read 18 min


Two years ago, I studied a number of files in the British Library which revealed the great passion Nepal’s Rana rulers had for Honours and Awards, particularly those which were in the gift of the British sovereign. I have selected eight of the files, all listed in the text, for examination in this series of three articles. It is clear that a major attraction was the right to display the insignia of the Awards to other family members, and the larger and more eye-catching the ‘gong’ associated with a particular Award, the better. The normal definition for ‘gong’ is “a metal disc with a turned rim, giving a resonant note when struck.” But informally, in everyday speech, it also means a medal or award: something to wear on the chest to let people know that your work and achievements have been recognised. 

The subject is interesting for the light it shines on the complexity and subtlety of the relationship between Britain and Nepal during this period. In one of three thick files in the British Library covering Chandra Shumshere’s visit to England in 1908, I discovered  a handwritten note from a British official which set down very clearly how Britain saw Nepal’s position at the time. 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.” [footnote] 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 designated the Shah king as the Maharajadhiraj.[/footnote] Citizens of Nepal proudly claim that their country has never been colonised but that does not tell the whole story of the relationship between Britain and Nepal, at least during this period of Rana rule, as these three articles will highlight.  

It will help at the outset to give an outline sketch of British awards and their Indian counterparts pre-1947 and India’s independence. It is easier to deal first with the latter. After what in the UK is still called the Indian Mutiny, the British government felt the need to create a new order of knighthood to honour Indian Princes and Chiefs, as well as British officers and administrators who served in India. Thus, in 1861, Queen Victoria founded The Most Exalted Order of the Star of India. As with earlier English Orders, the new order had three classes of members: Knight Grand Commander (GCSI), Knight Commander (KCSI) and Companion (CSI). 

A more junior order, The Most Eminent Order of the Indian Empire, was founded by Queen Victoria in 1878. It was meant to be less exclusive than the Order of the Star of India, which simply meant that more people could be appointed to it. It eventually also had three classes: Knight Grand Commander (GCIE), Knight Commander (KCIE), and Companion (CIE). 

The three classes described have their equivalent in British orders. For example, the Most Honourable Order of the Bath has Knight/ Dame Grand Cross (GCB), Knight Commander (KCB), and Companion (CB). The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire has GBE, KBE, and CBE. It also has Officer, OBE, and Member, MBE. 

Up until it fell into disuse in 1947, The Most Exalted Order of the Star of India fitted in as the fifth-most-senior British Order of Chivalry following, The Most Noble Order of the Garter, The Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle, The Most Illustrious Order of St Patrick (now in disuse) and The Most Honourable Order of the Bath. 

There are two points worth noting from this introduction. First, although holders of the top two classes in each order are entitled to put ‘Sir’ in front of their names, the Insignia Stars worn on the chest, and the associated neck decorations, are larger and more distinctive in the highest class of awards. Second, there are differences in seniority between the two Indian awards, as well as between them and the British awards. Nepal’s Rana rulers were acutely aware of these gradations. This keenness to get not just an award, but the most senior and most prestigious one possible, gave British officials more opportunities to try to use the awards to get Nepal’s rulers to adopt policies which were advantageous to British interests. As will be seen, it did not always work out as the British wished or had intended. 

Jang Bahadur

Gurkha recruiting haggles

The story of granting British Awards and Honours to Nepal’s rulers starts with Jang Bahadur Kunwar, who was made a Knight Grand Cross of The Most Honourable Order of the Bath, or GCB, in 1858 in recognition of the military assistance he gave the East India Company in dealing successfully with the sepoy revolt. The two Indian Orders had not yet been created, but the British could have made him a KCB, which would also have allowed him to style himself as Sir Jang Bahadur. Instead, the grateful British made him a GCB, thus setting the gold standard for awards to future Rana rulers. Perhaps they were simply showing their gratitude to him, but British officials might also have thought such generosity would encourage Sir Jang Bahadur to step back a little from his resolute stand opposing all British attempts to recruit Gurkha soldiers from within Nepal. He never moved his position on this, though he often professed the fullest cooperation and denied that there were any restrictions. In 1873, he was made a Knight Grand Commander of The Most Exalted Order of the Star of India, or GCSI. In the historical record it is hard to find any notable event which might have led to this award. However, by this time Britain was becoming ever more desperate to start recruiting from within Nepal. My belief is that the award was part of an effort to persuade him to soften his stand on recruitment. If so, it was to no avail. Until his death in 1877, Jang Bahadur remained resolute in his refusal, as he saw it, to let the British denude Nepal of its martial population, which he considered its best means of defence.

This account based on a letter of the time conveys his attitude perfectly:

“There is a letter written in 1858 which states that about four years ago when Jang Bahadur was on a visit to Almorah he asked to be allowed to inspect the Sirmoor Battalion … The late Lt Colonel Evans, then commanding … consented. After passing down the ranks and looking minutely into every man’s face, he turned round to Lieut Colonel Evans and said “I see you have got all the best Gurkhas in my country – I must put a stop to this. I look on these men as Deserters”. (Letter of Major C Reid dated 25 January 1858 in Lineages and Composition of Gurkha Regiments in British Service by John Chappell, p.27, The Gurkha Museum, 2015.)

Ranaudip Singh

Ranaudip Singh succeeded Jang and held the all-powerful prime ministerial appointment until his assassination in 1885. Throughout his eight years in power he faced numerous internal conspiracies to usurp his position and incessant pressure from the British to allow them to recruit within Nepal. The system of clandestine recruiting in place was just about adequate to keep replacing Gurkha soldiers who were going on pension, but was totally incapable of supplying the additional recruits required for the extra Gurkha battalions the British were creating. Ranaudip was in a difficult position. He needed the support of the British against his internal enemies, but he knew that his position in Kathmandu would be greatly weakend if he acceded to British demands. Under great pressure, he supplied a batch of 559 men, of whom as many as 393 were rejected, being mostly “the lame, the maimed and the blind,” (Political Relations between India and Nepal 1877-1923, Kanchanmoy Mojumdar, p. 44, Munshiram Manoharlal, 1973). This led the British to conclude that it would never be able to rely on the Nepal government to produce recruits of the quantity and quality required. 

Ranaudip was made a Knight Commander of the Star of India, or KCSI. He may well have been disappointed, and not just because he was not made a Knight Grand Commander, a GCSI. What he desperately craved was to reach the gold standard of being made a Knight Grand Cross of the Most Noble Order of the Bath, a GCB, to show his detractors in Kathmandu that in the eyes of the Viceroy, he was just as important as Jang Bahadur had been. Towards the end of his time as Prime Minister a deal was being formulated which would allow unrestricted recruitment for the four new Gurkha regiments being raised for the Indian army. For their part, the British agreed to give the Nepal government one rifle for each man recruited – up to a total of 5,600 weapons – and Ranaudip was assured that his wish to be awarded the GCB would receive favourable consideration, provided he fulfilled his commitments regarding the supply of recruits. 

Before this understanding could move forward, Ranaudip’s nephews, the Shumshere brothers, decided that their best interests lay in assassinating their uncle:

“The Shumshere brothers assembled at their residence on the evening of November 22, 1885 … Six of them set out for the Narayanhiti Palace, the official residence of the Prime Minister, arriving at about 9 pm. The eldest, Bir Shumsher, remained on the ground floor … Chandra Shamsher remained at the door of the Prime Minister’s apartment while the four other brothers, Khadga, Dambar, Rana and Bhim, entered on the pretext of delivering a message from the British Resident … Ranaudip barely had time to look up at the intruders before they opened fire, one after the other, with weapons concealed inside their military greatcoats and shot him dead.” (Nepal under the Ranas, Adrian Sever, p. 177, Oxford and IBH, 1993.)

Bir Shumsher

Following this murder, the family added Jang Bahadur to their name, although they descended from Jang’s younger brother, Dhir Shumshere. Bir Shumshere, the eldest of the brothers, emerged as the new Maharaja and the British had at last got their man. He needed and craved recognition by the British, who had control over Jung Bahadur’s surviving sons and relatives. He gained the legitimacy he sought after agreeing not just to cooperate with the clandestine system of regimental recruitment which had been in place up to that stage, but actively to procure for the British the new recruits they needed. Fulfilling this commitment required a measure of coercion and bribery of potential recruits, as the new demands exceeded the number of men willing to serve. British officials placed new conditions that narrowed the pool of potential recruits considerably compared to the broader base from which Gurkha soldiers had previously been recruited: now, their requirements stipulated that 75 per cent of the recruits must be Gurungs or Magars, and included an admonition against sending recruits of “objectionable castes”. 

In May 1892, the Marquis of Lansdowne, the Governor General, secured a KCSI for Bir Shumshere as a seal of appreciation for his policy towards the British. When the Home Government objected on the ground that Bir had had a bloody ascent to power, Lansdowne pleaded, “[W]e must not be extreme to mark what is done amiss by such people. If we were, we would have to throw the Amir overboard at once. (Political Relations between Indian and Nepal, pp. 62-63. Amir Abdur Rahman Khan was the notoriously cruel Emir of Afghanistan from 1880 to 1901.) 

Encouraged, perhaps, by his elevation to knighthood, Bir made the surprising claim that the award showed that he was a braver man than his two predecessors. Wylie, the British Resident, records on September 24, 1893, that Bir wrote to him as follows: “From the record in your office you know that the late Maharaja Sir Jung Bahadur and Sir Ranodip Singh Rana had not the courage to supply recruits to the British Government, yet, with the view of strengthening the basis of friendship with the British Government, I, as far as possible, having explained and satisfied the Bahadurs and arranged that the ryots [peasants] would not be displeased, have carried out the work with facility” (British India’s Relations with the Kingdom of Nepal, Asad Husain, pp. 249-250, Allen and Unwin, 1970.) Bir was upgraded to GCSI in 1897.

Maharaja Chandra Shumsher Rana wearing the vestment and accoutrements of a Knight Grand Cross of The Most Honourable Order of the Bath GCB

Chandra, the game-changer

Bir Shumsher died on March 4, 1901. Dev Shumshere succeeded him but Chandra Shumsher seized power on June 27, 1901, almost certainly with support from the British.

My long article on Chandra covers the period when he was awarded the first two of his British awards. In 1905 he was made a GCSI for his resolute but duplicitous support, described in detail in my article, for the British invasion of Tibet. The circumstances of his second award are worth a little elaboration. 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. This help and support also led to him getting an invitation to visit the UK. At the conclusion of the visit, at a special audience arranged for the purpose, King Edward VII appointed him as a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath, or GCB. This would have been hugely satisfying for him: from an early stage he had aimed to match, and if possible surpass, the honours awarded to his uncle, Jang Bahadur. 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 honour, 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 – in excess of £60,000 in today’s terms. The letter also indicated that it should be paid for out of public funds and from the Privy Purse only if necessary.  

It is worth at this stage highlighting how and when Chandra was appointed as a Knight Grand Cross to two other of the United Kingdom’s orders of chivalry. 

After hosting King George V on a hunting trip in the Tarai in December 1911, Chandra Shumshere was made a Knight Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order, GCVO, an award which recognises distinguished personal service to the monarch, and is in her or his personal gift.  At the same time, Bhim Shumshere, the Nepal Army Commander-in-Chief, was made a KCVO.  

In 1919, Chandra was appointed a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St Michael and St George, GCMG. This is normally reserved for top British diplomats judged to have rendered outstanding service abroad. Chandra’s award was in recognition of Nepal’s contribution to the British military effort during the First World War, both in terms of the number of Gurkha soldiers recruited for British service and the large contingents of the Nepal Army that were sent to India to carry out important military tasks there, under the leadership of General Baber Shumshere, Chandra’s second eldest son. Chandra’s strong leadership on this commitment included making large personal financial contributions to the British cause.

Chandra deserves the accolade of game-changer on awards to senior Ranas in Nepal, and not just because of the number he personally accrued, and so quickly; but also for the way he worked assiduously to widen the number of family members who received them. Up until his time, these awards were restricted to the Mahararja only, but as the files to be examined in this article highlight, under him, these awards became something of an open house. This suited both sides. For Chandra it enabled him to play internal games to keep his brothers –and his and their children – on their toes. It also helped to stop his brothers getting overly ambitious during his long period as Prime Minister; for example, his successor, Bhim Shumsher, had to wait 29 years and Juddha Shumsher, the last of the second generation of the Rana family, had to wait 40 years. For the British, the widening of Rana family members proposed for awards gave them more scope to leverage support for their policies and objectives.

Bhim Shumshere

Getting Bhim a “K”

These four files provide the material for the final part of the article:  

1 File S I Feb 1909 10-12 Question of granting a personal salute to the Prime Minister of Nepal and of appointing General Bhim Shamshere, Commander-in-Chief of Nepal, as a K.C.S.I.

Reference: IOR/R/1/1/367

2 File S I Sep 1909 14 Renewal of the proposal to appoint General Bhim Shumshere Jang, Rana Bahadur, Commander-in-Chief in Nepal, to be Knight Commander of one of the Indian Orders

Reference: IOR/R/1/1/380

3 File S I Aug 1910 7-8 Proposed appointment of General Bhim Shumshere Jang, Rana Bahadur, Commander-in-Chief in Nepal, to be a Knight Commander of one of the Indian Orders

Reference: IOR/R/1/1/413

4 File S I Jan 1912 23 Renewal of the recommendation to appoint General Bhim Shumshere Jang, Rana Bahadur, Commander-in-Chief, Nepal, a Knight Commander of one of the Indian Orders

Reference: IOR/R/1/1/462

The files listed are mostly about the struggle to get Chandra Shumshere’s younger brother, Bhim, made a Knight Commander of one of the Indian Orders of Chivalry. File 1 opens with a note which says that the question of the grant of a personal salute to the Minister and a title to Nepal’s commander in chief was raised in 1906, but “the matter fell through.” In 1907 the British Resident in Kathmandu, Major Manners-Smith, had again raised the question of a personal salute and title but was told that the government of India saw, “no sufficient reason for recommending any further honour for the Minister and that the question of an honour for the commander-in-chief might appropriately  be deferred until after the minister’s return from England.” (Chandra left for England on April 6, 1908 and returned to Kathmandu on August 27, 1908.)

The first substantive note in the file is from Lieutenant Colonel F.W.P. Macdonald, officiating resident in Kathmandu, dated September 25, 1908. (The Resident, Manners-Smith, had accompanied Chandra on his UK visit and presumably was still on UK leave.) It was addressed to J.B. Wood, Deputy Secretary to the Government of India in the Foreign Department. It opens by explaining how helpful Bhim Shumsher had been to the Residency during Chandra’s absence in the United Kingdom before cutting to the first main point:

“It has occurred to me that the offer of a personal salute to the Prime Minister and the title for General Bhim might possibly be used with advantage in the event of the government of India deciding to open negotiations with the Prime Minister, with the object of concluding a new treaty. In this event Sir Chandra will no doubt ask for something ‘solid’ – e.g., arms, ammunition and machinery – [this of course is my own idea. I have had no hint either direct or indirect on this subject], but it might help matters to a fortunate issue if the grant of these honours were suggested during the negotiations.  

I understand that the Prime Minister is anxious to have all the honours that Sir Jang had and indeed he now has all with the exception of this salute, and I have no doubt that he would value it very much. I am sure too that he would much like to see his favourite brother a K.C.S.I.”

At this time, British officials were trying to get Chandra to negotiate a new treaty that would recognize Britain as the sole power to negotiate on Nepal’s behalf with Tibet, China, Bhutan, and Sikkim. In return, Britain would guarantee Nepal’s territorial integrity. Chandra had hinted to Manners-Smith that he would be interested in such a treaty. The British were also interested but were cautious about the commitments Chandra would inevitably insist on in return. Both sides were driven by apprehension over China’s attempt at the time to strengthen control over Tibetan affairs. (For full details of the various machinations that went on over this “new treaty”, see Chapter 6 of Kanchanmoy Mojumdar’s book, Political Relations Between India and Nepal 1877-1923.)

Macdonald concluded his note by saying, “This letter is not meant as a recommendation but merely as a suggestion that, in certain circumstances, we might do well to hold out the offer of these honours”. He was brusquely told to submit his recommendations in the ordinary way: “It is not necessary in such cases to ascertain first whether they are likely to be favourably received.” 

The recommendation requested came from Macdonald in a note dated, November 8, 1908.  It opened by explaining that he had seen the Prime Minister on the subject of the Treaty with Tibet. “He had then an opportunity (had he wished to take it) of speaking again about the conclusion of a new Treaty with us. He did not do so. Since I saw him we have received the Pioneers [Note:a Calcutta newspaper] of the 5th and 6th November with their items of news about Tibet and China. The Prime Minister has made no sign, so I presume that he does not mean to approach us again on the subject, in the hope that we would go to him!”

The next few paragraphs are best given verbatim. Some of the words might grate but this is 1909 and they were written by a servant of a great imperial power in its pomp.  Maharaja Chandra Shumshere Rana knew the game well and was adroit at playing it to his own and Nepal’s advantage: 

“Viewing the circumstances then as they now stand it seems to me advisable to let this matter of the “K” for General Bhim stand over with that of the salute for the Prime Minister until such times as the question of the Treaty is touched on. My idea (which perhaps I did not make sufficiently clear) was that if the Prime Minister touched at all on the subject of the Treaty and if we wish to smooth matters over we might have conveniently given  his brother a “K” as a “heartener up”.[Note: italics in original]

But as the Prime Minister does not seem to be inclined to nibble I think it would be wise to let General Bhim’s honour hang over until Sir Chandra does make a move of some sort, when an opportunity will no doubt offer of granting this honour as a “ heartener up.”

I think too that there is such a thing as “overdoing it” and that we should be careful not to fall into this error with the Nepalese. The Prime Minister has been treated with very great honour indeed, and if you go on giving Nepal things without getting something in return, we may easily induce the Gurkhas to think themselves of supreme important to us. And the Gurkha character is such that it does not want much inducement to think this. Everyone has written of the Gurkha, says this of them.

Having consideration then to what now seems to be the Prime Minister‘s attitude, I write to ask whether government would wish me to recommend this honour for General Bhim Shumshere. 

If I may put it bluntly I think there is no necessity for giving this honour; that unless we think that we can get some good from doing so we should not give it; and therefore I would now recommend that unless and until approached by the Prime Minister about the Treaty or some other important question, we may well hang this up. It is of no use giving an honour away for nothing. [Note: italics in original] We are not going to buy Gurkha or any other gratitude by doing this, and we may as well keep the “K’ to be given when we think we can get something in return. But I am of course ready to recommend it if government thinks it would be wise to give it and in that case I think I could find sufficient reason for doing so.” 

Given such equivocation, it is no surprise to find the decision conveyed by J.B. Wood, Deputy Secretary to the Government of India in the Foreign Department, in the final words of the file: “I am desired to say that his Excellency the Viceroy thinks the consideration of this honour may wait till the new treaty is settled.” 

Seemingly undaunted, on April 20, 1909, just seven months later, the Residency in Nepal sent what it termed a ‘renewal proposal’, this time with  the personal salute for the PM omitted and, instead of a request to appoint Bhim as a Knight Commander of The Most Exalted Order of the Star of India, the wording is changed, “to be a Knight Commander of one of the Indian Orders”; a clear indication that, to increase the chances of success, a Knighthood in either of the Indian Orders would suffice. [File 2 above]

This time the submission was submitted by the Resident, John Manners-Smith, now clearly back from leave in England. He was Resident in Kathmandu from 1905 to 1916. During that period be became a confidant of Chandra Shumshere, as Chapter 6 of Mojumdar’s book, referred to earlier, makes clear. 

One of the reasons for his confidence in making another submission so quickly comes in his second paragraph. It stems from the Viceroy’s quoted reason for not approving the previous  request: “Now that the question of a new Treaty is no longer on the tapis, I presume there is no further objection to a renewal of the recommendation.” [“On the tapis” is a Victorian phrase meaning “on the table” or “under consideration”.]

The key to understanding why the Treaty was no longer an issue comes in this extract from p. 163 of Mojumdar’s, Political Relations between India and Nepal:

“There was in fact no reason to press Chandra Shumsher for a treaty when Manners-Smith himself had testified that the Prime Minister

… fully realises that in practice his policy must be guided by the wishes and advice of the British government but he would be glad if the Nepal durbar could avoid making a formal stipulation on that point, so that he may not be thought by his country to have lowered the independent status of Nepal. [Mojumdar is quoting from, “Annual Report on Nepal, Resident to Govt”, July 8, 1910.]

The idea of a Nepalese treaty was then dropped only to be revived some years later when it was Hirtzel who, of all, was most eager for it.” [Sir Arthur Hirtzel was the political secretary at the Indian Office.]

Manners-Smith went on to state a commendably high moral view on how submissions for knighthoods should be judged: “Personally I do not think it right that the bestowal of distinctions such as knighthoods should be used in the manner suggested in my predecessors letter of the 8th November, but should be governed entirely by merit. Looked at from this point of view, I think General Bhim Shum Shere has a thoroughly good claim to His Excellency the Viceroy’s consideration.  He has always been a loyal supporter of the present prime minister’s policy of active progress and goodwill towards British interests. According to the rules of succession, he will succeed his brother should he survive him. General Bhim Shum Shere is popular with the army, and the grant of an honour to him would have good political effect in Nepal.”

Sadly, despite the excellent words and the reference to the fact that the previous reason given by the Viceroy for delay no longer held, the Private Secretary to the Viceroy wrote: “I think this can wait a bit. He certainly did well when the Prime Minister was in England. But it seems desirable to let Nepal politics develop a little. In any case it would seem desirable to consult the Prime Minister first. It will be undesirable to do this unless it had been decided to grant the title.”

This rejection must have been hugely frustrating to Manners-Smith as, through his relationship with Chandra, he would have been totally confident that the submission had the Prime Minister’s full support.

Again, undaunted, he made another submission on November 6, 1910, using exactly the same words. [File 3 above] but it would appear that, though supported by the Viceroy, it was put on hold as there were no vacancies in either order at the time.  

File 4, listed above, was a further renewal of the November 6, 1910 submission. The file indicates that there were now two KCIE vacancies but none among the KCSI. However, a new factor was King George V’s planned visit to Nepal in December 1911. The only clue to what probably happened next is in this short note, dated July 7, 1911: “I expect his Majesty would like to give any honours that may be decided on for Nepal, himself, while he is there, and it is for consideration whether they should be notified beforehand with the Durbar honours or not.”

It is most likely, therefore, that when the indication came from the staff of King George V that the sovereign wished to make Bhim, the Nepal Army’s Commander-in-Chief, a Knight of the Royal Victorian Order, it obviated any pressing need to give him the KCSI that he would otherwise have received.   

So, five years after the first effort to get a Knighthood for Bhim
Shumshere, through a chance visit of the British sovereign, he was
appointed to an Order of Chivalry in the personal gift of the monarch.
In the photo above, his KCVO Star is the lowest hanging one. Other
awards inevitably followed after he succeeded Chandra as Maharaja
after a 29 year wait,.

Part 2, Baber Shumshere’s relentless quest. To follow in one week

Chandra tries to control a growing demand for more Awards led by his son Baber but reveals an acute sensitivity to the position of the monarch and steps in to help an errant son-in-law in serious trouble with the British in India.