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Showing posts from January, 2009

OWNING THE BUDDHA

ON THE OCCASION OF BUDDHA JAYANTI I AM PUBLISHING MY EARLIER PIECE WITH A FEW UPDATES



We Nepalese seem to go ballistic whenever a report tells us that Gautama Buddha was born in India. We protest before the Indian embassy, we ban movies or books alleged to have committed such a folly, we shout with chauvinism that he was born in Nepal! Perhaps this suits our shallow politicians' modus operandi of bringing out yet more fissures in the society. But should not rational minds look at the history books?

Gautama Buddha was born a prince in the Sakya kingdom of Kapilavastu in 543 B.C. Obviously there was neither an Indian Union then nor the state of Nepal. The Sub-continent known as India to the Greeks (referring to the Indus Valley civilization) or Hindustan to the Persians or Bharat to the locals was a land mass located east of the Indus River and south of the Himalayan mountains. Its eastern borders stretched to the Bay of Bengal and its southern borders to the tip of Kerala. There w…

MARSHALL AND THE MAHARAJAH, A SHORT HISTORY OF NEPALESE TOURISM

Perhaps the first Finnish tourist in the Himalayan Kingdom was Marshall Mannerheim.
Nepal was better known then as a kingdom in the clouds, almost inaccessible, and a paradise for big game hunters from Europe, guests of the British Empire visiting their Indian dominion. The Royal Bengal Tigers, the Great Indian One-horned Rhinoceros and the Wild Indian Bisons roamed free in the dense jungles of Southern Nepal. Emperors and kings, dukes and princes all have made their way to the Nepal Terai to shoot the tiger.

 Perhaps this lure of adventure and romanticism brought Marshall Mannerheim for his first Nepal visit at the invitation of the British Resident in Nepal. But bigger things were still to come. After bagging his first Nepalese tiger Marshall Mannerheim made his way back to Southern India and visited Madras and Hyderabad. When he returned in February 1937 he was to visit Nepal as the personal guest of His Highness Maharaja Juddha Shumsher Jung Bahadur Rana, Prime Minister of Nepal.

CLOSE ENCOUNTER WITH KING BIRENDRA

King Birendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev was a perfect gentleman. Brought up in the cloistered environment of the Royal Palace since his birth during the Rana regime, his early education took place under the supervision of private tutors. After the advent of democracy in 1951 fortunes changed when his grandfather came back from a brief Delhi asylum and became a sovereign king of Nepal. The family decided to send him and his younger brothers to the hill station of Darjeeling in India for quality education. Later he would also take a brief Harvard course and another one in Japan.


He was a democratic king quickly declaring a national referendum on the Panchayat system of one-party governance, his father's brainchild, soon after assuming power. Having won a close victory for the Panchayat system he proceeded to democratize the body politic. However, it was not quick enough or sufficient enough in the heady days following the demolition of the Berlin Wall that reverberated across the globe. Wh…

THE HOUSE ON THE HILL

The Arniko Highway came from Khasa the border town in Tibet all the way to Kathmandu like a juggernaut. The highway ate up old farmlands, paddy fields, hamlets, even palaces. As it came into Kathmandu at Maitighar, the highway bisected the old Thapathali Durbar, the first palace to be built in the European architectural style by Prime Minister Jung Bahadur Rana, a legacy of his visit to England. On the right side of the new highway driving out of Kathmandu there was this house precariously sitting atop a mound of rubble, improbably balanced like a trapeze artist. I remember many a time climbing the rickety stone path leading to the house accompanying my father who still had a bad leg after the broken ankle he had suffered. Descent was doubly difficult as it was always dark and late as the parties were spirited!

The host and owner of the house was Maharajkumar Mussourie Shumsher Jung Bahadur Rana. He did not have a military title like most Ranas as his father prime minister Maharajah …

TABLE MANNERS

The former Bahadur Bhawan, the palatial residence of General Bahadur Shumsher J. B. Rana, was renamed the Royal Hotel. Even earlier it was known as the Char Burja named for the four towers on each corner of the rectangular building, an unlikely Mughal-era appendage on an otherwise neo-classical building. Boris Lissanovich had been invited by King Tribhuvan to come to Nepal from his Club 55 nightclub in Calcutta to open a modern hotel to complement the opening of Nepal. Motley groups of anthropologists, journalists, development gurus, adventurers and Christian missionaries had started pouring into the once forbidden kingdom, a veritable Shangri-La. Hotel rooms with sound plumbing and reasonable western cuisine were expected by all these visitors.

My first memories of this magnificent place goes back to the early sixties. The gardens were meticulously tended to. The restaurant tables looked impeccable in white starch and glittering silverware. The odour was omelet and ketchup, our favori…

HARBINGER OF BAD NEWS

General Kiran Shumsher Rana was pacing in his garden restlessly. He knew that the decision he was going to have to make would be a difficult one, a close relationship would be frayed, a very dear one would feel betrayed. The general took a deep breath, pulled his cigarette in short quick breaths and tossed it towards a bush.

The revolution brought about by the King and political parties lead by Nepali Congress would probably never have succeeded had it not been for the revolt within the Rana family. Many Ranas considered unfit to be "role wallahs" or the inheritors of the prized prime ministership with a Maharajah title to boot or even get the lesser posts in military and civilian structures, were unhappy with the Rana oligarchy. They were children from the junior wives and concubines of the maharajahs with no right to vie for the top leadership posts. Many of them were immensely wealthy. Some of them had bank-rolled and joined the illegal political parties in leadership posi…

THE SINGING TEMPLE

It was the humming that woke me up, loud, persistent, very close by. I was fully awake now. I tried to mentally place the source of the sound, was it coming through the bedroom window? Was it downstairs in the house? I opened my eyes, it was dark. Intrigued I got out of bed and went to check the windows, nothing there. Then I entered our daughter’s room and checked her window, nothing there. But the humming was loud, persistent. I came back to my bed, and the humming seemed to get louder. Then it suddenly dawned upon me that the replica of the temple of Pashupatinath that was on my bedside table was making this sound! I was amazed. I touched the temple from all sides, was the metal reacting to something in the air, some unseen magnetic force making it hum? There was no explanation at all. It was at this point that I woke up my wife sleeping soundly beside me.

The temple is a replica of the real Pashupatinath temple, it's replicated in silver with fine carvings on the doors and wi…

RUMINATIONS ON PASHUPATINATH SHUT-DOWN

It was the mythical Ghatochkach who swallowed the sun for 6 months plunging the universe into darkness. Nepal feels like we are reliving the myth now with 16 hours of electrical load-shedding, trash heaps piled high on every street corner of the capital, business owners fleeing in droves to create a Nepali industrial corridor on the wrong side of the border, militant trade unionists shutting down the very means of their own livelihood and now the coup de grace, banish the Gods of Nepal so that no divine powers witness the wrath of a virulent political system brought upon a deserving populace.

There are many interesting stories about the power centres of Nepal. Mahankal the northern deity was brought down by the powers of earthly priests on its way to the south and it rests at the edge of Tundikhel in iron chains lest it fly back! Budanilkanth the sleeping Vishnu was rediscovered by farmers when their plows struck the buried statue drawing blood a millennium after it was consecrated. Th…

WORTHY MEN

His Highness Field Marshall Kaiser Shumsher Jung Bahadur Rana. The name and the title bespoke the subject well, despite his diminutive physique his stature was indeed colossal. His name was spelt in English like that of German royalty, he was the son of Maharaja Chandra Shumsher who ruled Nepal for 28 years, his first wife was a royal princess the eldest sister of King Tribhuvan, his second a renowned beauty, he was an immensely wealthy and erudite aristocrat, his private collection of books is a major library in Nepal today, in short Shakespeare might have written of such a person, “His life was gentle, and the elements so mix'd in him that nature might stand up and say to all the world, this was a man!”

What does such a man owe anyone else in life’s bounty? The story begins with the end of the Rana oligarchy. As the second man in the regime after the last Rana prime minister Maharajah Mohan Shumsher, Field Marshall Kaiser was the Commander-in-Chief of the Nepalese army when pow…

TWO DEATHS FORETOLD

The King and Queen of Nepal had died once before, a full six months before their actual death in the infamous Palace Massacre of 1 June 2001. Was this earlier death a portent for the actual one to follow? Most dreams we forget upon waking, some we remember for a few hours, days at most, only the very few we remember for times immemorial because we cannot understand why we dreamt so. And when you dream one of those dreams, relate, or else people think it is a fantasy, something that comes after the event, a figment of the imagination, an untruth. It is always good to have a witness, someone to say yes I know about the dream!

The dream woke me up disturbed: a nightmare that has soaked up all your sleeping energy and wakes you up all clammy and weak, troubled down to the core of your being. Indeed such was the dream I had of both the king and queen being shot dead, at the same time, in an instant! Mornings are busy with all about the house going about their chores nearly in break-neck spe…

IN THE HEART OF THE JUNGLE

"Tiger for Breakfast" is a book on Boris Lissanevitch of Nepal. He is considered the father of Nepalese hospitality industry having opened the first star rated hotel in the heart of Kathmandu at the personal invitation of King Tribhuvan, one of the milestone in Nepal's open door policies adopted after 1951 and the advent of democracy. The White Russian was indeed a colourful figure having started his career at the Kirov Ballet, making his way to India from Paris after the Russian Revolution and came to Nepal via the famous Club 500 of Calcutta. But how did he land up in a shikar in the heart of the jungle of Nepal, Chitawan?

The shikar or hunting party described in the book is that of my father General Kiran Shumsher J. B. Rana, the Commander-in-chief of the Royal Nepalese army. Boris and his Danish wife Inger were his personal guests. It was a hunt that was organized for His Majesty King Tribhuvan of Nepal by his army chief. All necessary arrangements had been made: t…

A MAD GENIUS?

The Roman writer Seneca penned, "There is no great genius without some touch of madness." Could this have been true in the case of the infamous Crown Prince Dipendra of Nepal, the person who shot dead his entire family and doomed the institution of monarchy in Nepal? I have got friends who vouch for his intelligence, his ability to win admirers, his penchant for working a crowd, all traits of an excellent politician. It was no wonder that he might have been dissatisfied with the way things were going in the country, he certainly would have perceived the inherent weakness of the system to tackle the Maoist insurgency and his frustration at his father's inaction as a constitutional monarch.

This story does not want to delve on the why's and the wherefore's. It is a story that was told to me by the Honorary Consul General of Nepal in the Netherlands. The Dutch Crown Prince was visiting Nepal in the late nineties when the Maoist insurgency was already in its 3rd yea…

A NIGHT TO REMEMBER

The Indian Ambassador was in a jolly good mood as he made his short walk to the Royal Palace in the dead of night. The embassy was in fact the British Residency earlier, permitted by Nepal under duress as part of the terms of the Sugauly Treaty of 1816 with British India, when Nepal had to sue for peace after a short war with the encroaching British Raj. The British never tried to conquer Nepal or oust its rulers after this treaty was signed, as they had done so often in the Indian Subcontinent breaking every treaty they signed with its erstwhile rulers. So when India gained its independence from British rule in 1947, Nepal was a sovereign kingdom in its northern border. This did not sit kindly with the new rulers of India who believed that all of the subcontinent should come under Delhi's rule. Now suddenly the Indian ambassador saw a window of opportunity to force its diktat on Kathmandu, one of the stalwarts in the fight against the Rana regime Dr. K. I. Singh had just mounted …

A LION IN WINTER

As hospitals go the Bir Hospital then was the best in the world of Kathmandu Valley. It was a gift from the Government of India, euphemistically built under the "Joint cooperation between His Majesty's Government of Nepal and Government of India", as all receiving nations always like to brag. What was interesting at this point in time was that an old man lay dying there. Both the governments of Nepal and India were gunning for the head of this man thirty years earlier and, as so often happens in history, time is the greatest of healers. Now as he lay dying he was the state's VIP patient looked after by the state by command of the king of Nepal. He had a visitor.


Another interesting facet of this meeting was that the person visiting the old warrior was none other than his former nemesis, another old man who had one time announced a bounty on the former's head, a princely sum of Rs. 50,000.00 dead or alive! The old patient was none other than Dr. Kunwar Inderjit S…

A NOT SO ROYAL WEDDING

Funny how relationships can change with time, whether they are between husband and wife, brothers and sisters, even father and son. How often do we read about the gory details of relationships soured, of patricidal animosity, fratricidal competition or even regicidal ambition. From the ancient Egyptians to the Greeks, from the Mughal emperors to the Arab Sheikdoms, we have read about fathers banishing princely sons, sons overthrowing father-kings, brothers murdering own siblings. Whenever the question of empires to be gained or lost rests on one whimsical turn of the dice, relationships never remain the same. Perhaps the Mughals were second to none on this particular trait: Akbar the Great's travails with Prince Salim his son is well documented, Khurram managed to eliminate all his brothers before he became Shah Jahan 'king of the world', and his own son Aurungzeb overthrew the father and imprisoned him in the Agra Fort to gaze upon the Taj Mahal, his monument of love, for…