April 24, 2013
Architecturally, the Dwarika Hotel in Kathmandu is the most spectacular hotel in Nepal – a Rana-scale salute to traditional Newari building techniques including intricately carved windows, tapered glazed bricks and terra cotta relief. The history behind the construction of this jaw-dropping complex is invariably told from the point of view of Dwarika Das Shrestha, the man who built the Dwarika, a visionary who breathed new life into Newar’s rich heritage. What is not so well known is the role his wife, Ambica Shrestha, played in embracing his vision and, after his death in 1992, completing his dream by expanding the premises and making the Dwarika what it is today: a world-class five-star hotel but, in the final analysis, in a class by itself.
For the tourism industry, Ambica Shrestha represents a pioneer who was instrumental in providing services to an international clientele, thereby creating a market that previously didn’t exist in Nepal.
And finally, Ambica has extended her expertise to Nepali women by creating an organization that teaches them how to become independent, in part by starting businesses on their own.
I interviewed Ambica in the courtyard of the Dwarika, with two of her four dogs (a Beagle and a German Shepard) in attendance. Her Labrador and Spaniel were missing in action.
DUNHAM: You grew up in Sikkim. When did you move here to marry your husband?
DUNHAM: What was Dwarika, your husband, doing at that time?
SHRESTHA: He was a government official in the Planning Ministry, appointed by King Mahendra.
DUNHAM: What was the family life like when you moved here?
SHRESTHA: We were in a joint family. His family was very well known in Kathmandu and they were very conservative – a Newar family. But my husband was a visionary. He had different ideas. He was the first man to start a youth movement in this country: the “Youth League”. He organized a group of young men, who would exercise every morning. And he was always having squabbles with his parents, because he believed that all the women in the family should be allowed to be educated, and that their health should be taken care of. His vision was this: If the mother was fine – if she had good health and a good education – then the children would be brought up very well. So he was always having arguments with his conservative parents.
DUNHAM: An uphill climb, in the 1950s.
SHRETHA: Oh yes. The situation was very bad for him. He had this high position in the government, which was stressful and he often had to bring his work home with him, but when he got home he also had to deal with this very difficult situation with his parents. He was very bothered. So one day he came to me and said, “I’m going to go away from this house. We are going to get away.” And I told him, “Listen, I am the daughter-in-law and this is what is going to happen: I am the one who is going to be blamed. They are going to say that I pulled you away – a very good son was taken away by a very, very bad daughter-in-law.”
So he dropped the subject for a while, even though the tension in the family increased. It was a very difficult time for me as well. I wasn’t used to such a conservative family, where the daughter-in-law is expected to do everything the husband’s parents’ wanted. I did everything they wanted, but it didn’t matter. I was still in their bad books.
But then one morning my husband said to me, “Listen, I’m going to go today. I’m going to leave the house. If you want to come, come. If you don’t want to come, you can stay here.”
I said, “What are you talking about? You are going and I am going to stay here? No, I’m coming.” And at that time, I had a one-year-old daughter. So the three of us left the house without anything. We literally walked out with me carrying my daughter and some of her clothes. That was it. We took a room elsewhere. And because we needed to make ends meet, I took a job also. I started teaching.
DUNHAM: What were you teaching?
SHRESTHA: English. [As a girl, Ambica had been sent to Loreto Convent, an English-medium high school, and to Senior Cambridge from St. Joseph's College. Both schools are in Darjeeling, West Bengal, India.]
This was in 1957. And when we left my husband’s parents’ house, I became the family outcaste. The family wouldn’t look at me. I was the bad person.
DUNHAM: They would interact with their son, but not with you?
SHRESTHA: Well…the men would interact with my husband a little. But neither the men nor the women would interact with me at all. And this standoff went on for some time…until my husband’s maternal uncle befriended me. Mr. Gunjaman Singh: He was the royal advisor to the king. He and my husband were very close. And one day he came to visit us. We lived in a rented house and he came to visit us and that was really something because, at the time, he was the man in Kathmandu society. He took care of a lot of our problems.
But going back to when I was still living with the joint family, I was very outspoken and I was the only daughter-in-law who could answer back to Gunjaman Singh.
DUNHAM: Was that because you were educated?
SHRESTHA: I was educated and couldn’t just accept something that, in my mind, was not right. With my mother-in-law and father-in-law, I kept quiet, although I was boiling inside. I never contradicted them. However, whenever anyone else outside the immediate family said anything, I wouldn’t take it. At first, my husband’s uncle – he was flabbergasted when I answered back. But gradually, he warmed up to me and he took me under his wing. And he started explaining things to me. I had asked him, “How do I know what’s going on? You have to teach me. How would I know otherwise what should have been done in any given situation?”
Here’s what happened: My husband bought a motorbike. He was a body builder. He had a very beautiful body. He bought this very powerful British motorbike. He was so proud of it. And he said to me, “Come, let’s go for a ride.” I got on the back and we zoomed around Kathmandu. And when we got back, all hell broke loose! My father-in-law and my mother-in-law gave me hell, but I kept quite. But when my uncle-in-law came in and started complaining to me, I couldn’t take it. I talked back at him.
DUNHAM: My god, in the mid-fifties, there were very few vehicles in the entire Kathmandu Valley. Everybody in town must have seen the two of you buzzing down the streets.
SHRESTHA: Yes, that’s right! And his bike was huge.
DUNHAM: Not exactly a low-profile thing to do.
SHRESTHA: That is true. In retrospect, it’s funny. But at the time, it was a serious thing.
My uncle-in-law was very up in the hierarchy of the family. If we went to his house, we had to pay respect to him as if he were holding court. When people came into his room, they would first go to him and bow their heads. But when I came in and bowed my head, he would tell me to sit with him. Imagine, all the men would be sitting around him and he would ask me to sit next to him. I was young. I would blush. I had to sit among all these men and he would then talk to me and tell me things. He would explain to me about politics and he was a very good teacher.
DUNHAM: As a woman, you were placed in a very unique situation.
SHRESTHA: Yes, and it caused more trouble for me. The other women, including my mother-in-law, became even angrier with me. People don’t like it when someone gets special attention. Another example: When we were eating at the dinner table, the seating arrangement was very strict. The elder would sit at the head of the table and the hierarchal system would continue all the way down to the other end of the table. But when my uncle-in-law would come, instead of going to the head of table, he would come over to where I was sitting and order the servers: “Bring her this! Bring her that! She won’t eat this!” I had to put down my head and blush because the rest of the family was just glaring at me.
DUNHAM: So every time he was there, the spotlight turned on you.
SHRESTHA: Yes. I think he liked me because I was bold and I would say what I thought and felt. And I also listened very carefully to him and took his advice.
DUNHAM: Did they also hate it that you were teaching?
SHRESTHA: Absolutely. That their daughter-in-law was working was an absolute scandal. It was a blemish on the family name. No one had ever done that before.
But I worked hard. And eventually I got a good post at the American Embassy in the American Library. I was given the title of Public Affairs Officer. This was in 1958-59. It was a very challenging and interesting job. I put up window displays, organized lectures, brought in various people to talk, ran film shows – documentaries as well as full-length American feature films. And people flocked to come see the films. Because at that time there was no cinema in the Valley.
DUNHAM: What was the political situation at that time?
SHRESTHA: Politically, there was a great deal going on at that time. And my husband was very much involved. B.P. Koirala was a very close friend of my husbands.
[In 1947, B.P. Koirala founded, while in India, the socialist Nepali National Congress, which in 1950 became the Nepali Congress Party. He was imprisoned in Nepal in 1947–1948 after returning to his home city in Biratnagar to lead a labor demonstration. A year later he was arrested again, but was soon released after a 27-day hunger strike, popular protests, and the intervention of Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru.
Koirala led the armed revolution of 1951, which overthrew Nepal's 104-year old Rana regime. The last Rana prime minister was dismissed in October 1951 when the Rana-Congress coalition cabinet (in which Koirala served for nine months as the Home minister) broke apart. Koirala then concentrated on developing Nepal’s political structure. King Mahendra responded with a new constitution enabling free parliamentary elections to take place in 1959. Only a fragmented parliament was expected, but Koirala's Nepali Congress scored a landslide, taking more than two-thirds of the seats in the lower house. After several weeks of significant hesitation, Mahendra asked Koirala to form a government, which took office in May 1959. Koirala then became the first democratically elected Prime Minister in Nepal's history. He held the office just 18 months before being deposed and imprisoned by order of King Mahendra. The rest of his life was spent largely in prison or exile and in steadily deteriorating health.]
Actually, the Nepali Congress party was born in my husband’s hostel in Varanasi [India] – this was when he was going to university there.
And I have to tell you that he was the first one to open a hotel in Nepal for tourists or outsiders. That was called the Paras Hotel, right in the middle of the city.
DUNHAM: What year was that?
SHRESTHA: He opened it even before we were married: 1953 or 54, something like that. This was where Indians pilgrims [visiting Pashupatinath, the holiest Hindu site in Nepal] who had money would come and stay. The Indians who had less money would stay at guesthouses. Also the first airplane pilots flying into Nepal stayed at the Paras.
DUNHAM: Where was the hotel exactly?
SHRESTHA: It was located on what is now New Road, right where the Nepal Bank is now – in that corner. Today, it has been turned into a shopping mall.
And my husband had the courage to do many different innovative things that shocked the rest of society. When he opened the hotel, his grandfather asked him, “What is the difference between you and a butcher? You have soiled our name because you sell meat in that hotel.” And my husband defended himself by saying, “No, no, it’s not that. I’m doing it for pilgrims who need somewhere to rest when they come here.”
DUNHAM: When did you require this property, on which the Dwarika Hotel now stands?
SHRESTHA: It was after we left my husband’s home, and we were working on our own. We bought this plot of land. There was a house here, but it was demolished. Actually, the person who owned this property had to sell everything and lost it because he was a drunkard. He was a Rana. And after he could no longer afford to keep it, we bought the land. We used the same foundation where the house had stood and we built a new one. [Today, it serves as the bar for the Dwarika Hotel.] This was in 1957-58.
DUNHAM: Originally, then, this was just your residence?
DUNHAM: Did you work the land surrounding the house? Did you have a garden?
SHRESTHA: Oh yes, I grew everything. I had fruit trees. I had a cow. I had other animals.
DUNHAM: How did the idea of turning this into a hotel develop?
SHRESTHA: You remember that I told you that my husband created the “Youth League”? and he led them out every morning for exercise? Well, he was coming back here one morning after working out – it was a cold winter – he saw, in front of the plaza of Hanuman Dhoka two carpenters with a huge clay bowl of fire. And they had a pillar like the one right behind us and they were sawing off the beautiful Newari carvings and putting the carvings into the fire. My husband asked them, “What are you doing?” And they said, “Oh, we are removing the bad wood so that we can use the good wood for a door frame.” For the carpenters, the carvings of their forefathers’ had absolutely no value.
So my husband said, “I’ll tell you what I’ll do. You give me this old pillar and I’ll bring you new wood instead.” The carpenters thought he was mad. He went with them and bought new wood, and he brought the pillar home. That’s when it all started. After that, he started piling up all the old carvings he could find, here on the property. Whenever he saw an old ornate broken-down window, he would buy it. All sorts of old pieces, he would buy. In fact, he was buying so many old pieces and bringing them home that we finally realized that we would have to do something with them –beginning with restoring them: Some were broken, some were rotting, some had pieces missing.
So then we looked for carvers. We had a very difficult time finding master carvers. The art of carving was dying out here in the Valley. The locals were no longer looking for carvings. There was no market for them. To them, it was not important. But, eventually, we found a carving master and brought him here to start a workshop. Then we employed young men to apprentice with the master.
In the meantime, I was working and my husband was working and still the money was not enough to support our carving workshop. A lot of money was going out. We had to buy wood and pay all of the carpenters. We had to find a way to make it work.
And how that happened was that we had an good friend, a lady, who was working on her Master’s thesis and she wanted a place where she could sit quietly and write. And she asked us, “Why don’t you build a room for me above the cowshed?” And we built it and she liked it very much. She brought people over to look at it and the people agreed, “Yes, this is beautiful. Why don’t you build more rooms, let out the rooms, and use the money made to pay for your workshop?” That was how it all started. That was in 1959-60.
And that first building is still here on the premises. We are using it still – two rooms. Next, we built three rooms on top of our garage. So we had five rooms to rent and slowly, slowly, business picked up. It took many years.
We also started a travel agency and used it to bring in groups. That was around the time when King Birendra was being crowned. 1973. At that time, there weren’t that many hotels in Kathmandu, but all of them were temporarily taken over by the government for the coronation ceremony. And at the last minute, we had to throw out our guests because Mrs. Imelda Marcos [at that time, the wife of kleptocrat and Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos] came in with a planeload of people. We had to accommodate this group and we only had one week before the group arrived. In one week we rented a house just nearby – there were very few houses in this area at that time – it was a new building and walking distance from here, and we rented and furnished it in one week. You can imagine how we worked. Day and night. And when the group arrived, we put them there and in our own house, plus the five rooms.
It was a big success and the agent who had brought them here insisted, afterwards, that his future groups stay here because the Marcos group raved about the stay. They felt at home.
So we left this place, rented a house, gave up our home and turned it into a hotel. We formally registered this as a hotel of ten rooms in 1977. We found a Swiss lady to manage it. Then, in 1981, my husband built the house you see, here, in the center of the courtyard.
And then in 1991, we built more over in that direction.
And then my husband passed away in 1992. And so it fell upon me and my daughter to take over the business and build the rest of the hotel you see today.
DUNHAM: That would be a huge undertaking for anyone, let alone a women in Nepal.
SHRESTHA: Well, yes. Our first obstacle was that we needed to be financed. I approached IFC (International Finance Corporation) and ADB (Asian Development Bank), and they all turned me down because they said my hotel was too small a project. Then I approached the local banks and do you know what they told me? They asked me, “What is your collateral? These rotten pieces of wood?”
Eventually, we managed to get a consortium – about four or five banks – and they agreed to give us a loan. Yes, it was difficult: Who did I think was – a woman doing all this?
DUNHAM: Did the gender discrimination ever come to the surface or was it just the underlying problem?
SHRESTHA: The underlying problem. They wouldn’t say as much to my face, but that’s what was really going on. Two women – me and my daughter – that was the problem: I had no son, there was no boy here. In any case, the hotel, as you see it now, was completed in 1998.
Meanwhile, I was also managing our travel agency. I was traveling all over the world doing marketing, sales and everything.
DUNHAM: What is the name of your travel agency?
SHRESTHA: Kathmandu Travel and Tour. It’s the second oldest travel agency in Nepal.
DUNHAM: As a woman, what were the challenges you faced operating a travel agency?
SHRESTHA: That was very difficult too. 75% of the Japanese who were traveling to Nepal were coming to us. But when my husband passed away the dynamics with the Japanese changed dramatically. The Japanese culture is very much male-oriented. I would visit and my staff would go with me. The Japanese Managing Director would talk to my staff but ignore me.
DUNHAM: You were invisible?
SHRESTHA: Yes, and it was that way for some time. I have to say, though, that gradually the Japanese came around. And I always had to remember not to be aggressive around them.
DUNHAM: What about other countries?
SHRESTHA: Other countries were OK, I think because they were used to seeing women in business. I didn’t feel any discrimination. I don’t know, it might have been there, but I didn’t feel it.
DUNHAM: You are widely known as a preeminent entrepreneur in this country. What advice would you give a young Nepali woman, who is at the beginning of her career and wants to start her own business?
SHRESTHA: I would say that she should start small and that she shouldn’t be copying someone else. Don’t follow the businesses that others are already doing. Be innovative. Think of something new. Start it on your own and start small. Build it up gradually. If you are innovative, the sky is the limit.
DUNHAM: What happens if they get blocked my male bias?
SHRESTHA: You go on. You push. But also, nowadays, young women have support available to them that didn’t used to exist here in Nepal. In my day, you couldn’t turn to women support groups or anything like that. They didn’t exist. I had to fight on my own. But now, other women are all around you.
DUNHAM: What about a young woman going into a bank for a loan these days?
SHRESTHA: There are ways today that didn’t exist in my time. Also it has been proven that 90% of loans given to women will be returned.
DUNHAM: What about the return rate for men?
SHRESTHA: I’m not going to say anything. (laughing)
DUNHAM: How active are you in the hotel business these days?
SHRESTHA: I don’t run the Dwarika any more. I have my daughter, my grandson and they, the young people, it’s their turn to run the business. What I am doing now is working with women development.
We have an international organization called Business and Professional Women International (BPW). I think you must have heard about it. It is in 87 countries around the world. We are very well known in the UN. We have permanent representatives in different groups of the UN bodies. Every year there is a meeting of what is called the Commission on the Status of Women; and all the INGOs are handled by BPW.
And here in Nepal, in 1975 – when no other NGO had yet been allowed to register – we managed to register BPW. And we’ve been working here since then. We have done landmark projects here for women. We opened the first daycare centers. Also, we didn’t have any secretaries in Nepal, so we started secretarial training. We started marketing training here and in the beginning we were so ridiculed: “How can a parent allow a girl to go into marketing?” We created the Family Health Clinic. We started the first employment center for women. We’ve been fighting for women’s rights. It used to be that the income tax for a husband and wife was jointly assessed; now we have been able to separate the assessments and, for a mother, there are additional deductions. We’ve done literacy programs because the majority of women in Nepal were illiterate. We have helped women create groups, which later turned into micro-credit organizations or cooperatives.
DUNHAM: Have these last initiatives been successful?
SHRESTRA: Yes, some of the women, who once lived in huts, now own buildings. Their children are going to school. And we have created bases outside the Kathmandu Valley in many districts. And we have focused on Dalit areas and Muslim areas.
We have also gotten into non-traditional skill training for young women, starting at the age of fifteen or sixteen.
DUNHAM: Like what, for instance?
SHRESTRA: Mobile phone repairing, bicycle repairing, machine repairing. And we’re going to slowly move into electronic devices skill-related training.
And also, we are taking successful micro businesses and pushing them to the next step, which is entrepreneurial. We help them get the loans from the banks, the government offices; we train them how to navigate through the bureaucracy. We monitor the quality of their products.
DUNHAM: You’re concentrating on the follow-up.
SHRESTRA: Exactly. And the results have been very fine.
...For more information about the Federation of Business and Professional Women-Nepal,
...For information about Kathmandu Travels & Tours
...For information about the Dwarika Hotel