Skip to main content

FEATHERS IN THE CROWN

As a kid I used to gape in wonderment at the magnificent crown my father possessed not knowing that the jewels were only for show. The dark green emerald drops were made of glass, the sparkling diamonds were probably zirconium and the pearls were not of the best sort. Every Rana general had his personal crown in those days and my father was no exception. I did not recognize the difference between this personal crown of father's and the other more valuable crown of the Nepalese Commander-in-Chief of the Army that my father was seen wearing in many a portrait displayed about the house. Little did I know that my father was the last person to put on his head the army chief's crown from the Rana era, real glittering diamonds, snow white pearls and thumb-sized emerald drops and all. The feather in the crown was the magnificent plumes of the Bird of Paradise that gave it such a majestic look.

Nepal had only three crowns that were genuinely the real stuff bedecked with expensive pearls, diamonds and drop emeralds bordering the rim: the King's crown, the Rana Prime Minister's crown and the Army Commander-in-Chief's crown. The innumerable other crowns decorating the heads of a multitude of Rana army "nomenclature" as clearly seen in photographs of those times were crowns with the real bird-of-paradise plumes stuck to them but with ersatz diamonds, pearls and emerald drops. When every bonafide Rana general had such a crown it is but obvious that the Nepalese economy of the time could not have sustained paying for the real stuff. They were somewhat like fool's gold.

The writer Desmond Doig thus describes the king's royal crown during King Birendra's Coronation Ceremony in 1975 A.D., "No other crown could be so fantastically devised, so priceless. It is a glitter of closely set diamonds and pearls, hung with drop rubies and emeralds the size of plums and atop it, clasped by more diamonds, is a cascade of bird-of-paradise plumes". The crown had been last repaired during the coronation of King Birendra's father King Mahendra in 1956 A.D. As trading in the famous plumes were already banned, the Americans came to the rescue of the crown by shipping to Nepal plumes that had been confiscated by the U.S. Customs!

I have got on display two portraits of my family members hanging in my drawing room juxtaposed with each other wearing the crown of the Commander-in-Chief of the Nepalese Army - that of my great grandfather Commander-in-Chief Dhir Shumsher Jung Bahadur Rana, 1879-1884 A.D. and my father Commander-in-Chief Kiran Shumsher Jung Bahadur Rana, 1951-1956 A.D. This particular crown went to the state after my father retired from the army never to adorn another Nepalese head, as the army uniform and headgear were changed reflecting the more austere and less ostentatious times that followed the advent of "democracy a la 1951".

Gen. Dhir Shumsher
The Bird of Paradise is found in New Guinea. An endangered species today, the birds are highly prized and bred in many parts of the world for its gorgeously beautiful plumes. These plumes somehow found their way to the crowns of the Nepalese Shah Kings and Rana rulers from mid-nineteenth century until monarchy was abolished in Nepal recently. It has always been a mystery how these plumes were traded across miles and miles of oceans and how they ended up in Nepal embellishing the
Nepalese crowns.
Gen. Kiran Shumsher



It was my good fortune to make connections with an expert on the Bird of Paradise Stephanie Xatart introduced to me by Bernadette Vasseux, Nepal's true friend affiliated with the French Embassy. Stephanie had just concluded her trip to Papua New Guinea for her research on the birds and was passing through Nepal on the way back to Paris, her home. She was most intrigued by how the plumes of those rare birds got to be the feathers in the crown of the Nepalese court. Due to my blog on Nepalese history she contacted me for some insight but to her disappointment and my chagrin, I did not know the answer. From where and when did the plumes come? I was intrigued. I set to find out.

The bird-of-paradise plumes were traded as early as the 16th Century when Spanish explorers landed ashore New Guinea and the surrounding islands. Locals had used these plumes for decorating dresses and headgear from time immemorial. The wide variety of plumes of every hue and size exhibited by some 40 species of these birds in the family of Paradisaeidae gave rise to a flourishing millinery trade putting these birds at great risk of extinction. These plumes were exported to decorate the hats of the stylish European ladies catering to their vanities. These plumes subsequently made it to the tiaras and coronets of European royalty.

According to historian Percival Landon the bird-of-paradise feathers were first introduced in the Nepalese crowns by Mathbar Singh Thapa after he was recalled from the court of Maharajah Ranjit Singh of the Punjab by Queen Rajya Laxmi and was asked to lead the Nepalese government as prime minister in 1843 A.D. Mathbar had fallen afoul of the Nepalese court after the fall of his uncle Prime Minister Bhimsen Thapa and his eventual suicide in captivity. He had chosen to seek asylum in the court of the Punjab. It was in the Punjab that Mathbar must have been introduced to the millinery traders catering to the ladies of the British Raj.

Queen Marie-Christine of Spain with the plumes
What happened to the crowns of the Rana prime minister and the army chief is now open to conjecture. Were they stripped off their valuable jewelry and those gems either sold for tidy sums or re-used in new ornaments? The last we saw of the king's crown was during the accession ceremony of King Gyanendra in 2001 at Nasal Chowk, Hanuman Dhoka. I have read that the crown is not on display at the Narayanhiti Palace Museum, possibly due to lack of adequate security arrangements. There was a news item that came into limelight in 2006 that a royal crown of Nepal was auctioned by a private collector at Bonham's in London for GB₤ 70,000.00. Could the crown be that of the Rana prime minster or army chief? It is a great pity that those historical crowns are not on display at our National Museum. Are these treasures lost for ever?


King Gyanendra at his accession with the royal crown

Comments

  1. Dear Mr. Rana,
    As usual an insight on a very different and less discussed topic.

    I have no way of proving it but what I was told is that the emeralds surrounding the crown of the King of Nepal is all of the same weight no more no less, which is impossible in view of the emeralds being natural stones mined and then cut to perfection.However to have so many emeralds of exactly the same precison in weight makes the Crown a rare specimen. Probably a Jewel expert may be able to throw more lights on this.

    As an afterthought, the saing goes in Nepal that the eyes of the wearer of the crown ( either Shree panch or Shree teen)is blocked by those green emeralds and hence `Sawan ma ankha futeko goru....etc etc. A valid reason for wrong decisons and untimely steps.
    Cheers
    Gautam

    ReplyDelete
  2. As usual, very interesting information have come out of your journey into Nepalese history.It is now clear how the feather of the Birds of Paradise ended up decorating the crowns of the generals. Finally, it is unclear what happened to the generals' crown when it is not in the national museum of Nepal. According to common trend, this way and that way, historical resources of developing countries come to the economically developed countries. Therefore,may be the crown sold in London was the crown we are talking about. Personally, I feel, it is very interesting issue to research, I mean, a planned investgation. Humble suggestion: find an efficient investigator and put her/him in to get the job done. The finding would be a great contribution to Nepal.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Again, a nice insight to our historical titbits, Mama. I think the Rana Prime Minister's crown should be with the last one as the king's crown is with (apparantly) Gyanendra. Pity about the C-In-C's crown though. Afu Bua should have kept it atleast it would be intact!!.
    Other private crowns are with the families themselves as I had borrowed the plume for my King Prithivinarayan Shah tv serial.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I have read in a book, written circa 1960s (or late 50s), that the last Rana Prime minister's crown was sold to Saudi royals by the last Rana prime minister for either 1 or 2 million pound. The journalist who wrote the book was a Danish journalist, I think. I can't remember the name of the book, but it was one of the few books that came out about Nepal those days, so shouldn't be hard to find out.

    The Rana crown couldn't be sold for a mere 70K pound. We don't even get a car for that price anymore (in Nepal, that is):)

    Ramesh Sharma.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Dear Subodh,

    Your learning and erudition are as rare as the crown but fortunately not as extinct. My favorite depiction of the crown was done by the artist De Lazlo (?) as it perched a top the head of Keshar Shumsher. The green of the emeralds cast a slightly luminosant glow on that worthy brow. It used to hang (the portrait) on the stairway leading up to the library. In the absence of the real thing that memory serves me well. He looks noble captured for eternity by the renowned artist. I am sure Lok Bhakta has looked after it.

    Cheers and read me next week but especially week after in The Himalayan Times on Friday. Last page.



    Cheers

    Dubby

    ReplyDelete
  6. Hi, interesting post. I am writing a post on royalty and jewelry in general and am displaying a couple of portraits of Nepali kings so I would like to link back to this post. Thanks

    ReplyDelete
  7. Thanks Divya, please go ahead! Subodh

    ReplyDelete
  8. This is very interesting information. However, it seems that the beak of the bird is also attached to the feathers. How was this possible??

    ReplyDelete
  9. Thanks for this posting!

    I did an interview with the hakim of Naranhiti Palace Museum a few months ago; he told me Gyanendra did ask to take the crown and scepter with him, but the interim government refused, claiming both to be the property of the Nepali people.

    According to my contacts at both the palace and the government, the Home Ministry took control of the crown and scepter the day before Gyanendra left, and had them appraised by jewelers to confirm they were original. The two pieces were then sealed in a room inside Narayanhiti, where they are still being guarded. The museum is planning to display them as soon as they get the budget for appropriate security facilities; they requested money in the 2067 budget, but think it might come through in 2068 or 069. They are also working on opening other parts of Narayanhiti to the public, including Birendra's residence, Sri Sadan.

    Nepali people are right to be skeptical about Gyanendra's desire to hang onto assets, but not the crown as it was far too obvious, too hard to hide and move. They should be watching their lobhi purba-raja for bank shares and property ownership -- maybe loose jewels -- not the whole crown.


    Cheers!
    Anne in Chicago

    ReplyDelete
  10. FYI: The "plumes" are actually the entire bird of paradise attached to the main headress. This is'nt easily seen in photographs but yes it is a entire stuffed bird of paradise.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Dear Anon 15 June,
    The anonymous comment dated 19 November explains why the beak of the bird was also in the crown. Cheers!

    ReplyDelete
  12. I am surprised that General Kiran's own sripech was made of glass jewellery - I know that many Rana's had real jewels on their sripech but, after 1950 they were not allowed to wear the sri pech so the crowns were stripped of the real stuff and used as jewellery as can be seen from time to time on Rana ladies (especially the rain drop uncut emeralds from the seige in Oudh as discussed in your other blogs). Albeit Kesar Shamshere's personal sripech had all the real stuff (as seen in his larger than life potraits)- so it is incorrect to say that only the three main sripeches had real jewellery - many did, but not after 1950!!!!

    ReplyDelete
  13. Dear Anon 20Nov, thanks for your insight. Many of the senior Ranas during the regime had their personal crowns made of the real stuff - those who could afford it. So His Highness Kesar's would no doubt be the real thing. Most personal crowns of the junior Ranas like my father did have some valubale jewels like expensive pearls, but the diamonds and drop emeralds were duplicates. My father was fortunate enough to wear the real thing as C-in-C after 1951.

    ReplyDelete
  14. Dear Subodh, while searching for information on a historical diamond, presumably owned by a member of the Rana family in the 19th century, I unexpectedly discovered your very interesting story of the crowns worn by the members of the Rana family. Since it seems that the latest exchange of information on your blog to these crowns is from 2911 I am hesitant to write some additional information I possess. Should it be still of your interest, please contact me through my e-mail address, being brus@crown-art.nl
    with regards,
    Rene Brus

    ReplyDelete
  15. I highly doubted that Mohan Shumsher got at least 1 Million Pounds for that Crown, almost 60 yrs ago.

    one day I was searching for some stolen Tundals from my village temple (Lubhoo), in internet. I ran across a Nepali Crown Jewel rated for around 50,000 Pounds. Don't know how real was that.
    But surely looked opulent.

    ReplyDelete
  16. http://www.bonhams.com/auctions/16444/lot/155/

    http://www.alaintruong.com/archives/2008/04/09/8716626.html

    These are the two websites that earlier I was talking about.

    Vivek.

    ReplyDelete
  17. Darshan Mr Rana,
    thank you very much for exellent articles on very interessting topics! let history live and let us share more about our country`s fascinating history & culture!

    best regrds, vk kunwor

    ReplyDelete
  18. Greetings Dear Ranaji,
    Thank you so much for this important article in a less talked about subject.

    I don't think there's a person who is not fascinated by the elegant crowns, and an account of these precious crowns from a member of the Rana family itself is impressive. Earlier comments have discussed the invaluable crowns of Kaiser Shumsher, but I have read in many places that the crown of Rudra Shumsher was the most impressive one. I have read that even King Tribhuwan, and the rest of the Ranas praised its beauty. However, after Rudra Shumsher was exiled to Palpa, I've read that his property including the crown was confiscated by Juddha Shumsher. I've come to know that you are one of his descendants, so do you have any information about it?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. General Rudra's crown was the Commander-in-Chief's crown and it given to Padma Shumsher following Rudra's removal. My father was the last person to have this crown on his head after 1951. From General Dhir Shumsher down the line to my father this crown was the army chief's. Once I restore the pictures, you will see clearly.

      Delete
  19. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    ReplyDelete
  20. " The last we saw of the king's crown was during the accession ceremony of King Gyanendra in 2001 at Nasal Chowk, Hanuman Dhoka. " !!!

    Didnt we last saw it at his daughters wedding ??? Back then it was a public event - kinda sorta !

    ReplyDelete

Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

THE SATI WIVES OF JUNG BAHADUR, MAHARAJAH OF NEPAL

If only the Tudor King Henry VIII of England were as lucky as Jung Bahadur Rana, he would have had male heirs aplenty and he would not have had to behead a few of his queens in the hope of his next one presenting him with an heir. All the Maharanis would live together at Hampton Court Palace in seeming harmony at least until the death of the Maharajah. If England had the tradition of Sati, who among Henry's wives would have had the macabre honour of being buried alive with him? Would her be Catherine of Aragon his first queen? Or Anne Boleyn? Or the fair Jane Seymour, his favorite queen who gave him his only male heir, had she not died in her postnatal illness?

Maharajah Jung Bahadur Rana had many wives because he did not have the Catholic Church to worry about. He had at least a dozen sons and innumerable daughters from at least 13 recorded wives. He married some for love, others for political alliances with various noble houses, including a sister of Fateh Jung Shah, one of th…

JUNG BAHADUR RANA AND THE DANCING DAMSELS - THE SOJOURN IN FRANCE

Prime Minister Jung Bahadur Rana left England for France with a rich treasure trove of memories and an ambition his experiences in Britain had fueled for his own poor and backward nation. He was heartbroken too as he had to leave behind his paramour Laura Bell. Far from the complexities of ruling a highly destabilized country coming so soon after the tumultuous Kot and Bhandarkhal episodes, Jung had truly relaxed in England and had grown fond of the young Irish lass. He wanted to stay longer but the situation back home was unfavourable. Jung was seething with anger that his brother Bom Bahadur who he left behind as officiating prime minister had not been able to take a firm grip on the affairs of state. Even in faraway England he got reports that his enemies were again trying to rear their ugly heads, he would have to smite them with the power of his ingenuity once more. He knew he could not trust his ambitious third brother Badri Narsingh and the one after that Ranoddip was an indeci…