Executive Director of Hotel Annapurna, Shreejana Rana recalls her early days in Durbar Marg and how it has evolved into a posh shopping area with luxury brands and high end restaurants.
“The royal cavalcade, with the royal couple in a shining buggy drawn by huge white horses, the cavalry escort cantering on equally large horses on both sides, the lines of eager spectators on the footpath, all this made for such a grand spectacle,” reminisces Shreejana Rana, Executive Director of Hotel Annapurna.
Annapurna is the hotel around which the modern day Durbar Marg has evolved through the years to become the prime commercial hub of Kathmandu. The area that once had only a few small curio shops now has numerous eateries, a few malls and rows of shops displaying and representing many of the biggest international brands. Where once The Coffee Shop and Ghar-E-Kabab Restaurant at Hotel Annapurna were the highlights of the street, today, there is a plethora of cafes, bars, and restaurants, including some renowned international franchises like KFC and Pizza Hut.
Despite the proliferation of restaurants and cafes, The Coffee Shop and Ghar-E-Kabab still retain their charm and remain the first choice for discerning patrons. The hotel is as popular today as it has been in the past. Occupying the largest space, Hotel Annapurna lies in the heart of Durbar Marg. Rana has been Executive Director of this premier five star property for the last eight years, but her relationship with Durbar Marg goes way back to her childhood days.
“Durbar Marg as we know it today was once Maharaja Bir Shumsher Jung Bahadur Rana’s private property, and consisted of Seto Durbar, Phora Durbar, Lal Durbar, and Hiti Durbar,” she reveals. “This hotel is part of Seto Durbar. You could say that I am the sixth generation of the Seto Durbar Ranas. It was my mamali (maternal home), and I used to visit often. While there, one of my favorite pastimes was to peer into the Phora Durbar premises that had become the American Club, and it was fun watching all those foreigners.”
Later, Princess Helen Shah bought part of the sprawling durbar from Rana’s uncle, because she wanted to build an apartment complex to house Peace Corps personnel. It was in 1965 that the property was converted into a hotel, and so was born Hotel de l’Annapurna (now Hotel Annapurna), the first five star hotel of Nepal. “It is a nice coincidence that I got married into this very family,” says Rana, “and so once again I am back in Durbar Marg.”
Doubtless, she is somewhat of an expert on Durbar Marg. She discloses that, once upon a time, it was Kantipath that was the main road, while Durbar Marg was only a private part of Seto Durbar. Even when it became a public road, Durbar Marg was still a narrow street, and was expanded only after King Birendra’s coronation. The pioneer travel agency, Yeti Travels, which was part of the hotel, opened around 1968, followed by establishments like Hotel Woodlands, Amber Restaurant, Moti Mahal Restaurant, and others in the 1970s.
Nanglo Cafe and Pub, which was established in 1976, became an iconic landmark of Durbar Marg. Its pub was the most popular watering hole for many locals, and of course, its café and later their Chinese Room were famous for great Chinese cuisine. Nirula’s, the first Western-style fast food restaurant in Kathmandu, with pizza as a crowd favorite was located where KFC and a Pizza Hut are today. “After Nirula’s opened its doors, it became a popular hangout for young people.” Rana recalls, “Our beauty parlor, Annapurna Hair Dressers, was also very popular with the ladies. Another thing that stands out in my mind is that there were very few vehicles around here, and few tourists as well, but they were high-end tourists.”
Durbar Marg, besides being popular as a commercial hub, is also well-known for the lovely trees that lined both sides of the road. What you see these days is not those trees with glorious foliage, but bare stumps in their place. Rana visibly brightens up when talking about the trees, for as she reveals, “They are Jacaranda trees that have beautiful violet flowers when in bloom, and they were planted on the initiative of the late Princess Jayanti Shah, who was the head of the Durbar Marg Samiti.”
Veering on to the subject of the commercialization of Durbar Marg, she says, “Actually, while shops had begun ‘arriving’ on this street around 1980-81, Durbar Marg really became commercialized in a big way only around 2005.” Before that, one had to get approval from the palace for any constructions around the palace, and you could not go higher than two stories. Now, according to Rana, people are allowed to construct up to six stories. Over time, Durbar Marg became the preferred shopping area for high-spenders of the city, a place where one could go with friends or family to spend a pleasant day or evening, shopping for international brands and dining in fine restaurants.
But during the heydays of royalty, it was Narayanhiti Durbar that was undoubtedly the greatest landmark around here, the crowning glory of Durbar Marg one could say. During state functions, and state visits by foreign dignitaries, Durbar Marg took on a new look. “In those days, all ambassadors used to stay in our hotel before proceeding to the palace to present their credentials,” reveals Rana. Now that the palace has become just a museum, it has lost its luster.
Looking into the future, she thinks that with Durbar Marg becoming more expensive by the day, there has been expansion towards Jai Nepal, and further on to Narayan Chour. As far as Durbar Marg itself is concerned, she says that older buildings are being demolished and new buildings and high rises taking their place. This could be a bit of a sticky subject for those with a penchant for heritage conservation, of which the historical Rana palaces are certainly a part. However, looking at Durbar Marg today, heritage will be far from anyone’s mind, and one cannot help comparing this premier boulevard with the famous boulevards of great cities around the world. For what Durbar Marg has evolved into today, is the premier shopping district of Kathmandu.