Outside Nepal, the Troubled Kingdom is often in the news these days, although rarely for encouraging reasons. Triumphant accounts of ever faster Himalayan ascents have given way to puzzled field reports by foreign journalists about Nepal's home-grown Maoist revolutionaries and their violent battles with an increasingly unforgiving state.
Even though John Whelpton's very readable History of Nepal was not written as a primer on the nation's present political crisis, it nevertheless provides much helpful context for understanding the thorny question now posed so often by commentators on the situation: How and why did seemingly peaceful Nepal suddenly erupt into brutal civil war? In keeping with the seriousness of the subject matter, the author's position is historically nuanced and judicious, providing a healthy corrective to the 'from Shangri-La to Hell' type of reports which are common in the international press.
'Sudden and violent political change has.been a recurrent part of the country's history' (page 1), and the history of Nepal's royal lineages is one of intrigue, assassination, poisoning, exploitation and corruption. As a case in point, one may begin with Prithbi Narayan Shah, king of the principality of Gorkha and the founding father of the Nepali nation state. As ruthless as he was shrewd, this first Shah king issued an order to 'cut off the lips and noses of the inhabitants of Kirtipur after its surrender in 1766' (page 38).
A History of Nepal will be of interest to any student of South Asian studies since it fills a serious lacuna in scholarship on the region. An example of the narrow scholarly gaze on Nepal is that while ethnographic descriptions of Nepal's Sherpa and Thakali communities are plentiful, Whelpton's text appears to be the first accessible overview of Nepal's political history published by a university press in English. Well, not quite. Almost 130 years ago, in 1877, Daniel Wright, surgeon to the British Residency in Kathmandu from 1873 to 1876, submitted a manuscript of the same title to the same publisher. Wright's text, essentially an edited compilation of manuscript sources translated by Shiva Shanker Singh and Gunanand, would become the first History of Nepal to be published by Cambridge University Press, and Whelpton's the second.
Whelpton's choice to use a photo of a street scene in the tarai town of Birganj on the front cover, rather than a clich?d image of a plume of snow above some Himalayan peak or one of Kathmandu's much photographed temples, deserves special mention and is a gesture that will be appreciated by the still underrepresented inhabitants of the tarai.
After a slightly choppy first chapter on the environment, state and society of ancient Nepal through the mid 1700s, the book settles down to six increasingly robust sections with ever more specific focus. Whelpton is particularly fluent in the political history of Nepal's last 150 years and his observations about this period are insightful and impressive. Since Whelpton's reading of Nepali history is on the whole even-handed, it is surprising that he is so restrained when it comes to evaluating the vicissitudes of Rana rule. The Rana family autocracy, lasting 104 years and finally overthrown in 1950-51, was striking for its nepotism and violence, with the titles of maharaja and prime minister passed on by direct descent and agnate succession respectively. Passing off the 'systematic discrimination against those at the bottom of the caste hierarchy' as sustaining 'values that had underpinned the Nepalese state since its creation' and therefore as a 'more positive ideological defence' (page 84) of the Rana's repressive and bigoted policies, strikes the reviewer as unnecessarily charitable. Most scholars and citizens regard the Rana century as a dark age from which the nation is still recovering. The monograph also suffers from an unfortunate number of errors for such a basic primer, although these will surely be weeded out in the second edition.
Regardless, Whelpton deserves much praise for rising to the challenge of writing a comprehensive yet orderly history of the nation that ranges from the geological formation of the Himalaya many millions of years ago to the political intrigue of 2003, and all in under 300 pages.
Mark Turin is a linguistic anthropologist and director of the Digital Himalaya Project, Department of Social Anthropology, University of Cambridge. An earlier review of this book was published in the Times Higher Education Supplement (THES) in the UK.