People have settled in the Kathmandu Valley for over 2000 years. Throughout this period, the valley has witnessed the migration of people from the high plateaus of Tibet, the fertile plains of the Ganges, and everywhere between. Thi...
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People have settled in the Kathmandu Valley for over 2000 years. Throughout this period, the valley has witnessed the migration of people from the high plateaus of Tibet, the fertile plains of the Ganges, and everywhere between. This intermingling of people and cultures created a vibrant and diverse society within the valley. By the 12th century, the inhabitants of the Kathmandu Valley had developed a unique civilisation indigenous to the region and were known throughout the region as the Newars. They shared – and continue to share – a linguistic and cultural community bound together by a common language and culture called Newari.
Newari civilisation flourished during the reign of the Malla Kings from the 12th to the 18th century. The Malla Kings profited from being a major destination along the trade route between India and Tibet, and invested heavily in their arts and culture. Part of the valley’s exports included skilled craftsmen like sculptors, painters and carvers to India and Tibet. Together, the wood works contain the centuries of love and dedication that these craftsmen had towards this artistic tradition.
With a keen aesthetic sense, the Malla kings invested heavily in the arts and encouraged a rich tradition that encapsulated all forms of art. Testaments to their deep involvement within the cultural landscape of the valley are evident in the number of architectural and cultural monuments that remain standing to this day in the valley. The seven world heritage zones and more than 3000 temples and shrines that dot the Kathmandu Valley all date back to the Malla era, and give a clear testament to the artistic sense of the Newars. Much of the Dwarika’s collection of woodwork dates back to this period of artistic creation, preserving a cultural legacy that has defined Kathmandu.
During the 15th century, the valley disintegrated into the three kingdoms of Kathmandu, Lalitpur and Bhaktapur. This disintegration led to the creation of a Durbar Square (palatial complexes) in each of the cities and remains emblematic of the rich architectural traditions that existed in the valley. Durbar squares, temple squares, sacred courtyards, stupas, open air shrines, dance platforms, sunken water fountains, public rest houses, bazaars, multi-storied houses with elaborate carved windows and compact streets are the characteristics of the traditional design of towns.
Architectural splendour is only the most evident form of Newari heritage. The Newars were a highly urbanised civilisation and much of their culture remains embedded within the rituals and festivals that form the nexus around which Newari social life revolves. The Newars follow both Hinduism and Buddhism, celebrating festivals and worshipping deities from both traditions, and forming a unique example of religious tolerance and harmonious living.
The history of Dwarika's Hotel is intertwined with the life and times of its founder, Dwarika Das Shrestha. Dwarika was an extraordinary human being – a true visionary who was acutely aware of his own identity, the changing world ...
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The history of Dwarika's Hotel is intertwined with the life and times of its founder, Dwarika Das Shrestha. Dwarika 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.
Born into a relatively affluent Newar family, Dwarika Das Shrestha was sent to school in India at the tender age of six. In the early 1950s, Nepal was taking its first steps towards democracy. 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 former 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 EMERGES
Dwarika's 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 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 and customs. 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 Dwarika's Hotel comes from this realisation.
Continuing 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.
Breaking New Ground
His 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.
Dwarika's Hotel was registered in 1977, with the idea of reviving 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 some of the finest elements of Nepali crafts, and presented them 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."
Dwarika's Today 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.