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Nepal’s recorded history began with the Kiratis, who arrived in the 7th century BC from the east. Little is known about them, other than their deftness as sheep farmers and fondness for carrying long knives. It was during this period that Buddhism first came to the country; it is claimed that Buddha and his disciple Ananda visited the Kathmandu Valley and stayed for a time in Patan. By 200 AD, Buddhism had waned and was replaced by Hinduism, brought by the Licchavis, who invaded from northern India and overthrew the last Kirati king. The Hindu Licchavis also introduced the caste system (which still continues today) and ushered in a classical age of Nepalese art and architecture
Nepal’s recorded history began with the Kiratis, who arrived in the 7th century BC from the east. Little is known about them, other than their deftness as sheep farmers and fondness for carrying long knives. It was during this period that Buddhism first came to the country; it is claimed that Buddha and his disciple Ananda visited the Kathmandu Valley and stayed for a time in Patan. By 200 AD, Buddhism had waned and was replaced by Hinduism, brought by the Licchavis, who invaded from northern India and overthrew the last Kirati king. The Hindu Licchavis also introduced the caste system (which still continues today) and ushered in a classical age of Nepalese art and architecture.
By 879, the Licchavi era had petered out and was succeeded by the Thakuri dynasty. A grim period of instability and invasion often referred to as the ‘Dark Ages’ followed, but Kathmandu Valley’s strategic location ensured the kingdom’s survival and growth. Several centuries later the Thakuri king, Arideva, founded the Malla Dynasty, kick-starting another renaissance of Nepali culture. Despite earthquakes, the odd invasion and feuding between the independent city-states of Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur, the dynasty flourished, reaching its zenith in the 15th century under Yaksha Malla. The 14th century Malla ruler Jayasthiti Malla is credited with the ‘sanskritisation’ of the unique Newar society of the Kathmandu Valley, ie organising the Newar community into a form of the caste system, interesting because some Newars are Buddhist, some are Hindu and many follow a blend of both religions!
Nepal, as we know it now, was ‘unified’ when Prithvi Naryan Shah of Gorkha launched a campaign to conquer the Kathmandu Valley and gain the wealth of the Malla Kings. In 1768, after 27 years of fighting, he triumphed and moved the capital to Kathmandu. From this new base the kingdom’s power expanded, borne by a seemingly unstoppable army, until progress was halted in 1792 by a brief and chastening war with Tibet. Further hostilities followed in 1814, this time with the British over a territorial dispute. The Nepalese were eventually forced to call it quits and signed the 1816 Sugauli Treaty, which surrendered Sikkim and most of the Terai (some of the land was eventually restored in return for Nepalese help in quelling the Indian Mutiny of 1857), established Nepal’s present eastern and western boundaries, and installed a British ‘resident’ in the country. This period of fighting also firmly established the reputation of the famed Ghurkha soldiers. The income earned by these soldiers is today an important part of Nepal’s economy as they serve all over the globe.
The Shah dynasty continued in power during the first half of the 19th century until the grisly Kot Massacre of 1846. Taking advantage of the intrigue and assassinations that had plagued the ruling family, Jung Bahadur seized control by butchering several hundred of the most important men while they assembled in the Kot courtyard. He took the more prestigious title Rana, proclaimed himself prime minister for life and later made the office hereditary. For the next century the Ranas and their offspring built many luxurious palaces after the Colonial style that still dot the landscape, while banning education and ensuring that the remainder of the population eked out a living in medieval conditions.
The Rana’s regime came to an end soon after WWII. In 1948 the British withdrew from India and with them went the Rana’s chief support. Around the same time a host of insurrectional movements bent on reshaping the country’s polity emerged. Sporadic fighting spilled onto the streets and the Ranas, at the behest of India, reluctantly agreed to negotiations. King Tribhuvan was anointed ruler in 1951 and struck up a government comprised of Ranas and members of the newly formed Nepali Congress Party. But the compromise was short-lived. After toying with democratic elections – and feeling none too pleased by the result, King Mahendra (Tribhuvan’s son and successor) decided that a partyless ‘panchayat’ system would be more appropriate for Nepal. The king selected the prime minister, cabinet and appointed a large proportion of the national assembly, which duly rubber-stamped his policies. Power, of course, remained with only one party – the King.
Cronyism, corruption and the creaming-off of lucrative foreign aid into royal coffers continued until 1989. The Nepalese, fed up with years of hardship and suffering under a crippling trade embargo imposed by the Indians, rose up in popular protest called the Jana Andolan or ‘People’s Movement’. In the ensuing months, detention, torture and violent clashes left hundreds of people dead. It all proved too much for King Birendra, leader since 1972. He dissolved his cabinet, legalised political parties and invited the opposition to form an interim government. The panchayat system was finally laid to rest. The changeover to democracy proceeded in an orderly, and leisurely fashion, and in May 1991 the Nepali Congress Party and the Communist Party of Nepal shared most of the votes. Since then Nepal has discovered that establishing a workable democratic system is an enormously difficult task. The situation has been further exacerbated by a wafer-thin economy, massive unemployment, illiteracy and an ethnically and religiously fragmented population that continues to grow at an alarming rate.
The fractured political landscape in Nepal was torn apart in June 2001 with the massacre of most of the royal family, including the much loved King Birendra, by Crown Prince Dipendra. Civil strife erupted again in Kathmandu with a curfew imposed to quell street violence. Prince Gyanendra, the brother of King Birendra, ascended to the throne and had to face many challenges, in particular the Maoist rebellion against the government which came out in force from the underground in 1996. Numerous peace talks and ceasefires failed to hold.
Nepal’s bumpy trek into democracy continued when in 2002 (and again in 2003) Gyanendra dissolved the government and appointed his own cabinet. The country has seen more than a dozen governments since 1991.
In May 2006 Nepal’s political landscape again changed dramatically with King Gyanendra surrendering absolute power, reinstating parliament, and agreeing to the writing of a new constitution. This allowed a ceasefire agreement to be reached with the Maoists and for the first time, peace talks and agreements actually held, albeit somewhat shakily. For the first time in a long time Nepal was calm and seemed to be on the road to real stability and recovery.
Following repeated rounds of talks with various levels of success and with elections put off again and again, Nepal finally had its first election since 1999 in May 2008, when the Maoist rebels won the majority of the votes in what independent observers called a fair election. While the fairness of the election will remain doubtful, the result was that the Maoists continued their disarmament became part of the political system.
A joint Constitutional Assembly formed from the major parties is charged with rewriting the constitution before the next elections can be held. The former Maoist leaders “Prachanda” and Dr Babburam Bhattarai became the Prime Minister and Finance Minister respectively, with other posts made up of former Maoists and the other major parties. In May 2009 the Prime Minister resigned and the Maoists went into opposition as the United Marxist-Leninist Party headman took up the post of Prime Minister. The parties are still working towards the New Constitution.
There is of course a lot of cynicism amongst Nepali people about their political system and current situation and the new democracy is being exercised with occasional demonstrations and strikes. There is also however the possibility of hope, generally summed up by the idea that at least the country isn’t in war anymore and we’ll see what happens next. This is the opportunity for Nepali people to get on with their lives now that there is no longer civil war and try to rebuild their lives.