by Swosti Rajbhandari Kayastha
The 11th of January was celebrated as a public holiday in Nepal for a very long time as Prithivi Jayanti, and also as National Unity Day, it being the birth anniversary of King Prithivi Narayan Shah, who was the first king of a unified Nepal in the 1770s, and thus referred to as the ‘Father of the Nation’. For this reason, his statues and paintings depict him standing regally, pointing out his index finger as one, meaning a single unified nation. However, this holiday was struck off from the government’s calendar when Nepal took over its new title as a republican state after putting an end to the 250-year-old monarchy. Nevertheless, people still pay homage to the ex-king and celebrate the day with much fanfare, with programs organized in remembrance throughout Nepal, especially in Gorkha, his birthplace. Recently, some factions of the government pressurized the parliament, enough for a cabinet decision to be taken to restore this public holiday, applicable from this year, 2018, which celebrates the 295th birth anniversary of the late king.
In my opinion, the past shapes the present and the future. That is the very reason history is studied as a compulsory subject in schools throughout the world. It is something that cannot be erased, and the celebration of the birth anniversary of the founder of a nation definitely should be restored. Had he not been a king, the government would have continued to celebrate the day; just because we transitioned from a monarchial to a republican state does not mean we forget the very cause of our existence today. This shallow thought of our government may be also a reason why they removed the subjects of History and Geography from the national school curriculum. The combination of both these subjects is what our children in schools study today as Social Studies. It is from this shallow example set by our government, I believe, that we disregard our rich past that has narratives of valor that we can take pride in.
I write this article on the month of his birth, to remind us of the contributions put forward by this personality, so we can have a clearer understanding of the past. Prithivi Narayan Shah was born in 1723 as the ninth descendent of the house of Gorkhas, established by Drabya Shah in the mid-16th century A.D. In 1743, he succeeded his father, King Nara Bhupal Shah, to the throne of the Gorkha kingdom. Being a very brave, clever, shrewd, and ambitious individual, he aimed to expand the Gorkha kingdom by unifying the many smaller kingdoms in the west, the powerful three kingdoms of the Kathmandu valley, as well as those of eastern Nepal. However, his broader plan was to put up a strong united front against the expanding British colonial empire already existing in India.
Being weak economically and technically as well as in military strength, he realized that his expansion had to include more of shrewd tactics rather than indulging in war itself. Through calculative diplomacy, he maintained peace and friendship of many neighboring states of Gorkha. Once comfortable with the neighboring states, he set forward on his greatest challenge, the Kathmandu valley, with its three powerful kingdoms of Kantipur, Patan, and Bhadgaon. Being well aware of their sound economic, technical, and military strengths, he conceived alternative plans, rather than war against their almost invincible fortresses. He planned an economic blockade on the valley from the west and the south, its main entry point for trade and commerce. Being a man of decision, straight after his ascent to the throne, he immediately set out to conquer Nuwakot, the gateway to the valley of the rich trade and other incomes from Tibet, as well as an entry point to the valley. Although he faced a tremendous defeat in his first attempt, he was a perseverant warrior. Undaunted, he set out to Banaras to gather ammunition to equip his army, and learning from past mistakes, he finally conquered Nuwakot in his third attempt, thus disrupting the valley’s trade connections with the north, not to forget the gold and silver, too.
To maintain stability in the western region was another challenge. The kingdoms who earlier sided with him, constantly changed sides and banded together to obstruct the ambitions of the Gorkhas. Having almost settled these disputes, he now targeted the valley, beginning with Kirtipur. Kirtipur had the advantage of being the western entry into the valley, and its position on the hill top was a vantage point. Once again, the Gorkhali army faced a severe defeat under the unified forces of the Kathmandu valley. Instead of being disheartened by the defeat, the Gorkhali king became more determined towards his motive. He changed his strategy and focused his attention and energies to the south. Makwanpur was occupied, followed by the annexation of Dhulikhel to the south-east of the valley, isolating it from the south, east, and west. Here, Prithivi Narayan Shah used his best tactic to drain the energies of the people and the rulers of the valley—economic blockade, which prevented basic necessities like salt, oil, cotton, grains, and other goods from entering the valley. Violators of the blockade were killed, stressing the severity of its implication.
With the situation very much under control, the Gorkhali army once again brought their attention back to Kirtipur. For the second time, they were unsuccessful. After their commander was hurt, leading to chaos and confusion, they retreated from the field. Nevertheless, each failure made Prithivi Narayan Shah more determined, and a third attack was planned a year later. The hillock was put under siege, cutting off the supply of basic needs, putting psychological pressure to surrender. After six months of dire straits, Kirtipur surrendered and fell into the hands of the Gorkhalis.
Scared by the victory of the Gorkhalis in Kirtipur, the king of Kantipur requested for military assistance from the British East India Company. The ever-keen British forces entered the Terai and moved uphill towards the Kathmandu valley, unaware of the strategic use of terrain by the Gorkhalis. As they entered Sindhuli from the south, stones and rocks rained down on them, halting the expedition. Gaining confidence from the victory over the British troops, he now planned his long-awaited attack of the valley. On September 1768, on the day of Indra Jatra, when the whole city was celebrating, the Gorkhalis entered from three sides, Bhimsenthan, Naradevi, and Tundikhel. After a brief encounter, the king of Kantipur escaped with his entourage to Patan, after which Prithivi Narayan Shah took his seat on the throne set up to receive blessings from Kumari for the occasion of Indra Jatra. A few days after, Patan also fell into the hands of the Gorkhalis, with hardly a battle. However, that with Bhadgaon prolonged for over a year. On one night of November 1769, the Gorkhalis burst open the eastern gate of the fortified city of Bahdgaon and poured into the city. The battle lasted for two days, with the king of Kantipur who had taken refuge there, commanding the defense. Although the resistance was strong, his defense fell after he was wounded, and Bhadgaon surrendered to the attackers, completing Prithivi Narayan’s conquest of the valley.
With the center of power, Kathmandu Valley, in his hands, he now turned his attention back to the west. The defense of allied petty states overpowered the Gorkhali troops, with more than 500 soldiers fallen in the battle, and the commander taken prisoner. Here, Prithivi Narayan was in a fix, whether to divert his attention to the situation in the west, or to continue his expansion to the fertile plains of the east. With the help of local support and sheer diplomacy, the pockets of resistance in the east were overpowered, and by 1774, Nepal’s boundaries stretched to the Teesta in the east. He continued to have diplomatic contacts with the British East India Company and avoid confrontations.
In the winter of 1774, Prithivi Narayn Shah, the unifier of Nepal, succumbed to fever. Despite his having died at the young age of about fifty-three, he did not leave the country in distress. His ‘Wise Directives’, or the Divya Upadesh, which he dictated when ill, is a series of discourses that deals not only with political issues, but also economic, social, and cultural, providing directions to his successors on how to pursue governance, nationalism, and foreign policy in order to sustain the country. Many quotes of which we still fondly speak of today, more than two decades later.
The author is a scholar of Nepalese culture, with special interest in art and iconography. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org