The Bloodstained Throne: Struggles for Power in Nepal (1775–1914) is fun to read in the same way it is fun to watch a Quentin Tarantino movie with orgies of violence assaulting your eyes at regular intervals. Both are disturbing, but The Bloodstained Throne is perhaps more so because it is a historical account of Nepal’s rulers. It was written by Baburam Acharya for, among others, Radio Nepal soon after the Rana regime was toppled in 1950. The original work, written in Nepali, was compiled into a book titled Aba Yesto Kahilyai Nahos, “May Such Things Never Happen Again.” Acharya’s grandson, Madhav Acharya, authored the English translation. The purpose of the writings was, in the words Shreekrishna Acharya, son of Baburam, “to instill a sense of nationalism among the proud and patriotic Nepalese people.”
Whether the collection fulfills that lofty purpose is questionable. It’s possible that the reader will distill from the narrative a bleaker message: the history of Nepal’s rulers is . . . screwed up. It’s also possible he or she will compare the past to the present and arrive at unsavory conclusions, such as, what was the nature of the Nepali state that it produced such violent transfers of power? And has it changed in the last six decades?
Considering the history of Nepali politics after the Ranas, one wonders if Baburam Acharya’s plea, Aba Yesto Kahilyai Nahos, was heard at all. As recently as 2001 there was a massacre in the royal palace comparable to those of the Shah-Rana era. And the transfers of power during the entire post-Rana period have been rife with violence of kings, courtiers, and rebels. So rather than pride and patriotism, a plausible reaction to the book could well be dismay and despair. Even patriots may get depressed.
The elder Acharya was known as a “nationalist historian” and Nepal’s rulers conferred on him the title of itihas shiromani, that is, historian laureate. Throughout Throne, Acharya has unqualified praise for King Prithvi Narayan Shah, the “builder of the nation” and blames the series of conspiracies after his death on his successors, who ignored Shah’s dictum: “One’s own brothers and courtiers should never be killed.” (The implication being it’s fine to kill the brothers and courtiers of others.)
Acharya’s trail of the dead begins with the murder of a courtier, Sarbajit Rana, rumored to have been Regent Queen Rajendralaxmi’s lover, in 1778. The assassination was ordered by King Prithvi Narayan Shah’s youngest son, Bahadur Shah, who snatched power from the queen (his bhauju) because, Acharya says, he was angered by the delays in attacking Tanahaun and expanding the Gorkhali state westward. Rajendralaxmi is one of the many strong-willed women behind the palace conspiracies that follow. Acharya calls her “an able administrator,” although one who displays cowardice, suspicion, jealousy, and fecklessness—traits Acharya considers attributes of women.
Bahadur Shah was an ambitious man. During his regency, the Gorkhali army went as far as Garhwal. It also fought a disastrous war with China in 1792, although Acharya does his best to sugarcoat it. Shah sought help from the British in India by concluding a trade treaty. When they refused, he called them “opportunists.” Later he sought help from the Chinese. When they refused, he was hanged in 1797, possibly at the orders of his nephew and king, Ranabahadur Shah, who was miffed at his entreaties with the Chinese.
Chapter 2 is devoted to the beheading of Damodar Pande, the chief kazi (prime minister). Pande is eliminated as the result of a plan by Bhimsen Thapa and Ranabahadur Shah. As Acharya writes, he wasn’t the only one getting the khukuri:
Also hacked to death there were his eldest son, Ranakeshar Pande, and second son, Gajakeshar Pande. Then, ex-minister and treasurer Bhim Khawas and one of his sons were cut to death in Bisnumati river, while another son was left to drown in the pond of Taudaha in Chobhar. Another son of Bhim’s had his feet tied and he was hung upside down on a tree for three days at Chhauni; he did not die but was later beheaded. Subba Shankhadhar Khawas was buried in a pit up to his shoulders; his hair was coated with wax and set on fire. Also beheaded were . . .
And on it goes.
The aftermath of the regicide was vicious: “. . . in the two-week-long spell of killings, sixteen innocent women were burnt to death as Satis, while some seventy-seven men were beheaded.”
Bhimsen Thapa, who had a hand in the murders, became prime minister and led the country to war against the British in India. A defeat at war in 1816 didn’t end his career. Chapter 4 details his downfall, but Thapa, Acharya implies, got the end he deserved. He slit his own throat in jail and was dumped on the banks of the Bisnumati, where he perished after nine days. Bhimsen’s newphew, Mathabarsingh, also a prime minister, meets an untimely end in Chapter 5, shot down by his nephew, Jungbahadur Rana. What follows is the Kot Massacre. More are butchered in Chapter 6 than any other chapter.
And that’s just in the first half of the book. The second features more conspiracies and murders—Ranas turning on Ranas, Shah’s turning on Ranas, and everyone scurrying to the British residency on regular intervals to seek blessings. If you’re looking for social and economic analysis of political change in Nepal, you won’t find it here. Nor will you find descriptions of the lives of ordinary citizens. It would, therefore, be unwise to draw conclusions about the ruled from the misdeeds of the rulers. The book has more of a folklore quality than one of “social science,” as history is considered these days, with its emphasis on rigorous methodology. That’s why, perhaps, it is such a riveting book for anyone interested stories, and, in particular, the crimes and misdemeanors of Nepal’s kings, queens, and courtiers. A follow-up covering the period from where Acharya left off to 2008, when the monarchy was abolished, is long overdue, not just for the sake of history, but for popular entertainment.
The Bloodstained Throne is published by Penguin India.