Nepali Times
State Of The State
From regal to royal


I magine an ace conservationist next to a stuffed tiger frozen in an upright attack position. Or sitting with his shoes resting on a snow leopard pelt in the royal audience chamber. And then put his personal friends in the Worldwide Fund for Nature in the picture. Shocking? It would have been, but nothing about Narayanhiti shocks us anymore.

In the days when the competition between a carnivorous animal and a hunter (with nothing more than a spear in his hands) was more or less even, game trophies symbolised human triumph over beasts. Tribal chieftains decorated their camps with the heads of dead animals to intimidate possible competitors. However, after the Chinese invented gunpowder and Indians trained elephants in kheda, hunting was reduced to little more than a blood sport with little connection to providing nutrition to the hunter.

Ownership of stuffed animals-along with mink coats and shahtoosh shawls- is not considered politically correct anymore. In fact, displaying the fur of endangered species is in downright bad taste. The interior decorators of Narayanhiti have always been known for their bias towards kitsch. A constitutional king who is a hunter-turned-conservationist does not need these props, they are more suited to absolute monarchs or Bollywood baddies. Even in the mumbo jumbo of superstition, vibrations emanating from stuffed animals constitute bad Feng Shui, and it's inauspicious Vastu to let game trophies cast dark shadows over the occupants of a palace.

D?cor reminiscent of a bygone era is bad enough, but worse is the tyranny of dead traditions, archaic language and antiquated customs. The institution of monarchy is not only a link with the past, it gives sustenance to a society in the turbulence of the present and promises to inspire its journey towards an uncertain future. Such an important institution should not be allowed to remain prisoner to the palace bureaucracy. Courtiers, by their very nature, are more interested in preserving the status quo (their own interests are tied with it) than ensuring that the king becomes a personification of the zeitgeist.

What is given continuity in the name of hoary traditions are nothing more than antiquated customs borne out of dead habits of ancestors. All that an arcane ritual like making a priest eat the forbidden meal (katto) and then chasing him out of the Valley does is get us coverage in the international press. Souls of departed kings could do without the tears of priests made outcast by their greed.

There is nothing wrong per se with the practice of Hindus going around town with tonsured heads to show their grief. It is a relatively innocent practice, and barbers did their bit by agreeing to provide free service to those willing to have their heads shaved in the first week of June. But the government made a mockery of this custom when it issued a formal order that forced all male civil servants to become skinheads.

When we didn't see the Prime Minister in the carriage of the newly crowned king, one of the explanations doing the rounds of Kathmandu's notorious rumour-mill was that the head of government was not allowed to accompany the head of state in the royal carriage because his head wasn't shaved. Such is the stranglehold of fossilised tradition over our psyche that many of us believed this seemingly ludicrous interpretation of a very conspicuous lapse on the part of the palace officials.

The Prime Minister and leader of the opposition in the Pratinidhi Sabha offering coins to the newly crowned king appeared cabalistic to the whole world watching this sombre event on their television screens. This custom must have been important when feuding nobles and squabbling courtiers paid their tributes and took an oath of continuing allegiance, but it looked less than respectful towards the elected representatives of the sovereign people. Perhaps more comfortable at raising his fist, comrade Madhav Nepal looked distinctly ill at ease carrying out this ritual darshan of a constitutional head of state of a kingdom where he himself is an elected and popular leader.

There are scores of other practices that have clearly outlived their utility and need to be reformed to suit the needs of the Internet age. To take a glaring example, when grief is a matter of the heart, why close the mind for thirteen days in a row? Over the decades, the official mourning period has been decreasing from one year to forty-five days and then to one month and finally to thirteen days where it rests now. Maybe if we reduced it to a day, or three days at the most, it will make the lives of daily wage earners less miserable and they will bless the departed souls in right earnest? The well-off had their ATM cards to extract cash, but the rest of us had to borrow around.

There are some less obvious vestiges of past dogma. Unless someone in the palace now tells the bosses of state-controlled media that the head of state of Tuvalu (area: 10 sq m, population 9,100) congratulating our king on his enthronement is not headline news, the poor bureaucrats are unlikely to dare discontinue the tradition which says that any news that has the name of His Majesty in it is headline news. And if the new king doesn't change this, no one else will do so anytime soon.

In anything that concerns the king or the palace, there is nothing that anybody other than the king himself can do. It is for the king to drag the palace establishment from the shackles of the past and set it on a course that will make the Nepali monarchy a modern, relevant institution that plays a catalytic role in social transformation, economic development and political stability of this country. Our monarchy doesn't need to rely on that poor stuffed tiger in the corner standing on its hind legs with a permanent, silent roar on its face to prove itself. Nepal's monarchy has its place in the Constitution of the Kingdom of Nepal 1990; and even more importantly, in the hearts of common Nepalis.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)