Shah Dynasty of Nepal – The history of the Shah Dynasty is intertwined with the history of Nepal. The singular credit for the unification of Nepal and bringing together the diverse religio-ethnic and cultural groups under one banner also goes to the kings of the Shah dynasty. It would, therefore, not be incorrect to surmise that the Institution of Monarchy in Nepal is an integral part of her history and ethos.
The modern period in Nepalese history begins with the process of unification of the nation by King Prithvi Narayan Shah the Great in the 18th century, prior to which Nepal was divided into small independent principalities.
Chronicles refer to the reign of several dynasties before the rise of the Shah Dynasty. They included the Gopalas, followed by the Mahishpals, Kirants and Lichchhavis. The Lichchhavis had inherited a fairly large kingdom but were unable to keep it intact. The process of disintegration began in the eighth century. By the middle of the 12th century, there were three tiny kingdoms, namely the Valley Kingdom, Simraungarh in the southeast and Sinja Valley in the northwest, which, by the 18th century, had disintegrated into over 52 principalities. It was only after the accession of Prithvi Narayan Shah the Great as the king of Gorkha in 1743 that the process of reunification of Nepal began in earnest.
The Kingdom of Gorkha, the seat of the Shah Dynasty, was founded in 1559 by King Dravya Shah, son of King Yashobramha Shah of Lamjung. Gorkha was then relatively smaller than her neighbours but, by the time he passed away, Dravya Shah had managed to expand the borders of the kingdom to include some of the neighbouring provinces. This process of expansion was continued to some extent by his son Purna Shah and grandson Chhatra Shah.
Chhatra Shah’s reign lasted for only about a year and he passed away without an heir so his brother Ram Shah ascended the throne of the Kingdom of Gorkha in 1606. During the twenty-six years of his reign, Ram Shah was renowned as an able reformer and a righteous king who introduced radical changes in the society. For all these reforms, a popular adage “If you are deprived of justice, go to Gorkha” was coined. At the same time, he continued the task of annexing many neighbouring principalities into his kingdom.
After the death of Ram Shah, his descendents Dambar Shah, Krishna Shah, Rudra Shah and Prithvipati Shah continued to expand the frontiers of the borders of Gorkha. Prithvipati Shah reigned for about 47 years until his death in 1716. Since his son Crown Prince Bir Bhadra Shah had already passed away, Narabhupal Shah, son of Bir Bhadra, ascended the throne. arabhupal Shah, a brave and courageous king, continued the process of expansion until his death in 1743.
His son Prithvi Narayan Shah (born 1723) ascended the throne of the Kingdom of Gorkha at a young age of 20. Following his accession, King Prithvi Narayan Shah the Great now saw his dream of unifying the nation very much within reach. In 1744, he conquered Nuwakot and in 1763, the principality of Makawanpur fell to him. Kathmandu was won over in 1768. The subjugation of Kathmandu was no easy task. It was only in a third attack that Kirtipur, a strategic hillock overlooking the city, was conquered. In the first battle for Kirtipur in 1857, he had to bear the loss of his trusted ally Kazi Kalu Panday, while his youngest brother Shurpratap Shah was killed in the second (1764). Within a month of winning over Kathmandu, he annexed Patan, and about a year later, Bhaktapur too succumbed to his attacks, marking the end of the first phase of the process of the unification of the country.
He also expanded the boundaries of his country up to the present border in the east with the conquest of the principalities of Chaudandi and Bijayapur.
King Prithvi Narayan Shah the Great’s greatest contribution was the success he achieved in bringing the six principalities of Makawanpur, Kathmandu, Patan, Bhaktapur, Chaudandi and Bijayapur under a single umbrella, thus laying the foundations of an independent, modern Nepalese nation.
Although known as a warrior-king, he adopted a strategy of the minimum use of military force. Evidence also shows that the people of the principalities he unified were much happier under his reign than under the previous kings. His contributions in the social sector are also significant, e.g. he introduced a policy of gradually eradicating slavery from the nation at a time when it was widely practiced all over the world. He was also a very practical person.
The invaluable advice of King Prithvi Narayan Shah the Great, popularly known as ‘divya upadesh’ or divine counsel, which he passed on to his closest aides before he passed away in 1775 in Nuwakot, speaks amply for of his farsightedness and sagacity. They are testimony of the respect he had for the people’s aspirations, a tradition that continues to be upheld by the kings of the Shah dynasty to this day. Even today, these wise maxims are very popular among the Nepalese people and serve as guidelines for their domestic, foreign, trade and other policies.
King Prithvi Narayan Shah the Great was succeeded by his eldest son Pratap Singh Shah (born 1751). King Pratap Singh Shah passed away in 1777 and his two and half year old son Rana Bahadur Shah (born 1775) became king. The process of unification continued under the regency of Queen Mother Rajendra Laxmi until she passed away in 1785. The king’s uncle Bahadur Shah, who then became the regent, intensified the campaign for the country’s unification.
In 1799, King Rana Bahadur Shah abdicated in favour of his one-and-half year son Crown Prince Girvan Yuddha Bikram Shah (born 1799) to become an ascetic. By the early 19th century, Nepalese territory had expanded up to the banks of the River Sutlej in Punjab and Kumaun (Garhwal) to the west and Tista in the east.
Around of the end of 1814, the Anglo-Nepalese war broke out following a territorial dispute between Nepal and the East India Company. In spite of displaying exemplary bravery and courage, the Nepalese were unable to resist a well trained and better equipped British force. Consequently, the Treaty of Sagauli was signed in 1816, as a result of which Nepal lost one-third of her territory. Nepal’s borders were now reduced to the rivers Mechi in the east and Mahakali in the west.
King Girvan Yuddha Bikram Shah passed away in 1816 at young age of 19 to be succeeded by his infant son Rajendra Bikram Shah (born 1813). Thirty years later, in 1846, the infamous Kot Massacre occurred as a prelude to 104 years of hereditary Rana rule in Nepal. During this period, the kings were kept away from the affairs of the state, while the Rana Prime Ministers wielded real authority in every sector of society. King Rajendra Bikram Shah abdicated in 1847 in favour of his son Surendra Bikram Shah (born 1829). Both Rajendra Bikram Shah and Surendra Bikram Shah passed away in 1881. Since Crown Prince Trailokya Bikram Shah (born 1847) had passed away earlier in 1878, his five-year old son Prithvi Bir Bikram Shah was crowned king (born 1875).
King Prithvi Bir Bikram Shah passed away in 1911 at the age of 36 and his five-year old son King Tribhuvan Bir Bikram Shah (born 1906) ascended the throne. The Nepalese people had always opposed Rana oligarchy in the country but they were disorganised and their movement had little impact. As King Tribhuvan grew older, his interest in the affairs of the state also started to increase. It became clear to him that the people were unhappy with the manner in which the Ranas were running the country. In spite of all odds, he secretly came in touch with the leaders of the movement.Â On being assured of the king’s support, the movement gained momentum, with the Monarch as the focal point of inspiration and guidance.
The Ranas were now in open conflict with King Tribhuvan and, in late 1950, he along with other members of the Royal Family flew to New Delhi. By the time he took that flight, the King had become a rallying point for the anti-Rana revolutionaries. In the confusion that followed, the King’s grandson His Majesty King Gyanendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev (born 1947), who was then a three-year old prince, was proclaimed king by the Ranas as he was the only member of the Royal Family who was in Kathmandu at the time. This state of affairs continued for about two months till King Tribhuvan returned to Kathmandu in February 1951 to usher in a new era of democracy in the kingdom after oligarchy finally succumbed to popular demands. This movement is unique in world history in that a monarch and the people had successfully joined hands to remove tyranny and oppression from the country. Although King Tribhuvan passed away in 1955 at the age of 48, he will always be revered as the Father of the Nation for his singular contribution towards the restoration of the people’s rights.
King Tribhuvan was succeeded by his eldest son Crown Prince Mahendra Bir Bikram Shah (born 1920). His late Majesty will always be remembered for his contributions to promoting nationalism and establishing development infrastructures throughout the country. In 1959, he promulgated Nepal’s first constitution based on a multiparty democratic polity under which the first general elections were held later that year to elect a House of Representatives. In 1960, King Mahendra introduced the indigenous Panchayat System. In 1972, the poet-king, whose lyrics are popular to this day, passed away at Diyalo Bangalow, Bharatpur and HRH Crown Prince Birendra (born 1945) ascended the throne of the Kingdom of Nepal.
His late Majesty King Birendra strongly believed that “Nepal’s history and tradition have bound her people and Monarchy in an enduring and intimate relationship, injecting in the Institution an inherent feature of honouring and being guided by popular will and aspiration of the people”. Throughout his reign, the welfare of the people was always uppermost in his mind. He always endeavoured to live up to their expectations and ensure a balanced all-round development. During his coronation in 1975, he declared free primary education throughout the country and also proposed that Nepal be declared a Zone of Peace. The National Referendum of 1979 as well as the restoration of the multiparty system and proclamation of the Constitution of the Kingdom of Nepal – 1990 also reflect on his belief that the people’s wishes serve as the guiding spirit for the Monarchy.
The Nepalese people had to bear the sudden loss of their beloved monarch in a dreadful and unanticipated incident that occurred in the Narayanhity Royal Palace on June 1, 2001. His Royal Highness Crown Prince Dipendra Bir Bikram Shah (born 1971) was declared king but since he was in a coma in hospital, His Royal Highness Prince Gyanendra Bir Bikram Shah, brother of His late Majesty King Birendra was proclaimed regent in accordance with the Constitution of the Kingdom of Nepal – 1990. King Dipendra passed away the next day at the age of 29. His Royal Highness Prince Gyanendra was then proclaimed king of the Kingdom of Nepal.
The June 1 incident had shocked the nation. Besides Their Majesty King Birendra and Queen Aishwarya, Their Royal Highnesses Prince Nirajan Bir Bikram Shah and Princess Sruti Rajya Laxmi Devi Rana along with five other Royal Family members and relatives lost their lives after being fatally wounded during a family gathering at the Narayanhity Royal Palace. After ascending the throne on June 4, 2001, His Majesty King Gyanendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev had, through a Royal Proclamation, constituted a two-member high-level investigation committee comprising Chief Justice Keshav Prasad Upadhyaya and Speaker of the House of Representatives Tara Nath Ranabhat. In its report made public on June 14, 2001 after extensive investigations, the committee concluded that bullet injuries were the cause of death of all killed in the incident. Summarising the report at a press conference organised to make the report public, Speaker Ranabhat said the committee had found that gunshots fired by the then Crown Prince Dipendra caused the deaths of Their late Majesties King Birendra and Queen Aishwarya and seven others.
The heart-rending tragic incident underscored, once again, the unique bond that has always bound the Institution of Monarchy and the Nepalese people. As His Majesty observed in a message to the nation on the eve of Bada Dashain on October 26, 2001, “The extraordinary patience and fortitude displayed by our beloved countrymen, reposing deep love and trust in the Institution of Monarchy, was a clear manifestation of the unique characteristic inherent in the Nepalese people”.
The constitution of the Kingdom of Nepal – 1990 regards His Majesty has the ‘symbol of Nepalese nationality and unity of the Nepalese people’, while, at the same time, reposing on him the responsibility of preserving and protecting the Constitution ‘by keeping in view the best interests and welfare of the people of Nepal’. His Majesty has, ever since his accession, made it clear that he intends to fulfill his responsibilities to the best of his abilities in the paramount interest of the Nepal and the Nepalese people.