Category Archives: History/Politics

Rise of the Ranas

The highest places on earth, and sea level plains, all within 100 miles of each other...

The highest places on earth, and sea-level agricultural plains, all within 100 miles of each other.

“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.

RanaRuler

One of the Rana rulers

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.

sleepingVishnu

Sleeping Vishnu statue on the outskirts of Kathmandu. When I visited the statue I was told that it was found in a field by a farmer, and that since the king is an avatar of Vishnu, if he ever visited the statue in person the snakes would come alive (that Vishnu is sleeping on) and kill him

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.

RaniOfNepal1920

Queen of Nepal with attendants, circa 1920

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.

Nepali History, a Beginning…

This is the first of a series of posts on some of the history, politics and current events of Nepal. As I mentioned on Sunday, a lot of stuff is happening in this little country which has a history that the average person probably isn’t aware of (certainly I wasn’t until I became an “honorary” Nepali of sorts). I enjoy writing about Nepali culture, and I think this topic is relevant as well. I don’t think it veers too far astray from my main theme of intercultural relationships… I mean, isn’t it nice to have some holistic knowledge of your partner’s home?

I also want to give the disclaimer that I am not, by any means, an expert on Nepali history or politics. I will definitely make a point to talk to people who know far more than I and look up additional resources, but feel free to call me out if something doesn’t sound right or if you disagree, or vice versa. I mean, that is what the comments section is for anyway, right?

alooparatha

Our aloo paratha *almost* looked this pretty. Practice makes perfect...

So where to start? Tonight P and I went to AS and N’s place for dinner. Inspired by an Indian dinner we had a few nights ago, AS and I rolled out homemade tasty spicy aloo (potato) paratha and fresh tomato achar, and over dinner I tried to pick N’s brain about Nepali politics. His dad is a prominent politician back home, and N’s life has been surrounded by politics. Whether he likes it or not he is a politico at heart.

What I secretly wanted was for him to sit down and give me a nice neat intro to Nepali politics and history. I said to him, “pretend I know nothing about the country and we are planning to meet for coffee, what could you tell me in 15 minutes that would give me a very brief general context for what is happening now?” (as if any political situation can be summed up like this… fat chance…)

“That is impossible” he said, “everything is so interconnected and complicated. Where would I begin?” So we spent the reminder of dinner going back and forth about some of the larger issues, but I still don’t think it is what I needed for my introduction.

So I guess I’ll start with this: Nepal has a long history of conflict. Whether the conflict stems from forced Hinduization, or caste struggles, or land reform, the past several hundred years have been a cycle of various conflicts and power struggles culminating in the  “People’s War” from 1996-2006 which might just be in the process of rekindling. I guess one could argue that continuing conflict is common in many countries around the world, so perhaps Nepal is not so unique. Fair enough, but in our situation I know that conflict in Nepal has hit a lot closer to home for P’s family (riots, power cuts, strikes, burning tires, blockades of the city, etc) than it ever has for me in the United States.

Nepal_Prithvi_Narayan_Shah

Prithvi Narayan Shah

Modern Nepali history begins around 1768 with the formation of the Nepali state and the institution of the first Shah king, Prithvi Narayan Shah, who conquered the peoples of the Kathmandu Valley. Under the king, and within 40 years of the king’s death, his Gurkhas (warriors from Gorkha) had expanded the borders of the kingdom beyond the present day borders of Nepal into large regions of northern India. Unfortunately, around 1814 the British East India Company was gaining strength in the region to the south, and the Gurkha had to engage the Company on multiple occasions to keep the kingdom’s autonomy. Although Nepal proper was never colonized, a peace treaty with the Company in 1816 led to the shrinking of Nepal’s borders to their present day position. The failure to protect all of Nepal from western seizure caused much political turmoil for the monarchy, leading the Rana family to usurp power from the ancestral line of kings in 1846 and caused the monarchy to be nothing more than figure heads for the next one hundred and four years.

On a side note, the  Gurkha became famous for their fierce fighting and courage. Although the British didn’t colonize Nepal, they did create a “Gurkha” division in the British army which still exists to this day. You can learn more about the Gurkha’s HERE and also read about their recently won campaign to give retired Gurkha soldiers immigration rights to the UK HERE.