Nepal has been ruled by succession of dynasties that back to the A.D. 4th century, when the Himalayan kingdom of Nepala was first referred to in Indian inscriptions. The history of Nepal is more often than not the history of the Kathmandu Valley, which has traditionally been the home of the Newars. Some regard the Licchavi kingdom as a Newar dynasty. The Newars had been in Nepal longer than the Nepalis.

Nepal remained largely untouched by outsiders. The mountainous terrain discouraged invasions or even exploration. The Mongol, Moguls and even Tibetans largely left it alone. Marco Polo wrote: Nepal “is little visited by strangers, whose visits the king discourages.” Even so extended urban and commercial systems expanded to include much of Inner Asia, and close contacts were maintained with European merchants. Nepal was apparently a distant part of this commercial network because even Ptolemy and other Greek writers of the second century knew of the Kiratas (rulers of the Kathmandu Valley until around A.D. 400) as a people who lived near China.

According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”: “Fact, myth, and legend are intertwined in Nepal's historical literature, which, in the Vamshavali, traces the origins of the country in the distant past when Nepal was allegedly founded by Ne-Muni and derived its name from this source. A reliable chronology can be established only after the conquest of Nepal by Harisinha-deva, rajah of Simraun in about 1324. Under the Malla dynasty, Nepal was administered in four separate states: Banepa, Bhadgaon (now Bhaktapur), Kantipur (modern Kathmandu), and Lalitpur (now Paţan). [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”, Thomson Gale, 2007]

“Reliable historical data date back to the conquest of Nepal by Harisinha-deva, rajah of Simraun in about A.D. 1324. Prithwi Narayan Shah, the ruler of Gorkha, a small state west of Kathmandu, established the modern kingdom of Nepal in A.D. 1768. Under his descendants, most of the present boundaries of Nepal were established, and Hinduism was introduced from India as the official religion.”

The Mauryan Empire declined after the second century B.C., and north India entered a period of political disunity. North India was united by the Gupta emperors again in the A.D. fourth century. Their capital was the old Mauryan center of Pataliputra (present-day Patna in Bihar State), during what Indian writers often describe as a golden age of artistic and cultural creativity. The greatest conqueror of this dynasty was Samudragupta (reigned ca. 353-73), who claimed that the "lord of Nepal" paid him taxes and tribute and obeyed his commands. It still is impossible to tell who this lord may have been, what area he ruled, and if he was really a subordinate of the Guptas. Some of the earliest examples of Nepalese art show that the culture of north India during Gupta times exercised a decisive influence on Nepali language, religion, and artistic expression. *

Nepal Dark Ages

The period up until 1200 is sometimes referred to as the dark ages, a period which little is known about but seems characterized by violence between the small kingdoms that existed at that time. Raiders from the outside periodically showed to plunder these kingdoms. In the middle of the A.D. 4th century the Allahabad pillar inscription represents Nepal as an autonomous frontier state, which, along with others, paid tribute to Samudragupta. Our information regarding its history in the interval between Ashoka and Samudragupta is very scanty. The Vamsavali or the local chronicles testify to the rule of the Abhlras, Kiratas, Somavamsis, and the Suryavamsis but their chronology is altogether unreliable. [Source: “History of Ancient India” by Rama Shankar Tripathi, Professor of Ancient Indian History and Culture, Benares Hindu University, 1942]

We are on firmer ground when we come to Amsuvarman the close of the sixth and the first four decades of the A.D. 7th century — the period of the Thakuri Amsuvarman, who has been identified with Ang-shu-fa-na of Xuanzang’s Records. He was the minister of the Licchavi king, Sivadeva, but after some time the former himself became the real master of the valley, as all power was concentrated in his hands. He ruled for at least 45 years, and originated an era, which is generally believed to have begun in A.D. 595. [Source: “History of Ancient India” by Rama Shankar Tripathi, Professor of Ancient Indian History and Culture, Benares Hindu University, 1942]

Some scholars are of opinion that Nepal came under the suzerainty of Harsavardhana, but a critical examination of the available evidence does not confirm this view. On the other hand, at this time Tibet wielded supreme influence over Nepal, whose king Amsuvarman married his daughter to the mighty Songtsen Gampo (c. 629-50 A.D.), whose other main wife was a Chinese Tang Dynasty princess.

The history of Nepal is obscure for the next two centuries, except that there was probably a restoration of the Licchavi rule and the country continued to acknowledge the supremacy of Tibet. In 879-80 a new era was started, perhaps to mark its liberation from foreign yoke. Darkness again descends upon the affairs of Nepal for another century and a quarter, but from the commencement of the 9th century the colophons of a large number of manuscripts preserved in the Durbar library and elsewhere yield us the names of a regular series of kings. They are, however, not credited with any notable achievements. Nepal's trade with India, Tibet, and China then flourished, and the people grew wealthy and prosperous. We further learn that Nanyadcya, the Karnataka chief of Tirhut, established his hegemony over Nepal some time in the first half of the twelfth century. Its subsequent history until the conquest of the Gurkhas in 1768 is devoid of any interest to the general reader.


The Licchavi dynasty, which ruled from the Kathmandu Valley from the 5th to the 9th century, is regarded the oldest established Nepalese kingdom. Its founders were Chhetris — a caste of administrators — who claimed to be Rajputs of northern Indian descent. Analysis of their language indicates they came from somewhere else or at least many members were from somewhere else. The history of Nepal is more often than not the history of the Kathmandu Valley, which has traditionally been the home of the Newars. Some regard the Licchavi kingdom as a Newar dynasty. The Newars had been in Nepal longer than the Nepalis.

In the late fifth century, rulers calling themselves Licchavis began to record details on politics, society, and economy in Nepal. The Licchavis were known from early Buddhist legends as a ruling family during the Buddha's time in India, and the founder of the Gupta Dynasty claimed that he had married a Licchavi princess. Perhaps some members of this Licchavi family married members of a local royal family in the Kathmandu Valley, or perhaps the illustrious history of the name prompted early Nepalese notables to identify themselves with it. In any case, the Licchavis of Nepal were a strictly local dynasty based in the Kathmandu Valley and oversaw the growth of the first truly Nepalese state. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]

The earliest known Licchavi record, an inscription of Manadeva I, dates from 464, and mentions three preceding rulers, suggesting that the dynasty began in the late fourth century. The last Licchavi inscription was in 733. All of the Licchavi records are deeds reporting donations to religious foundations, predominantly Hindu temples. The language of the inscriptions is Sanskrit, the language of the court in north India, and the script is closely related to official Gupta scripts. There is little doubt that India exerted a powerful cultural influence, especially through the area called Mithila, the northern part of present-day Bihar State. Politically, however, India again was divided for most of the Licchavi period. *

To the north, Tibet grew into an expansive military power through the seventh century, declining only by 843. Some early historians, such as the French scholar Sylvain Lévi, thought that Nepal may have become subordinate to Tibet for some time, but more recent Nepalese historians, including Dilli Raman Regmi, deny this interpretation. In any case, from the seventh century onward a recurring pattern of foreign relations emerged for rulers in Nepal: more intensive cultural contacts with the south, potential political threats from both India and Tibet, and continuing trade contacts in both directions. *

Licchavi Rule

The Licchavi political system closely resembled that of northern India. At the top was the "great king" (maharaja), who in theory exercised absolute power but in reality interfered little in the social lives of his subjects. Their behavior was regulated in accordance with dharma through their own village and caste councils. The king was aided by royal officers led by a prime minister, who also served as a military commander. As the preserver of righteous moral order, the king had no set limit for his domain, whose borders were determined only by the power of his army and statecraft — an ideology that supported almost unceasing warfare throughout South Asia. In Nepal's case, the geographic realities of the hills limited the Licchavi kingdom to the Kathmandu Valley and neighboring valleys and to the more symbolic submission of less hierarchical societies to the east and west. Within the Licchavi system, there was ample room for powerful notables (samanta) to keep their own private armies, run their own landholdings, and influence the court. There was thus a variety of forces struggling for power. During the seventh century, a family known as the Abhira Guptas accumulated enough influence to take over the government. The prime minister, Amsuvarman, assumed the throne between approximately 605 and 641, after which the Licchavis regained power. The later history of Nepal offers similar examples, but behind these struggles was growing a long tradition of kingship. *

The economy of the Kathmandu Valley already was based on agriculture during the Licchavi period. Artworks and place-names mentioned in inscriptions show that settlements had filled the entire valley and moved east toward Banepa, west toward Tisting, and northwest toward present-day Gorkha. Peasants lived in villages (grama) that were administratively grouped into larger units (dranga). They grew rice and other grains as staples on lands owned by the royal family, other major families, Buddhist monastic orders (sangha), or groups of Brahmans (agrahara). Land taxes due in theory to the king were often allocated to religious or charitable foundations, and additional labor dues (vishti) were required from the peasantry in order to keep up irrigation works, roads, and shrines. The village head (usually known as pradhan, meaning a leader in family or society) and leading families handled most local administrative issues, forming the village assembly of leaders (panchalika or grama pancha). This ancient history of localized decision making served as a model for late twentieth-century development efforts. *

One of the most striking features of present-day Kathmandu Valley is its vibrant urbanism, notably at Kathmandu, Patan, and Bhadgaon (also called Bhaktapur), which apparently goes back to ancient times. During the Licchavi period, however, the settlement pattern seems to have been much more diffuse and sparse. In the present-day city of Kathmandu, there existed two early villages — Koligrama ("Village of the Kolis," or Yambu in Newari), and Dakshinakoligrama ("South Koli Village," or Yangala in Newari) — that grew up around the valley's main trade route. Bhadgaon was simply a small village then called Khoprn (Khoprngrama in Sanskrit) along the same trade route. The site of Patan was known as Yala ("Village of the Sacrificial Post," or Yupagrama in Sanskrit). In view of the four archaic stupas on its outskirts and its very old tradition of Buddhism, Patan probably can claim to be the oldest true center in the nation. Licchavi palaces or public buildings, however, have not survived. The truly important public sites in those days were religious foundations, including the original stupas at Svayambhunath, Bodhnath, and Chabahil, as well as the shrine of Shiva at Deopatan, and the shrine of Vishnu at Hadigaon. *

There was a close relationship between the Licchavi settlements and trade. The Kolis of present-day Kathmandu and the Vrijis of present-day Hadigaon were known even in the Buddha's time as commercial and political confederations in north India. By the time of the Licchavi kingdom, trade had long been intimately connected with the spread of Buddhism and religious pilgrimage. One of the main contributions of Nepal during this period was the transmission of Buddhist culture to Tibet and all of central Asia, through merchants, pilgrims, and missionaries. In return, Nepal gained money from customs duties and goods that helped to support the Licchavi state, as well as the artistic heritage that made the valley famous. *

Buddhism in the Licchavi era

According to the Encyclopedia of Buddhism: “The earliest historical records of the central Himalayan region — more than two hundred Sanskrit inscriptions made by kings of a ruling dynasty who referred to themselves by the name Licchavi — are found in the Nepal valley beginning in 464 A.D. These inscriptions indicate that Hindu temple institutions existed alongside Buddhist monastic traditions in a harmonious relationship confirmed by the Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang around 640 A.D. This relationship has endured up to the present day. [Source: Encyclopedia of Buddhism, The Gale Group Inc., 2004]

“The Licchavi inscriptions reveal connections between the Nepal valley and the traditions of monasticism and patronage that originated across the Gangetic plain from the time of the Buddha. There are references in the inscriptions to monks and nuns from over a dozen discrete sa ghas residing in land-owning viharas (monasteries) and enjoying the support of prominent local merchants and caravan leaders. The most frequently mentioned sa gha is that of the MahAsA ghika school.

“These early monasteries were centers of a predominantly Mahayana culture, with the inscriptions providing only a few hints of Vajrayana practice. Monastic precincts reveal verses of praise addressed to Śakyamuni and other buddhas, as well as shrines to the celestial bodhisattvas Manjuśrī, Vajrapa i, Samantabhadra, and — most frequently — Avalokiteśvara. Donations of stŪpas, in several instances by nuns, are also mentioned. Nepal's earliest monasteries charged monks with maintaining law and civic order in settlements built on lands donated to them, a custom that is unattested in Indian sources. Examples of similar duties are also found in the records of the residents (mandalis) of contemporaneous Hindu temples.”

Medieval Nepal, 750–1750

After the Licchavi Dynasty, cultural and political changes occurred that would have enduring influences on Nepal. There was a shift from Sanskrit to Newari, the language of the Newar people in the Kathmandu Valley, and kings gradually shifted from Buddhism to Hinduism. Politically, leading notables with names ending in “malla “(“wrestler” in Sanskrit) became prominent in the early twelfth century. The most renowned Malla ruler was Yakshamalla, who ruled from 1428 to 1482. He both ended elite power struggles in the Kathmandu Valley and extended his influence outside the region. [Source: Library of Congress, November 2005 **]

After Yakshamalla’s death, the Malla kingdom became divided among his descendants into three competing kingdoms based in Bhadgaon, Kathmandu, and Patan. The three-kingdoms period lasted until the mid-eighteenth century and was characterized by repeated warfare among the kingdoms over ritual slights and miniscule territorial gains. States outside the Kathmandu Valley fought each other and engaged in various, shifting alliances with Malla kingdoms. Malla rulers continued to legitimize their rule as protectors of dharma, and the Kathmandu Valley’s unique culture blossomed as temples and palace complexes were constructed, many of which still exist. **

As the Mughal Dynasty (1526–1858) expanded throughout South Asia, dispossessed Indian princes found shelter in Nepal’s hilly regions and brought the Khasa language, which evolved into the present Nepali language. They also brought Mughal military goods, such as firearms and artillery, and administrative techniques, such as providing land in return for military service. **

Tibetan Buddhism Enters Nepal

According to the Encyclopedia of Buddhism: “Tibetan texts recount how great Indian sages came up through the Nepal valley to establish Buddhist traditions on the Tibetan plateau. Later legends describe their subduing demons and establishing communities of devotees. Although the history of these first Himalayan monasteries remains obscure, some may have been established by the great siddha Padmasambhava (ca. late eighth century) or his disciples. Texts composed to recount the lives of Atisha (982–1054) and Mar pa (Marpa; 1002/1012–1097) describe their sojourns visiting still-recognized valley locations. [Source: Encyclopedia of Buddhism, The Gale Group Inc., 2004]

“Once Buddhism was firmly established in central Tibet as a result of its second introduction (ca. 1050 A.D.), the northernmost settlements of modern highland Nepal became sites where monasteries were established by every major school of Tibetan Buddhism. These areas include Humla in the far west, as well as (from west to east) Dolpo, Lo-Mustang, Nyeshang, Nupri, Manang, Langtang, Helambu, Solu-Khumbu, and Walung. Local boys interested in training to become senior monks would travel to central Tibet and return to maintain local institutions that typically sheltered, at most, a dozen or so monks whose main occupation was ritual service. This same pattern occurred for the Bon faith in a few of these regions.

“There was a second level of connection with the monastic networks of central Tibet established among the Tibeto-Burman–speaking peoples living in the mid-hills, including the Magars, Gurungs, Tamangs, and Sherpas. Many of these peoples followed the Rnying ma (Nyingma) school and relied on householder lamas to perform Buddhist rituals for their villages. To train for this service, young men typically lived for several years as apprentices with elder householder lamas or in the regional highland monasteries. Most returned to marry and maintain shrines established as their family's own property. Thus, most "Buddhist monasteries" among Tibeto-Burman peoples were (and are) family shrine-residences, and sons usually succeed their fathers as local Buddhist ritualists.

“By the early Malla era (1350 A.D.) Tibetan monks came to the Nepal valley to acquire tantric initiations, ritual practices, and texts from resident masters (Newars and others), traditions they conveyed up to the highlands. Some Tibetan monks also established branch monasteries affiliated with the main Tibetan schools; the first were located near the monumental stūpas at Svayambhū and Bauddha. Notable Tibetan teachers probably influenced the practices of Newar Buddhists. The Kathmandu valley is now one of the most important centers of Tibetan Buddhism in the world.

After the Licchavis

The period following the decline of the Licchavi Dynasty witnessed little growth in the geographical or administrative power of the Nepalese state. In fact, it is the least understood time in Nepal's history, with only a very few inscriptional sources supplemented by some dated religious manuscripts. It appears that the Kathmandu Valley and surrounding valleys officially remained part of a single political unit, although there were struggles for the throne among different royal lineages and notable families. Donations to religious foundations were dated by a new Newari era beginning in 879, a development suggesting the founding of a new dynasty. Surviving records show a movement away from Sanskrit and admixtures of early Newari, the language of the Newar people in the valley. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]

The main influences on Nepal continued to come from Mithila or Tirhut to the south. This area came intermittently under the domination of warriors allied to the Chalukya Dynasty from Karnataka in southern India. One of their lieutenants proclaimed himself king in 1097 and founded a capital at Simraongarh in the Terai. From there he launched raids that allowed the Chalukyas to later claim domination over Nepal without exerting a perceptible impact on Nepalese history. By the late twelfth century, however, the king in Nepal was called Somesvaradeva (or Someswaradeva, reigned ca. 1178-85), a name of Chalukya kings, indicating some degree of political contact with Indian rulers. By the end of Somesvaradeva's reign, there was evidence of mounting political chaos and fighting for the throne. *

Profound changes were occurring in the religious system of Nepal. The early patronage of Buddhism by the kings gave way to a more strictly Hindu devotion, based on the worship of a variety of deities but ultimately relying on Pashupatinath, the site of one of Hinduism's most sacred Shiva shrines. Within the Buddhist community, the role of the monks and monasteries changed slowly but radically. Early Buddhism had rested on the celibacy and meditation of monks and nuns who had withdrawn from the world in their own living complexes (vihara). As a more ritualistic vajrayana Buddhism expanded, a division grew up between the "teachers of the thunderbolt" (vajracharya) and ordinary monks (bhikshu), leading to caste-like divisions and the marriage of religious teachers. The higher-ranking teachers monopolized the worship in the monasteries and controlled the revenues brought in from monastic estates. Monasteries became social and economic centers, serving as workshops and apartments as well as shrines. These roles were kept intact well into the twentieth century. *

Malla Period (1200-1769)

Beginning in the early twelfth century, leading notables in Nepal began to appear with names ending in the term malla, (wrestler in Sanskrit), indicating a person of great strength and power. Arimalla (reigned 1200-16) was the first king to be so called, and the practice of adopting such a name was followed regularly by rulers in Nepal until the eighteenth century. (The names of the Malla kings were also represented as, for example, Ari Malla.) This long Malla period witnessed the continued importance of the Kathmandu Valley as a political, cultural, and economic center of Nepal. Other areas also began to emerge as significant centers in their own right, increasingly connected to the Kathmandu Valley. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]

Malla period lasted from 1200 to 1769. The Malla kings were forced out of India, where they ruled for some time, around 1200. They are referred to in the “Mahabharata” and the ancient Buddhist texts, which contain evidence they ruled as far back as 600 B.C. The Mallas ruled from Kathmandu Valley. The early Malla years were characterized by violence and upheaval. Kathmandu was struck by a catastrophic earthquake in 1245 that is said to have killed a third of the population of the valley. Between 1244 and 1311, the valley was raided several times by the north Indian kingdom of Mithila. Kathmandu was also raided by the Khas kingdom, based around Sinja in the Jumla area, several times between 1287 and 1344. In 1346, Bengals plundered the valley for week and Kathmandu was left a ruin.

The early Malla period, a time of continuing trade and the reintroduction of Nepalese coinage, saw the steady growth of the small towns that became Kathmandu, Patan, and Bhadgaon. Royal pretenders in Patan and Bhadgaon struggled with their main rivals, the lords of Banepa in the east, relying on the populations of their towns as their power bases. The citizens of Bhadgaon viewed Devaladevi as the legitimate, independent queen. The betrothal in 1354 of her granddaughter to Jayasthitimalla, a man of obscure but apparently high birth, eventually led to the reunification of the land and a lessening of strife among the towns. *

Malla-Era Kingdoms

In the 14th century Muslims conquered northern India and many Hindus and Buddhist fled to Nepal, particularly in the west. Twenty-two small kingdoms were set up in western Nepal; 24 were established in central Nepal. The distribution of people and ethnic groups that resulted from this migration still defines Nepal’s make up today.

The time of the earlier Malla kings was not one of consolidation but was instead a period of upheaval in and around Nepal. In the twelfth century, Muslim Turks set up a powerful kingdom in India at Delhi, and in the thirteenth century they expanded their control over most of northern India. During this process, all of the regional kingdoms in India underwent a major reshuffling and considerable fighting before they eventually fell under Delhi's control. This process resulted in an increasing militarization of Nepal's neighbors and sections of Nepal as well. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]

For example, in western Nepal, around Dullu in the Jumla Valley, an alternative seat of political and military power grew up around a separate dynasty of Mallas (who were not related to the Mallas of the Kathmandu Valley), who reigned until the fourteenth century. These Khasa kings expanded into parts of western Tibet and sent raiding expeditions into the Kathmandu Valley between 1275 and 1335. In 1312 the Khasa king, Ripumalla, visited Lumbini and had his own inscription carved on Ashoka's pillar. He then entered the Kathmandu Valley to worship publicly at Matsyendranath, Pashupatinath, and Svayambhunath. These acts were all public announcements of his overlordship in Nepal and signified the temporary breakdown of royal power within the valley. At the same time, the rulers in Tirhut to the south led raids into the valley until they were in turn overrun by agents of the Delhi Sultanate. The worst blow came in 1345-46, when Sultan Shams ud-din Ilyas of Bengal led a major pillaging expedition into the Kathmandu Valley, resulting in the devastation of all major shrines. In fact, none of the existing buildings in the valley proper dates from before this raid. *

Malla Kings

The 14th century ruler Jayasthitimalla united various tribes and ruled over a kingdom for 40 years. This is often regarded as the golden era of Nepalese history. King Sthitmalla (1382-1395) is said to have codified the caste system. By this time Buddhism had grown weak in India and as a consequence weak in Nepal too, Buddhist influences began coming from Tibet rather than India.

By 1370 Jayasthitimalla controlled Patan, and in 1374 his forces defeated those in Banepa and Pharping. He then took full control of the country from 1382 until 1395, reigning in Bhadgaon as the husband of the queen and in Patan with full regal titles. His authority was not absolute because the lords of Banepa were able to pass themselves off as kings to ambassadors of the Chinese Ming emperor who traveled to Nepal during this time. Nevertheless, Jayasthitimalla united the entire valley and its environs under his sole rule, an accomplishment still remembered with pride by Nepalese, particularly Newars. The first comprehensive codification of law in Nepal, based on the dharma of ancient religious textbooks, is ascribed to Jayasthitimalla. This legendary compilation of traditions was seen as the source of legal reforms during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]

After the death of Jayasthitimalla, his sons divided the kingdom and ruled collegially, until Jayajyotirmalla, the last surviving son, ruled on his own from 1408 to 1428. His son, Yakshamalla, represented the high point of the Mallas as rulers of a united Nepal. Under his rule, a military raid was launched against the plains to the south, a very rare event in Nepalese history.

King Yakshamalla (reigned ca. 1428-82) expanded the Malla kingdom beyond the Kathmandu Valley, supported the arts and presided over the division of the kingdom into three kingdoms: Kathmandu, Lalipur and Bhaktapur. These kingdoms often quarreled with another, paving the way for Gorkha takeover.

Yakshamalla built the Mul Chok in 1455, which remains the oldest palace section in Bhadgaon. The struggles among the landed aristocracy and leading town families (pradhan), especially acute in Patan, were controlled during his reign. Outlying areas such as Banepa and Pharping were semi-independent but acknowledged the leadership of the king. Newari appeared more often as the language of choice in official documents. The royal family began to accept Manesvari (also known as Taleju), a manifestation of Shiva's consort, as their personal deity. *

Buddhism in the Malla Period

According to the Encyclopedia of Buddhism: “By the early Malla era, the valley had become an important regional center active in domesticating an indigenous Indic Mahayana Buddhism. Nepalese monks developed a highly ritualized Buddhist culture among the Newars, whose life-cycle rites, Mahayana festivals, and temple ritualism reached high levels of articulation. It was VajrayAna Buddhism and tantric initiation that assumed the highest position in local understanding, though only a few practiced esoteric traditions. Monastic architecture reflects this development: In the large courtyards that define the monastic space, the shrines facing the entrance have, on the ground floor, an image of Śakyamuni, but on the first floor above is the agama, a shrine with a Vajrayana deity, with access limited to those with tantric initiation. [Source: Encyclopedia of Buddhism, The Gale Group Inc., 2004]

“By the later Malla era (1425–1769 A.D.), when Hindu shrines and law were in the ascendancy, Newar Buddhism underwent many changes and assumed roughly the form extant today. This era was marked by the building of many new viharas, but there was also a literal domestication of the sa gha, wherein former monks became householders. These Newar householder monks called themselves Bare (from the Sanskrit term vande or vandana, an ancient Indic term of respect for monks), adopted the names śakyabhik u, and vajracarya, and began to function as endogamous castes. This meant that one had to be born into the sa gha and, with a few exceptions, everyone else was prohibited from being admitted. Thus, ordination into celibate monastic life was possible only in the local Tibetan sa ghas. The Newar sa ghas were probably transforming their tradition to conform to caste laws and thereby preserve the social and legal standing of the Buddhist community, as well as their extensive monastic land holdings. Since that time, those wanting to become adult members of the Newar sa gha must first undergo (in local parlance) śravaka-styled celibate ordination (usually taking three days), then Mahayana-styled initiation into what is referred to as the bodhisattva sa gha.

“Many contemporary Newar monasteries, especially in Patan, still bear the name of their founding patrons, some dating back to the early Malla period. Local Buddhist monks, like Hindu pa itas (scholars), were especially active in manuscript copying; by the modern era, Buddhist monastic libraries had became a vast repository of Sanskrit texts.

“Unlike the monastic institutions of Tibet that fostered in-depth philosophical inquiry and vast commentarial writings, Newar monks produced few original contributions to Buddhist scholarship. The Newar sa gha's focus was the performance of rituals drawing upon deities and powers of the Mahayana-Vajrayana Buddhist tradition. Like married Tibetan monks of the Rnying ma order, vajracarya priests serve the community's ritual needs, with some specializing in textual study, medicine, astrology, and meditation. Lifelong ritual relations link householders to family vajracarya priests, which some have called "Buddhist Brahmans." Their ritual services are vast, including Buddhist versions of Hindu life-cycle rites (sa skara), fire rites (homa), daily temple rituals (nitya pūja), mantra chanting protection rites, merit-producing donation rites, stūpa rituals, chariot festivals (ratha jatra), and tantric initiation (abhi eka). Some of these cultural performances were noted centuries ago in India. In Kathmandu's Itum Baha one can still observe monks rapping on wooden gongs to mark time, a monastic custom begun over two thousands years ago in ancient India. The "Mahayana cult of the book" endures as well. In this and many other respects, Newars continue the evolutionary patterns of ritual practice and lay ideals of later Indic Buddhism. Claims that "Indian Buddhism died out" defy geography and ignore the ongoing survival of Newar Buddhism.

Three Kingdoms

After King Yakshamalla Nepal was divided kingdom into three kingdoms: Kathmandu, Lalipur and Bhaktapur. These kingdoms often quarreled with another, paving the way for Gorkha takeover.

After 1482, a crucial date in Nepalese history, the kingdom became divided. At first, the six sons of Yakshamalla attempted to reign collegially, in their grandfathers' pattern. Ratnamalla was the first to rebel against this system of joint rule, seizing Kathmandu in 1484 and ruling there alone until his death in 1520. Rayamalla, the eldest brother, ruled Bhadgaon with the other brothers until his death, when the crown there passed into the hands of his descendants. Banepa broke away under Ramamalla until its reincorporation into the Bhadgaon kingdom in 1649. Patan remained aloof, dominated by factions of its local nobility, until Sivasimhamalla, a descendant of Ratnamalla, conquered it in 1597 and united it with Kathmandu. On his death, however, Kathmandu and Patan were given to different grandsons and again separated. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]

The center of Nepal thus remained split into three competing kingdoms, roughly based on Bhadgaon, Kathmandu, and Patan. The influence of these petty kingdoms outside the valley varied over time. Bhadgaon extended its feeble power as far as the Dudh Kosi in the east, Kathmandu controlled areas to the north and as far west as Nuwakot, and Patan included territories to the south as far as Makwanpur. The relationships among the kingdoms within the valley became quite convoluted. Although all three ruling houses were related and periodically intermarried, their squabbles over miniscule territorial gains or ritual slights repeatedly led to warfare. The kings attended coronation rituals or marriages at each other's capitals and then plotted the downfalls of their relatives. *

Late Malla Period

The period of the three kingdoms — the time of the later Mallas — lasted until the mid-eighteenth century. The complete flowering of the unique culture of the Kathmandu Valley occurred during this period, and it was also during this time that the old palace complexes in the three main towns achieved much of their present-day forms. The kings still based their legitimate rule on their role as protectors of dharma, and often they were devout donors to religious shrines. Kings built many of the older temples in the valley, gems of late medieval art and architecture, during this late Malla period. Buddhism remained a vital force for much of the population, especially in its old seat of Patan. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]

Religious endowments called guthi arranged for long-term support of traditional forms of worship or ritual by allowing temple or vihara lands to pass down through generations of the same families; this support resulted in the preservation of a conservative art, architecture, and religious literature that had disappeared in other areas of South Asia. Newari was in regular use as a literary language by the fourteenth century and was the main language in urban areas and trading circles based in the Kathmandu Valley. Maithili, the language of the Tirhut area to the south, became a popular court language during the seventeenth century and still was spoken by many people in the Terai in the late twentieth century. In the west, Khas bhasha, or the language of the Khasa, was slowly expanding, only later to evolve into present-day Nepali. *

The final centuries of Malla rule were a time of great political change outside the Kathmandu Valley. In India overlordship in Delhi fell to the powerful Mughal Dynasty (1526-1858). Although the Mughals never exercised direct lordship over Nepal, their empire had a major indirect impact on its institutional life. During the sixteenth century, when the Mughals were spreading their rule over almost all of South Asia, many dispossessed princes from the plains of northern India found shelter in the hills to the north. *

Legends indicated that many small principalities in western Nepal originated in migration and conquest by exiled warriors, who added to the slow spread of the Khasa language and culture in the west. Along with these exiles came Mughal military technology, including firearms and artillery, and administrative techniques based on land grants in return for military service. The influence of the Mughals is reflected in the weapons and dress of Malla rulers in contemporary paintings and in the adoption of Persian terminology for administrative offices and procedures throughout Nepal. *

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Nepal Tourism Board (ntb.gov.np), Nepal Government National Portal (nepal.gov.np), The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated February 2022

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