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RANI MAHAL, THE STORY OF ITS MAKER

PROLOGUE

The first time I ever saw this historical edifice thirty five years ago, she was in ruins and looked like an old hag during the winter of her life, simply waiting for her eventual demise. I was then on my way further west on a week-long trek from Tansen to Tamghas in Gulmi District.

Thirty five years later, I found myself at the same spot once again, this time out there on purpose. I had seen pictures of the building with a coat of new paint before and I wanted to see how much change had been made by the Nepal Government’s Department of Archeology. Yes, the outer fa├žade still looked brand new with fresh paints, which to me personally was a bit too gaudy. But when I walked through the inside of the building and saw nothing but empty rooms without even a single piece of furniture, my enthusiasm took a nose dive.

And when I entered one room where there was a fireplace with the floor in front of the hearth still looking as black as charcoal, I assumed that, over the years before renovation began, the keeper of this mansion must have decided to warm himself during the cold winters by burning the original furniture that were placed in all the rooms by General Khadga Shumsher Rana.

- Recently sent to me by Deep Lamichhane, my childhood friend at St. Xavier's High School, Kathmandu, now back in Nepal from USA. 

I mulled over Deep's reminiscence and finally it catalyzed me to dig deeper (no pun intended) into our history and try to find out who was the maker of such a beautiful building the younger generation of us Nepalese have started to call the Taj Mahal of Nepal. 

The Delhi Durbar of 1903 A.D. was a celebration of Empire to mark the Coronation of King Edward VII. Not since the Durbar of 1876 to celebrate the crowing of Queen Victoria as Empress of India did the Raj put on a show of this magnificence. Lord Curzon the Viceroy made sure that this Durbar would be even more of an extravaganza than the earlier one and all the Indian Royals would be there to celebrate such singular an occasion with pomp and circumstance it merited. A tent city was created in the vast maidan of New Delhi. Lord Curzon invited Maharajah Chandra Shumsher Jung Bahadur Rana from Nepal for the occasion. It was an acknowledgement of the fact that British India had nothing negative to say on the matter of the ouster of Maharajah Dev Shumsher from power just a year back and that it was ready to do business with Chandra. Chandra would not miss such an occasion to show his gratitude and make friends with Lord Curzon.


Maharajah Kashmir (turbaned, 2nd row), Scindia of Gwalior, Nizam of Hyderabad, Wodiyar of Mysore,
Chandra Shumsher of Nepal, Gaekwad of Baroda (Front Row L to R) all 21-gun salute states

Chandra regaled on the occasion rubbing shoulders with the pride of the Indian Princely States as the ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary representing the King of Nepal. This was his own launching on the "world" stage. However, to dampen his spirits, news had come from his spies in Nepal that, taking the opportunity of his absence from Nepal, his elder brothers were up to mischief. His eldest full brother General Khadga Shumsher had been taken off the Roll of Succession for plotting against the then Prime Minister and Maharajah Bir Shumsher. His own immediate full brother Dev Shumsher considered too weak to rule had been collectively removed by himself and his younger brothers. These were the two disgruntled elder brothers now exiled from Kathmandu but living in Palpa and Dhankuta respectively who were conspiring together to take back their rights and privileges. Chandra was a shrewd operator. He knew he had to deal immediately with this threat before it became insurmountable.


General Dhir Shumsher and his seventeen sons, Bir, Khadga, Dev, Chandra, etc.

How had these turn of events taken place and shaken up the Rana nomenclature in Nepal? How had two elder brothers of Maharajah Chandra been ousted from the seat of power? General Khadga Shumsher was the mastermind behind the assassination of Maharajah Ranaoddip Singh Kunwar Ranaji. As his elder half-brother Bir waited in the wings nervously awaiting the outcome of the assassination bid, it was Khadga who was the hot-headed young man of just 23 years who took destiny in his own hands and actually, with a few of his younger brothers, ventured to Narayanhiti Durbar that fateful November night. After the successful coup d'etat Bir had been crowned the Maharajah of Kaski and Lamjung and became the prime minister of Nepal. Khadga became the Commander-in-Chief of Nepal, the second most powerful post in the Rana regime. As the saying goes,"uneasy lies the head that wears the crown", and no sooner had Bir been crowned than he started to look over his shoulder askance at his ambitious younger half-brother Khadga. Would not Khadga mount another coup d'etat and finish him off? Bir was petrified.


General Khadga Shumsher J. B. Rana
No one can really be sure what happened next but Bir was given irrefutable evidence of a plot Khadga had hatched to do away with Bir during a wedding ceremony. Khadga was arrested and struck off the Roll of Succession and even his descendants could no longer be in the Roll. Such was Bir's ire. This was a departure from earlier practice of striking off only the culprit but not his whole family, as in the case of General Badri Narsingh Rana, found complicit in a bid to assassinate his elder brother Maharajah Jung Bahadur Rana. His sons Kedar Narsingh and Dhoj Narshingh were not removed from the Roll. Khadga was imprisoned in Thada. Later he was pardoned and given the post of Governor of Palpa in 1889 and Dhankuta in 1891.

The story of Rani Mahal starts here. It is often called the Taj Mahal of Nepal. It is indeed a beautiful mansion located on a high bank of the Kali Gandaki River with a garden undulating down to the water, a veritable Hanging Garden of Babylon. The nearby forest was renamed Rani Ban and the ghat below Rani Ghat. Grainy pictures of the original building can be found. However, the building and garden came to disuse after Khadga left for India. When he was banished from Nepal forever after 1903 A.D. the building started to crumble and disintegrate; a contest in the wills among his descendants leaving the building derelict and orphaned. Lately, due to many voices raised by the local populace and tourism entrepreneurs, the government finally decided to repair and renovate the building to find some useful purpose for it. One can only surmise how lavishly yet tastefully the mansion must have been furnished in its heyday with imported Italian marble and chandeliers from Murano, Edwardian furniture and Persian carpets. It is just a hollow shell of a building now, just the facade painted over for people to imagine what it might have been truly like when Khadga built it in memory of his beloved dead wife Tej Kumari Devi all those many years ago!

Rani Mahal, Palpa

After the death of Bir in 1901 A.D. the next in line was Dev Shumsher, younger brother of Khadga. Dev was a liberal to some, a playboy to others, a threat to the regime of his younger brothers nonetheless. Chandra the next brother in line was a more astute politician and he was afraid that Dev would succumb to the plots Khadga was bound to hatch to retrieve his lost position of the prime minister. In only three months after his coronation Dev was ousted and banished to Dhankuta. Now Chandra had two elder brothers to worry about instead of just one!

Maharajah Chandra returned to Nepal from the Delhi Durbar and immediately acted on the perceived threat to his power. He now wanted both his brothers to leave Nepal and to this effect he petitioned the Viceroy to allow Khadga and Dev to reside in India. Khadga being the more dangerous one was offered a place at a lakeside villa in Sagar in the Central Provinces now Madhya Pradesh, very far away from Nepal. His personal request to live in the holy place of Haridwar was not granted. For Dev a residence in faraway Madras Presidency was suggested but he fortunately was given a mansion in Jharipani, Mussoorie, an area that was a part of Greater Nepal until the culmination of the Anglo-Nepal War of 1814-16.

It must have been a lonely life for General Khadga so far away from Nepal, in a place where he did not have any friends, where language was a problem, finances too. His younger wife Maharani Dhana Kumari Devi and her children were with him. They say overcoming adversity is the first key to success. Khadga was resilient. He made friends in high places. He stayed connected. He was granted the title of His Highness the Raja by King Edward VII in 1909 A.D. most likely after his brother Maharajah Chandra Shumsher's state visit to England at the invitation of the British monarch in 1908 A.D. His daughter came of age and was married off locally to a Maratha government administrator. A grand-daughter was born named Lekha Diveshwari Devi in 1919 A.D. in modest circumstances. One day she would grow up beautiful and well-educated and marry one of the richest and most powerful Royal personages in British India, Jivajirao Scindia, Maharajah of Gwalior, a 21-gun salute state. She would thenceforth become famous as Vijaya Raje Scindia.  


Lord Curzon the Viceroy with Maharajah Scindia of Gwalior

General Khadga would have been so proud of her. Her later accomplishments as a consummate Indian politician must have come in part from the old General's genes. He passed away in Sagar in December 1921 at the age of 60, a mere two years after Lekha's birth. Never was he to see his Nepal or his Rani Mahal again. 

Vijayaraje Scindia













   


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