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THE BEAUTIFUL EXILELAND

Thick fog was still covering the ramparts of Tansen Durbar. Twilight had just broken and the first rays of the sun would soon dissipate the fog and unveil the magnificent massifs of the Dhaulagiri, Annapurna, Manaslu and Gaurishanker Himal. The people of Tansen were slowly stirring from their hiding places and venturing forth to an uncertain daybreak. This morning they would not go about their daily chores of weaving the Dhaka cloth, or tilling the fields, or gathering at tea-shops for the latest gossip. No, this morning was different as the whole night they had heard heavy fighting between the Maoist insurgents and the army posted nearby.

Since around 10 PM the previous evening the Maoists had attacked Tansen full strength. Instead of going to bed the residents were cowering behind closed doors, underneath the beds, children were inside closets. Guns had fallen silent only towards daybreak. People slowly came out of their houses with fear hanging as thick as the fog still surrounding the town. Even the dogs were too stunned to bark. Nobody ever thought that Palpa would bear the brunt of one of the most brutal attacks by the Maoists. Some 4,000 armed insurgents had now destroyed the Tansen Durbar, the army post, government buildings, post office and the town center. It bore the look of a ghost town that morning of the 1st of February 2006.

Painting of Palpa by artist D. Ram Palpali (photo from my collection)
Historic Palpa is a pristine hill station on the way from Pokhara to Lumbini. Palpalis pride themselves as an enterprising lot. Many have been successful in business and in civil service, in academia and in politics. The capital Tansen rests on the spur of a hill of the Shrinagar mountain range. When I visited it before the onslaught of the Peoples' War, the tourist trade was rising and the hotels and resorts along the way eagerly anticipated a coming tourism boom. No doubt the place had as much promise as Darjeeling or Nagarkot. Palpa was also historically the haven for political rivals the power centre of Kathmandu periodically exiled. Palpa was a pleasant place to get exiled to. The climate was similar to that of Kathmandu valley, unlike the hot plains of the Nepalese Terai lowlands. The exiles could be watched and their movements controlled.

The first exile of note here was General Badri Narsingh Rana, the younger brother of Prime Minister Jung Bahadur Rana. Jung Bahadur had taken power after a bloody coup d'etat of 1847 A.D. and had quickly consolidated Nepal as a regional powerhouse, successfully fighting Tibet for the right of Nepalese merchants to trade fairly, helping the British during the Indian Mutiny of 1857 A.D., visiting England as an eastern potentate at the invitation of Queen Victoria. It was during the visit to England, a journey that had lasted for six months, that olden enemies had started crawling out of the woodwork in Kathmandu. Prince Upendra Bikram Shah, the younger brother of the ineffectual King Surendra Bikram Shah, had been lured with the crown of Nepal by some of the old disgruntled courtiers. They had also got Badri Narsingh the younger brother of Jung Bahadur and Acting Commander-in-chief of the army to join the conspiracy by offering him the post of prime minister.

Jung Bahadur returned from England triumphantly. The military, civil servants and the common people had lined up from Kalimati Bridge along the Bagmati River to his Thapathali Durbar. They cheered him on and showered on him flower petals and vermilion powder, ancient symbols of victory. Triumphal arches were built and the path festooned with flags and buntings. Caretaker prime minister Bam Bahadur, his second brother had received the prime minister with open joy. It was difficult to imagine that the conspirators would plan to shoot him dead in a few day's time. But they had made a fatal mistake, they had tried to win over to their side the loyal Bam Bahadur who had played along while Jung Bahadur was in England.

In his book on the life and times of Jung Bahadur his son Pudma Jung Rana writes that once the conspirators were outed and guilt established, outraged Kathmandu wanted to put to death the prince and his co-conspirators. Someone from a royal lineage might have been publicly executed in Nepal like Charles I of England and Louis XVI of France. But Jung Bahadur would have none of it. He decided to show leniency and banish them both to Allahabad to be kept under British security for some time; later Prince Upendra Bikram would be given a residence in Bhadgaon and Badri Narsingh would be exiled to Palpa. Badri's son was given the post of Bada Hakim, governor, of Palpa and asked to keep a close eye on his father for the rest of his days.

Nearly half a century passed before another exile made his way to Palpa. General Khadga Shumsher was the man behind the elder brother Prime Minister Bir Shumsher Jung Bahadur Rana. It was his astute political maneuvering and his daring that had consigned the enormous power of the first Rana prime minister Jung Bahadur and his family into the dustbin of history. On that fateful November night in 1885 A.D. he had led the group of his brothers to the Narayan Hiti Palace and assasinated the uncle Prime Minister Ranoddip Singh and killed or exiled the powerful family of Jung Bahadur. Had it not been for Khadga the Shumsher Ranas would perhaps become footnotes in Nepalese history.

Khadga Shumsher Governor of Palpa and his family, 1887 
But no sooner had the success of the coup d'etat empowered the Shumsher clan than Prime Minister Bir started to feel himself insecure. His younger brother Khadga and next in line to the hereditary title of Maharajah and the prime ministership was the person with the brains and the daring. Khadga was the Commander-in-chief of the army and his younger brothers were in complete solidarity with him. The eldest Bir was from a different mother and he felt isolated. Bir knew that for his own survival he must remove Khadga from the center.

The opportunity provided itself to Bir like divine providence. There was a plot to poison Bir in a marriage party. Once the plot was outed and the fingers pointed to Khadga, he was arrested by a contingent of Bir Shumsher's personal guards and summarily exiled to Palpa in 1887 A.D., only 2 years after his role in the assassination of the uncle Ranodip Singh. He and his sons were removed from the prime ministerial line. After a few years as a gesture of reconciliation Bir appointed him the governor of Palpa district. Khadga would spend his remaining years in relative comfort in scenic Palpa but never would he attain the ultimate prize of the prime ministerial post.

Maharajah Bir Shumsher ruled Nepal for 16 years. During his time important steps were taken to bring Nepal into the 20th Century - schools, libraries, hospitals were built. He built magnificent palaces in the center of Kathmandu, roads were paved, arts and the theater patronized. He had several sons from his two wives who were all elevated to the line of succession to the prime ministerial post. After the turn of his younger brothers, due to seniority the first person in the next generation to assume the prime ministership would have been Bir's son Rudra Shumsher Jung Bahadur Rana.

After Bir Shumsher's death in 1901 A.D., his younger brothers took turns to succeed him - Dev, Chandra, Bhim and lastly Juddha, who was the youngest brother in the line. When Juddha became the Maharajah, General Rudra became the Commander-in-chief of the Nepalese army. They were both good friends being of nearly the same age, uncle-nephew relationship notwithstanding, as Juddha was the son of the fifth wife of his father Dhir. Instead of this relationship enduring the test of time and good fortune, court intrigues brought it to an abrupt end. The root of the problem was the accusation that Rudra was not a son from an official wife but from the second wife, the junior Maharani Tope Kumari, and had been included in the line of succession by an extraordinary session of the ruling council (Bhardari) during his father's rule. Nobody could protest then. But now voices were raised by the cousins who were younger than Rudra. The sons of Prime Minister Chandra were immensely wealthy and powerful. They were restless for power. They started exerting pressure on Maharajah Juddha to strike Rudra off the Roll of Succession.

Field Marshall Rudra with my father General Kiran, C-in-C of Nepal Army
In March 1934 A.D. the unexpected happened. Maharajah Juddha succumed to pressure and struck Rudra off the prime ministerial list and exiled him to Palpa. He was given the post of Governor, a scant consolation for the army chief and next in line to the title of Maharajah and the prime ministership! The seeds of destruction of the Rana regime were sown. As history would unfold General Rudra Shumsher raised an army in support of King Tribhuvan and the democracy movement in 1950. He was rewarded with the title of Field Marshal of the Nepalese Army after the fall of the Ranas.

King Tribhuvan feting Field Marshall Rudra, my father Gen. Kiran in center
Historic Tansen Durbar will be rebuilt. But there will always be the ghosts of the exiled floating about, perhaps their cries intermingling with the cries of all those who died in that Maoist attack on Tansen.


Comments

  1. Dear Subodh Rana sir,
    Thanks a million for such a huge contribution in briefing the history of nepal in whole world.
    The way you describe the incidents is fabulous, hats off sir.

    well i would like to tell you that i am a descendant of Shri. Khadga Shumsher Rana.
    later he settled in India in a district known as sagar of Madhya pradesh state of India. Here he made nepal palce in sagar {Madhya pradesh}, India.

    also known as maternal grandfather of Vijayaraje Scindia Rajmata of Gwalior one of the district of the madhya pradesh state of India.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Dear Sir, many many thank you for the information of Nepali history.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Hi Subodh Ji,

    I was wondering about the above photo of Khadga SS and family in Palpa. Since there are two adults in the picture, I am a bit confused. Would you be kind enough to tell me which one is Khadga SS in the picture?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The elder man is General Khadga Shumsher.

      Delete

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