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Page last updated at 20:30 GMT, Thursday, 26 February 2009

Nepal palace reopens as a museum

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The Narayanhiti palace in Kathmandu, Nepal

By Charles Haviland
BBC News, Kathmandu

Narayanhiti, the former royal palace in the centre of the Nepalese capital, Kathmandu, has been reopened as a museum, nine months after the centuries-old monarchy was abolished.

It is a sign of Nepal's huge changes that the red ribbon opening the museum was cut by a Maoist former rebel - the Prime Minister, Prachanda.

Speaking to VIPs from a small podium on the lawn, the pink palace towering behind him, Prachanda recalled seeing pictures of the last-but-one king, Birendra, in the years when he visited villagers' homes during the Maoist guerrilla war.

Nepalese PM Prachanda at the former royal palace in Kathmandu, 26 February 2009
Nepal's prime minister, a former Maoist rebel, was on hand to cut the ribbon
Prachanda described Birendra as a "liberal" king whom Nepalis still respected, and said his killing in a palace massacre in 2001 - an event he described as "dreadful" - must be reinvestigated.

The museum has been sensitively assembled in the rooms where the monarchs, including Birendra's brother and successor, Gyanendra, lived and worked.

Some rooms are grandiose - especially the huge towered throne room behind the prominent front window, where extraordinary curved pillars with garish pictures of Hindu deities leap from the walls.

The room has a massive, three-tiered chandelier.

Cheek by jowl with them are far more intimate spaces - the modestly-sized bedrooms used by the monarch and visiting VIPs, and the ex-king's relaxation room with a day bed and his study with its coffee table books on art and mythology.

One homely room holds items belonging to the mid-20th Century king, Tribhuvan, with large framed family photos, two globes and Art Deco easy chairs.

Another has a library including Dickens, Conrad and Agatha Christie.

There are massive crocodile and tiger skins and fine pictures of birds and mountains.

Massacre spot

There is also a passageway lined with photos of Birendra with heads of state who visited Nepal in the 1970s and 1980s, like Presidents Tito of Yugoslavia and Mitterrand of France, and the monarchs of Britain and Spain - a reminder that Nepal used to be a destination for top foreign leaders before its descent into war and virtual pariah status.

Gold-and-silver-crafted throne of the kings in former royal palace, Kathmandu
On display is the gold-and-silver-crafted throne of the kings

Kosh Prasad Acharya, head of the archaeology department in the ministry of culture, says visitors can also see the macabre location of the massacre, even though the outbuilding where it happened was swiftly demolished.

"We have re-created the layout of the building," he says.

The interiors look little changed since the 1960s when the palace was built.

Many rooms have heavy wood panelling and dark wallpaper, and net curtains blocking out some of the natural light and giving the sense of an inward-looking place.

The Narayanhiti Palace museum opens to the public from Friday.

Numbers visiting at any one time will be restricted so it is possible there will be long queues - although coverage of the event in the media has been limited and most Nepalis have plenty of problems to preoccupy them.

The tranquil palace gardens are open as well, and those running the museum hope to open further rooms in future.

But some parts of the compound remain off-limits, for instance areas now used by the foreign ministry and quarters still inhabited by the ex-king's stepmother and step-grandmother.

Former king Gyanendra, like other citizens, should be able to visit the museum should he wish to - but for now he has gone to Bhopal in India for a family wedding, his first trip outside Nepal since his ousting.

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