Picturesque Nepal/Chapter 2

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Picturesque Nepal by Percy Brown
Chapter 2

CHAPTER II


THE HISTORY OF NEPAL

Mythological Period—Visit of Buddha to the Valley—Asoka's Visit—Chinese Record—The Malla Rajas—The Gurkha Period.


Nepal, like Kashmir, differs from most Eastern countries in possessing an extensive historical literature. Much of this, however, deals with a vast mythological period, and the early history of Nepal is mainly a confused list of dynasties and kings, dates and periods, from which it is difficult to extract any lucid story. One of the most complete of these manuscripts states that "The Kiratis came into Nepal at the 15,000th year of the Dwapar Juga, and they ruled over the country for 10,000 years. The gods came into the country after the Kiratis. Dharmadatta Raja reigned 1000 years. After this the country remained without a king for 1000 years. Bisalnagara
Black and white photograph of a large two storey house in the country. Four women stand in the background, by the front door.  A girl sits on steps in the foreground, in the shade of a tree.

The residency at Katmandu.

existed for 2000 years," and so on for many pages, until the brain reels with improbable figures and impossible facts. From this chaos, however, one or two landmarks may be determined which will materially assist in arranging the sequence of events in the early history of the country. Here it must be stated that authorities vary so widely in the extent of different periods that, until conclusive evidence is forthcoming, much of the older chronology must be regarded as conjecture.

The first incident of importance is the visit of Buddha to the Valley of Nepal in the fifth century b.c. At this time the country was ruled by the Rajas of the Kirati dynasty, and the Hindu religion, administered by the Brahmans, was the cult of the people. Buddha appears to have made a pilgrimage to most of the holy places in the valley — not a particularly arduous undertaking, as the Great Teacher was born, spent most of his life, and died, within close proximity to the Nepal Terai. His visit seems to have occurred at a fairly late period of his career, as by this time he was making his presence felt as a reformer. In fact, during his brief residence in the valley, he secured over a thousand proselytes from the Brahman and Kehetrya castes, some of whom afterwards made names for themselves as disciples of the new religion. This event is said to have taken place about 450 b.c., during the reign of the Kirati king, Jitedasti, a ruler whose life was short but picturesque. He answered the call to arms to fight against the common enemy—the Kauravas—mentioned in that great Indian classic, the "Mahabharata," and, having advanced as far as Panipat in the Punjab, that fateful spot where has been sealed the fate of so many Indian heroes, seems to have been killed, for he never returned to his kingdom.

The Kirati dynasty continued, however, and, indistinctly through the mist of years, it is possible to conceive the general situation at this interesting period. Buddha had sown the seeds of his teaching among the Hindus of the valley, and several hundreds of his converts were left to spread the new religion. Below, in the great plains of Hindustan, slowly but surely Buddhism was gaining ground. For
Black and white photograph of a statuette of Manjusri.

Copper-gilt statuette of Manjusri, the founder of Nepal.

over two centuries the struggle between Buddhism and Brahmanism continued, the former finally conquering in the third century b.c., when Asoka, the first ruler of the Indian Empire, proclaimed it as the national religion. At this time, therefore, another significant event is chronicled in the history of Nepal. In 249 b.c. King Asoka journeyed from his capital of Pataliputra (Patna in Bengal) to the various Buddhist holy places in the valley.

It is difficult to determine from the records the exact relationship which existed between this all-powerful monarch, whose dominions were as extensive as the Indian Empire of to-day, and the ruling raja of this small mountain kingdom, but what is referred to as a religious pilgrimage seems to have really resolved itself into an absorption of the lesser kingdom into the greater. Genuine local tradition—not merely literary legend—confirmed by the existence of well-preserved monuments, attests Asoka's effective possession of the secluded Valley of Nepal. He commemorated his visit by the foundation of a city and the erection of massive monuments. The site selected for the new capital was some rising ground about two miles to the south-east of Katmandu, and there the city now known as Lalita Patau, or Patan, was laid out. Exactly in its centre Asoka erected a temple which still stands near the southern side of the palace or "Durbar."

What particular dynasty held sway at the time of this important event is not quite clear. It has been maintained that it occurred during the reign of a Kirati raja of the name of Sthunko, while other historians indicate that a representative of a very powerful dynasty—the Suryavanshi—occupied the throne. However, it is known that at a date previous to the Christian era a race of Rajputs overran the country and founded a long line of kings, which are recorded under the latter name. Buddhism seems to have been the religion of the people, but the ruling race were Hindus, and endeavoured to introduce into the temples the cult of Shiva. This is an early instance of the two creeds being brought into juxtaposition—the state in which they exist at the present day. The Suryavanshi dynasty came to an end in the sixth century a.d., at which time the country was annexed by a powerful monarch of India—Vikramaditya of Ujjain. As the reign of this king determines an important period in the history of India, so his conquest of Nepal indicates a useful landmark in the records of the State.

Vikramaditya is to the Hindus what Alfred the Great is to the English people, and innumerable tales and legends, current to this day, familiarize his name to the rich and poor, the learned and the ignorant, the high and the low. He favoured the Hindu religion, but never persecuted the Buddhists. Personally he seems to have left few records of his occupation of Nepal, but indirectly his association with the country was significant. It coincided with the opening of a new dynasty which heralded a noteworthy king, and it began a new era. The dynasty is known as the Thakuri, and the king was Amcuvarma, while the era is that of the Samvat, the system on which historical dates are founded. Amcuvarma, or "Glowing Armour," has left several inscriptions which record much activity in his reign, and he governed the country wisely and well. He died about 640 a.d., and the Thakuri kings continued in power for a considerable period—in one form or another until the eleventh century. During this dynasty an interesting picture of Nepal is recorded by a Chinese ambassador. The writer states that "the houses are of wood, painted and sculptured; the people are fond of bathing, of dramatic representations of astrology, and bloody sacrifices." Narendra Deva, the king of the Thakuri dynasty who is described in this document, is said to have "the prestige and pomp of an Oriental sovereign. He is richly dressed, and his surroundings are lavishly ornamented; his throne is festooned with flowers, and is in an atmosphere of perfumes; he shows a marked devotion to Buddha. The pavilions of his palace are covered with delicate workmanship. In the middle is built a tower of seven storeys, the grandeur and wealth of which is most remarkable." A map which accompanies this description indicates by the large number of towns that the valley was densely populated. "Irrigation—practically and scientifically applied—makes the soil of great value. Buddhism and Brahmanism flourish in the principal temples, which are wealthy and well supported. Numerous monasteries shelter the Buddhist priests. Commerce prospers, and trade is well organized and directed." In other words, the Nepal of fifteen hundred years ago bore in many respects a striking resemblance to the Nepal of the present day.

From the decline of the Thakuri rajas in the eleventh century, until towards the middle of the fourteenth century, the country came under the sway of several lines of rulers, when, in 1324, another significant event is recorded. At this period in the plains of Hindustan, the great conflict was taking place between the Hindus and the Mohammedan invaders, which eventually led to a large part of India being converted to Islam. In the turmoil consequent upon the Afghan ruler, Ghyas-ud-din Tughlak, extending his conquests. Raja Hari Singha Deva of Ajodhya in Oudh found himself hard-pressed and compelled to flee for refuge into the adjacent mountains. Here, realizing a return to his own country impossible, he turned his back on it and proceeded to carve out a new kingdom for himself in the recesses of the Himalayas. He does not appear to have met with much resistance from the Nepalese, for he eventually established himself, in 1324, in the valley, and, during the reigns of four successive kings, the country was ruled by the Ajodhya dynasty. This is the only indirect influence the Mohammedan invasion had on the annals of Nepal.

Towards the close of the fourteenth century, the Ajodhya line having become extinct, the sovereignty reverted to the descendants of the previous dynasty, who are referred to as the "Malla Rajas." The reign of one of these—Jaya Sthiti Malla—who came to the throne about 1386, is chronicled as the most glorious of all the indigenous kings of Nepal. For the long period of forty-three years he ruled his subjects wisely and well, devising a code of laws, and reorganizing the caste system. In many directions he instituted useful reforms and, according to contemporary writings, was a most enlightened king. A successor of this ruler—Yaksa Malla—having several sons, on his death-bed divided the State into principalities, which he apportioned among them. In this manner, in 1480, originated the three historic capitals of Nepal, namely, Patan, Bhatgaon, and Katmandu, at the present time the three principal centres of interest in the valley. For the next three hundred years the history of the country is composed of three separate stories, each one dealing with the events appertaining to one of the three principalities into which the State had been resolved. For the purpose of this sketch, however, it is only necessary to observe that the Malla dynasty in this triplicate form continued without any very remarkable episode for over three centuries, when a most important change took place in the constitution of the country. This was the complete conquest of the State by the Gurkhas in the year 1768.

The Gurkhas claim descent from the rajas of Chitor in Rajputana. They were driven out of their own country by the Mohammedan invaders in the fourteenth century, and took refuge in the hilly districts about Kumaon, on the western borders of the present confines of Nepal. From the early years of this settlement the Gurkhas were bent on extending their territories in an easterly direction, but made no important advance until a very ambitious king named Prithi Narain came to the throne in 1742. This ruler seems to have devoted all his energies to the conquest of Nepal, but it took him upwards of twenty- five years to accomplish his object. In 1768 he entered Katmandu, and in the course of the following year also subdued the remaining Newar principalities of Patau and Bhatgaon. He thus laid the foundation of the Gurkha dynasty, which has lasted until the present day. But the reign of the Gurkhas in Nepal has not been without its vicissitudes. Sandwiched as this small country is between the great empires of Tibet and India, it has several times come into conflict with both powers with varying success. The following are the main incidents. In 1790 the Nepalese invaded Tibet, and, coming into contact with the Chinese, had to retire and accept terms. Twenty-four years
Black and white photograph of windows in the Temple of Changu-Narain.

Windows richly ornamented with carved woodwork in the courtyard of the temple of Changu-narain.

later, owing to a disagreement over the frontier policy of the Gurkhas, war was declared by the British, and two campaigns followed. At first fortune favoured the hillmen, but subsequently under General Ochterlony a decisive battle was fought, and in 1816 the Nepalese sued for peace. A treaty was concluded, and since that date Nepal has been under the protection of the British Government. The annals of the country as an Independent State of India have been somewhat uneventful. The Gurkha raja, Girvena Yuddha Vikrama, who was responsible for the war, died shortly after the treaty, and his place was taken by his infant son, Rajendra Vikrama Sah. During his minority the reins of the Government were held by a powerful minister named General Bhimsena Thapa. At this time the court resolved itself into the two rival factions of the Thapas and the Panres, and the remaining years are a record of struggles between these parties for supremacy. Bhimsena, however, was a wise and popular regent; but after having been over twenty years in power, through a variety of circumstances, he was removed from his high position and died in 1839. It will be noticed that after the regime of this administrator the active agents of the State have been a succession of leading officials of the Government—who occupy the position of Prime Ministers. These individuals—and especially one of them—have been mainly responsible for the subsequent policy of the State. The successor of Bhimsena was his nephew, Matabar Singh. During his ministry a young soldier of the name of Jung Bahadur rose rapidly in the army and also in favour at the court. He was a nephew of Matabar Singh, and in the course of time gained sufficient power to enable him to dispose of his uncle, and ultimately to occupy his position as head of the Government. There is little doubt that Jung Bahadur is the most remarkable individual the State has ever produced. For over thirty years — from 1846, when he became Prime Minister, until he died in 1877 — he was in every sense "the special head of all the land." The life of Jung Bahadur was full of incident, and he proclaimed his strong personality in every action. Added to this, legends
Black and white photograph of a temple in Bhatgaon.

A temple in Bhatgaon.

and traditions are already gathering around his memory, and there is every indication that he will be regarded by posterity as the "Rustum" of the nineteenth century. His attitude during the mutiny of the native troops in Hindustan was characteristic of the man. When the news reached Nepal, in spite of great opposition, he stood firm as a friend of the British. He at once sent off four thousand troops, and some time afterwards Jung himself followed with a much larger force, including artillerymen and guns. These rendered good service against the mutineers, and the State was rewarded for this action with, besides other substantial honours, a large portion of the Terai being restored to Nepal.

From this time the history of the country has been a record of prosperity, and of continued friendly relations with the British Government. Rajendra Vikrama was deposed in 1847, and the heir-apparent, Surendra Vikrama Sah, mounted the throne. During the reign of this king the great Jung Bahadur passed away in 1878, and his place as Prime Minister was taken by his brother, Ranoddipa Sinha. In 1881 Raja Surendra Vikrama died after thirty-four years as ruler of the State, but in the active administration of whieh he took no great personal part, leaving this to his ministers. His son, Raja Prithivi Vira Vikrama Sah, born in 1875, then mounted the throne, and is king of Nepal at the present day.

There have been some changes in the ministry during this reign. Ranoddipa Sinha was assassinated in 1885, and Bir Sham Sher Jang Rana Bahadur, a nephew of Jung Bahadur, became Prime Minister. His tenure of this office was marked by a sound policy and many progressive measures, but he died suddenly in 1901. This important position was then taken by his brother, Maharaja Chander Sham Sher Jang Rana Bahadur, who is the present able Prime Minister of the State.