carvers have emerged from its grounds.
As he was establishing the heritage workshop, he rented out rooms in his home and channelled this income into the restoration process. Because of his keen interest in his heritage, the workshop became a place to study the iconography, rituals and lore of the valley. Through this, Dwarika Das and his carvers learnt how the wood carvings and art works reflected the beliefs and cultural norms of a sophisticated civilisation.
Dwarika Das Shrestha’s interest in heritage extended beyond his collection of wood works and extended into all facets of traditional Newari art. He re-introduced the production of Dachi apas, tapered glazed bricks, which was a traditional practice that had died out in the valley. As he worked with his craftsmen, Dwarika Das realised that the old system, through which this artistic tradition had continued for centuries, was no longer in place. The days when emperors and kings were the patrons of the art and commissioned such works were long over. Dwarika Das also realised that the only way that the artistic traditions of yesteryear could be revived would be if they could be economically viable.
Breaking New GroundHis ability to see a role for the past in the present and to act upon an idea is what made Dwarika Das Shrestha a real visionary and an inspiring individual. With the help of his wife, Ambica Shrestha, he started exploring entrepreneurial avenues to assist in the development of Nepal’s tourism and finance his passion for conservation. They knew that many people would be interested in coming to Nepal, to tour its heritage sites, and to experience its natural beauty. Towards this end, in 1969, Dwarika Das Shrestha went on to establish one of the first travel agencies in Nepal, Kathmandu Travels and Tours.
Seeking to break the monopoly that Indian travel agents had over tours to Nepal, Dwarika Das Shrestha spent six months in Japan trying to establish himself in the market. Although he was unsuccessful, Dwarika Das was not a person who gave up easily. He then established his travel agency in Delhi and secured tours to Nepal through it. His persistence paid off and soon Kathmandu Tours and Travels was a successful business. The first seeds for The Dwarika’s Hotel grew out of this success during the coronation ceremony of King Birendra in 1972.
During the coronation period, all the hotels in Nepal were booked to capacity, and there were not enough hotel rooms for all the official visitors to Nepal. To accommodate their own guests, the Shrestha family moved into a rented house and converted their own home, along with the apartments, into a make-shift guest house. The overwhelming feedback they received from guests inspired them to build a hotel in the same authentic style.
The Dwarika’s Hotel was registered in 1977. The idea behind the hotel was to revive the architectural splendour of the valley. All the terracotta work was made in the valley, using local clay and skills. The couple also incorporated elements of Nepal’s diverse cultural heritage, including those from beyond the valley, when designing the rooms. The furniture was crafted by families of traditional carpenters, and the linen, textiles and embroideries were hand woven and used Nepali patterns. In all purposes, Dwarika Das Shrestha took the best of Nepali culture and presented it in a way that had not been done before. In explaining his vision, he once stated:
"My project is to recreate a 15th-17th century environment where tourist and Nepali alike would have a sensation of the original. The hotel as a commercial enterprise is merely a vehicle to finance and carry my dream forward."
The Dwarika’s Hotel was awarded the prestigious 1980 Pacific Area Travel Association’s (PATA) Heritage Award, and Dwarika Das himself was recognised for his remarkable contribution to heritage conservation. The following year, the central Lumbini building was built, utilising pieces that had been restored in the heritage workshop. The entire building was built in the Newari architectural style but combined modern comforts with traditional aesthetics. With ten rooms, the hotel was an instant success with tourists who had a genuine interest in Nepal’s artistic customs.
In 1990, Dwarika Das Shrestha completed the Ram Palace, a sixteen room wing with the same stylistic elements he had used to make the Lumbini building. The hotel now had thirty rooms and he noted that people in Nepal were beginning to appreciate the value of their heritage. Sadly, Dwarika Das Shrestha passed away in 1992 before he could complete his vision for the hotel, but his legacy and dream still lives on.
Dwarika’s TodayContinuing his vision and utilising the sketches through which he had conceived the hotel, his wife and daughter, Sangita Shrestha Einhaus, completed the front building (where the reception is now housed) in 1998. In order to complete the building’s façade, they worked closely with a local potter named Hirakaji for close to a year, trying to replicate the horizontally carved designs with terracotta. Using a mold of the carvings from the horizontal reliefs on the door frame that is in front of the Lumbini building, they revived traditional terracotta designs that were used in the valley around the 15th century. These terracotta designs were more economical than wood, but created a similar aesthetic feel to a building’s façade. The revival of this tradition has proven to be highly popular, with such designs now being replicated throughout the valley.
The hotel is still managed by the Shrestha family - Ambica, Sangita and Dwarika Das’ grandson, Rene Vijay Shrestha Einhaus - and now makes up one of the largest private woodwork collections in the world. However, the family no longer buys old wood works unless they are significantly damaged and require restoration at the heritage workshop in the hotel. Where possible, the hotel instead encourages people to incorporate the pieces into their homes and appreciate their cultural heritage. The influence of Dwarika Das Shrestha’s vision can be observed to clearly in the old cities of Patan and Bhaktapur, where public and private initiatives are gradually restoring the city to its past glory. The Dwarika’s Hotel retains Dwarika Das Shrestha’s guiding philosophy and remains a beacon on the importance of heritage conservation in Nepal.