Southeast Asian Dynasties: What happened to the royal family in Nepal?

Southeast Asian Dynasties: What happened to the royal family in Nepal?

As many readers know, Smiling Albino is based in Bangkok, Thailand, but also works extensively in Nepal, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Besides being awesome places to explore, the one thing that all of these countries have in common is that they entered the 20th century with a strong monarchic system in place. But of them all, only Thailand’s remains a powerful and influential component of contemporary life.

For westerners, the idea of monarchy is difficult to compartmentalize. Almost every modern country has it woven into its contemporary cultural fabric in some way or another, but in Asia, the role of the monarch continued to carry significant weight long after most western countries had relegated it to a symbolic relic of a time long past. So what happened?

In part three of a four-part series, we’re going to take a look at Nepal, one of the world’s most beautiful, exotic, and remote countries. The history of Nepal’s monarchy is a bit of a jumble, especially the further back you go. But once things get going, boy, do they ever get crazy.

It’s said that the first Nepalese royalty – the Kiratas – set up shop around 800 BCE, taking over from disparate clans that had been squabbling amongst each other for centuries. The Kiratis ruled for 29 generations, finishing in 300 CE. Of note during the reign of the 7th Kirati King: Siddhartha Gautama was born in modern day Lumbini. Most people today know Siddhartha by his more common name, the Buddha.

Once the Kiratas fell, Nepal came under control of the Thakuri Dynasty, who kept things going until late 1100’s CE, when the Malla Dynasty came to power. The Mallas lasted for 500 years, expanding territory and carving out a successful little kingdom until the mid-1700’s when infighting led to, surprise, the fracture and eventual collapse of the Malla Dynasty.

Out of these ashes rose King Prithvi Narayan Shah, who founded the Shah Dynasty in 1768. Then known as Gorkha, the Kingdom grew under his leadership, absorbing neighboring cities and states through invasions and pitched battles, including one against British troops called in from colonial India by the King of Kathmandu. Not used to fighting battles on mountainous terrain and in thin air, they were easily defeated. In 1769 King Prithvi consolidated his power, moved the capital to Kathmandu, and renamed his kingdom to Nepal.

Prithvi Shah’s heirs took over after his death in 1775, and continued the push for expansion. Unfortunately, they tried to expand north, into Tibet, but the Chinese Qing Dynasty was having none of that, and the Nepali forces were pushed back. This, combined with internal conflicts – including a few beheadings and exiles – only served to weaken the monarchy. An invasion by the British East India Company in 1814 certainly didn’t help, either, which ended with Nepal ceding a large part of their territory to the British.

With the country reeling, the royal family in disarray, and the role of a fractured monarchy completely up in the air, a noble by the name of Jang Bahadur Rana eventually made his play in a manner that Quentin Tarantino would appreciate. When a powerful general – rumored to be the lover of Queen Rajya Lakshmi Devi (the wife of Prithi Narayan Shah’s great-great grandson) – was found murdered in 1846, the queen called the entire royal court to the armory, or kot, to flush out the killer. A standoff between rival groups ensued, someone flinched, and when the dust settled, over 40 lay dead in what became known as the Kot Massacre.  

Almost immediately, Rana appointed himself Prime Minister – a position that became hereditary – banished the King and Queen to India, and established the Rana Dynasty, with the ex-King’s son Surendra as the titular monarch. From this point on, the country was essentially controlled by two parallel dynasties – the Rana Prime Ministers, who had the power, and the Shah royal line, which added a sheen of legitimacy. This was cemented even further when Surendra’s son Trailokya married three of Rana’s daughters.

When Trailokya died in 1878 his son Prithvi was named King and “ruled” until he died in 1911, when Prithvi’s five-year old son Tribhuwan took the throne. All the while, descendants of Jang Bahadur Rana continued to hold the real power, and by all accounts it was nasty little dictatorship, full of cronyism, corruption, and abuse of power.

In 1951 democracy movements that had begun gathering steam during WWI boiled over. King Tribhuwan sided with the anti-Rana movement and took refuge at the Indian embassy in Kathmandu. Outraged, Prime Minister Mohan Shumsher Rana appointed Tribhuwan’s 3-year old grandson Gyanendra as the new King. However, he was soon reminded that power comes from a mandate from the masses, and when the Indian military evacuated the royal family to India – all except the 3-year old King Gyanendra – and the anti-Rana protests continued, the Prime Minister was forced into peace talks. Three months later, Tribhuwan returned to Nepal as King and initiated a parliamentary democracy. The Ranas were still involved, but they were no longer in charge.

But the peace was not to last. In 1960, Tribhuwan’s son King Mahendra swung the needle wayyyyy back the other way, and initiated a coup. He suspended the constitution, dissolved the elected parliament, dismissed the cabinet, imposed direct rule, and threw the Prime Minister, his closest government colleagues, and a huge number of protestors in jail. He then initiated a system called Panchayat – basically, a decentralized, party-less system of government.

In 1972, Mahendra’s son King Birendra took the throne, continuing his father’s legacy, ruling if not magnificently, at least consistently. However, that’s not to say all was well in Nepal. Civil strife – bordering on outright civil war – ebbed and flowed throughout the 80’s and 90’s triggered variously by land reforms, economic mismanagement, nationalist groups, and various political machinations from all sides. Things held together, but not without cracks.

But all of that paled in comparison to the shocking event which took place on 1 June, 2001. At a family dinner that was held every month, Prince Dipendra – King Birendra’s son – stormed into the hall carrying an M16 and proceeded to shoot and kill 9 members of his family before turning the gun on himself. An investigation found that Dipendra was drunk and had smoked a large amount of hashish that evening, and hinted that he was perhaps angry over disputes about whom he would marry. Among the dead were the Prince’s father King Birendra, his mother, Queen Aishwarya, his brother, sister, aunt and uncle.

In the wake of this tragedy, Birendra’s brother Gyanendra – remember, the 3-year old King-for-a-minute back in the 1950s? – became the new monarch, but it did not go smoothly. With civil strife reaching red-line levels, and a violent Maoist insurgency knocking on his door, he suspended the constitution and took direct control of Nepal in February of 2005. Opposition was fierce, and he restored parliament a year later, but the democracy genie was out of the bottle.

On 24 December, 2007, the Nepalese Constituent Assembly announced that the monarchy would be abolished, and the King’s powers transferred to the Prime Minister. On 28 May, 2008, the Kingdom of Nepal became the Democratic Republic of Nepal. The King had been forced to leave the building, this time for good.

Smiling Albino has kept abreast of all these (recent) events and our team on the ground in Kathmandu is well informed. The, at times, struggling government compounded by the terrible earthquake in April 2015, have created difficulties for the Nepalese people in recent years. Travel to Nepal has proven to be the best way to improve the lives of the people and we highly recommend a trip to the top of the world today! Check out some of our sample Nepal trips here.

For the final part of our series on Southeast Asian monarchies, we’ll look back to the east and follow the rise and fall of the monarchy of Vietnam.