Nepali Times
State Of The State
Symbol of Nepali nationhood


Spending a year in Chile, Prince William was recently snapped at a photo-op cleaning a lavatory. The image baffled even jaded journos at The Mirror, who wrote: "The most astonishing royal photograph ever." Perhaps the young man, who would be the King of England someday, has realised that the skills at playing polo, socialising with socialites, or fox-hunting, are not enough in a society that is learning to make amends for the excesses of its imperial past. More than who you are, what really matters is what you are. And, increasingly, the measure of what you are is neither money, nor raw power. Even compassion, a trait that Prince William's mother, the late Princess Diana, cultivated with such finesse, isn't enough any more. You have to be the 'other' in order to gain their respect.

Unlike the class-distinctions of the feudal age, or the drab uniformity of industrial modernity, the post-modern attitude tends to value heterogeneity over purity, diversity over unity, the universal over the local, and the popular over elite culture or high art. The personas of the information age will probably treat individuals and institutions with equal disdain. For them, ideas will be more important.

But ideas do not grow in a vacuum. The fertile soil that gives birth to ideas is called culture. The five basic components of culture-analogous to the five elements of earth, fire, water, air and sky that makes life possible according to Hindu scriptures-are language, social structure, communication, religion, values, and attitudes. Where would the monarchy fit in here? How will the netizens of the 21st century reconcile themselves to an institution whose origins go back at least four thousand years-to the tribal chiefs who fought each other with arrows and spears?

Predicting the future is not only hazardous, it is also futile. We can't predict the future, it is not an extension of the present. All we can do is work towards creating a future that we would wish to have for ourselves and our children. Within those limitations, perhaps it's safe to assume that the institution of monarchy will survive just as it has done for the last four millennia-by a process of constant adaptation.

It just so happens that the British monarchy is more adaptable than other royal houses, hence it has ruled over larger areas and survived longer than others in recent times. With Prince William showing his classless self, British republicans are in for a long struggle.

With the trend-setting monarchy displaying so much flexibility, it goes without saying that the constitutional monarchy of our country will too need to keep evolving in days ahead to keep up with the times. The kingdom might have been won by the khukuri of Prithvi Narayan Shah, but it is the will of the people, or at the very least their willing acceptance, that will keep his future descendants on the throne. King Prithvi Narayan Shah himself was modest, and surprisingly, very post-modern in his views. He refused to accept that he earned his kingdom by the sword. In his Dibyopadesh (Divine Counsel), he asserts: "This kingdom has not been made by my efforts alone, this is a garden of all races. May all come to that realisation."

The ones who inherited the institution of monarchy after King Prithvi Narayan Shah refused to accept the reality of the diversity of a garden and ended up being gilded prisoners of the Family of Ranas for over a century. When the Ranas failed to keep up with the ideas of the times, they too were thrown away and the primacy of the House of Shah was restored by the popular revolution of 1951. The country has gone through a counter-revolution (1960), a Peoples' Movement (1990) since then, but the centrality of the institution of monarchy in social life remains intact largely because it is an accepted symbol of Nepali nationhood.

While it is not true that there would be no Nepal without monarchy, it is equally true that the unity of the country will be difficult to hold in the absence of a powerful unifying symbol. Ours is a multi-lingual, multi-racial, multi-cultural and multi-religious nation state that has yet to come to terms with its common identity and forge a common destiny. The kingship is a vital symbol of continuity, the present's link with the past. While it is a necessary condition for the continuity of constitutional monarchy well into the next millennium, it is not enough for this institution to command the respect of the new generation. The monarchy must also become an agent of change-a roadmap of sorts for the future.

When the political leaders that joined hands with King Tribhuvan to oust the Ranas are gone from the scene, a new generation will need much more than the edifice of democracy to hold itself together. The ideals of resource equity, gender equality and diversity in unity will have to be visible in every institution in order to make them acceptable to the sovereign individuals of the information age. Even the institution of monarchy will be viewed through the prism of this new ethics.

For Hindu and Buddhist Nepalis, the crown is a cultural icon. Traditional Hindus worship their king on every occasion-from the dasain tika to the harvest festival of maghe sankranti. When blessings are sought from deities, we ask them to bless the king too. Nepali ancestor worship does not confine itself to a clan's ancestors, the ancestors of the royal house also get their due. Even for Nepali Muslims and Christians, the crown represents an institution of impartiality in the affairs of the state. It is for these very conflicting demands that the institution of monarchy will need to be simultaneously sacred and secular.

On his 56th auspicious birthday, we pray for the health, longevity and peaceful long reign of His Majesty King Birendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)