Louise Brown charts the history of the extraordinary Nepalese Rana dynasty and their complicated relationship with the British Raj.
Nepal enchants foreigners. I have been captivated by the country since I lived in Kathmandu twenty five years ago, and writing my latest novel, The Himalayan Summer, has taken me back there again. Today, Nepal is still recovering from the devastating earthquakes of 2015 and, after a fall in the number of visitors, tourists are now returning to see the ancient temples and spectacular mountains. Nepal needs these foreign tourists because they are one of the country’s main sources of income.
Landlocked between the north Indian plains and the high Himalayas, Nepal has long been a place of pilgrimage for Buddhists and Hindus from Tibet and the Indian subcontinent. In the 1960s, Kathmandu became an iconic stop on the ‘hippy trail,’ and Nepal has become a favourite destination for Western backpackers, trekkers and climbers who wax lyrical about the friendliness of the people and the warmth of the welcome they receive. The country, however, has not always appreciated Western travellers, and for much of the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth centuries, Nepal adopted a ‘closed door’ policy that permitted only a handful of Westerners to visit. During this time, Tibet was often portrayed as a forbidden land yet, in reality, Nepal was just as difficult to enter as its celebrated neighbour.
From 1846 to 1951 Nepal was ruled by the Rana dynasty, which was a vast, multi-branched family. Jung Bahadur Rana seized power in a bloody coup in 1846 and his family quickly established a stranglehold over the country, usurping the political powers of the Shah monarchy and appointing a succession of hereditary Rana prime ministers who took the title of maharaja.
The family treated Nepal as its own private fiefdom. The Ranas lived in splendour in vast stucco palaces financed by taxes on the peasantry and money from the sale of timber from forests in Nepal’s southern plains. In 1903, Prime Minister Chandra Shumsher Rana had the thousand room, Singha Durbar built, which was the largest palace in Asia and, today, the Kathmandu Valley is still dotted with the gigantic homes of its former rulers. However, although Rana rule was long-lasting, it was not always stable. The very size of the family created conflict. In each generation, there were many brothers, all with a claim to land, titles, wealth, and a place on the Roll of Succession. In turn, each brother had various wives and concubines. The result was court intrigue, a constant jockeying for power, and even murder.
Isolationism was a cornerstone of Rana rule. The Rana maharajas insulated Nepal from the rest of the world, allegedly keeping it in a time warp. Economic development was delayed, education was provided only to a tiny minority, and industrialisation was slow to begin and confined to small pockets. Basic infrastructure was so limited that even in the 1940s, the only motorable roads in the hills were found in the Kathmandu Valley. The magnificent cars belonging to the elite were dismantled on the Indo-Nepal border and then carried by porters over the foothills of the Himalayas to be reassembled in the valley.
A ‘closed door’ policy was practised in the nineteenth century because the Ranas feared the expansionism of the British in India. Although Nepal had been defeated in the 1814-16 Anglo-Nepalese War, the country retained its independence. A British Resident was established in Kathmandu, but Nepal was not like one of the Indian princely states and was never part of the formal British Raj. The Resident lived under a kind of house arrest in the Kathmandu Valley and he did not have great influence over Nepalese politics.
Jung Bahadur Rana, however, made a strategic decision to side with the British in the Indian Mutiny/First War of Independence in 1857, and was personally involved in the recapture of Lucknow from the rebels. In practice, Jung Bahadur traded support for the colonialists in exchange for Nepal’s freedom from British rule. This suited the British: the Anglo-Nepalese war had proved that Nepal would be hard to conquer and, as an independent state beholden to the British, it was a useful buffer zone between their Indian empire and China to the north. What is more, the British were keen to recruit hardy Nepalese hillmen into the British Indian Army, and although the Ranas at first tried to hinder this, it was impossible to stop the constant drain of manpower from the hills to India. In time, the hillmen, known as Gurkhas, became one of the most valued fighting forces in the British Indian Army.
In the first half of the twentieth century, the rationale for isolation changed. Rather than protecting Nepal from the British, the Rana regime sought to protect itself from its own subjects. The rise of the Indian Nationalist Movement meant that revolutionary ideas were circulating throughout the subcontinent. While those ideas could unseat the British, they could just as easily be used by the Ranas’ internal opponents to challenge the family’s authority. Nepal therefore had to be insulated from the political upheavals sweeping India. The movement of people had to be restricted, and industrial development, the provision of education and modernisation in general had to be managed because these processes would only accelerate the dangers posed to the regime.
As their internal position weakened, the Ranas clung more firmly to the British, seeing them as friends rather than enemies, and as a vital prop to their rule. The regime allowed 100,000 Nepali men to serve the British in the First World War, and this sacrifice was recognised by the British- Nepal Treaty of Friendship in 1923, which formalised arrangements for the recruitment of Gurkha troops into the British Indian Army in exchange for a handsome annual ‘subsidy’ to be paid into the Rana coffers. The treaty also acknowledged Nepal’s complete independence.
As British power in the subcontinent waned and their rule was abruptly ended in 1947, the Ranas were left dangerously exposed. They were beset by their own domestic problems; the family was internally divided between legitimate and illegitimate branches, and political opposition in the country was fuelled by migrant Nepalese who returned from India armed with ideas about democracy. In this sense, the Ranas had been entirely correct to worry about political contagion from the south. What is more, the newly independent Congress government of India was unlikely to be sympathetic to a neighbouring government that had actively supported the very colonial regime Congress had fought so long to expel. In 1951, these pressures came to a head, and an anti-Rana movement toppled the family with help from India.
Nepal’s story of isolation under the Ranas, however, was only partly true. Nepal had a much more complex relationship with the world than that of a supposedly closed country preserved in a time warp. The ‘closed door’ really only applied to Westerners. For centuries, trans-Himalayan trade routes, which were an offshoot of the Old Silk Road, crossed the mountain passes and linked China and Tibet with India. Kathmandu was a bustling, wealthy trade centre. Merchants took wool and salt south, while grains and finished goods were moved north. This ancient trade, and the associated cultural exchange, was not altered by an official ‘closed door,’ and neither was the steady movement of Hindu and Buddhist pilgrims.
Perhaps ironically, although the Ranas restricted the movement of Westerners, so that the few who entered Nepal were confined to areas around the Kathmandu Valley, this antipathy to Westerners did not apply to foreign goods. The Ranas practiced conspicuous consumption on a grand scale, and they were particularly enamoured with European products. Possession of foreign luxuries differentiated the Ranas from the mass of ordinary Nepalese. Rolls-Royces, Venetian crystal, Japanese vases, gilt mirrors, Dutch oil paintings, Axminster carpets, and Greek marble nudes were coveted. Nepalese palaces, built and furnished like the Palace of Versailles, were markers of status. The Ranas did not want to meet Europeans in the flesh in their country, but they dressed like European nobility and lived in palaces that looked, on the surface, as if they had been transplanted from a European capital. All these things – the cars, the pianos, the crystal chandeliers – had to be hauled over the mountains on the backs of impoverished men, and possessing them illustrated to ordinary people, and to the Ranas themselves, that they were linked with the magic of a powerful, foreign materialism. The Ranas excluded foreigners but used foreignness to support their claim to power.
For a century, Britain and the Ranas had a symbiotic relationship: they needed each other. The balance of power in this relationship shifted over time from something approaching parity to a situation in which the weakening Ranas leaned on a more powerful but increasingly unsteady partner. When the British left India, there was no outside support for the crumbling Rana regime and, as Nepal’s slow march to democracy began, the gold painted Rolls-Royces were inherited by a different faction of the Nepalese elite.
If you want to know more about Nepal under Rana rule:
- The best introduction to Nepalese history is John Whelpton, A History of Nepal, Cambridge University Press, 2005.
- For a fascinating examination of the combined policy of excluding foreigners while consuming foreign goods, see Mark Liechty, Selective Exclusion: Foreigners, Foreign Goods, and Foreignness in Modern Nepali History, Studies in Nepali History and Society 2 (1): 5-58, June 1997.
- On the Gurkhas see Lionel Caplan, Warrior Gentlemen, Berghahn Books, 1995.
- Jung Bahadur Rana and family
- Old Narayanhiti Palace
- Nepali Prime Minister Chandra Shamsher Jung Bahadur Rana, c. 1903
- Gurkha soldiers, Army and Navy Illustrated, 1896
- Durbar Square today