“Everything about Nepal is a contradiction. It’s a tiny landlocked country of astounding topographical diversity. From the tallest mountains in the world, Nepal plummets to subtropical tiger jungles stretching at sea level along its southern border—all within a distance of 92 miles. It’s caught between the two giant webs of Asia: China and India. Although the United Nations and the international community recognize its independence, Nepal cannot reach the outside world without the expressed approval of its powerful neighbors. The reality is that, at every point on the compass, Nepal’s independence is compromised…
Even the time zone of Nepal seems like a contradiction. Although the country is located like a saddle strapped atop India, one has to set one’s watch fifteen minutes forward when crossing Nepal’s border. What may seem whimsical to some may strike others as emblematic of Nepal’s problem in the 21st century. Given the galloping pace of change, there has been little opportunity for Nepal to make gradual adjustments. In effect, Nepal has been forced to learn how to run before it knew how to crawl. As a result, every step appears anachronistic and out of sync with the leap of time.” –Yadab Prasad Bastola, A Brief History about Nepal
Where did we leave off? Ah yes, the Rana Family.
Before Prithvi Narayan Shah there were the Malla kings of the Kathmandu Valley. In 1768 Prithvi heralded the beginning of the Shah dynasty, but a series of incidents including resistance struggles against the British East India Company, a succession of weaker Shah rulers, and the Kot Massacre, finally led to the rise in power of the Ranas.
The Ranas (who claim an ancestral tie to the Rajasthani city of Udaipur) ruled Nepal from 1846 until 1953. Under the Rana’s the position of “king” still existed, but mainly as a ceremonial figurehead, and all state powers were given to the “prime minister” which became a hereditary position passed from one Rana generation to the next.
Let me take a brief moment to talk about Nepali kings, and why (perhaps) it was hard for the Ranas to totally get rid of them. It was believed that the king was an avatar (reincarnation) of the Hindu god Vishnu. In the avatar tradition of Hindu mythology, there are many different reincarnations of Vishnu, including the 10 main acknowledged avatars: Matsya (the fish), Kurma (the turtle), Varaha (the boar), Narasimha (the man-lion), Vamana (the dwarf Brahmin), Parashurama (the sage), Rama (the king), Krishna (how do I describe Krishna? The prankster/lover/warrior?), Buddha (the teacher), and the form that has yet to come, Kalki (the destroyer). Sometimes other possible avatars are incorporated into this mythology… In Nepal the kings were considered avatars and worshiped as such. There are various rituals during the festival season that involve the king, for example: taking tikka from the Royal Kumari during Indra Jatra to ensure the health and prosperty of the king and the country. I think kumaris are fascinating, so I’ll save discussion of them for another day.
The Rana family ruled Nepal as their own personal fiefdom dragging the country into isolation from the rest of the world, freely using treasury funds for the betterment of the family, and looting the country’s natural resources causing rampant impoverishment in the countryside. In 1936 a movement against the Ranas began; it was quickly crushed but revolution was in the air.