Modern Nepal was created in the latter half of the 18th century when Prithvi Narayan Shah, the ruler of the small principality of Gorkha, formed a unified country from a number of independent hill states. The country was frequently called the Gorkha Kingdom, the source of the term “Gurkha” used for fierce Nepali soldiers although modern Gurkahs have little to do with the Gurkhas of medieval Gorkha. The original Gurkhas are believed to be descendants of warlike Rajput tribes of Chittaur in Rajasthan who claim they were driven out of northern India during the Muslim invasions there.

The Shah Thakuri dynasty is believed to be to have arrived in Nepal in 1303 from Udaipur in Rajasthan. They established a small hilltop palace in Gorkha. The current dynasty are descendants of Shah Thakuri The Nepalese have traditionally believed they are incarnations of the Hindu god Vishnu.

Founded in 1559, Gorkha was among the hill states that struggled for power during the later Malla period, sometimes allying with one or more of the three kingdoms in their battles against each other. Initially very small, Gorkha achieved no notable territorial expansion until the rule of Prithvi Narayan Shah (1743–75). On September 29, 1768, Gorkha troops entered Kathmandu during religious celebrations and took it without a fight. Shah defeated all three Malla kingdoms by 1769 and continued his conquests, conquering eastern Nepal by 1773. [Source: Library of Congress, November 2005 **]

Shah died in 1775. In the following decades, his heirs neglected issues of national administration and engaged in factional power struggles. Internal administration and foreign affairs were under the charge of the “mukhtiyar,” or prime minister, and the earliest mukhtiyars attempted to increase their own power by creating rifts among royal family members or by collaborating with some royal family members to liquidate enemies. As powerful families fought for power, Nepal’s political and economic development suffered tremendously. To avoid military interference in court affairs, the military was granted the autonomy to pursue ever-larger conquests, and in turn the military became a powerful influence in domestic affairs.

Expansion of Gorkha

Among the small hill states struggling for power during the later Malla period in the 16th century was Gorkha, founded in 1559 by Dravya Shah in an area chiefly inhabited by Magars. Legends trace his dynasty to warrior princes who immigrated from Rajputana in India during the fifteenth century. During its early fight for existence, the House of Gorkha stayed out of the two major confederations in western Nepal. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]

No major expansion of the kingdom occurred until the reign of Ram Shah, from 1606 to 1633, who extended his territories slightly in all directions. During the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, Gorkha continued a slow expansion and appeared increasingly often as an ally of one or more of the three kingdoms in their quarrels with each other, giving the rulers of the hill state experience in the affairs of the Kathmandu Valley.

Nar Bhupal Shah (reigned 1716-42) extended his lands toward the Kairang Pass in the north and Nuwakot in the east. He attempted to take Nuwakot and failed, but he did arrange the marriage of his son to the daughter of the raja of Makwanpur. This son, Prithvi Narayan Shah (reigned 1743-75), made full use of his position to achieve supreme power and was one of the great figures in Nepalese history. Following in his father's footsteps, he apparently dedicated himself at an early age to the conquest of the valley and the creation of a single state.*

King Prithvi Narayan Shah

King Prithvi Narayan Shah (1743–75) was a warrior chief of Gorkha. He was a Thakuri (ruling and warrior caste) and Gorkha was a Thakuri kingdom in western Nepal. An astute military strategist, Shah obtained financial assistance and armaments from India and then created alliances with neighboring states or purchased their neutrality. In fact, his forces even managed to repel British troops.

Before going on the offensive, he traveled to Banaras, or Varanasi, to seek financial assistance and purchase armaments, thus obtaining a personal view of conditions in the outside world, especially the position of the British East India Company. On his return to Gorkha, he established a number of arsenals and trained his troops to use the more modern weapons he had obtained in India. He arranged alliances with, or bought the neutrality of, neighboring states. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991]

Shah is credited with forming the nation-state of Nepal by uniting various 80 or so ethnic groups and principalities under a high-caste Hindu dynasty and military administration. Shah rule helped to both unify Nepal’s various groups and give them an identity (specific ethnic groups such as the Tamang were singled out as an entity and given certain rights).

Shah was reportedly so cruel that he once punished every male in his kingdom, over the age of 12, by chopping off their nose in lips. With the help of soldiers that would later be called Gurkhas he conquered all the small kingdoms of Nepal and advanced into Tibet and India.

King Prithvi Narayan Shah and Gorkha Conquests

When King Ranajit of Bhadgaon (reigned 1722-69) quarreled with King Jayaprakasa of Kathmandu (reigned 1735-68), Prithvi Narayan Shah took Nuwakot and laid siege to Kirtipur, which was controlled by the king of Patan, Tej Narasimha (reigned 1765-68). During the fighting, Prithvi Narayan Shah was almost killed, and when his troops failed to take the town, he withdrew. At this point, he changed direction, as the Gorkhas were to do effectively time and again. The Gorkhas instituted a blockade of the entire valley, closed off all trade routes, and began executing blockade runners. Gorkha agents remained active in the towns, and the army attempted to starve the valley into submission. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]

When a second siege of Kirtipur also was unsuccessful, Prithvi Narayan Shah turned his attention toward Lamji, one of the Chaubisi principalities, and overran it after several bloody battles. The Gorkha army reappeared at Kirtipur. After a siege of six months, the town was treacherously delivered to the Gorkhas, and its inhabitants were deliberately mutilated. The Gorkhas moved on to Patan in 1767, but their attention was diverted by the appearance of a 2,400-man expeditionary force sent by the British East India Company to aid the traditional kings of the valley. The British column, ravaged by malaria contracted in the Terai, had to withdraw quickly without accomplishing anything other than delaying the Gorkhas. This token opposition by the British, however, was not forgotten by Prithvi Narayan Shah and his successors. With the field again clear, on September 29, 1768, Gorkha troops infiltrated Kathmandu while the population was celebrating a religious festival and took the town without a fight. Jayaprakasa fled to Bhadgaon with Tej Narasimha and Prithvi Narayan Shah was crowned king of Kathmandu. He soon entered Patan unopposed and then moved against villages east of Bhadgaon, arriving before the town the next year. His troops were admitted into Bhadgaon by nobles who had been bought off. Ranajit retired to Banaras, Jayaprakasa retired to die at the shrine of Pashupatinath, and Tej Narasimha died in prison. For the first time, the hill ruler, the raja of Gorkha, had become sole ruler in the Kathmandu Valley. One of his first acts in 1769 was to expel permanently from his territories all foreigners, including traders, Roman Catholic missionaries, and even musicians or artists influenced by northern India's style. *

The conquest of the three kingdoms was only the beginning of a remarkable explosion of Gorkha military power throughout the Himalayan region. Prithvi Narayan Shah quickly made a movement toward the Chaubisi states in the west, but after encountering resistance in Tanahu, the Gorkha armies drove east into the Kirata country, overrunning all of eastern Nepal by 1773. They were poised for the invasion of Sikkim, but because its rulers came from Tibet, Sikkim was viewed as a client of Tibet (and thus of the Chinese).

A warning from Tibet and the death of Prithvi Narayan Shah in 1775 stalled hostilities, but a full-scale invasion began in 1779. Resistance was encountered until 1788, when Gorkha forces drove the ruler of Sikkim into exile in Tibet and occupied all of western Sikkim. Guerrilla warfare continued as the Gorkhas constructed a base near Vijaypur to administer the eastern conquests. In the west, a marriage alliance with the rajas of Palpa kept them quiet while General Ram Krishna Rana conquered Tanahu and Lamjung (Gorkha's traditional rival) and advanced to Kaski by 1785. By 1790 all rulers as far as the Kali River had submitted to the Gorkhas or had been replaced. Even farther to the west lay Kumaon, in the throes of civil strife between two coalitions of zamindar (large landowners responsible for tax collection in their jurisdictions), who struggled to control the monarchy. One group invited the intervention of the Gorkhas, who defeated local forces in two battles and occupied the capital, Almora, in 1790. The Gorkhas were poised for greater adventures, but by then they were irritating bigger players and began to encounter resistance to their ambitions. *

Struggle for Power Among the Gorkhas

The premature death of Pratap Singh Shah (reigned 1775-77), the eldest son of Prithvi Narayan Shah, left a huge power vacuum that remained unfilled for decades, seriously debilitating the emerging Nepalese state. Pratap Singh Shah's successor was his son, Rana Bahadur Shah (reigned 1777-99), aged two and one-half years at his accession. The acting regent until 1785 was Queen Rajendralakshmi, followed by Bahadur Shah (reigned 1785-94), the second son of Prithvi Narayan Shah. Court life was consumed by rivalry centered on alignments with these two regents rather than on issues of national administration. In 1794 the king came of age, and in 1797 he began to exercise power on his own. Rana Bahadur's youth had been spent in pampered luxury amid deadly intrigue and had made him incapable of running either his own life or the country. He became infatuated with a Maithili Brahman widow, Kantavati, and cleared the way to the throne for their illegitimate son, Girvan Yuddha Shah. Disconsolate after the death of his mistress in 1799, Rana Bahadur began to engage in such irrational behavior that leading citizens demanded his abdication. He was forced to turn his throne over to Girvan Yuddha Shah, aged one and one-half years, and retired to Banaras. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]

During the minority of the king, Damodar Pande took over the administration as mukhtiyar, or prime minister (1799-1804), with complete control over administration and the power to conduct foreign affairs. He set a significant precedent for later Nepalese history, which has seen a recurring struggle for effective power between king and prime minister. The main policy of Damodar Pande was to protect the young king by keeping his unpredictable father in Banaras and to play off against each other the schemes of the retired king's wives. By 1804 this policy had failed. The former king engineered his return and took over as mukhtiyar. Damodar Pande was executed and replaced by Bhimsen Thapa as chief administrator (kaji). In a bizarre turn of events on April 25, 1806, Rana Bahadur Shah quarreled in open court with his half-brother, Sher Bahadur. The latter drew his sword and killed Rana Bahadur Shah before being cut down by a nearby courtier. Taking advantage of this opportunity, Bhimsen Thapa became prime minister (1806-37), and the junior queen, Tripurasundari, became regent (1806-32). They cooperated to liquidate ninety-three of their enemies. The death of Girvan Yuddha Shah in 1816 and the accession of his infant son meant the retention of the regency. *

The struggle for power at the court had unfortunate consequences for both foreign affairs and for internal administration. All parties tried to satisfy the army in order to avoid interference in court affairs by leading commanders, and the military was given a free hand to pursue ever larger conquests. As long as the Gorkhas were invading disunited hill states, this policy — or lack of policy — was adequate. Inevitably, continued aggression led Nepal into disastrous collisions with the Chinese and then with the British. At home, because power struggles centered on control of the king, there was little progress in sorting out procedures for sharing power or expanding representative institutions. A consultative body of nobles, a royal court called the Assembly of Lords (Bharadari Sabha), was in place after 1770 and it had substantial involvement in mayor policy issues. The assembly consisted of high government officials and leading courtiers, all heads of important Gorkha families. In the intense atmosphere surrounding the monarch, however, the Assembly of Lords broke into factions that fought for access to the prime minister or regent, and alliances developed around patron/client relationships. *

Five leading families contended for power during this period — the Shahs, Choutariyas, Thapas, Basnyats, and Pandes. Working for these families and their factions were hill Brahmans, who acted as religious preceptors or astrologers, and Newars, who occupied secondary administrative positions. No one else in the country had any influence on the central government. When a family or faction achieved power, it killed, exiled, or demoted members of opposing alliances. Under these circumstances, there was little opportunity for either public political life or coordinated economic development. *

By the seventeenth century, the mountain areas to the north of the valley and the Kiranti region to the east were the only areas that maintained traditional tribal communal systems, influenced to various degrees by Hindu ideas and practices. In the west and the south of the three kingdoms, there were many petty states ruled by dynasties of warrior (Kshatriya) status, many claiming an origin among princely, or Rajput, dynasties to the south. In the near west, around the Narayani River system (the Narayani was one of the seven Gandak rivers), there was a loose confederation of principalities called the Chaubisi (the Twenty-four), including Makwanpur and Palpa. In the far west, around the Karnali River system, there was a separate confederation called the Baisi (the Twenty-two), headed by the raja of Jumla. The confederations were in constant conflict, and their member states were constantly quarreling with each other. The kingdoms of Kathmandu, Patan, and Bhadgaon periodically allied themselves with princes among these confederations. All of these small, increasingly militarized states were operating individually at a higher level of centralized organization than ever before in the hills, but they were expending their resources in an almost anarchic struggle for survival. There was an awareness of the distinct culture of the Himalayan area but no real concept of Nepal as a nation. *

Nepal Struggles with Tibet and China

Meanwhile, in Tibet domestic struggles during the 1720s led to decisive intervention by the powerful Qing rulers of China (1644-1911). A Chinese force installed the sixth Dalai Lama (the highest ranking Tibetan religious leaders) in Lhasa in 1728, and thereafter the Chinese stationed military governors (amban) in Lhasa to monitor local events. In 1729 representatives of the three Nepalese kingdoms sent greetings and presents to the Chinese emperor in Beijing, after which the Qing viewed Nepal as an outlying tributary kingdom (a perception not shared within Nepal). The expansion of big empires in both the north and south thus took place during a time when Nepal was experiencing considerable weakness in its traditional center. The three kingdoms lived a charmed life — isolated, independent, and quarreling in their mountain valley — as the systems around them became larger and more centralized. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]

The Gorkha state had its greatest success in expanding to the east and west, but it also pressed northward toward Tibet. There was a longstanding dispute with the government of Tibet over trade issues, notably the status of Nepalese merchants in Lhasa and other settlements and the increasing debasement of coinage used in Tibet. There also was a dispute over control of the mountain passes into Tibet, including the Kuti and Kairang passes north of Kathmandu. In the 1780s, Nepal demanded that Tibet surrender territory around the passes. When the Tibetans refused, the Nepalese closed trade routes between Lhasa and Kathmandu. In 1788 the Nepalese overran Sikkim, sent a punitive raid into Tibet, and threatened Shigatse, seat of the Panchen Lama, the second highest-ranking lama in Tibet. They received secret assurances of an annual payment from the Tibetan and local Chinese authorities, but when the agreement was not honored they invaded again in 1791, pillaging the monastery at Shigatse before withdrawing to Nepal. These acts finally moved the emperor in Beijing to send a huge army to Tibet. Alarmed, the government in Kathmandu concluded a trading agreement with the British East India Company, hoping for aid in their struggle. They were to be disappointed because the British had no intention of confronting China, where there were so many potential trading opportunities. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]

In 1792 the Chinese forces easily forced the Nepalese out of Tibet and pursued them to within thirty-five kilometers of Kathmandu. The Nepalese were forced to sign a humiliating treaty that took away their trading privileges in Tibet. It made them subordinate to the Qing Empire and required them to pay tribute to Beijing every five years. Thus, Nepal was enclosed on the north, and the British had again shown themselves to be untrustworthy. *

The kingdom of Garhwal to the west was mostly hill country but included the rich vale of Dehra Dun. During the late eighteenth century, the kingdom had been devastated by conquerors as varied as Afghans, Sikhs from the Punjab, and Marathas from western India. The armies of Nepal were poised to attack Garhwal in 1790, but the affair with Tibet shifted their attention. In 1803 after Garhwal was devastated by an earthquake, the Nepalese armies moved in, defeated and killed the raja of Garhwal in battle, and annexed a ruined land. General Amar Singh Thapa moved farther west and during a three-year campaign defeated or bought off local princes as far as Kangra, the strongest fort in the hills. The Nepalese laid siege to Kangra until 1809, when Ranjit Singh, ruler of the Sikh state in the Punjab, intervened and drove the Nepalese army east of the Sutlej River. Amar Singh Thapa spent several years putting down rebellions in Garhwal and Kumaon, towns that submitted to military occupations but were never fully integrated into Gorkha. The Nepalese were being checked in the west. *

Buddhism in the Gorkha Period

According to the Encyclopedia of Buddhism: “Once the Newar kings were ousted by the Shah dynasty from Gorkha that unified the modern state in 1769, discrimination against Buddhists and changes in land tenure laws undermined the tenancy system that had supported the domesticated Newar monastic institution. At its peak, Newar Buddhists had established over three hundred monasteries. Today, roughly 10 percent have all but disappeared and more than 50 percent are in perilous structural condition. The majority of the monasteries, however, still function and most of the remainder can still be located using modern records. [Source: Encyclopedia of Buddhism, The Gale Group Inc., 2004]

“The cities of Kathmandu and Patan both have a system of main monasteries (mu baha), eighteen and fifteen, respectively; each monastery is linked to one or more satellite monasteries. Every householder monk is ordained in one of these monasteries, though they may reside in one of the several hundred branch monasteries affiliated with the main monasteries. A system of rotation requires that each ordained male perform the monastic daily ritual duties periodically. Bhaktapur and other smaller towns in the Kathmandu valley also have bahas, but each is an independent entity. Newar monasteries are now ruled by the senior male members of their individual sa ghas, which makes reform or innovation within the local sa gha difficult. From the Shah-era conquest in 1769 until the present, Newar Mahayana Buddhism has been gradually weakening as a cultural force due to the loss of landed income and leadership. Yet despite the decline of the monasteries as buildings and institutions, much is still preserved in the elaborate monastic architecture, the thousands of archived texts, and the wealth of cultural observances.

“The typical Newar baha is situated around a courtyard. The main entrance, often ornamented by a tympanum, usually has small shrines dedicated to the monastery guardians Ganesh and Mahakala, which flank the passageway leading into the main courtyard. Opposite the entrance is the main shrine building. On the ground floor is the kwapa dyah, usually Ś;akyamuni Buddha, flanked by images of his two great disciples, MahAmaudgalAyana and ŚAriputra. Stairs within the main shrine building lead to the agama, a tantric shrine that is opened only to adults who have received the appropriate Vajrayana initiation. The windows and the door, including another tympanum, are often adorned by elaborate wood carvings.

“One of the most important changes that Shah rule brought to the middle hill regions of the country was the expansion of trade, and this was commonly in the hands of Newars who migrated to trade towns. The thousands who left the valley brought their prominently Buddhist culture with them. Thus, in towns such as (from east to west) Daran, Dhankuta, Chainpur, Bhojpur, Dolakha, Trisuli, Bandipur, Pokhara, Palpa, and Baglung, Newar Buddhists built bahas as branch institutions of those in their home cities.

Early British and European Contacts with Nepal

The first contacts between the people of Nepal and Europeans also occurred during the period of the later Mallas. The Portuguese missionaries John Cabral and Stephen Cacella visited Lhasa in 1628, after which Cabral traveled to Nepal. The first Capuchin mission was founded in Kathmandu in 1715. These contacts, however, affected only a miniscule number of people. Of far greater importance was the growth of British power in India, notably in Bengal to the southeast of Nepal, during the eighteenth century. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]

By 1764 the British East India Company, officially a private trading corporation with its own army, had obtained from a decaying Mughal Empire the right to govern all of Bengal, at that time one of the most prosperous areas in Asia. The company explored possibilities for expanding its trade or authority into Nepal, Bhutan, and toward Tibet, where the Nepalese had their own trading agencies in important settlements. The increasingly powerful company was emerging as a wild card that could in theory be played by one or more of the kingdoms in Nepal during local struggles, potentially opening the entire Himalayan region to British penetration. *

There had been little direct contact with the lands controlled by the British East India Company or its clients, but by the early 1800s a confrontation was becoming more likely. Just as Nepal had been expanding toward the west throughout the late eighteenth century, so the company had steadily added to its annexed or dependent territories all the way to the Punjab. Amar Singh Thapa claimed lowland areas of Kumaon and Garhwal as part of his conquests, but David Ochterlony, the British East India Company's representative in the west, kept up constant diplomatic resistance against such claims, which were not pressed. In 1804 Palpa was finally annexed by Gorkha and along with it came claims to parts of the Butawal area in the Terai. As Nepalese troops slowly occupied those tracts, local landlords complained to the company that their rights were being violated. Similar claims to Saran District led to armed clashes between Nepalese troops and the forces of local landlords. During these proceedings, there was constant diplomatic intercourse between the government of Nepal and the British East India Company and little desire on either side for open hostilities. The Gorkha generals, however, were quite confident in their ability to wage warfare in the mountains, and the company, with its far greater resources, had little reason to give in to this aggressive state, which blocked commerce in the hills. After retreating before a reoccupation by company troops, Nepalese forces counterattacked against police outposts in Butawal, killing eighteen police officers on April 22, 1814. The fragile state of Nepal was at war with the British Empire. *

Fighting Between Nepal and the British

At this stage in its history, Nepal's single major unifying force was the Gorkha-led army and its supply system. Prithvi Narayan Shah and his successors had done the best they could to borrow military techniques used by the British in India, including modern ordnance, command structures, and even uniforms. An entire munitions and armaments industry had been created in the hills, based on locally mined and processed raw materials, and supported by a system of forced labor to transport commodities. The soldiers in the army were renowned for their ability to move relatively fast with their supplies and to fight with discipline under tough conditions. They also knew their terrain better than the British, who had little experience there. Although the Nepalese army of an estimated 16,000 regulars would have to fight on a wide front, it had great logistical advantages and a large reservoir of labor to support it. *

The initial British campaign was an attack on two fronts. In the eastern theater, two columns totaling about 10,000 troops were supposed to coordinate their attacks in the Makwanpur-Palpa area, but poor leadership and unfamiliarity with hill warfare caused the early collapse of these campaigns. In the west, another 10,000 troops in two columns were to converge on the forces of Amar Singh Thapa. One of the western columns failed miserably, but the main force under Ochterlony outmaneuvered the Nepalese army and defeated General Thapa on May 9, 1815, leading to the complete loss of Kumaon by Nepal. The Nepalese forces had already proved their abilities, so the British East India Company took no chances the next year, marshalling 35,000 men and more than 100 artillery pieces under Ochterlony for a thrust toward Makwanpur. Simultaneous operations by the chogyal, or king, of Sikkim were driving the Nepalese army from the east. Major battles before Makwanpur in late February 1816 resulted in the final defeat of Nepalese forces by early March. Diplomats had already begun preparing a peace treaty, which reached Ochterlony on March 5. *

The Anglo-Nepalese War (1814-16) was a total disaster for Nepal. According to the Treaty of Sagauli, signed in 1816, Nepal lost Sikkim, the territories west of the Kali River (Kumaon and Garhwal), and most of its lands in the Terai. The British East India Company was to pay 200,000 rupees annually to Nepal to make up for the loss of revenues from the Terai. Kathmandu was also forced to accept a British resident, which was extremely disturbing to the government of Nepal because the presence of a resident had typically preceded outright British conquest throughout India. In effect, the treaty proved to be less damaging, for the company soon found the Terai lands difficult to govern and returned some of them to Nepal later in 1816, simultaneously abolishing the annual payments. The return of Terai territory was important for the survival of Nepal because the government relied on the area as a source of land grants, and it is doubtful that the country as it was then run could have survived without this source of endowments. The presence of the resident, too, turned out to be less difficult than first imagined because all later governments in Kathmandu took stringent measures to isolate him by restricting his movements and keeping a close eye on the people he met. Nevertheless, the glory days of conquest were over, and Nepal had been squeezed into the boundaries it still had in the early 1990s. *

Infighting among Aristocratic Factions

The Gorkha aristocracy had led Nepal into disaster on the international front but preserved the political unity of the country, which at the end of the Anglo-Nepalese War in 1816 still was only about twenty-five years old as a unified nation. The success of the central government rested in part on its ability to appoint and control regional administrators, who also were high officers in the army. In theory these officials had great local powers; in practice they spent little energy on the daily affairs of their subjects, interfering only when communities could not cope with problems or conflicts. Another reason for Gorkha success in uniting the country was the willingness to placate local leaders by preserving areas where former kings and communal assemblies continued to rule under the loose supervision of Kathmandu, leaving substantial parts of the country out of the control of regional administrators. Even within the areas directly administered by the central government, agricultural lands were given away as jagir to the armed services and as birta to court favorites and retired servicemen. The holder of such grants in effect became the lord of the peasants working there, with little if any state interference. From the standpoint of the average cultivator, the government remained a distant force, and the main authority figure was the landlord, who took part of the harvest, or (especially in the Terai) the tax collector, who was often a private individual contracted to extort money or crops in return for a share. For the leaders in the administration and the army, as military options became limited and alternative sources of employment grew very slowly, career advancement depended less on attention to local conditions than on loyalty to factions fighting at court. *

Prime Minister Bhimsen Thapa, in collusion with the queen regent, Tripurasundari, remained in power despite the defeat of Nepal. He faced constant opposition at court from factions centered around leading members of other families, notably the Pandes, who decried what they felt was his craven submission to the British. Bhimsen Thapa managed to keep his opposition under control by maintaining a large army and modernizing its equipment and by convincing the suspicious British that he had no intention of using the army. During the minority of King Rajendra Bikram Shah (reigned 1816-47), the prime minister kept the king in isolation — he did not even have the freedom to leave the palace without permission. Bhimsen Thapa appointed members of his own family to the highest positions at court and in the army, giving his brother, Ranbir Singh Thapa, control over the western provinces and his nephew, Mathbar Singh Thapa, control over the eastern provinces. The Pandes and other opponents were frozen out of power. Aside from the army and some attention to increasing trade, little effort could be expended on issues of national development. *

The power balance began to change after the king came of age and Queen Tripurasundari died in 1832. The prime minister lost his main support at a time when the young ruler was coming under greater influence from the Pande faction at court. In 1833 Brian Hodgson became British resident and began a more aggressive campaign to increase British influence and trading opportunities; because Bhimsen Thapa opposed him, Hodgson openly favored Bhimsen Thapa's opponents. In 1837 the king announced his intention to rule independently, deprived both Bhimsen Thapa and Mathbar Singh of their military powers, and promoted some members of the Pande faction. Shortly afterward the youngest son of the elder queen died, and Bhimsen Thapa was arrested on a trumped up charge of poisoning the prince. All the property of the Thapas was confiscated. An eight-month trial led to an acquittal, but the Thapas were in disarray. When Rana Jang Pande, head of his family, became prime minister, he reimprisoned Bhimsen Thapa. The man who had ruled the country with an iron hand committed suicide in prison in August 1839. This series of events marked the end of the longest stable period in the early history of the Shah Dynasty of Nepal, dominated by the prime minister in the name of the king. *

The fall of Bhimsen Thapa did nothing to solve the factional fighting at court. The Pandes were dismissed, and Fateh Jang Chautaria was appointed prime minister in November 1840. His ministry was unable to control renewed competition between a resurgent Thapa coalition and the disgraced Pandes, who preferred the abdication of the king in favor of the heir apparent. The king became increasingly attentive to the advice of his wives. Under intense pressure from the aristocracy, the king decreed in January 1843 that he would rule the country only with advice and agreement of his junior queen, Lakshmidevi, and commanded his subjects to obey her even over his own son, Surendra. The queen, seeking support of her own son's claims to the throne over those of Surendra, invited back from exile Mathbar Singh Thapa, who was popular in army circles. Upon his arrival in Kathmandu, an investigation of his uncle's death took place, and a number of his Pande enemies were executed. By December 1843, Mathbar Singh was appointed prime minister, but he proved no more capable of extinguishing court intrigues than had his predecessors. Against the wishes of the queen, he supported heir apparent Surendra. Once Mathbar Singh had alienated the person who officially wielded state authority, his days were numbered. On May 17, 1845, he was killed, most likely on the queen's orders. The assassin apparently was Jang Bahadur Kunwar, his nephew, then a minor but rising star in court politics. *

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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