Nepali Times
State Of The State
In the king we trust...


Rewriting history is a good way to appropriate the past. Rulers down the ages have resorted to this method of reinforcing legitimacy. So we have our own court historians tracing the ancestry of an enterprising Gorkha king to the Thar Desert.

To this day, the genealogical link between the Sisodiyas of Chittor and the Shahs of Gorkha are no less tenuous. True-blue Rajputs of the subcontinent, claiming to have descended from the sun or the moon, frowned upon marrying into 'low-birth' tribal royals from the hills. The founder of the Shah Dynasty in Nepal, King Prithbi Narayan Shah the Great, was an extraordinary empire builder. But he was no more the incarnation of Bishnu than any of the kings that he dethroned in the process of his numerous military campaigns.

Avatar is a Baishnab concept, King Prithbi Narayan was probably a Shakta. Gorkha kings worshipped Guru Gorakhanath, the ascetic who established the austere Nath sect in the Ganga plains to propagate militant Hinduism in the region. These two schools of thought may not be incompatible, but they are certainly a little out of sync.

The attempt to fuse the Narayan (sovereign) symbol into Nath (master) legend was a statesmanlike move that helped Gorkhali priests fashion an inclusive Hindu empire in the Mahabharata and Chure hills, but it didn't render to chronically-squabbling early Shah rulers any celestial origin. The divinity of dynasty is political, in Nepal and elsewhere. It has a mythological base, not a historical or cultural one. And here, the mythmakers were wily purets of the middle hills, mainly from Kaski, Lamjung, Tanahu, Gorkha and Palpa. Those myths have been nurtured by their descendants in Kathmandu Valley.

The Ranas, a branch of the conjoined Shah-Rana family tree, are even less divine. After its mid-19th century origin in the bloody aftermath of usurpation through a combination of court intrigue, political conspiracy, and a vicious coup de etat, it was Jang Bahadur Kunwar who forced King Surendra to sign a royal decree conferring the title of Rana upon him in May 1848.

With the new surname, Jang also acquired the royal assent for matrimonial alliances with Rajput families. He consolidated his privileges, and his newly acquired caste, by marrying his sons and daughters into the royal family itself. When Jang bestowed the title of Raja of Lamjung and Kaski upon himself in 1856, Nepal's first hereditary prime minister needed a suitable pedigree to match his newfound status. He acquired it by hiring the services of some of the most creative hagiographers of his time who invented genealogical links between the Khas courtiers of Gorkha with the fleeing royals of Mewar.

Pretenders need to be even more pretentious to gain legitimacy. Since privileges of birth can only be justified by resorting to the theory of divine rights, even an absolute ruler like Chandra Shumsher found it expedient to keep the mythical halo of Shah kings intact. The Ranas drew their legitimacy from the lalmohar granted to them by the Shahs. It was advantageous for them to publicly revere the sovereign of the realm in whose name they wielded all power.

After a couple of generations of intermarriage, the House of Ranas got completely assimilated into the Shah dynasty. The two ruling houses had come into being at different times in response to the differing needs of the people. And when the Ranas ceased to be contemporary, the clan lost its relevance and was subsequently dumped into the dustbin of history by geopolitical forces of the post-1947 subcontinent. The other branch continues to survive because it consistently reinvented itself.

King Prithbi Narayan Shah the Great rose in response to what Father Ludwig Stiller calls the "silent cry" of the masses to be relieved from the petty tyrannies of tiny principalities that dotted the upper reaches of the Ganga tributaries in the 18th century. But 200 years later, sensing the decolonisation wave sweeping the world, his descendant King Tribhuban de-mystified the reigning dynasty. Cold War rivalry ensured that the absolute rule of King Mahendra didn't turn into a catastrophe. King Birendra brought the monarchy under the ambit of a popular constitution. Each of these illustrious Shah kings responded to the needs of their time in their own distinctive ways.

The Shah-Rana claim to divinity has been assiduously cultivated to keep the credulous masses in serfdom. Friday, 1 June 2001 exposed its weak foundations, and the centuries-old myth of god kings was shattered. What remains today is kingship as a useful symbol of Nepali unity and nationality-no less, but nothing more. King Gyanendra needs to handle this new reality with tact and foresight.

Through Krishna Prasad Bhattarai, we have come to know that he is not willing to go down in history as a ruler who snatched away the people's democratic rights. It is a noble wish, but falls short of the resolve needed to reinvent the institution of monarchy for the times. He needs to institutionalise a democratic monarchy to restore peace and ensure progress.

Keeping out of partisan day-to-day controversy is a necessary condition for the continuity of a non-representative institution. Our kingdom needs a kingship, as in trusteeship, not a monarchy that is pathologically prone to the manipulations of court nobles. In the king we trust, but not in the residual paraphernalia associated with absolute monarchy. The Nepali people are now empowered, they can\'t be forced to believe in divine rights anymore. From here on, they alone confer legitimacy to rulers based on the actions of those rulers.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)