The aggrandising propaganda of the Panchayat years turned Prithvi Narayan Shah the Great into a surreal figure. Many of his visionary statements remain buried in exam answer sheets, or the subconscious self of most Nepalis. Surrounded by myths and legends, Prithvi Narayan Shah is one of those historical figures people find it hard to actually relate to. Even so, social analysts, political scientists and historians all agree on two things: that he was a brilliant leader, and that he was on occasion only too human.
Prithvi Narayan Shah's birthday, 27 Poush (11 January this year) is commemorated as Nepal's "National Unity Day". For the ordinary citizen, this has turned into yet another national holiday, a forced annual ritual-garlanding of his statue in front of Singa Durbar, speeches and photo-ops for political personalities.
However, the great king's vision and policies are as relevant today as they were when he set out 260 years ago from his hilltop town of Gorkha to unify Nepal. Media commentator CK Lal says re-reading Prithvi Narayan Shah is still useful. "The nation building project he initiated still remains incomplete,"
Prithvi Narayan Shah inherited the rule of the hilly Gorkha kingdom in 1742, at the age of 20. But the young king wasn't content and he went on to fight-and win-the numerous battles that in 1769 resulted in the creation of territory we know as modern Nepal.
Was it all part of a gameplan, a burning desire from the start to conquer different territories and forge a new country called Nepal? Historian Dinesh Raj Pant brushes aside the probability. He believes Prithvi Narayan Shah was inspired purely by an ambition to expand the borders of his kingdom initially, and was determined to avoid the defeat his father, Nar Bhupal Shah, had to face. He was determined to keep his kingdom free and safe from the British who were acting belligerent to the south, and the restive Tibetans to
"He was an excellent ruler, strategist par excellence, and champion of psychological warfare. Moreover, he was single-mindedly into the business of ruling a kingdom," Professor Pant says. That was in sharp contrast to successors, like Singh Pratap Shah and Ran Bahadur Shah, who spent more time pursuing the study of tantra rather than ruling a nation.
Pant prefers to call Prithvi Narayan the "re-unifier" of the Nepali state rather than "the unifier" school textbooks describe him as. According to him, stone inscriptions from the time of Samundra Gupta of Allahabad suggest that some 1,500 years ago, the borders of a proto-Nepal went as far as Assam in the east and Kumaon in the west before it broke up into smaller kingdoms.
Whatever the case, says historian KB Uday, "The expansion of the Nepali state (from what it was in the 18th century) can be attributed to Prithvi Narayan Shah's ability to motivate and mobilise people." When he ascended to the Gorkha throne, the kingdom was weak economically and militarily. Gorkha faced constant threat of invasion from the powerful neighbouring states of Lamjung, Palpa and Tanahu.
As first step in the campaign, Prithvi Narayan Shah wanted to strengthen his army and so mobilised all the youth of his kingdom, regardless of caste. Maybe this was reason for his famous edict-though not politically correct in present day Nepal-that Nepal was a garden of "four castes and 36 ethnicities".
Going against tradition, he recruited Rana (Magars) to increase the participation of the people in the nation-building process, rather than leave it to an elite class. In his Divyopadesh, Prithvi Narayan describes himself as king of "Magarat" and talks about the need to involve "Pandes, Pant, Arjyal, Khanal, Rana, Bohora" (representing the major castes of the Chhetris, Brahmins and Magar people in Gorkha) in strengthening of the kingdom. "As a king, he worked towards gaining total confidence of his subjects," says Uday.
Prithvi Narayan appears to have been a born leader. He was crowned in 1742, but historical documents show that he was involved in the affairs of state even as a teenager. One of his first decisions was to make peace with a stronger Lamjung after Gorkha was defeated. In fact his father Nar Bhupal Shah seemed to have begun losing interest in the matters of state after facing defeat against Nuwakot in 1737, which is when Prithvi Narayan Shah may have begun with the reins of the state.
Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur were all part of a single kingdom, until Shiva Singh Malla divided the kingdom into three in 1457. All three states prospered. But intra- and inter-state distrust meant that Kathmandu Valley polity was always weak. Prithvi Narayan Shah strategically befriended with the rulers of the Valley and nurtured the relationship his ancestors had established. He extended the sphere of his influence to the Malla rulers themselves, but was also quick to exploit their relative unpopularity and the lack of clear leadership in the Valley. Kathmandu, for example, had an overly whimsical king and in Patan, between 1758 and 1768, the ministers could replace a king if they wished. Valley residents were also slowly drawing closer to the Gorkhali raja, having heard about the reputation of his kingdom for justice and welfare.
It is clear that Prithvi Narayan Shah recognised the importance of keeping subjects happy and unthreatened -and unified in their loyalties. After he was enthroned in Kathmandu and Patan in 1768 and in Bhaktapur (Bhadgaon) in 1771, Prithvi Narayan Shah seemed to want to keep the infrastructure already developed in the kingdoms much the same. He respected the culture and values of the Valley residents, and joined them in their worship of the Kumaris, the symbol of independent Malla kingdoms, and Taleju Bhawani, the royal goddess of the rulers before him. What he did expel from the Valley was what had not yet taken
root-the Roman Catholic missionaries.
Prithvi Narayan Shah's unbiased appointment of able public officials, regardless of the claims of relation or personal equations is another trait that stands out. For instance, although he greatly favoured Biraj Bhakti, a faithful, long-time aide, he nevertheless appointed Kalu Pande as Kaji (the equivalent of present-day prime minister). Kalu Pande had displayed splendid diplomatic skills in the signing of the agreement of friendship with Lamjung, and later, in 1763, played a key role in the defeat of that kingdom.
Prithvi Narayan Shah's ability to unify such a diverse variety of people in such different geographical locations had as much to do with his economic policy as with his ability to win the hearts and minds of the people whose rulers he defeated. He exploited Nepal's landlocked location to great advantage. On annexing Nuwakot and Makwanpur in 1762, he imposed heavy taxes on both the Tibetans and the Indians who depended on routes through Nepal to trade with each other.
As documented in Divyopadesh, Prithvi Narayan strongly advocated self-sufficiency, self-reliance and believed in the concepts of sustainability. He wanted settlements on fertile lands moved to make way for irrigation channels and agriculture. True to those projectionist times, he encouraged export but discouraged import that would drain the country's wealth.
He also discouraged extravagance and the import of "crystal, glass and other useless luxuries". He wanted to establish trading houses in both of his kingdom's northern and southern borders to encourage them to trade with the Nepalis rather than have Nepalis deal directly with traders beyond the borders. He was successful in most such endeavours-what he did not manage to do in his lifetime was convince the Tibetans to accept his currency.
Prithvi Narayan Shah could be brutal and vindictive. One instance is when he is said to have ordered the ears and noses of the previous rulers of Kirtipur to be cut off as punishment for their resolute resistance against his forces in 1764. Another such incident concerns his killing of a battle commander Jayant Rana for mutiny.
Some historians like Uday think it was a strategic blunder for Prithvi Narayan Shah to shift his capital to Kathmandu, and name the country he had unified after it, rather than after his own kingdom. Even today, the small hill district, from where the borders of modern Nepal were sketched remains neglected. And is known as the birthplace of another more recent political figure, the Maoist leader Baburam Bhatarai.