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THE REGENT QUEENS OF NEPAL - PART I

Vishwamitra the famous sage was deep into his meditation when he must have heard the tinkling of the “ghungroo”, the anklets with chiming bells worn by classical dancers. He must have uneasily woken up from his trance, perhaps he opened an eye a little to see the bewitching ankle of Menaka, one of the "apsara" or heavenly nymph sent by Indra to disturb the great sage lest he attain the powers equal to the Gods. His meditation broken, the sage sired a daughter, Shakuntala, who was to become the mother of King Bharat from whom the subcontinent got its Sanskrit name. How could men resist the temptations of the dancing damsels of history if sages could not?

Women have exerted inordinate power in history, over men and over nations. We remember the last Egyptian Pharaoh Cleopatra and her guile in wooing successive Roman rulers to protect her kingdom from ruin. Elizabeth I presided over the formation of a nascent empire where soon the sun would never set. How the German queen of the Russian Tsar Peter III rode the challenge of her husband's ouster and became Catherine the Great to transform Russia into a great European power is stuff of legend!

Who were their Nepalese counterparts? King Prithivi Narayan Shah's successor to the Nepalese throne was his son Pratap Singh Shah who died early leaving behind a baby king, Rana Bahadur. His mother Queen Rajendra Luxmi became regent twice, from 1777-78and again from 1779-85, having been kept in house arrest in between. It was the important time of consolidation of Gorkha conquests and further expansion. The tiny Chaubisi (24) states and eventually Kaski, Lamjung and Tanahun came into the Gorkhali domain under the stewardship of General Amar Singh Thapa. Queen Rajendra Luxmi and her brother-in-law Bahadur Shah, uncle of the king, played merry-go-round on the regency, reflecting a divided court fueled by ambitious courtiers. But one thing was clear the Gorkha dream bequeathed from King Prithivi Narayan Shah was indomitable; in the hour of need of the queen when the court was conspiring to make her perform sati, burning in the funeral pyre with her dead husband, Bahadur Shah returned from exile in Betiah to save her. She will be remembered as a strong queen who protected the minor king with grit uncommon even in men.

Having been crowned in 1777 A.D. at a tender age of two Rana Bahadur Shah lived in the shadows of his strong-minded mother and his illustrious uncle. He was a dormant volcano. When he came of age, terrible retributions followed like lava spewing from an active volcano destroying all in its wake. Gorkha was a dominant power already under Regent Bahadur Shah with Kathmandu as its capital, Baisi and Chaubisi principalities subjugated, Kumaon, Garhwal and Tibet under Gorkhali suzerainty. Nepal was at the zenith of its glory. Unfortunately Rana Bahadur did not know the limits to his power; the state started unraveling fast. He married four times: Raj Rajeshwori Devi (1789), Suvarna Prabha (1791), Kantabati the Tirhut Brahmin girl (1797) and lastly Lalit Tripura Sundari (1804) were his wives.

It was during the reign of King Rana Bahadur that the royal lineage of the Shah dynasty was changed. His first born Crown Prince Ranodhat was from junior Queen Suvarna Prabha, his senior queen was childless. Popular legend has it that during the annual pilgrimage to Pashupatinath Temple on the occasion of Maha Shivratri, King Rana Bahadur was bewitched by the staggeringly beautiful Kantabati, a Brahmin widow from the south. Perhaps he was tormented just like King Henry VIII was by the beautiful Anne Boleyn that led to the break from Rome over the issue of divorce from his queen Catherine of Aragon, an abomination in the eyes of the Catholic Church.

King Rana Bahadur prevailed upon his unwilling court to marry Kantabati. Perhaps those were the only blissful days he would see. A son was born and soon the country would be engulfed in political and social conflagration. Kantabati prevailed upon the king to make her son the heir apparent. Not trusting the court to carry out his order after his death he abdicated in favour of his minor son Girvanayuddha in 1799 A.D. Senior Queen Raj Rajeshwori Devi, a princess from Gulmi, became the Regent for stepson King Girvanayuddha Bir Bikram Shah. But soon Kantabati died of small pox. The king's fury knew no bounds, he spied conspiracies in every nook and cranny and exacted terrible retributions on the court. He had no use anymore for the mute stone gods and fired cannon balls at Pashupatinath Temple. The court soon prevailed in opposing the ex-king and, in the name of the new king, Rana Bahadur was forced to leave home for a life of penance in Benaras. The Regent Queen Raj Rajeshwori left with her husband and the junior queen Suvarna Prabha became the new Regent of Nepal in 1800 A.D. This period saw the emergence of the strongman Damodar Pande, a war hero and the power behind the new regent.

Rana Bahadur was not content to spend the remaining years of his life as a mendicant, he wanted to return to Nepal to wield real power behind his son King Girvanayuddha. The Nepalese court did not want him to return to meddle. After several attempts he prevailed upon the British Governor General to help send Queen Raj Rajeshwori back to Nepal and resume her post of regent once again in 1802 A.D., while junior queen Suvarna Prabha was put under house arrest. Damodar Pande fell from grace and soon would lose his head. Ex-king Rana Bahadur once again returned to Nepal and the court promptly saw tumultuous times. However, he was soon struck dead by half-brother Sher Bahadur. Both the queen mothers Raj Rajeshwori and Suvarna Prabha decided to perform sati, a cruel fate looked upon with different pairs of eyes in those times. The youngest wife of King Rana Bahadur Queen Lalit Tripura Sundari, barely into her teens herself, became the Regent of Nepal in 1806 A.D. when King Girvanayuddha was a 9 year old minor with strongman Bhimsen Thapa standing firmly behind her.



Lalit Tripura Sundari, a Thapa girl, was perhaps Queen Elizabeth I of Nepal ruling the country with a firm hand. She was a writer of some accomplishment too. Nepal saw renewed period of stability after the tumultuous days of King Rana Bahadur. Further consolidation of the Gorkha empire saw Nepalese armies going beyond the Sutlej River in the west to Kangra, in the east beyond the River Teesta to Sikkim. King Girvanayuddha Bir Bikram Shah came of age, married and had an heir apparent Rajendra. But fate struck a cruel blow and he died very young, still in his teens. Dowager Queen Lalit Tripura Sundari was regent once more to her step-grandson King Rajendra Bir Bikram Shah, only a baby. The continuity of governance and state policies saw Nepal expanding under Prime Minister Bhimsen Thapa. This would soon come to an abrupt halt with the encroaching British East India Company posing an existential threat to the state of Nepal.

Comments

  1. Dear Readers,
    I have never seen one story on the Regent Queens of Nepal. I have strived to put together all the regents' history compiled from eclectic sources in one fluid narrative. Hope this offers an easier read.
    Do post your comments. Cheers.

    ReplyDelete
  2. With this rather glorious history of effective Regent Queens, what's to stop ex-Crown Princess Himani to follow that tradition? Constitutional monarchy of course. Seriously/

    ReplyDelete
  3. Nepal Ama does need a monarch and a female one at that ! I would seriously not be against somebody proclaiming Princess Shruti's daughter as monarch and she, later marrying a Sherpa or a Newar as Prince consort, that would definitely seduce the janata and help reinforcing national identity.

    Another great read ! Thank you so much !

    ReplyDelete
  4. Interesting and fascinating account of the regent Queens of Nepal. Shows how women are equal to men in all aspects of life.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Great idea re Princess Shurti's child being queen but it's silly to impose who she should marry in the 21st century - let her choose - if she wishes why not Nelson Mandela's great grandchildren??? That would be even more profound than marrying a Sherpa or Newar.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Hello there! This is my 1st comment here so I just wanted to
    give a quick shout out and say I really enjoy reading your posts.
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    ReplyDelete

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