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Part 1: The maharaja

This is the first of two articles covering the visits to the United Kingdom of Maharaja Chandra Shum Shere Rana in 1908 and King Mahendra in 1960. Chandra’s visit was a private one but he arrived on an official invitation and was treated as a state guest with all his expenses covered. Details of his visit are given in three thick files in the India Office archives in the British Library in London. King Mahendra paid a state visit to Britain in 1960, at the conclusion of which he stayed for a further two weeks on an official visit. Details of his visit are given in some 50 files in the National Archives at Kew. Both men visited Oxford and material in the University Archives and in the records of the Bodleian Library reveals interesting details not previously publicly exposed. (Note: Chandra’s full name is transliterated in varying ways, but he signed himself as Chandra Shum Shere.)

This first article deals with Chandra’s visit. He and his party left Kathmandu on April 6, 1908 and arrived in England on May 8, 1908, staying for over ten weeks. He was in the seventh year of his 29 years as an absolute ruler. The Rana usurpation of the power of the Shah kings started in September 15, 1846, when Jung Bahadur Kunwar (later to change his name to Rana), Chandra’s uncle, massacred his rivals and quickly moved to establish the political system that bore his adopted name. To quote from Joshi and Rose in Democratic Innovations in Nepal, “[T]he Rana political system was undisguised military despotism over the King and the people of Nepal. Government functioned as an instrument to carry out the personal wishes and interests of the ruling Rana Prime Minister. Its main domestic preoccupation was the exploitation of the country’s resources to enhance the personal wealth of the Rana ruler and his family.” Throughout his 29 years of rule, Chandra did nothing to weaken the family’s absolute grip on absolute power. Indeed, even by Rana standards, his rule was notably repressive.

Control of the military was one of the keys to Rana family survival, as was support and friendship from the British. No Rana ruler worked more assiduously or more obsequiously to maintain and strengthen British support than Chandra, and this is well exemplified by his tireless cultivation of friendship with the then Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon. Chandra first met Curzon when he hosted him on a hunting trip in the Terai from March 29 to April 17, 1901. How this came about is a story in itself. In a letter to Kathmandu dated January 2, 1901, Curzon effectively invited himself to a hunting trip in Nepal. Maharaja Bir Shamshere reluctantly extended an invitation but said that for health reasons he would be unable to host him. On March 4, 1901, Bir Shumshere died under what some have described as mysterious circumstances. Dev Shumshere, his successor, also refused to go to the Terai to host Curzon but agreed to a request from his younger half brother, Chandra, to be allowed to do so. To quote from Leo Rose in Nepal: Strategy for Survival, “What these two brilliant and ambitious men discussed in their meetings in the Terai can only be conjectured but it seems improbable that Nepali internal politics and the situation in Tibet were ignored.” On June 27, 1901, Chandra seized power from Dev and there is strong evidence that, at the very least, he gained British acquiescence before doing so. The British recognized his legitimacy immediately and privately commented that they gave him credit for avoiding the usual bloodshed. His contact with Curzon would clearly have helped.

Throughout the time that Chandra hosted Curzon, the notable photographic duo of Herzog and Higgins of Mhow were in attendance to record every detail, as they invariably were on Curzon’s trips. An album of 121 photographs was produced which shows all aspects of life during the three weeks: from relaxing in three very comfortable looking camps, to moving on the trail on the backs of some of the 200 elephants provided, encircling the prey, closing the ring, the moment of the kill, and the aftermath. Given the primitive cameras in use, it must have been a hazardous business. The album is now part of the Curzon Collection in the British Library. The prints are mounted with handwritten captions with the title stamped in gold on the front cover: “H.E. the Viceroy’s Shooting Tour, Nepal, Tarai, April 1901.” The first photograph is a three-quarter length standing portrait, in formal dress, of  “Maharaja Chandra Shumsher, Prime Minister of Nepal, 1901.” The second is a full length standing portrait, again in formal dress, of “Maharaja Dib Shumsher, Prime Minister of Nepal, Deposed.” It would have taken more than three months to produce the album so the use of these two photographs, separately sourced, was a neat way of getting round the problem that the man who hosted the viceroy had deposed the maharaja who had endorsed the invitation to him.

In various articles dating back to 1994, Pratyoush Onta describes an album with an identical title stamped on the front cover, which he said could be found in the Kaiser Library in Kathmandu. This album was possibly a gift from Curzon to Chandra. An album with the identical title was sold at Sotheby’s in London in October 2014 for £2,750. It was submitted to the sale by a noted dealer and collector, Sven Gahlin. The provenance of this album was not given in the sales catalogue. A recent exhaustive search of the Kaiser Library failed to locate the album that Onta described and examined in the 1990s.

What is curious about the album from the Curzon Collection is that, apart from the one formal portrait, there is not a single photograph that shows Chandra. As host, he must have been in the area even if, for reasons of caste, he would have occupied a different camp. Whatever the explanation for this, the prints show that Chandra ensured that his guests enjoyed the full range of “sport.” Curzon personally shot a leopard, a rhinoceros, and at least three tigers. The photograph above (430/77[86]) catches the essence well. The caption is apt: “The Viceroy’s Big Tiger.” Two Nepal Army colonels are in the photo: on the left, Colonel Jit Bahadur, and on the right, Colonel Hurck Jung who was “in charge of the shoot.” Five of the ten members of his staff who accompanied the viceroy are also included: from the left, Colonel E. H. Fenn, Colonel C. Gordon, Captain the Honorable G. B. Portman, the viceroy, Brigadier-General E. Baring (military secretary) and Colonel T. C. Pears, the British Resident in Kathmandu. Curzon had a reputation for being fastidious about his dress, and even in the middle of a three-week hunting trip in the Terai he is immaculately dressed with matching jacket and trousers. A proper analysis of the detail and characters in this photo would merit a separate article, but, for the present, it is enough to say that it captures something of the character of Curzon—and of an imperial age which he so powerfully personified.

Chandra was given the ideal opportunity to ingratiate himself further with Curzon during the build-up to the dispatch of the British Expeditionary Force to Tibet in late 1903. Curzon was determined to launch this force but the home government was hostile to his proposal. After the searing experience of the Boer War, the British public had no wish to get involved in a war in a remote corner of Asia; nor was the government in London prepared to risk a European war with Russia over the issue, or complicate further its difficult relations with China.

Curzon dedicated his formidable will to changing this mood by, in the first instance, building up the immediacy of the threat posed to British interests in Tibet by alleged Russian activities. The archive evidence strongly supports the contention of Leo Rose in Nepal: Strategy for Survival that “Chandra became one of the more assiduous abettors of British-Russian rivalry,” and that he “urged on the Viceroy the feasibility and necessity of punitive action against Tibet.” At a long meeting between the two men in December 1902, after Chandra arrived in India to attend the Delhi Durbar held on January 1, 1903, Chandra assured Curzon that he would disregard Nepal’s obligation under the 1856 Treaty with Tibet that required Nepal to come to Tibet’s aid in the case of a foreign invasion. The relevant text said: “Tibet being the country of monasteries, hermits, and celibates, devoted to religion, the Gurkha Government have agreed henceforth to afford help and protection to it as far as they can, if any foreign country attacks it.” Chandra went further in assuring Curzon that any British military operation in Tibet would have Nepal’s active support—but at a price. The verbatim account of the conversation records him as saying, “If we have to do anything jointly, against Tibet I hope that we shall be allowed to take a proportion of the country for us to remunerate the present tribute paid by them to us and to compensate for the loss that we may suffer in our commerce.” The account records that at this point Curzon “laughed softly” before asking and getting a categorical assurance that Nepal would back whatever action Britain took.

Chandra also started to feed in from the Nepal legation in Lhasa an endless series of stories about Russian influence in Lhasa. The wildest rumors were passed on as established fact: Russia and Tibet had signed a new treaty; Lhasa was teeming with Russians; Russia had supplied large numbers of weapons to Tibet; Russia was building an arms factory in Lhasa. All of this turned out in the end to be bunkum but it served Curzon’s purpose. All such stories were passed to London and played their part in the home government reluctantly giving permission for a limited incursion.

As the “incursion” was underway, by the deliberate disregarding of orders and the creation of further bogus intelligence, Curzon managed to persuade the government to expand it into a full-scale expedition to Lhasa, which would result in the imposition of terms on Tibet advantageous to Britain. What Patrick French in his book, Younghusband: The Last Great Imperial Adventurer, called Curzon’s finest piece of casuistry relates to a dispatch that he sent to London, which claimed that an attack on the frontier by Tibetan troops on Nepali yaks was “an overt act of hostility.” French rightly remarks, “The fact that the Viceroy of India was sending telegrams about the fate of frontier livestock to the Secretary of State (and hence the Cabinet) shows the flimsiness of the justifications he was putting forward for invading Tibet. To describe yak-rustling as an overt ‘act of hostility’ by a foreign power is plainly absurd. It shows the way Curzon was willing to use almost any excuse to obtain sanction for a further advance into Tibet . . . ” Again Chandra played a helpful role in falsely presenting himself to the Tibetan authorities as an impartial mediator, even as a peacemaker, while mostly acting at Curzon’s behest and in Britain’s interests.

The whole misadventure is best summed up by Peter Fleming in his book Bayonets to Lhasa. “[I]ts main purposes were rooted in fallacy,” he writes. “By the time they were largely fulfilled they had been forgotten. Its achievements were largely disavowed and its staunch commander censured.” The last reference is to Younghusband, who was effectively in charge of the Expeditionary Force under the guise of heading the Tibet Frontier Commission, also known as “the Mission.” However, all concerned knew that at every stage Younghusband acted with Curzon’s full knowledge and authority. Among the units in the Force were a mountain artillery battery and six companies of the 8th Gurkha Rifles. In the support echelons were 3,000 ponies, 5,000 yaks and buffaloes, 5,000 bullocks, 7,000 mules, and six camels to carry the officers’ cigars. Most of these animals died during the journey, as did many of their coerced owners. Over 10,000 coolies accompanied the invasion, mainly to carry the personal equipment of officers in boxes, trunks, cases, and containers. Younghusband needed 29 containers to carry his kit and extensive wardrobe, which included 12 coats of various types, 67 shirts, 18 pairs of boots and shoes, and a bath.

Chandra had offered the loan of ten regiments of the Nepal Army for the expedition, but this offer was politely declined. The offer of 3,000 yaks was accepted. Fleming records that “[t]he Nepalese yaks whose adventures while in transit had helped in a small way to launch the campaign, were completely wiped out; the thirty one who on paper survived were in fact slaughtered and eaten.” Rose in Nepal: Strategy for Survival quotes documents that record an eyewitness assessment that the Nepali porters “were practically an impressed gang” who proved to be “discontented and refractory” and were kept under control only with great difficulty.

The British government quickly repudiated some of the main terms imposed on the Tibetans as being unduly harsh and amounting to annexation. As a consequence of the invasion, the Chinese increased their influence in Lhasa but there was little gain for Britain, and even less for Nepal. Trade from Kathmandu through Kuti and Kryong diminished as a result of the British being able to increase the volume of trade through Sikkim and the Chumbi valley route to Gyantse. Chandra, however, gained personally through his now proven reliability as a staunch supporter of British policy. This was recognized by his appointment as Grand Commander of the Star of India in 1905. Henceforth he would be Sir Chandra. This, one British report said, met Chandra’s highest ambitions as it strengthened his position at home by showing that he could go one better than his predecessors. It also led to him achieving one of his other great ambitions: to emulate his uncle Jung Bahadur by getting an official invitation to visit Britain. Curzon resigned as viceroy in November 1905. His reputation had been damaged by the Tibet adventure though the main reason for his resignation was disagreement with Kitchener over the control and administration of the Indian Army. Chandra, however, as we shall see, benefitted directly from his friendship with Curzon during his 1908 visit, as subsequently did the University of Oxford.

Chandra Shum Shere Rana and his military suite in London. Seated, from left: Singha (Chandra’s son), Kaiser (son), Major Manners-Smith, Juddha (half brother), Chandra, Rudra (nephew), Mohan (son), Baber (son), Hiranya (nephew). In “Visit to Europe of Chandra Shumsher JBR, Vol. I”/Madan Puraskar Pustakalaya (MPP) Photo Collection

How to designate Chandra during his British visit had been decided prior to his attendance at the 1903 Delhi Durbar. Chandra was not prepared to be regarded as equivalent to a mere Indian feudatory prince, and the British were equally adamant that he would not be given the title of ambassador, as this would concede that Nepal had an independent status. After prolonged correspondence, Chandra himself proposed a compromise in a personal letter he sent to the viceroy’s staff:

“I have decided not to make mention of the word Ambassador, Envoy or Representative. In the Kharita from the King to the Viceroy my designation should be Maharaja Prime Minister and Marshal of Nepal, and representative of His Sovereign the Maharajadhiraj.”

(Kharita is an official letter, usually from a paramount power, enclosed in a richly embroidered bag or silver casket, and written in Persian. Dhiraj is a shortened form of the Sanskrit word adhiraj, meaning “sovereign ruler.” When Jung Bahadur in 1856 declared himself to be Maharaja of Lamjung and Kaski, he elevated the Shah king to the position of Maharajadhiraj.)

Early in the planning for the 1908 visit, the British Resident sent a long list to London of what Chandra had personally asked to be included in the program. It was clearly based on a close study of Jung Bahadur’s 1850 program: Chandra wanted to do everything his uncle had done, and more. Nothing was missed out including, “a Naval gun salute west of Aden.” Additionally, in the Resident’s words, “Sir Chandra wishes to be accorded precedence, honours and salutes as conceded to Jung Bahadur in 1850.”

Chandra set off for England with 19 servants and a personal suite of 22. (The names of those in the suite are listed at the end of this article.) Inevitably, senior Ranas figured prominently: General Juddha (half brother, age 33), General Rudra (nephew, age 29), General Mohan (son, age 23), Lieutenant General Baber (son, age 20), Lieutenant General Kaiser (son, age 16), Major General Singha (son, age 15). Only in regimes of “undisguised military despotism” will one find teenagers shamelessly promoted to the most senior ranks. For the more privileged, such elevation came at birth. A large number of the descendants of those named have had successful military careers in post-Rana Nepal, though less rapidly promoted. Descendants of non-Rana members of the entourage have also done well through different political dispensations. Chandra’s private secretary, Sardar Marich Man Singh, is the great-grandfather of the present deputy prime minister, Prakash Man Singh. Pundit Kashinath’s family of Acharya Dixits are also well known. Two British officers were “in attendance” throughout the visit: the British Resident in Nepal, Major Manners-Smith, and a young officer from the Fourth Gurkha Rifles, Lieutenant MacLeud Wylie, “who Chandra remembered as a child when his father was Resident.”

Chandra and his party were received at Dover on May 8, 1908 by Sir Curzon Wyllie, the Political Aide de Camp to the Secretary of State for India (Lord Morley at the time). They traveled by special train to Victoria. The whole party was accommodated in Mortimer House, a large residence in Halkin Street, Belgravia. Photos of it had been sent in advance to Kathmandu. Prior to the visit, it had been redecorated at a cost of £3,500, and 17 British servants, including a house manager, had been hired for 13 weeks at a cost of £546. Many assurances were sought and given that these servants would be boarded out and that no female servants would be employed. The house is now called Forbes House and the 47-year lease on it was recently sold for £40 million. Twenty-two boxes of provisions also arrived with the party containing large amounts of spices, pulses, rice, and ghee. Chandra was persuaded not to bring his own cows. He was told that three would be hired with men to look after them. He was also informed that slaughtering of sheep in the grounds of Mortimer House would not be permitted.

Mortimer House, where Chandra and his entourage were hosted in London. In “Visit to Europe of Chandra Shumsher JBR, Vol. I”/Madan Puraskar Pustakalaya (MPP) Photo Collection

On May 11, 1908, three days after their arrival, Chandra and 14 of his suite attended a reception at Buckingham Palace to be individually presented to King Edward VII. Chandra was first to be presented and Lord Morley was privy to their conversation as was a secretary to record what was said. In welcoming Chandra, the king said that he still remembered “the shooting” he had with Chandra’s uncle in his country. This was a reference to his 1876 visit to the Terai when he was Prince of Wales. The next part of the conversation is worth setting down as recorded:

Maharaja: It is so kind of Your Majesty to still remember. [After a pause] On behalf of His Highness the Maharaja-dhiraj, my country and myself, I beg to pay Your Most Gracious Majesty our most humble and profound respects. [The King Emperor bowed] I am deeply thankful that the high honour and proud privilege of being in the august presence of the incarnate might and majesty of the British Empire have been vouchsafed to me. One of my long cherished desires was to be able to express personally our hearty and loyal devotion to Your Majesty’s august person and throne, and I am happy that it has been so happily fulfilled today. I regard it as the happiest moment of my life.

King Emperor: Thank you. [Turning to Lord Morley] Is that not so Morley, that the Maharaja speaks English very well? [Turning again towards the Maharaja] Will you introduce your suite?

Maharaja: Your Majesty, before doing so I solemnly assure Your Majesty that this is my sword and all that it commands are ever at Your Majesty’s services when required.

King Emperor: Thank you.

The two men met formally again only on the day before Chandra’s departure from England, but throughout the visit, perhaps impressed with the declaration of near-fealty, the king took a number of personal actions that must have impressed and pleased Chandra. He approved a royal carriage for Chandra to use in London during his stay. The king invited him and two of his sons to ride in the procession on the King’s Birthday Parade held annually at Horse Guards Parade in the center of London. Chandra and some of his suite were also invited to join him in the Royal Box at the Olympic Games on Monday, July 13, 1908. They also viewed the Royal Tournament from the Royal Box. An expensive box was hired for the suite to attend a gala performance at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden in honor of a visit by the President of the French Republic.

Outside these high profile public events, Chandra and his suite also visited such places as Edinburgh, Eton College, Windsor, Portsmouth dockyard, the Channel Fleet at Dover, the Vickers and Maxim firearms factories, and Woolwich Arsenal. A number of military reviews were included in the program and a day was spent on board one of the recently built Dreadnaught battleships. In sum, Chandra was given plenty of opportunity to see at first hand the military basis of Britain’s imperial power.

The civilian members of Chandra’s suite seated in front of his 19 servants. In “Visit to Europe of Chandra Shumsher JBR, Vol. I”/Madan Puraskar Pustakalaya (MPP) Photo Collection

As the visits were going on, two problems emerged for the India Office officials to sort out. The first was straightforward. The British and Foreign Bible Society sent a letter to Sir Curzon Wyllie which stated that it was their long established custom to present distinguished visitors from abroad with a copy of one of the Society’s editions in their own tongue, and asked that a deputation be allowed to meet Chandra for this purpose. When consulted, the reply from Mortimer House was clear: “the Maharaja does not at all like the idea of receiving a deputation and would be very glad if they would be asked to abandon their proposal.”

The second problem took more time and effort to resolve. On June 22, 1908, exactly six weeks after Chandra and his suite had been presented to King Edward VII, a parcel arrived in the Indian Office. The official who received it forwarded it to the Palace using the following words, “At the 11th hour this Kharita, or letter, in Persian, enclosed inside a silk bag, [with a translation in English inside the silver box] has been brought to me by Lieutenant MacLeud Wylie from Mortimer House. It is as well that His Majesty should be informed of the contents of the Kharita.”

The kharita from King Prithvi Bir was dated April 3, 1908. It must have been brought to London by Chandra who would also have carefully vetted its contents. It would clearly have been appropriate for Chandra to have handed it to King Edward VII when he was presented to him on May 11, 1908, but it does not take much imagination to understand why he decided to withhold it. The Indian Office official’s letter stated, “The truth is that although the Prime Minister, in whose hands all governing powers are rested, professes the greatest outward show of deference to the Maharaja Dhiraj, he is not inclined to make more of the Kharita than is absolutely necessary for official purposes.” The main “official purpose” required was to draft a reply, and much consideration was given to it, not so much to the content but to what the king should write in his own handwriting in the address and in signing off the letter. Eventually, after much consultation, “My friend” was used in the address and the letter finished with, “I am Your Highnesses Sincere Friend.”

In the convention of the times, grandiloquent language is used throughout King Prithvi’s kharita, but two extracts seem of enduring historical interest. The first comes from the opening substantive paragraph, which leads to the request to grant Chandra an audience:

“[E]ncouraged by the exalted benignity, august consideration and chivalrous magnanimity of Your Majesty, convinced of the continuance of the kindness and good-will of the mighty British Government as indispensible for the well being and security of this poor hilly country, deeply conscious of the vast power and endless resources of the said Government, sincerely grateful for those favours which are the visible sign of Your Majesty’s gracious kindness and condescension, and profoundly thankful to Your Majesty’s Government in India for respecting and preserving intact the autonomy of this solitary and remote land of the Gurkhas who are ever ready to defend the fair name and the just and honourable cause of England with their heart’s best blood, I beg most respectfully to send Major General Sir Chandra . . .”

The second extract comes from near the end:

“With a sincere and loyal heart I beg to entertain the hope that Your Majesty will ever be graciously pleased to continue to allow Nepal a place of security under Your Majesty’s most exalted benignity as
hithertofore . . .”

Attached to the translation of the kharita in the files is a handwritten note from an official, which, following on from the above extracts, sets down clearly how Britain saw Nepal’s position at this time. While acknowledging the prime minister as the de facto ruler of the Nepal state, he wrote, “The precise nature of the protectorate of the British Crown over Nepal has never been clearly defined, but the State is recognised as falling under our exclusive political influence and control, and the Maharaja Dhiraj is regarded as a Native Prince or Chief under the suzerainty of H.M. exercised through the Governor General of India.”

With the exception of his trip to Oxford for the conferment of an honorary degree, the details of Chandra’s many visits are extensively covered in the three Indian Office files. The single reference to Oxford is in a letter, dated March 24, 1908, from Manners-Smith in Kathmandu to Sir Curzon Wyllie, which said, “I have been counting on Lord Curzon to arrange a visit to Oxford which Sir Chandra would like to see as, of course, he knows Sir Chandra well.” Curzon Wyllie was an old Indian hand who would have known Curzon well, so he must have alerted him to Chandra’s request privately. Files in the University Archives say very little about how Chandra came to be proposed for an honorary degree, but there are enough pointers to indicate Curzon’s hand at work, not least in the speed at which the proposal went through the formal process of approvals.

“Group Portrait, Encaenia at Oxford June 24, 1908.” Seated, from left: Sir Robert Hart; Sir Earnest Satow; Sir William Anson, MP; Chandra; Curzon; Dr. H.T. Warren, vice chancellor; Mr. C. M. Parker; Dr. F. Raymond. Standing, from left: Mohan, Juddha, Rudra, unknown, Baber, Kaiser, unknown, Hiranya, Jaya Prithvi Bahadur Singh, unknown. © British Library Board (430/67[60])
Curzon had been elected as Chancellor in 1907. As befitted his character, he was very active in the appointment. His entry in the Dictionary of National Biography states that “he threw himself so energetically into the cause of university reform that critics complained he was ruling Oxford like an Indian province.” Despite the late indication from Chandra that he wished to visit Oxford, acting quickly and decisively to honor his friend with the conferment of an honorary degree would have been the sort of challenge that appealed to Curzon. A lot had to be done in a short time, including getting Chandra to accept the honor officially, before his name could be formally published. The Oxford University Gazette published on May 26, 1908 listed those who would be proposed for honorary degrees at the annual ceremony of Encaenia to be held on June 24, 1908. Chandra’s name was not on the list but a note stated that “the list is incomplete pending the replies of other persons to the letters of invitation.”

At the time, the executive body of the University was called the Hebdomadal Council. There is a single reference in its record that states that on Monday, June 1, 1908, “a letter was read from the India Office as to an hon. degree.” The record states that names were proposed for honorary degrees but there is no mention as to why they were proposed or who proposed them. Given the length of time to exchange letters between London and Kathmandu in 1908, it is obvious that the letter of invitation to Chandra must have been dispatched some weeks before the meeting on June 1. Curzon’s letter of acceptance must have arrived just before that meeting as the Gazette published on June 2, under the heading “Encaenia,” had Chandra’s name at the top of a list of five men who were to be proposed for “conferment of a Doctor of Civil Law honoris causa at a Convocation to be held in the Sheldonian Theatre on Wednesday, June 24, 1908, at noon.” A prominent notice published in the Gazette, dated June 16, stated that Lord Curzon “has intimated his intention to be present at Encaenia and to confer the Honorary Degrees in person.”

Encaenia is the ceremonial high point of the Oxford academic year. It is the ceremony at which the university awards honorary degrees to distinguished men and (nowadays) women and commemorates its benefactors. The day starts with those involved assembling in the Hall of Magdalen College “to partake of Lord Crewe’s benefaction to the University,” consisting of peaches, strawberries, and champagne. They then walk in procession in full academic regalia to the Sheldonian Theatre on Broad Street. This was completed in 1668 after a design by Christopher Wren based on a first century Roman theater. Once the proceedings have been opened by the Chancellor, each honorand is introduced by the Public Orator with a speech in Latin and admitted to his or her new degree by the Chancellor.

Encaenia nowadays is a very solemn occasion, but it was not so in 1908 judging from the full-page report in the weekly The Oxford Times published on June 26, 1908. The Sheldonian was not full; the report indicated that there was a feeling of anticlimax compared with the previous year which was Curzon’s first Encaenia as Chancellor. That was a very large scale affair with 35 honorands, including such notables as Mark Twain (under his proper name of Samuel Langhorne Clemens), Rudyard Kipling, and General William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army, each of whom were greeted by prolonged cheering from the undergraduates. Before the 1908 event, the organist tried to keep things cheerful by playing such tunes as Auld Lang Syne and Rule Brittania, which the undergraduates enthusiastically sang. The Oxford Times reports that there was “a round of cheers as the Maharajah’s suite, a body of swarthy-visaged men arrayed in military uniform of olive-green bedizened with much gold braid and trimmings entered the building and were escorted to seats to what are known as ‘Musical Honours’, the undergraduates bursting out spontaneously with ‘For they are jolly good fellows.’”

There were more cheers and ironic cries as the Chancellor’s procession entered. The most notable honorand in 1908 was Mr. David Lloyd George, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and later Britain’s prime minister during the last three years of the First World War. When he was introduced, there was much cheering and shouted questions about women’s voting rights, pensions eligibility, and the cost of beer. The report states that in the ensuing laughter, Mr. Lloyd George heartily joined. Also loudly cheered was Sir Robert Hart, the Inspector General of Chinese Customs and Posts, “who had devoted 50 years of labour to improving the administration of the revenue of the Chinese Empire.” There was no reported hilarity when Chandra was introduced by the Public Orator as, “a statesman who had guided the foreign policy of his country and added to the strength of its military position.” Reference was also made to the fact that he was a student of the University of Calcutta when Curzon was Chancellor, and that the king had already received him with a welcome due to a friend and an ally, “and the University would now willingly add its meed of recognition.” Honorary Doctorates of Civil Law were also conferred on Sir Earnest Satow, a brilliant linguist and late Minister in Peking and C. M. Parker, an Honorary Fellow of University College. An Honorary Doctor of Science was conferred on Dr. Fulgence Raymond, a distinguished French professor of neurology.

After the conferring of degrees, the Public Orator (in 1908, the Rector of Lincoln College) delivered in Latin the Creweian Address (the same Lord Crewe of “the benefaction”) reviewing the year and commemorating the benefactors, “which was attentively and sympathetically listened to, some of his humourous and cynical remarks being greeted with laughter.” All of this would have passed over the heads of the visitors but with his love of ceremonies, titles, and awards, Chandra would have relished it. One photograph from the day, shown above, in the Curzon Collection in the British Library, strikingly conveys his favored status as Curzon’s special guest: Chandra is seated not only on Curzon’s right, but Curzon’s chair is also slightly turned toward Chandra. The photo is from an album of miscellaneous portraits of Curzon before and after his viceroyalty, with the caption, “Group Portrait, Encaenia at Oxford June 24, 1908” (Photo 430/67[60]). Standing along the back are the military members of his suite who accompanied Chandra on the day, and whom the undergraduates had welcomed with “musical honours” when they first appeared in the Sheldonian. Like his knighthood, his honorary doctorate from one of the world’s great universities had again shown that Chandra could go one better than his predecessors. This was always a powerful driving force in his life.

A week later, on the evening of June 30, 1908, Chandra attended a debate on India in the House of Lords to hear Curzon make a rousing speech that was much acclaimed in the press. One report read, “With his tall, commanding presence, his ringing voice, and air of authority, Lord Curzon dominated the House. No word of his was missed.” The reports noted the packed House and stated, “Among the interested listeners was the dusky Prime Minister of Nepal, who gave a touch of colour to the diplomatic gallery with his scarlet cap.”

There was soon to be more satisfaction for Chandra in his quest to go one better. He and his party were due to leave England on July 21, 1908, but the king requested that the departure should be delayed a day so that, at a special audience arranged for the purpose, he could personally appoint him as a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath (GCB). A note in the files says that Chandra was “the first Indian personage” to be so appointed by the King-Emperor personally. As an additional personal honor, the king ordered that the star of the Order should be set in diamonds. There is a letter from the Palace to the Treasury indicating that the cost was £480 and requesting that it be paid for out of public funds and only from the Privy Purse if necessary. There is no indication as to how the matter was resolved.

Chandra arrived back in Kathmandu on August 27, 1908. Three days later, a Grand Kharita Durbar was held to welcome him home. A separate Secret folder in the British Library gives details of its elaborate arrangements and a full translation of the speeches made. The Ranas were specialists in the organization of such events. They were clearly meant to impress the population with a display of military power, as well as gratify the egos of the large extended Rana families who could dress up in their elaborate military finery. Troops lined the route from Singha Durbar to Gaddi Durbar. Twenty minutes was allowed for the procession to cover the distance.

The ceremony started with Chandra handing over the Kharita from King Edward VII to the Maharajadhiraj, who gave it to Chandra’s brother Bhim, as Commander-in-Chief, who opened it and handed it to Sirdar Marich Man Singh to read out a translation. Bhim then read an address “on behalf of himself and the Bharadars present” which listed all Chandra’s achievements in running the country and spoke of how he had improved relations with the mighty British Government. Mention was made of Chandra meeting the King-Emperor and being awarded the GCB. Chandra, in reply, also spoke of the award of the GCB and how well he had been received in England, particularly by the King-Emperor, and how deeply impressed he had been with the vastness of England’s power and resources. “We could see but part of the invincible navy and powerful army of England and her extensive armouries, and could see how easily she wields her sway over a fifth part of the globe,” he said. He concluded by saying that the visit had drawn the two countries still closer, adding, “I feel perfectly assured that there is not the least desire anywhere to impair our autonomy or interfere with the administration of this government.”

Chandra’s insatiable desire for yet more honors quickly manifested itself. On September 25, 1908, the Officiating Resident in Kathmandu, Lieutenant Colonel Macdonald, wrote to the India Office recommending that Chandra be given a personal salute and that his brother Bhim be appointed a Knight Commander of the Star of India. One official observed, “the PM is anxious to have all the honours Sir Jang had, and he now has all with the exception of this salute.” Other comments in the file make clear Britain’s hard-nosed approach to awarding such honors to foreign dignitaries. At this time officials were trying to get Chandra to agree to Britain negotiating a new treaty with Tibet that would recognize Britain as the sole power to negotiate on Nepal’s behalf with both Tibet and China. In return, Britain would guarantee Nepal’s territorial integrity. However, Chandra, to use the wording from the file, “was not inclined to nibble.” The recorded decision was to stall the recommendation until he did. To quote directly again: “We must not overdo it with the Nepalese . . . if we go on giving Nepal things without getting something in return, we may easily induce the Gurkhas to think themselves of supreme importance to us. And the Gurkha character is such that it does not want much inducement to think this.” However colonial this sounds now, we can be sure that Chandra knew the rules of the game and was adept at playing them to his advantage. Over the coming years he would complete the full set of British honors with appointments as a Knight Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order in 1911, and as a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St Michael and St George in 1919.

There is one last twist. The Bodleian Library in Oxford is the repository of the largest known collection of Sanskrit manuscripts outside the Indian subcontinent, the majority of which are in the Chandra Shum Shere Collection. This is a huge and uniquely valuable collection of over 6,000 paper and palm leaf manuscripts. Contrary to what might be assumed, the gift of this collection is not directly connected to the award of the honorary degree, but, like the degree, it is very much connected to Curzon’s friendship with Chandra. Telling the story of how the gift came about is an apt way to finish this article.

On October 7, 1908, Professor A. A. Macdonell, the Boden Professor of Sanskrit at Oxford wrote to the Bodleian librarian, E.W. B. Nicholson, telling him that on a 1907 visit to India, he had bought 100 Sanskrit documents from a Brahmin pundit in Banaras, and that this collector was willing to sell his whole collection consisting of more that 6,000 items for 10,000 rupees, “that is, £666. 6. 8d. [666 pounds, 6 shillings, and 8 pence.]” He stressed that this was an opportunity that was never likely to recur and that the manuscripts should be acquired if money could be found. Attached to the letter was one dated September 27, 1908 from his Indian collaborator Haraprasad Shastri, principal of the Sanskrit College Calcutta, confirming that the offer was still open but that a decision had to be made quickly. A study of the files in the Bodleian records shows that the University acted with uncharacteristic speed through the agency of its chancellor. Only he could have contacted Chandra and engaged him in the venture.

The vice chancellor wrote to Nicholson on October 9, 1908 urging him to call a meeting of the curators of the Bodleian urgently. The meeting took place on October 13, 1908 with the committee deciding what the vice chancellor urged them to do: to express a strong opinion that the manuscripts should be purchased if the funds could be made available. On October 14, 1908, the vice chancellor wrote to Nicholson asking him for the letters from Macdonell and Haraprasad to send to the chancellor. He told him to take copies, and it is these copies that are now in the records. Presumably Curzon sent the original letters with one of his own to Chandra.

The vice chancellor informed a meeting of the curators on October 24, 1908 that “the Chancellor approved their decision and would probably be able to obtain the necessary funds.”

There is a long gap in the records but Chandra clearly engaged Haraprasad as his agent as the next relevant letter on the files is from Haraprasad to Nicholson, dated  September 9, 1909. This said that, at the request of Professor Macdonell, he had already dispatched six notebooks containing a list of 6,330 manuscripts, and that the manuscripts should arrive in Oxford in about eight weeks. He also indicated that they had been “purchased by me at the cost of the Maharaja of Nepal for the Bodlian [sic] library from a vendor at Benares.” This letter explains that there are 633 bundles in 27 boxes and that there are 10 manuscripts in each bundle. (“The 28th contains a number of unspecified manuscripts in Old Kashmire and Old Dravidi scripts.”)

There is also a letter to Nicholson, dated September 8, 1909, from the Secretary of the “School Book and Useful Literature Society” saying that he was instructed by Haraprasad Shastri, “who is acting on behalf of HH The Maharaja of Nepal, to ship to you about 6000 Oriental Manuscripts.” This letter also gave details of how the 28 tin boxes had been packaged, that the keys for them had already been sent by registered post and that the ship would sail on September 8, 1909. He also said, “I am instructed to pay all expenses including freight London to Oxford and I have instructed my agent accordingly.” This is the first indication that Chandra’s generosity extended to covering all aspects of the movement costs.

Initially the University spent £1,000 getting the manuscripts bound into some 2,150 volumes. In researching this article I was privileged to examine, under supervision, two items from the collection. First, circa 425, a work on divination composed in the twelfth century, which is one of seven manuscripts in the collection of the Narapatijayacaryā. This one was copied in 1620 and is the earliest known manuscript of the work in Europe. Second, circa 403, the main part of which contains Bhāskara’s Siddhāntaśiromaṇi. He was a twelfth century astronomer and mathematician. The item includes 17 extra folios that were not originally part of the manuscript, and one of them [159v] has a diagram illustrating the computation of the diameter of the earth’s shadow at the moon’s distance, written in Bengali script. The cataloguing of the complete collection is still work in progress.

Appreciation for the gift was expressed in three notable ways. A letter of thanks on behalf of the University, printed in gold by the Clarendon Press, was conveyed to Chandra. The librarian also wrote and received a warm, neatly typed reply, signed by Chandra, saying that he was delighted to hear that the books had arrived in good condition and that people thought so highly of them. Finally, a most impressive address, “from the Chancellor, Masters and Scholars of the University of Oxford,” measuring over one meter in length and 50 centimeters across, beautifully and elaborately printed with the University seal attached, was dispatched to Chandra. A copy is kept in the University Archives.

A copy of the address sent to Chandra for his help in obtaining the Sanskrit manuscripts. Oxford University Archives, ref MR 1/4/16/Sam Cowan

The thirty lines of text of the Address starts by expressing profound appreciation for “a magnificent gift which has added to the treasures of the Bodleian library.” The last paragraph of the address reads, “The late acceptance by Your Excellency of the Honorary degree of our noble Chancellor has established a close tie between Yourself and the University of Oxford and your recent act of munificence which we so gratefully acknowledge shows your generous recognition of this friendly bond.”

The penultimate paragraph speaks of “Nepal as a country which has for long been on terms of such close and cordial alliance with Great Britain.” Two examples are quoted. The first is, “No Englishman will forget the loyalty of the State which sent its brave Gurkha soldiery to assist our troops in the crisis of the Great Mutiny.” The second example quoted provides an apt ending to this article. It touches on one of its main themes, the enduring friendship between two powerful and driven men, which had its origin in a joint enterprise of deceit. In the case of Chandra, the deceit was of a friendly state, in the case of Curzon, of his own government. The relevant sentence states, “We recall the hearty cooperation of Nepal in the Tibetan Mission.”

The “Mission” was the nadir of British imperial adventurism. Its purposes were indeed based on fallacies and its achievements quickly and largely disavowed. The military actions during the invasion were pathetically one-sided. British modern rifles and Maxim machine guns were pitted against antiquated Tibetan muskets, resulting in what was described by horrified British eyewitnesses at the time as “bloody butchery” and “cavalier slaughter.” There was much wanton destruction and pillaging and, as recent research has shown, looting of sacred objects took place on a grand scale. For little gain, thousands of Tibetans were killed and events set in motion that ultimately led to a very different future for Tibet and its people. Such was “the Mission,” which Chandra ensured was launched with Nepal’s “hearty cooperation,” and directly led to the other outcomes outlined in this article.


I am most grateful to the staffs of the Oxford University Archives and the Bodleian Library Records for giving me access to some of the material I have drawn on in writing this article and for their most helpful guidance in finding it. I am also grateful to the Oxford University Archives for permission to use my photograph of the “The Address,” the British Library for permitting me to use the two photographs from the Curzon Collection, and Madan Puraskar Pustakalaya for use of the photographs in its collection.

Chandra’s suite, as listed in the British Foreign Office files:

Visit to England of the Prime Minister of Nepal, 1908.
Names of His Excellency and Suite
Commanding-General Judha Shum Shere Jung, Bahadur Rana. [Half Brother]
Commanding-General Rudra Shurn Shere Jung, Bahadur Rana. [Nephew]
General Mohan Shum Shere Jung, Bahadur Rana. [Son]
Lieutenant-General Baber Shum Shere Jung, Bahadur Rana. [Son]
Lieutenant-General Kaiser Shum Shere Jung, Bahadur Rana. [Son]
Major-General Singha Shum Shere Jung, Bahadur Rana. [Son]
Major-General Hiranya Shum Shere Jung, Bahadur Rana. [Nephew]
Colonel Raja Jai Prithvi Bahadur Sing. [Son-in-law]
Colonel Kishore Nar Sing Rana.
Brigadier-Colonel Dilli Shamsher Thapa.
Colonel Dal Bahadur Basniat.
Lieutenant-Colonel Bishnu Kumar Panday.
Lieutenant-Colonel Chandra Jung Thapa.
Sirdar Marichi Man Singh (Private Secretary).
Sirdar Shum Shere Man (Assistant Private Secretary).
Major Ganga Bahadur Basniat.
Captain Narnarain Sahi.
Suba Gobinda Prashad.
Ratna Das Baidya.
Batu Krishna Moitra.
Pundit Kashi Nath.
Nineteen servants.

British Officers in Attendance
Major J. Manners Smith, V.C., C.I.E. (British Resident in Nepal).
Lieutenant Macleod Wylie, 4th Gurkha Rifles.
Subadar-Major Amar Sing Thapa, 2nd Battalion, 5th Gurkha Rifles.
Two orderlies of 4th and 5th Gurkha Rifles.

To read the second in the series, “The monarch,” click here.

Cover photo: “The Viceroy’s Big Tiger.” Center, holding hat and looking down at his tiger, Lord Curzon. © British Library Board (430/77[86])


Correction: April 14, 2015
Because of an editing error, a previous version of this article misstated that Professor A. A. Macdonell wrote to E.W. B. Nicholson of a visit he made to India in 2007. In fact, he visited India in 1907.