Walking into the Dwarika’s Hotel in Kathmandu is akin to walking into another era in history, art and culture. The sheer rugged beauty of the open-brick exteriors of the different wings of the hotel, fitted with sloping tiled roofs, supported by large, thick and unpretentious wooden rafters, or the imposing, heavy doors and windows with beautiful carvings that appear to be at least a century old, or the large terracotta urns, jars, cups, vases, brass lamps or fittings as door handles, the beautifully embroidered linen in your rooms… one can go on and on.
All these antique treasures of Nepal come together in wonderful harmony to give the visitor a unique experience thanks to one man’s passion and vision… to salvage, restore and preserve the country’s priceless heritage.
Dwarika’s story, as well as unique charm, begins with the Newari civilisation that flourished in Nepal during the reign of the Malla Kings from the 12th to the 18th century, who benefitted tremendously by Kathmandu being in the trade route between India and Tibet. They invested heavily in their arts and culture. Over 3,000 temples and shrines that dotted the Kathmandu valley date back to the Malla era, and are a testament on their penchant for art and beauty. Many of these were damaged or devastated by the 2015 earthquake.
At this unique and stunningly beautiful property, after checking in and on the way to your room, the message in the elevator catches the eye. It says “Dwarika’s has become an asylum and hospital for the care of wounded masterpieces in wood; here they are restored to their original beauty; (this is) a school for the training and practise of traditional arts and skills, a laboratory to research old techniques, and a living museum where people may enjoy and understand this heritage which is not only Nepali, but that of the human race. Dwarika Das Shrestha 1925–92.”
Dwarika’s journey actually began way back in 1952 through the setting up of another hotel by Shrestha, who was a senior Government executive. Its primary occupants were Indian and Nepali pilgrims who came to visit its famous Pashupatinath temple.
We don’t know it otherwise… it comes naturally to us… this relationship with heritage. Everything we have in this property is antique. There isn’t a single piece that is new.
But today, if Dwarika’s has become such a coveted niche in the tourism industry, specially among people who cherish and treasure ancient art and crafts, culture and history, it is thanks to the relentless hard work, selflessness and passion of Shrestha’s family — his wife Ambika, who is a Rotarian (her husband was one too), daughter Sangita and grandson Vijay. Vijay, whose father is German, and has studied finance and management overseas, opted to come to Kathmandu to help run the heritage property. He had so many other opportunities, but “I didn’t want to be anybody’s employee,” he shrugs.
Both the mother and daughter speak with striking passion and adulation about this heritage property that they have nurtured with the kind of care, love and devotion that mortals normally reserve for their children. This includes ceiling frescos, Buddhas, Ganeshas, diyas, door handles, and a host of other unique treasures carved in wood, stone, brass, etc. Each one is an exquisite piece, and exudes a religious or spiritual cadence.
Walking me through the sprawling property on a cool afternoon, Ambika stops before a gorgeous, intricately carved door, a stunning masterpiece. “This is from a 13th century temple which had fallen to the ground and this beautiful door was totally covered in mud. An old lady walked up to my husband at that site and said: ‘Look, look, at this treasure.’ There was nothing left inside the temple except for a sitting Buddha. He told the local people he would take that door and give them sufficient money to rebuild the temple. This door was in no shape to be used.”
For 15 years nobody could touch the door “because it would have crumbled to pieces.” Slowly, and painstakingly the wounded door was nursed back to health and now adorns this property. Another window panel she shows me is an invaluable 15th century window frame depicting Krishna Leela… Krishna with his gopikas.
So how difficult to maintain a property like this, I ask Ambika.
“Very, very difficult because we have to keep on maintaining the different pieces,” and also because the property was not really built as a hotel. “In the beginning we were just gathering these antique pieces, but later we needed to get an income.” Initially they just had a workshop employing carvers but once the rebuilding began, they started training youngsters. “There was money going out every week and we didn’t have the money to sustain the project.” Even now they have a workshop running all the time. “We find such pieces and heal them.” When I say that “heal” is such a lovely word to use, Ambika smiles warmly and says: “My husband used to call this a hospital!”
When she went to the bank for a loan, “at first they wouldn’t even look at my face. And the manager said: ‘Ambika, where is your collateral?’ And I said ‘all these antique pieces.’ And they said: ‘Oh, you’re offering us all these rotten pieces as collateral?’ I just came away saying if you don’t understand their value and importance, it’s okay!”
All the antique treasures at Dwarika’s have been collected from the Kathmandu valley.
In that earthquake-prone region wherever houses came down or were broken down, Shrestha would buy various pieces such as doors, windows, statuettes, carved pieces etc.
When I exclaim that they are invaluable, she says, “Oh yes, only now people are understanding their real value. Everything we have in this property is antique. There isn’t a single piece that is new.” Pointing out to the lighter coloured wood, she says, most of the antiques they have are made from sal wood, “that is why it is so hard.”
She is happy that the family is now able to use tourism to retain some of Nepal’s priceless heritage. “Frankly, without that, we would not have been able to keep this hotel going.”
Dwarika’s has 86 rooms, including 40 suites, and from the linen, cushions, cutlery, crockery to the stationery in the room, everything has a touch of class and beauty. But the occupancy levels when I visit the hotel in February was low; “the earthquake and later the economic blockade with India has really hurt us,” she says.
Such unique charm and ambience, coupled with modern day comforts that any multi-star hotel offers, does not come cheap. The suite given to the then RI President K R Ravindran and Vanathy is as massive as quaint and breathtakingly beautiful with different levels. It is priced at $2,500; some of the suites cost $2,000 and a room $350. About 500 staff maintain this and another property coming up at Dhulikhel.
Dwarika’s guests come from all over the world. What about neighbouring India? “Well, a few discerning Indians do come but we are not known that much in India.” The same evening an all-party delegation led by External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, and including CPM Politburo chief Sitaram Yechury and Congress’s Anand Sharma trooped in. They were in Kathmandu to attend the funeral of Nepal’s former Prime Minister Sushil Koirala.
The bankers said: ‘Oh, you’re offering us all these rotten pieces as collateral?’ I came away, saying if you don’t understand antiques, it’s okay.
I later catch up with Sangita and ask her how she got involved in managing this property.
“Well, I grew up with this as a central part of our lives, both the heritage and the restoration. We don’t know it otherwise… it comes naturally to us… this relationship with heritage. And I had assured my father that I would continue his work, and after he passed away I shifted my working base from Europe to Nepal.” With little time for travel, it is her husband who commutes between Germany and Nepal.
And the relationship with Nepal’s heritage and antique treasures continues through the big workshop which does restoration work. “This hotel is only the path we took; the end goal is sustainable heritage conservation. The hotel gets us the funds to conserve, restore, sustain.
Of course it has to be commercially viable but all our hotels (a second property has already come up) have a purpose,” she says.
But during these “very difficult times the hotel is not profitable. The blockade has affected us tremendously, because there are no tourists and we are grappling with a very low occupancy. People abroad feel that there is no electricity, they cannot eat in the restaurants because there is no food, there is no fuel for the vehicles to move about.”
My husband used to call this a hospital, where wounded art pieces were healed.
But even though grossly exaggerated, the fact remained that in February, they were purchasing fuel for their vehicles and generators in the black market. “We need almost 1,000 litres a day, four times the normal, mainly for the generators that run the elevators, ACs etc, because there are 13-14 hours of load shedding.”
So had they hiked their room rates?
“No, we cannot do that because we cannot crucify the clients for our local situation. It’s not fair,” she says and is grateful that their clients understand their difficulty and don’t haggle over the rates.
On the nationalities most appreciative of the priceless heritage this hotel gives a sample of, she says most do, but “those who really stand out are the Chinese and it surprises me. The Western, the European clients would automatically appreciate this kind of property, but I wouldn’t have expected the Chinese to do so. They don’t speak much English, but are really enthralled and take a lot of pictures.”
The biggest challenge in running such a property, says Sangita, is to “provide consistent quality service and retain the trained staff which is difficult in Nepal, because people keep going to the Middle East for better opportunities.”
We never go into areas where there are other properties. We create new destinations.
Another challenge is to keep the water sources going. “We need to dig huge bore wells, and then have filter systems in place for the water; electricity is a challenge, generators have to keep going.”
On the future she says the endeavour will be to expand the brand. “Dwarika’s is now internationally known and respected, so we’ll expand to more properties, but in newer areas. We never go into areas where there are other properties. We create new destinations!”
They have three other projects in hand; one is a property in Dhulikhel, about 40 km from Pokhran which is different in concept and more expensive. “This one in Kathmandu is about architectural and cultural heritage, that is about Vedic concepts. There we’ve brought in spirituality, and have yoga, meditation, pottery, gardening, cooking.”
On the immense value of the masterpieces at Dwarika’s, Sangita shrugs and says, “The thing is that we are not collectors; we restore and conserve, and encourage others to do so too.”
Right now they have engaged a group of 50 skilled carvers, and have sent them out to “different municipalities and they will restore the windows of all the privately owned homes that were destroyed in the earthquake as the whole idea is to conserve the heritage of Nepal.”
Pictures by Rasheeda Bhagat
Helping earthquake affected
Helping the local people after natural disasters in Nepal has been a given at Dwarika’s, “but normally we get involved in small ways,” says Sangita Shrestha Einhaus, daughter of Dwarika Das Shrestha, who established this heritage hotel in Kathmandu. “But after the 2015 earthquake, our engagement has been really big.” In the immediate aftermath, they had distributed relief material and serviced 55,000 people. Hundreds of people from the most devastated areas, who lost not only their homes but all possessions were helped, and later 350 people from the devastated Sindhupalchowk village were put up in a camp set up about 10 minutes away from the hotel. A temporary home, this camp is run by the Dwarika’s Foundation on a football field.
In all 1,240 people are being supported by the Foundation, other than 350 in their own villages. “The situation was so bad that initially we had to send them food material by helicopters.” The people are given literacy and trained in microcredit enterprises, farming, fisheries, etc.