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A brief history of Nepal

The first firm historical records about Nepal begin in around the 7 th to 8 th century BC when the Kiratis, a mongoloid people, migrated westwards from China into the Kathmandu Valley. Yalambar was the first of a line of 28 Kirati kings to rule the Kathmandu Valley lasting up until the 4 th century AD. During the Kirati reign Buddhism was first introduced into Nepal and it is believed that the Buddha himself visited the valley, residing for a time in Patan. Ashoka, the legendary India emperor, also visited the Kathmandu Valley sometime around the 2 nd century BC, evidence of which can be seen today in the four stupas he erected around Patan.

By the beginning of the 4 th century AD the conquering Licchavis, an Indo-Aryan people who invaded from northern India, had overthrown the last Kirati king. This shift in the power base brought with it a decline in Buddhism to be replaced by Hinduism. It also signified the start of the caste system, which still remains in Nepal today. The Licchavis dynasty lasted for 300 years and was a great time of architectural and artistic development.

Taking power from his father-in-law at the start of the 7 th century, Amsuvarman founded the first of three Thakuri dynasties, which ruled in the Kathmandu Valley. Consolidating power through his family connections and marriage - his daughter married a Tibetan prince - Amsuvarman laid a firm enough power base in the Kathmandu Valley for this kingdom to survive and grow, even through the following centuries of turmoil and strife. During the 10 th century Thakuri king Gunakamadeva founded the city of Kantipur, today’s Kathmandu.

Around 1200, legend has it that King Arideva was wrestling when news of his son’s birth arrived. He thus bestowed the title malla ‘wrestler’ on his son and so founded the Malla dynasty, which brought with it a golden age in Nepalese history. It’s strategic location along the trade routes between China, Tibet and India led to a great flow of wealth into the valley, and with it a subsequent flourishing of the arts and architecture in the shape of may wonderful buildings, many of which still stand today. The Hindu Mallas religious tolerance allowed Buddhism to flourish in Nepal, however the emergence of an aristocracy under the Mallas served to strengthen and develop the strict Hindu caste system. From the mid 14 th century Nepal began to break apart into numerous feudal city-states. Agricultural techniques improved and populations grew, spreading more and more into the hilly and mountainous areas. Around this time a Muslim invasion from India swept across the Kathmandu Valley causing great destruction. Though short lived in the Kathmandu Valley, the Muslim driven destruction in India caused many Hindus to flee north and establish small Rajput principalities in the hills and mountains of Nepal.

At this time the Kathmandu Valley was dominated by three major cities - Kathmandu, Patan, and Bhaktapur. Each walled city was the centre of an independent kingdom ruled by its own king and with its own army. However, starting in 1372 Jayasthiti Malla, founder of the third Malla dynasty, conquered first Patan and then 10 years later Bhaktapur to unite the whole Kathmandu Valley under one ruler. By the 15 th century Malla rule had reach its zenith and under Yaksha Malla (1428-82) art and culture flourished, and the kingdom stretched from Tibet in the north to the Ganges River in the south, and from the Kali Gandaki River in the west to Sikkim in the east. After his death the kingdom split apart again into small warring kingdoms and, although trade and agriculture continued to expand, Nepal remained fragmented and disparate for the next 200 years or so.

The 18 th century saw the rise to power of the Shah dynasty and the unification of Nepal. From the tiny kingdom of Gorkha, midway between Kathmandu and Pokhara, the Shah rulers slowly expanded their kingdom until in 1768 king Prithvi Narayan Shah conquered the Kathmandu Valley and moved his capital there. Continued Nepalese expansion was finally checked by the Chinese, who in 1792 defeated them, and in return for a peace treaty exacted payments of tribute that continued right through until 1912.

The British at this time were expanding their influence across the Indian subcontinent and in 1792 sent an envoy to Kathmandu. Treaties with the British followed, but inevitable land disputes eventually led to war, and by the 1816 Sugauli Treaty, Nepal had lost more than half its land area, including everything from Kashmir back to its present day western border, Sikkim to the east, and much of the lowland Terai (the lowland Terai was later returned as a reward for Nepal’s support of the British against the Indian uprisings). Irritated by this defeat by the British, Nepal closed its borders and, with the exception of a few British residents in Kathmandu, remained isolated from the outside world right through until 1951. New direct trade routes between India and Tibet further reduce Nepal’s influence in the region.

Although the Shah dynasty continued to rule, in 1846 a bloody coup organised by Jung Bahadur Rana, effectively transferred power away from the Shah kings to the Ranas. The coup took place in the Kot courtyard near Durbar square in Kathmandu, where Jung Bahadur had his soldiers massacre several hundred of the most important noblemen, soldiers and courtiers in the country whilst they were assembled there. It became known as the ‘Kot Massacre’ and signified the start of a hundred year rule by the Rana family in Nepal. They ruled as hereditary prime ministers to the Shah kings, who they relegated to pampered figureheads, and enjoyed a luxurious lifestyle in their huge Kathmandu palaces whilst the majority of the country was reduced to a peasant-like existence.

Increasing tension between China and India after The Second World War turned Nepal into a buffer zone between these two giants and eventually led to the end of Rana rule. With support of newly independent India, and its ruling Congress Party, the Nepali Congress Party, under the charismatic BP Koirala, was formed. In 1950 the Shah king Tribhuvan escaped Nepal to India and the Nepali Congress Party set up a provisional government at the border town of Birganj after its forces had captured much of the Terai from the Ranas. However as the conflict continued and no clear winner emerged, India used its newfound influence to force a negotiated settlement that saw the return of King Tribhuvan in 1951 and the establishment of a new government comprising of Ranas and members of the Nepali Congress.

Nepal slowly re-established relations with other countries, but in 1955 King Tribhuvan died and was succeeded by his son Mahendra. After the creation of a new constitution, Nepal took its first steps towards democracy with its first general election in 1959. The Nepali Congress Party easily won and BP Koirala became the new prime minister, much to the new king’s chagrin. By late 1960 King Mahendra decided to bring an end to the government by arresting the entire cabinet, banning political parties and taking over direct control of the country himself.

For the next 20 years Nepal operated under a partyless system of government, in which local councils Panchayats’ chose representatives for district Panchayats, who were in turn represented at a national level in the National Panchayat. In reality the king held all the power, which he passed on to his son Birendra after his death in 1972. By the end of the 70s popular discontent at widespread official corruption and a stagnant economy led eventually to violent demonstrations in Kathmandu, and in 1980 a referendum was held to choose between the Panchayat system and a party-based system. The Panchayat system proved most popular, but only by a narrow margin, but the king decided to allow the people to elect the legislature of the counties on a 5-year term basis, which in turn would elect the prime minister. It was conditional that each candidate be a member of one of six government-approved parties, and that the king would appoint 20% of the legislature.

The changes in the Panchayat system did little to reduce the king’s influence on the running of the country and for the next 10 years - with the aid of a brutal and almost completely unaccountable police and military - he continued to wield considerable power with the Panchayat simply acting as a rubber stamp. During this period massive amounts (up to 50%) of foreign aid were being siphoned away into ministerial accounts, and widespread corruption was the norm.

Eventually popular discontent with the deteriorating economy and corruption led the opposition parties to form a coalition in 1989, which in turn led to demonstrations, strikes, and riots. These were violently putdown by the military and police using bullets and tear gas, but external pressure from important aid donors caused the government to yield, and the king lifted the ban on political parties and invited the opposition to lead an interim government until a new general election, and agreed to accept the role of constitutional monarch.

20 parties contested the May 1991 general election, which was won by the Nepali Congress Party with 37.75% of the vote over the Combined Communist Party (Communist Party of Nepal & Unified Marxist-Leninist Party) with 27.98% of the vote. The following years turned out to be both politically and economically unstable in Nepal, and in 1992 a general strike descended into violence between protesters and the police resulting in a number of deaths. In 1994 the Nepali Congress called a mid-term election, which left no clear winner and eventually led to a coalition dominated by the Combined Communist Party and with the support of the Nepali Congress. Fearing growing grass-root popularity for the communists the Nepali Congress soon withdrew its support and formed a new coalition. Continuing political instability throughout the rest of the 1990s resulted in the collapse of numerous governments and the constant switching of alliances between the major parties usually to further personal rather than political goals. Eventually in the 1999 elections the Nepali Congress Party formed a clear majority with the Unified Marxist-Leninist Party in opposition.

There followed a period of relative calm until on the 1st of June 2001, 7 members of the Royal Family including King Birendra himself, his wife and crown prince Dipendra were massacred in the Royal Palace in Kathmandu. Since no successor was left to take the crown Birendra's brother Gyanendra became King. The massacre spread large-scale unease and depression across the whole country. Secrecy surrounded the whole affair and numerous different conspiracy theories surfaced and spread following the incident. Also, as King Birendra had gained much popularity in his final years, a huge sympathy and sadness spread amongst the population leading to much of the male population shaving their hair, as is traditionally done in Hinduism when a family member dies.

Since the massacre of the Royal Family on June 1st 2001, allegedly by Prince Dipendra before shooting himself, Nepal has lived under a black cloud. The massacre happened sometime in the evening when the majority of the Royal family was present. The country went into severe shock and many countless conspiracy theories were thrown around. Many believe that the Prince went on a drink/drug enhanced rampage after being told by the Queen that he would be cast-out were he to marry the girl of his dreams.

It is believed that there was a shortlist of 3 girls lined up to marry Dipendra and this is where it gets interesting and almost medieval. There is the house of Shah, and the house of Rana. Both these families are of historical importance to both Nepal and India. The house of Shah was the ruling monarchy in Nepal. Two of the suitors for Dipendra were from the house of Rana. Devyani herself and Garima (related although not sisters). The other girl was Supriya Shah. It is though that the grandmother of Dipendra was given the responsibility of finding a bride for him and she allegedly phoned the mother of Devyani to mention the proposal. Devyani’s mother unwittingly implied that the Royal Family of Nepal was very poor in comparison to some of Devyani’s other suitors and she was unsure as to whether or not her daughter could survive in such financial constraints. What her mother unwittingly did here was to cast aspersions on the House of Shah. After this show of disrespect, there was no chance that the grandmother would allow this union to take place.

She then followed up on the other girls, but they, aware of Dipendra’s maddening love for Devyani, quickly removed themselves from the opportunity.

Publicly, outward displays of anger dissipated, as people looked to the new King Gyanendra to lead them out of the crisis. Gyanendra’s reputation as a shrewd businessman and take-charge leader went before him, as did the expectation that he would take a harder line against the Maoists and a more pragmatic approach to relations with India and China. Many took comfort in the knowledge that he had actually served as King once before: in 1950, the infant Gyanendra occupied the throne for three months during the exile of his Grandfather, Tribhuwan, in India. Others, however, darkly pointed to a legend in which the saint Gorakhnath warned the founder of modern Nepal, Prithvi Narayan Shah, that his dynasty would last only ten generations after him. Gyanendra was the eleventh.

The Royal Massacre on that fateful day gave the Maoists the opportunity they had been looking for. They were able to feed off the anti-monarchy sentiment that was brewing and gave people an outlet to show their dissatisfaction. They quickly stepped up their offensive with renewed attacks on government positions in the countryside and even some minor bombings in the formerly safe Kathmandu Valley. Within six weeks, they had provoked a fresh crisis by holding several dozen police officers hostage in the western district of Rolpa. The then Prime Minister, Girija Prasad Koirala received permission from the King to send army troops to the rescue, but it was his last act. Within days, he was brought down by a no-confidence motion and was replaced by Sher Bahadur Deuba (it was under Deuba’s previous administration that the Maoists had declared war). Deuba quickly negotiated a ceasefire and persuaded the Maoists to enter peace talks. Up to this point there had been a good deal of sympathy for the Maoists, both from common people and intellectuals, although this was in no small part due to the complete lack of trust in the mainstream political parties. This passive support evaporated rapidly in the summer of 2001, when it began to appear that the rebels were negotiating in bad faith – reports of continued intimidation and extortion suggested that they were merely playing for time. These suspicions were confirmed in November, when the Maoists abruptly withdrew from the peace talks and, two days later, launched co-ordinated attacks on several locations, killing more than 200 soldiers and civilians. It was the highest death toll since the insurgency began, and the first time that the rebels attacked army positions. Hardest hit was Salleri, not far from the Everest region; a few weeks later the rebels bombed the Lukla airstrip, used by Everest trekkers.

Government reaction was swift. The King declared a state of emergency – suspending civil liberties such as freedom of the press and freedom of assembly, and giving the government broad powers to arrest suspects and impose curfews. Taking its cue from America’s war on terrorism, the government officially declared the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) a terrorist organisation and warned that any found helping them would be prosecuted as terrorists. In the first few months of the emergency, the government imprisoned 5000 people, including more than 100 journalists. The government was without doubt pinning its hopes on a military solution to the Maoist problem.

The spring of 2002 actually saw an escalation in the scale and deadliness of their attacks, with major battles fought in the western districts of Achham and Dang, as well as a growing campaign of destruction of dams, telecommunication facilities and other infrastructure.

King Gyanendra dismissed the government in October 2002, calling it corrupt and ineffective. He declared a state of emergency in November and ordered the army to crack down on the Maoist guerrillas. The rebels intensified their campaign, and the government responded with equal intensity, killing hundreds of Maoists, the largest toll since the insurgency began in 1996. In Aug. 2003, the Maoist rebels withdrew from peace talks with the government and ended a cease-fire that had been signed in Jan. 2003. The following August, the rebels blockaded Kathmandu for a week, cutting off shipments of food and fuel to the capital.

King Gyanendra fired the entire government in Feb. 2005 and assumed direct power. Many of the country's politicians were placed under house arrest, and severe restrictions on civil liberties were instituted. In Sept. 2005, the Maoist rebels declared a unilateral cease-fire, which ended in Jan. 2006. In April, massive pro-democracy protests organized by seven opposition parties and supported by the Maoists took place. They rejected King Gyanendra's offer to hand over executive power to a prime minister, saying he failed to address their main demands: the restoration of parliament and a referendum to redraft the constitution. Days later, as pressure mounted and the protests intensified, King Gyanendra agreed to reinstate parliament. The new parliament quickly moved to diminish the king's powers and selected Girija Prasad Koirala as prime minister. In May, it voted unanimously to declare Nepal a secular nation and strip the king of his authority over the military.

The Maoist rebels and the government signed a landmark peace agreement in November 2006, ending the guerrilla’s 10-year insurgency that claimed some 12,000 people. In March 2007, the Maoists achieved another milestone when they joined the interim government. Just months later, in September 2007, however, the Maoists quit the interim government, claiming that not enough progress had been made in abolishing the monarchy and forming a republic. They agreed to rejoin the interim government in December, when Parliament voted to abolish the monarchy and become a federal democratic republic.

In April 2008, millions of voters turned out to elect a 601-seat Constituent Assembly that will write a new constitution. The Maoist Party won 120 out of 240 directly elected seats.

If any doubts over the intent of Nepal to move into the future still lingered, then these were put aside in June 2008 when the deposed King Gyanendra finally left the Royal Palace gates, leaving this beacon of Nepalese Monarchy to transform itself, almost overnight into a museum.

The great drama that is Nepal continues…

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