Historiography of Nepal

The earliest description of Nepal was written in 1811 by Sir William Kirkpatrick, An account of the History of Nepaul, and published in London. It was then spelt as such, a typical British pronunciation! Sir Kirkpatrick came to Nepal as an employee of the British East India Company, in 1793 to mediate disputes between Nepal and Tibet. He stayed in Nepal for two weeks and based his accounts on travel and local resource people. He also referred to the ancient vamsawalis, or chronicles, and it is for the first time that they were cited for reference in academic writings. The book provides a description of Nepalese culture, lifestyle, and food and eating habits with hand drawn maps.

Although Kirkpatrick is credited for the first book, a 16-page article was published a little earlier in 1789, "An Account of the Kingdom of Nepal," by Italian Capuchin Friars Giuseppe de Rovato. This article is a rare eye-witness account of the Gorkha conquest of the Kathmandu valley in 1767-69. It is believed to be the first article written by any European on King Prithvi Narayan Shah and his conquests. In 1790, this article was translated to English by Sir John Shore and published in the second volume of the Asiatic Researches from Calcutta. Giuseppe de Rovato describes the Kingdom of Nepal, its politics, and social system in a nutshell. The focus is on the three kingdoms of the valley, spelled as Cat'hmandu, Lelit Pattan, and B'hatgan. He observes with high appreciation the antiquity of these principalities and how the houses, wood doors and windows, streets, temples, and water supply system were well preserved.

The second book to be published on Nepal was An Account of the Kingdom of Nepal and the territories annexed to the dominion by the House of Gorkha also published in the U.K., authored by FB Hamilton. Like the previous book, this book was also commissioned by the British East India Company. Hamilton stayed for 14 months and made an extensive study of the lifestyle of the Nepalis. This book records the complex caste system of Nepal, 64 jatis, and the untouchables and the touchable. It also mentions how the touchable can be purified with holy water if touched by untouchables. The complex geography of the country and the people are also described. Through these books, Nepal was known to the outside world, and people could imagine the life in a closed kingdom.

After a long gap of almost 30 years, in 1857, the next book on Nepal was published by Cavelagh and Captain T. Smith titled, The Nepal Years. This book provides a rough sketch of the government, the army, and the available resources of Nepal while under the rule of Jung Bahadur Rana. T Smith was a resident of the East India Company in Nepal, and much of the narrations are from his five-year stay in the country. The late nineteenth century saw a new dawn in the context of historiography of Nepal. Beginning with Daniel Wright, who wrote the book, History of Nepal, which was sourced from an ancient Buddhist chronicle. This book is flavored with Buddhist legends and mythologies and gives the narrative from the time of the beginning of the universe. It also provides a very precise account of the Ranas, who were the ruling dynasty of Nepal at that time. Following this book was Sketches from Nipal, authored by HA Oldfield. Not only was Oldfield an author, but he was also a genius artist whose paintings of Nepal, particularly the Kathmandu valley, serves as references for many tangible heritages today.

In 1888, Bhagwan Lal Indraji published 23 inscriptions from Nepal. He was the first to mention and write about the stone inscriptions, which were, and still are, considered one of the most reliable sources of history. Cecil Bendall followed suit. He visited Nepal during 1884-85 and published a book, A journey of literary and archeological research of Nepal. Finally, history started being written from authentic and reliable sources.

The early twentieth century saw Sylvain Levi, the first non-British scholar with an intense hunger for oriental knowledge. He had already made extensive researches of the history and culture of Tibet and India before he entered Nepal. He published three volumes of the book Le Nepal in 1905. He made empirical research, as well as took references from the chronicles. The interwoven traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism and its harmonious co-existence seemed to grab his attention. This subject is well narrated, which is witnessed till today. The history of Nepal from the time of Nanya Dev, the Karnat king of Simraungarh from the twelfth century till the time of Prithivi Narayan Shah, forms the main content of this book. In 2005, Dilli Raj Uprety and Bipin Adhikari translated this book to Nepali for wider readership.

1909 saw the first Nepali writer, Padma JB Rana, the youngest son of Janga Bahadur Rana, publish Life of Maharaj Sir Janga Bahadur Rana. It was the first book written in English by a Nepali writer. Being a pure biography, it does not include any other literary source as references. This book is of vital importance about the lifestyle of the Ranas, as it comes from an internal source, who experienced and understood the daily life during the Rana regime.

In 1922, the first book in Nepali language was written by the Nepali author Ambika P. Upadhyaya, Nepal ko Itihas, published from Banaras. It opened a new chapter in the historiography of Nepal and has taken reference of many of the books mentioned earlier. A Few more important books on the history of Nepal were published in 1928. Two volumes of a well-researched and thorough work, Nepal, were published by Percival Landon. This book was commissioned by PM Chandra Shumsher Rana. It provides a sketch of Nepal based on the progress made by various kings, therefore, a historical political narrative. Being commissioned by Chandra Shumsher, a major part is dedicated to his times, which include the religion, customs, forestry, architecture, peace treaties, coinage, armorial bearings and flags, regalia, anthems and titles, the prime ministers of Nepal, law of descent, decorations, weights and measures, residents, envoys, inscriptions, books and articles, and flora and fauna of Nepal. The book includes 191 illustrations and five maps and two genealogical chants of the royal family and the Rana families.

In 1937, Indian historian K.P. Jaiswal made numerous researches and published a book, Chronology and History of Nepal. From this date till 1950 was a period devoid of any major book, only articles were published.

With the advent of democracy in Nepal, post-1950 witnessed a new chapter in the historiography of the country. The mysterious Shangri-La was now open to international media, scholars, and traders to explore the vast richness and diversity of the small country, be it culture, ethnicity, religion, lifestyle, and even topography. The books written hereafter were more analytical and critical. They were no longer filled with praises and biasness of any particular patron. They were now based on authentic literary and archaeological sources. Numerous Nepali historians and authors filled in the many gaps of Nepalese literature, specifically history.

Scholars like Bal Chandra Sharma, Surya Bikram Gyanwali, Rishikesh Shah, Naya Raj Panta, Yogi Narharinath, Mahesh Chandra Regmi, Dilli Raman Regmi, Baburam Acharya, Bhim Bahadur Pande, Danavajra Vajracharya, J.C. Regmi, Surya Bikram Gywali, and Gyan Muni Nepal published numerous articles and books. Around 1952, the Itihas Sanshodhan Mandal, a council to correct the written history, was formed by a group of historians, with Gyan Mani Nepal as one of the lead initiators. They made attempts to interpret original source materials and also correct errors made by previous writers, especially Westerners. The main objective of this institution was to rewrite Nepali history “from Nepal’s perspective.” After 1967, the Department of Archaeology published a journal, Ancient Nepal, devoted to pre-history and field archaeology and history of Nepal, and is still contributing till today. Online editions are available, too.

Today, we have many Nepali organizations dedicated to research and publishing, as well as numerous local scholars, historians, writers, and the like publishing articles and books. These scholarships definitely fill in many voids by local writers. Yet Nepalese history still has many mode gaps that still need research and information. As quoted by Scottish philosopher and satirical writer Thomas Carlyle, ‘History is a great dust heap’; it is never empty or ever complete!