Democratizing Monarch: A Memoir of Nepal's King Birendra

Bookworm Issue 75 Jul, 2010

In September 1967, young Birendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev, when he was Crown Prince of Nepal, checked into Harvard University for a year’s study. He had already attended Eton in the UK and, earlier that year, the University of Tokyo. At Harvard, because he was not a degree candidate, the Chair of the university’s Government Department asked Francis Hutchins, a junior faculty member, to prepare a customized tutorial course broadly patterned on those offered to undergraduates. As the department’s only specialist on Asia south of the Himalayas, Hutchins was chosen for the task over several eminent senior faculty members like Samuel Huntington and Henry Kissinger. Hutchins’ past research dealt primarily with government in India and Pakistan, and he was skeptical at first. As he puts it, he considered himself “hostile to authoritarianism in all forms, whether military dictators in Pakistan or hereditary monarchs in Nepal.”

Nonetheless, he took on the task and soon found himself involved in “molding the mind” of this 20th century Asian prince. Together they read and studied about the history and governments of Asian nations including several monarchies (some that were soon to fall). That tutorial fostered a long and close friendship between Hutchins the Asian scholar and Birendra the future King of Nepal. Hutchins’ book is partly a history of the House of Shah and partly a reflection on their personal relationship. That friendship brought Hutchins to Nepal on several occasions, including for Birendra’s wedding in 1970 and coronation in 1975. Unlike many other recent books on Nepal’s royal family, however, Democratizing Monarch is about the man, not the massacre. In retrospect, according to Hutchins’ daughter, Esther Mira, “This book is extremely important because it shows a side of Nepal not known to many.”

The book has nine chapters (after the Introduction). Besides the events of Birendra’s year at Harvard, the two chapters on the wedding and the coronation describe much of the ritual involved, along with vignettes about some of the world figures who attended (e.g., Prince Charles, Imelda Marcos). The detail is based on Hutchins’s own observations as a VIP and personal guest of the palace, as Sarkar-ko Guru, the King’s Tutor.

Hutchins then steps back in time to give readers an insightful synopsis of the unification of Nepal by Prithvinarayan Shah, the 18th century founder of the Shah Dynasty. Another chapter discusses Nepal’s relations with British India after 1775, and includes the rise of Jang Bahadur and the power of the Ranas for one full century. The chapter on ‘The Shah Restoration, 1950-2001’ covers the revival of the monarchy under Birendra’s grandfather King Tribhuvan, his father King Mahendra, and Birendra’s own role in ‘democratizing’ the nation. It concludes with a very brief introduction to Birendra’s son Dipendra in his youth.

Now comes one of the most fascinating parts of the book, on the nature of royalty and its downfall. In 1985 Hutchins published his translation of a 9th century Sanskrit text on kingship, called Hitopadesha, or ‘Friendly Counsel’ (published as Animal Fables of India.) The Hitopadesha story is set in ancient India at Patiliputra (modern Patna), not far south of Kathmandu. In describing it Hutchins writes that “A wise king is reminded of his own sons when he hears these lines recited:

Youth, wealth, power, rashness:
each is a hazard;
Think what evil lurks where all are combined!”

In the short chapter that follows, simply entitled ‘Dipendra’, Hutchins briefly reviews the royal massacre of June 1, 2001. Finally, in ‘Prophecies’, he invokes a bit of the pathos of Shakespeare’s Hamlet before introducing a centuries old ‘Gorkha Curse’ which prophesied the demise of the House of Shah in its 10th generation.

Hutchins’ epilogue, ‘Parting’, states his conviction that “Whatever the twenty-first century bodes for Nepal, the Shah dynasty’s historic role as a definer of Nepal’s nationhood in the eighteenth century and as a nurturer of Nepal’s political independence in the twentieth century will not be effaced.”

Vajra Publications (Kathmandu), 2007, 139pp (illus.). Price 350 NRs.