Dwarika’s Village Resort is a unique place in South Asia, a living example that tourism need not destroy heritage and the environment. The magnificence of The Dwarika’s is its buildings of intricate carved wood and terracotta work that must have taken 10 million hours of the best craftsmen in Nepal. Every brick is handmade and every piece of wood work a centuries old original. But The Dwarika’s is also about intimate luxury and the spirit and hospitality of the Nepali people. On the contrary, it has demonstrated that a proper blending of cultural restoration and tourism leads to the preservation of historical artifacts and contributes to the growth of skills and culture that would otherwise have eroded from the crass commercialism of today. It has shown that heritage can be preserved and be used for further preservation works. In fact, it could be the model to demonstrate what must be done to preserve the look of Kathmandu Valley – a stepping stone towards the larger and more gigantic task of rehabilitating the uniqueness and beauty of Kathmandu currently experiencing severe environmental stress of uncontrolled modernization.
Dwarika Das Shrestha, the founder of The Dwarika’s Hotel whose spirit and passion laid out the master plan of this unique place and who gave the best part of his life to build it, leading hundreds of the best builders and craftsmen.
HISTORY OF A MISSION
In 1952, the late Dwarika Das Shrestha was out jogging when he came upon some carpenters sawing off the carved portion of an intricately engraved wooden pillar. It had been part of an old building which had been torn down to make room for a modern structure. Amidst the rubble, lay the bits and pieces of exquisitely carved woodwork several centuries old, ready to be carted off as firewood as the carpenters were merely trying to salvage reusable wood.
As he stood amidst the ruins, Dwarika Das Shrestha experienced all the anguish that a sensitive soul feels when witnessing the destruction of the sublime and the beautiful by wanton and crass commercialism of modern times. He was confronted with the visible signs of destruction of an ancient culture which still lived in him as part of his heritage. Kathmandu’s Newari art and traditions have a rich legacy of exquisite wood carvings, distinctive temples, sculpture, bronze works, terra-cotta work and the unique lifestyle of its people itself. Seeing the beautiful carvings destroyed, he could not control himself. Out of sheer impulse, he gave the carpenters the new lumber that they required and took the old ruined carved pillar.
This impulse, born from the inner anguish of his spirit, became progressively a hobby, a passion and a lifetime work. As soon as he heard that an ancient building was going to be torn down to make way for a modern structure, he would rush to the spot and buy as much of the ancient wood carvings as he could before they were sold as firewood or lost in other ways for ever. If he was able to buy only a part of an artistic work because other pieces had been lost or he did not have enough money, he would still do so and try to recover the missing parts later. Often he would discover their historic significance in the process. In one instance, he was able to trace and acquire a missing piece after twenty-five years.
As his collection grew, Dwarika Das Shrestha was faced with the problem of storing these bulky works of art which were scattered all over his garden in makeshift sheds. It was then he decided to construct a building in the old Newari style of Kathmandu using the carved doors and windows he had rescued from destruction. The edifice which was built to give the ancient works of art a new life is now one among several buildings of Dwarika’s Village Hotel. These buildings contain some of the best woodworks of olden times restored to life and made to function for a modern age within the traditional architectural setting.
In the process of giving new life to a dying art, Dwarika Das Shrestha began to realize that anything beautiful of yesteryear was born of a larger context of culture. This context too had to see a renaissance if the beautiful elements therein were to function aesthetically.
Dwarika’s Hotel acquired its guiding philosophy with this realization. The experience of .running a travel agency, which Dwarika Das started in 1970 as Kathmandu Travel and Tours, had proved to him that tourism could be used as a means to employ Nepali people and help finance the restoration of the unique Kathmandu Valley heritage he held so dear. A small guest house was started on the family premises with the idea of using rental income to finance the art collection. As the collection evolved into restoration work, ideas slowly began to develop in him about the most appropriate use of the collection. Because the wood carvings were often from long-lasting teakwood, they were still usable for the original purpose for which they were artistically created – as doors, windows, pillars, lintels etc.
But the carved windows could not be put on any concrete building, they had to be used in old Newari-style brickwork found in old temples and buildings of Kathmandu Valley. Such tapered glued bricks, where mortar was not seen from the outside, were not manufactured anywhere anymore. So he specially had these bricks manufactured in the outskirts of Kathmandu Valley. Similarly, to replace missing parts of the woodcarvings, carpenters had to be re-trained to become ancient carvers. Dwarika Das and his wood workers also had to re-examine the lore and rituals of ancient times so that the significance of the carved deities on each strut or lintel became apparent.
At Dwarika’s, attempt is being made to revive traditional architecture which is disappearing everyday. It is a revival of the traditional architecture but adapted to the needs of the modern world without losing its original character. In trying to encourage and revive the traditional architecture, Dwarika’s has had to replace expensive woodworks with terra-cotta designed bricks so as to make it affordable by, common-man and maintain the traditional designs and motives.
In this way, the recreation of the context from which such beauty evolved led to the evolution of an institution whose primary objective was the restoration and preservation of materials, skills and the living heritage of Kathmandu Valley itself.
The hotel is not simply another commercial operation, it is mainly the manifestation of an effort to restore and preserve a culture and a heritage. The late Dwarika Das Shrestha realized that a massive restoration work without a firm commercial foundation would eventually not be financially possible. This perception shaped his decision to give his beloved wood carvings not a dead museum-like setting but a living environment. In a museum, they would be fossils of a dead past, whereas at Dwarika’s Hotel, art lovers could not only see the art but live and enjoy within it and at the same time contribute to its upkeep and maintenance as hotel guests. This sustainable heritage conservation is the difference from other heritage restoration projects where the heritage itself is used to create a funding for its own conservation.
This approach makes Dwarika’s Hotel a unique place in South Asia. Nowhere else is heritage restoration being attempted in a way that rejuvenates it and makes it a part of today’s living environment. Recognizing this highly original and challenging effort, PATA (Pacific Asia Travel Association) awarded Dwarika’s its first PATA Heritage Award in 1980.
In the attempt to bring the refined elements of XV century art into the XXI century, Dwarika’s is in a constant struggle of self-exploration. Every element, from the design and manufacture of bricks, engineering, restoration of workshops for wood carvers to the training of workers to think and act as in the best possible ways that their foe bearers might have done five centuries ago, has had to be explored and recreated. In this way, Dwarika’s represents the larger process of revitalizing a sublime element of a Nepali, as well as a world heritage.
Dwarika Das Shrestha passed away on 10 February 1992, but his work continues. His vision of cultural restoration and revival based on a strong feeling for the beauty of a bygone era but resting on today’s sound commercial common sense, guides the work and activities of the establishment he has left behind.
A woodcarving school has been established within the hotel premises. There are thirty woodcarvers and carpenters employed in the school’s workshop. Some have been there for twenty years while others move on to different lucrative jobs after their training and apprenticeship. It is but one example of an ancient sense of beauty being restored to a living present based on sound commercialism.