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Waiting at the ticket booth to Narayanhiti -- Nepal's Royal Palace -- I felt like a Chinese commoner entering the Forbidden City for the first time. It's not too much of a stretch. Nepali Kings, like Chinese Emperors, were touted as divine rulers: avatars of the Hindu god Narayana, the Great Preserver.
Ever since my first visit to Kathmandu in 1979, I had glimpsed Narayanhiti only through its high gates, or past the tall trees that shelter the grounds from view. But in February 2009 -- less than a year after the former Kingdom became a Republic -- the private residence was converted into a public museum.
Nepal was under royal rule for most of the past 500 years. What we need here, just to get it out of the way, is a brief history of Nepal's king situation over the past 50-odd years.
In 1955, King Mahendra took the throne. He was an interesting guy who enjoyed black-and-white photography, admired Elvis Presley, and teased his subjects with the notion of democracy. Mahendra and the former kings didn't live in Narayanhiti; they stayed in the old palace, or durbar, in what's now Kathmandu's historic quarter.
Shortly after Mahendra died in 1972, his eldest son -- Birendra -- was coronated, and moved into the recently completed Narayanhiti. As a leader Birendra was rather like George W. Bush, but without the wit and charm. The intelligentsia got fed up and in 1990, a massive "Peoples' Movement" wrested power from the throne. But Birendra remained on as king; he was allowed to stay in Narayanhiti with his wife and family, serving as a unifying symbol of ethnically diverse Nepal. When he was killed in 2001 (more on this below), his brother, Gyanendra, took over. Nobody liked this guy -- so in 2008 there was another People Power revolution. Gyanendra was shown the door, and the Palace became a museum. Whew.
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