Nepal’s history has been strongly influenced by its position in the Himalaya mountains on the northeastern border of India and on the only practicable route between the part of Tibet bordered by the river Ganges and China.
The word “Nepal” first appeared in 879 AD, meaning “the start of a new era”. Though the country’s ancient history is poorly documented, it is known that from 700 BC the area was ruled by the Kirantis dynasty. The Kirantis are the ancestors of the ancient Nepalese clans that include the Newars, Rais, Limbus, Tamangs and Sunwars. It is believed that the founder of Buddhism, Gautama Siddharta, was born during the reign of the Kirantis in the town of Lumbini in the Terai region on the border with present-day India in the sixth century BC.
Today Lumbini remains an important pilgrimage site for Buddhists from all over the world.
India invaded the Kathmandu Valley – one of the most characteristic parts of the country – between the 9th and the 14th centuries and Jaya Sthithi, an Indian from the south, established the Malla dynasty whose most authoritative descendent, Jaksha Malla, extended his power throughout the Valley. In 1488 Malla divided his kingdom between four heirs, Kathmandu, Bhatgaon, Patan and Banepa, who remained in power until the Gurkha conquest.
Originally part of the Rajput Kshatriyas warrior tribe, the Gurkhas were expelled from India by the sultan of Delhi, Ala-ud-din, in 1303 and sought refuge in the central hills of Nepal. They then pushed on into the Gorakhnath region, where they settled around 1559. At that time the country was divided into numerous small kingdoms. The Gurkha king, Prithvi Narayan Saha, the famous founder of modern Nepal, wanted to create a kingdom in the Himalayas.
Foreign influence in the country
His initial plan of conquest involved invading the Kathmandu Valley before expanding in various directions. In a series of military campaigns that ended in 1767, he conquered all the areas that make up present-day Nepal. Shortly before his death in 1775 Prithvi Narayan Saha planned to annex the mountain region of Sikkim (part of present-day India) in order to establish a sure passage to Bhutan. He was a xenophobic king who introduced major restrictions on foreign influence in the country. On an economic and industrial level he supported local business and fiercely opposed trade with England. His successors extended their occupation and conquest of neighbouring territories. Rana Bahadur, one of his descendants, came to power in 1796, but he offended the popular sentiment by marrying a woman from the Brahmin dynasty, creating two ruling families in the country: the Pandes and the Thapas. Forced to abdicate, he retook the throne in 1804 and dismissed his prime minister, Damodar Pande, who had signed an agreement with the British East India Company for an official British representative in Nepal. The next prime minister, Bhim Sen Thapa, continued to pursue an expansionist policy, leading to war with British India in 1814. The Anglo-Nepalese war ended in March 1816 with the treaty of Segauli giving Britain the right to an official resident in Nepal and to occupy the Kumaon, Garhwal and Nainital Simla hills and much of the Tarai. In exchange, it was to withdraw from Sikkim.
The Rana Dinasty
Bhim Sen Thapa’s authority remained unchallenged until the young King Rajendra Vikram Sha came of age and took control of the empire. In 1837 the prime minister was dismissed and imprisoned. The figure of Jung Bahadur Rana emerged from the massacres, upheavals and revolts that followed. He declared himself prime minister and commander-in-chief and his family assumed total control of the country. His successor Ranaodhip Rana changed the country’s foreign policy by supporting the British in the war against the Sikhs and authorised the recruitment of the Gurkhas into the British army. For the duration of British rule in India the Ranas were safe. However, the notions of freedom that began to spread in India in the 1930s and which led to independence from Britain in 1947 influenced the three million Nepalese living in the Indian provinces of Bengal, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh up to the Kathmandu Valley.
The NCP (Nepali Congress Party) was founded in 1950 from the merger of the Nepali National Congress and the Nepal Democratic Congress and pursued the aim of subverting the Rana regime by forming an army under the command of party leader Matrika Prasad Koirala.
The challenge launched by King Tribhuvan against the Rana dynasty received a boost in October 1950, when the monarch refused to sign the death warrant for presumed conspirators against the regime and sought political asylum at the Indian embassy before being flown by the Indian government to New Delhi with his family. Meanwhile groups of rebels attacked the borders, taking the second largest city in the country, Birganj, and establishing a parallel opposition government.
The national army remained loyal to the Ranas but the Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru continued to support the king and on 7 January 1951 the Nepalese government was forced to accept Indian proposals to restore the monarchy, offer an amnesty to rebels in exchange for laying down arms, hold elections in 1952 and create a government comprising 14 ministers divided equally between the Ranas and the people’s representatives. The royal family and the NCP made a triumphant return to Kathmandu on 15 February 1951, marking the end of the Rana domination of Nepal.
A period of reform
The country entered a period of reform and hope; after decades of a corrupt and inefficient oligarchy, Tribhuvan Bir Bikram Shah put the monarchy back at the centre of public life with prospects for the creation of affluence and development.
However, these prospects have only partly been fulfilled: modernisation has affected only certain parts of the country and certain sectors of society, while Nepal as a whole remains a feudal State with traditional rigid and oppressive structures existing alongside more modern and democratic but inefficient ones.
The massacre by the Crown Prince of almost the entire royal family on 1 June 2001 and the subsequent ascent to the throne of Gyanendra, brother of the deceased king, who was unpopular because of his despotic tendencies, should have dealt a fatal blow to the prestige of the highest institution in the country. The dramatic events of 2006, when the king ordered the army to open fire on crowds protesting against the high cost of living and calling for democracy, led to the birth in 2007 of a federal republic governed by the heirs of a communist guerrilla movement that maintains de facto absolute control over several areas, and the end of the now discredited monarchy the following year after 240 years of intermittent rule. The subsequent paroxysm of democracy has not favoured the stability needed to start the process of reconciliation and economic rehabilitation. (S.V.)