The story of the centuries-old dynasty is a saga of both triumph and tragedy. Ameet Dhakal
The Shah Dynasty, which unified and ruled Nepal for the last 240 years, often through bloodshed, came to a peaceful end last week. In modern history hardly any monarchy has been abolished either through the ballot or so peacefully.
The story of the Shah Dynasty, stretching over a period of over 450 years, is a saga of both triumph and tragedy.
After Drabya Shah, the progenitor of Shah Dynasty, wrested Gorkha from local tribal chiefs in 1559, the Shahs remained confined to this impoverished, hilly principality for the next 183 years. But that changed once and for all after an audacious prince, Prithvi Narayan Shah, ascended to the throne of Gorkha in 1742 at the age of 20.
In the next 25 years, he had vanquished surrounding principalities and conquered Kathmandu valley. A shrewd king, he was strategic in his thinking, meticulous in his planning and ruthless in obtaining his military objectives. By the time he died in 1775, Nepal’s expansion eastward was complete — The Gorkha Empire in the making then bordered the Teesta River in the east, which is now in India.
Prithvi Narayan Shah died at a relatively young age of 53 without completing his unification project, but more importantly, without providing a people of vast cultural diversity within the newly acquired frontiers, a sense of belonging to this new kingdom.
With Prithvi Narayan Shah gone, Nepal lost direction, the principal actors lost their character, and the newly unified but still unconsolidated state fell into an era of uncertainty and chaos.
For the next 70 years, before Jung Bahadur Kuwar finally seized power through a bloody coup, Nepal was ruled by kings and regents who were either insane, inept, profligate or promiscuous — or all four. There are serious questions as to the sanity of three of the kings who ruled Nepal during this period.
Luckily, the unification project continued. Before the project ended, rather disastrously, in 1816 with the Sugauli Treaty with the British East India Company, Nepal was well set to become a Himalayan Empire, stretching from Kashmir in the west to Tista in the east.
British historian John Pemble writes, “In the space of half a century, the Gurkhas had unified, for the first time in history, a belt of territory which was the most beautiful, the most inaccessible and traditionally the most fragmented in Asia. There seems no reason to suppose that had the war with the British not intervened, this empire would not have proved viable.”
Along with this vast territorial expansion, came wealth and more warriors from the new frontiers, which only fuelled profligacy and rivalry within Shah family and among the Gorkha nobility.
Pratap Singh Shah, son of Prithvi Narayan, put his warrior brother Bahadur Shah in jail, before forcing him into exile in Betia, India. He was later on recalled by his sister-in-law, Rajendra Laxmi, following Pratap Singh’s death. But rivalry again ensued between the two and they alternately put each other in prison. Bahadur Shah even killed Rajendra Laxmi’s minister Sarbajit Rana, accusing him of an illicit affair with the queen, and put her in prison. Rana Bahadur Shah, Rajya Laxmi’s son, after coming of age and wresting sovereignty from his uncle, finally killed Bahadur Shah. Rana Bahadur was a mad king by any measure. He married four women in his lifetime, including a Brahmin widow, Kantivati — an act socially not sanctified at the time.
According to historian Babu Ram Acharya, Rana Bahadur first saw this young widow of the Mishra caste at Pashupatinath and abducted her to his palace. She was made his unwilling concubine for long before finally agreeing to marry him, but under the condition that their “illegitimate” son, Girwanyuddha, would be made king. Ran Bahadur already had sons by his second wife, Subarnaprabha. But he was so much in love and lust with Kantavati that he abdicated in favour of the one-and-a-half-year old Girwanyuddha. His insanity only grew when his beloved concubine died of smallpox (some historians claim it was tuberculosis). He killed and tormented those who were involved in her treatment, and uprooted and disfigured idols in temples where prayers had been offered for her recovery.
The rivalry between courtiers of the Shah and Thapa, Pandey and Bashnyat clans only grew in the subsequent years. Multiple wives, sex scandals involving regent queens and courtiers, betrayals, rivalry and killings gradually became the norm at the palace.
The killing of regent queen Rajyalaxmi’s confidante Gagan Singh, some historians say he was her lover, precipitated perhaps the bloodiest massacre in Nepal’s history — the Kot Parwa, or massacre at the armory, in 1846. About 55 court officials were killed in the Kot Parwa, mostly men from the Thapas, Pandeys and Bashnyats courtiers. Historians say the next day over 6,000 members of these clans fled Kathmandu in fear for their lives. This gave rise to another Chherti clan at the palace — Kunwars, who later on proclaimed themselves Ranas, and ruled Nepal for the next 104 years, keeping the Shahs confined to the palace as nominal kings.
After the end of World War II, the independence movements in the British colonies reached a fever pitch. Young Nepalis, who studied and lived in India and participated in Indian independence struggle became fired up for the liberation of their own country from the clutches of the Ranas. B.P. Koirala, Subarna Sumsher and other energetic youths started an armed insurgency.
King Tribhuban, who had suffered humiliation at the hands of the Ranas for years, quietly slipped to the nearby Indian embassy and then made it to Delhi. Rana oligarchy was put to an end through a tripartite agreement reached in Delhi in 1951. This was supposed to usher in a democratic era but Tribhuban defaulted on his promise and betrayed the people.
King Tribhuban, who was reinstated in power by the people, deferred the promised Constituent Assembly election on one or another pretext till his death in 1955. His ambitious son, King Mahendra, never agreed to the idea of a constituent assembly election and forced the parties to settle for parliamentary elections instead. King Mahendra, in 1960, shacked the first popularly elected prime minister of Nepal, B P Koirala, and imposed a partyless Panchayat System, beginning the absolute rule of the kings for the next 30 years.
In 1990, a popular Janaandolan or People’s Movement forced King Birendra to accept multiparty system.
June 1, 2001, was probably the turning point in the monarchy’s demise. King Birendra, an affable man, and his entire family were killed in a royal massacre. People were in a state of shock after they heard news of the massacre but when they came to terms with the reality they had lost faith in the monarchy, whose reins now fell into the hands of a new king, Gyanendra.
It’s hard to pin down Gyanendra’s personality. But above all, he proved to be an arrogant, self-righteous and ambitious monarch. In his lust for power — reminiscent of his father — he was blind as a bat to his own best interests. Before seizing power on February 1, 2005, he miscalculated three things: First, he thought the Maoists and mainstream parties would never join hands and form a collective front against him. Second, given a choice between the Maoists (read terrorists) and the monarchy, the international community, particularly India and the United States, would eventually choose monarchy. Third, and most importantly, he underestimated the consciousness of the Nepali people, which had grown by leaps and bounds in the post-1990 open society and during the decade-long Maoist insurgency.
Finally, in April 2006, the people turned the tables on the monarchy. Janaandolan II vanquished Gyanendra, culminating in the declaration of a republic. Maybe a republican order would have come sooner or later, but Gyanendra is solely responsible for bringing it to this country so soon.