The Gorkhali defeat at Kangra

The ramparts of Kangra Fort were so formidable it was impossible for enemy troops to scale. A siege was the only way to try to defeat the forces inside. Photos: ALISHA SIJAPATI

Nepali Times reporter Alisha Sijapati spent a month retracing the Gorkha expansion beyond the Mahakali River more than 200 years ago. The Gorkha Empire was on a warpath, and the British East India Company saw it as a threat to its own expansionist ambitions. 

This five-part series looks at the bravery of the Gorkhali troops under its legendary generals to defend the newly-conquered territory, but also the historical memory of an oppressive rule. The first part appeared on 25 September, and the third instalment will be published in this space on 8 October. 

The fortress at Kangra looks majestic in the rain, as monsoon clouds drift across its stone ramparts like lace curtains. The lush green mountains appear fresh after a night of rain, as though newly painted. 

Spread across 190 hectares on a ridge overlooking the Kangra Valley and a sweeping view of the Beas-Sutlej Rivers, there has been a fort here for more than 1,000 years because of its strategic location. 

The fort had been invaded and defended many times before the Gorkhali army arrived in the early 19th century. The sprawling fortress is still impressive because of its sheer scale, and must have felt impregnable to those who occupied it at various times, and impossible to take over for those attacking it from below.  

“Kangra Fort was built in such a way that any enemy force would have been easily spotted, and its approaches were so steep and the walls so formidable that it was almost impossible to scale,” explains Sandeep Badoni, a historian based in Dehradun.

Walking towards the huge main gate, visitors are still awestruck not just by the walls towering above them but also by what warriors must have felt more than 200 years ago as they went into the many battles that were fought here. 

Over various periods in history, Kangra had been occupied by the Katoch kingdom, housed a Mughal garrison, was held briefly by the Gorkhalis and then the Sikhs, followed by the British. 

This was also the place where the Gorkhali general Kaji Nain Singh Thapa was shot by the defenders in 1809, eventually bringing to a halt Gorkha expansion westwards, and changing the course of Nepal’s history. The Gorkhalis retreated to its territories to the east, only to be attacked by the East India Company five years later.

Built by the Katoch, one of the 14 medieval ruling clans of present day Himachal Pradesh and Jammu regions of India, the fort was damaged in the 1905 earthquake. Even though what remains standing now is only one-third of the original complex, it is still one of best preserved archaeological sites in the region. 

The descendants of the Katoch rulers today maintain a small museum at the fort dedicated to their king, Sansar Chand II of Kangra, who in 1786 fought a war with the Mughal emperors to reclaim his family's heritage. 

For 115 years the Kangra Fort had been occupied by the Moghuls before Sansar Chand finally retrieved the historic fort in exchange for two other sites nearby. 

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The Katoch king restored the glory of his ancestors after much bloodshed, but peace was still elusive because he was also looking to expand his territory. There was friction between rival clans in these rugged mountains and that spilled over into open hostilities -- even as word came of the rapid advance of the Gorkhalis from the east. 

A series of attacks and annexations followed, and a ruthless Sansar Chand took over the states of Chamba, Mandi, Kutlehar, and others surrendered. The remaining smaller principalities formed a federation to have a common defence, and invited the Gorkhalis, who by then had already occupied Garhwal and Kumaon, to subdue what they considered Sansar Chand’s “terror”.

Tales of Gorkhali valour and martial prowess had preceded them, and the smaller kingdoms found it expedient to lean on what they thought was a stronger invading force from Kathmandu as a bulwark against a ruthless and ambitious neighbouring king. 

Nepali historian Dinesh Raj Panta says that the Gurkha Empire's Kangra war against Sansar Chand and Punjab’s Ranjit Singh marked the bitter end of its expansion and conquest because in those two kings the Gorkhalis finally met their match in terms of fighting spirit and cunning. 

“The Gorkhalis were already well known for their bravery and shrewdness, but Sansar Chand’s trickery and Ranjit Singh’s military strategy proved superior to the capacity of the fractious courtiers in faraway Kathmandu to plan an effective the military campaign to retain the territory they conquered,” Panta says. 

The first battle in 1808 between the forces of Sansar Chand and the Gorkha army en route to the Kangra fort was fought 50km away at Mahal Morian, which the Gorkhalis won. Sansar Chand fled to his palace at nearby Tira Sujanpur. Led by Bhakti Thapa, the Gorkhalis were in hot pursuit, and Sansar Chand fled again: this time to Nadaun, his pleasure resort 28km away. 

Nadaun did not have the fortifications to withstand a Gorkhali assault, so Sansar Chand fled further west to Kangra to make a last stand against the invaders. Kangra was so unassailable, and a frontal attack would be so costly, that the Gorkhalis had to lay a siege that lasted four years.

Sansar Chand used that time to try everything in his power to ease the Gorkhali stranglehold. He tried to entice General Amar Singh Thapa with a bribe, and even offered his daughter’s hand in marriage to the young king Girvan Yuddha Shah in Kathmandu.

Amar Singh Thapa and Kathmandu shunned these offers, making it plain to Sansar Chand that they were not there to negotiate. But even as the Gorkha siege of Kangra dragged on, General Amar Singh Thapa still refused to order a fussilade of cannon fire at the ramparts in preparation for an assault -- even though he had a good vantage point from an adjoining hill. 

The reason was that, being a devout Hindu, the Gorkhali general did not want to provoke the ire of Goddess Ambika, whose shrine was located inside the fort. Instead, he built another temple at his own base to the Goddess Jayanti, and waited for Sansar Chand to surrender. This temple stands to this day on a bluff two hours uphill from the fortress at Kangra, and has become a pilgrimage site for Indian tourists. 

The siege dragged on for four years, and impatience was boiling over among the small hill kingdoms who started to think the Gorkhalis were not as strong as they thought they were. 

The Gorkhali rank and file was also getting weary, and back in Kathmandu 1,500km away, Bhimsen Thapa, the Mukhtiyar General (Prime Minister) of Nepal, was also getting increasingly irritated by the delay in taking over Kangra Fort. 

He desperately needed a victory to strengthen his own position in the intrigue and conspiracy-ridden Kathmandu court against rival clans, and he decided to send his brother Nain Singh Thapa to Kangra to oversee a swift victory. 

When Nain Singh Thapa arrived on the Gorkha frontlines in Kangra, he wanted to attack the fort right away, but Amar Singh Thapa cautioned him to wait and strategise first. Nain Singh was a man in a hurry and led his troops to the gate of the fort, where he was shot. 

Historian Dinesh Raj Panta says, “Bhimsen Thapa had two sides to himself, an arrogant man before the Anglo-Nepal war and a deflated person after the Kangra defeat. Grief and anger over his brother's death consumed him."

“Bhimsen Thapa blamed Amar Singh Thapa for his brother being killed in action in Kangra, but also blamed himself,” Panta explains. As it turned out, the Gorkha defeat in the 1816 war also led to the downfall and death of Bhimsen Thapa.

Amar Singh Thapa was eventually able to gain control of the main gate at the fort. The Gorkhali troops stormed inside, and started climbing up the steep slope to the upper levels and their khukri drawn. 

The Katoch king put up a fierce resistance. When asked to surrender, he made a request to let the women, children, and the elderly safely evacuate Kangra, after which he promised to surrender the fort to the Gorkhalis.

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He convinced Amar Singh Thapa to give him a week to complete the evacuation of civilians. However, this turned out to be just a ploy to buy time to negotiate with his long-time rival, Maharaja Ranjit Singh of Punjab even though the two did not see eye to eye with each other. 

Disguised as a woman, Sansar Chand fled the fort to rendezvous with Ranjit Singh, and offered him the fort in return for repelling the Gorkhalis. 

This was a shocking turnaround for the Gorkhalis. Not to be outdone, Amar Singh Thapa also offered Ranjit Singh riches in return for spurning an alliance with Sansar Chand, but the king of Punjab already had his eyes on a bigger prize: the territory east of the Sutlej. 

Having heard of the capabilities of the Gorkhali war machine, Ranjit Singh knew he would one day have to fight them himself. And that day soon came in September 1809. 

Ranjit Singh’s Sikh troops that had come to the aid of Sansar Chand confronted the Gorkha army at Ganesh Ghati, a few kilometres south of Kangra Fort. This is still remembered more than 200 years later as one of the fiercest battles ever fought in the entire campaign.

“The Kangra war was so ruthless that even today, there is competition between Indians of Khalsa and Gorkha origin regarding who between them are better warriors,” explains Major Vijay Singh Mankotia, a former Indian Army officer commanding a Gorkha regiment. “The answer is that they are both the best warriors in the world."

Ranjit Singh had brought a 12,000 horse-borne cavalry to the battle of Ganesh Ghati and had amassed 72,000 soldiers against a much smaller Gorkhali force. 

The Gorkhalis were sick, hungry, war weary and far from home but they still put up a stiff resistance. But, vastly outnumbered, it was a swift, but bloody battle, and 200 among the Gorkhali forces who had retreated to the Ganesh Temple at the battlefield were attacked and burnt alive. 

Ranjit Singh then allowed Amar Singh Thapa to surrender with arms, regarded as the highest honour from the Sikh king. Even today, Amar Singh Thapa and his bravery in this battle is mentioned on plaques at Kangra.

‘The Sikhs were going for the kill, but the Grokhas put up such a brave fight that Ranjit Singh was thoroughly impressed,’ writes Jyoti Thapa Mani in her book The Khukri Braves that recounts the battles. 

Thapa Mani is herself a descendant of a warrior in the original Gorkha army in 1790. She adds, ‘In the Gorkhalis he saw great fighters -- brave and sincere. He wanted them and ended the battle diplomatically.’ 

Ranjit Singh took over Kangra Fort after ousting the Gorkhalis, but did not really defend it against the next invading force, which was the British East India Company.

Kangra represented the westernmost reach of the Gorkha empire, and the Gorkhalis retreated from this point back across the Sutlej River to Arki in Garhwal. Five years later, the Anglo-Nepal War started in 1814 and Amar Singh Thapa lived to fight another day against the East Indian Company.

The next chapters in the history of this region was the valiant, but ultimately futile, Gorkhali defence of their forts in Malaun, Nalapani and Jaithuk, which will be the subject of the next three episodes in this series.      


Back in Kathmandu

As war raged on 1,500km away to the west, the infant king Girvan Yuddha Bikram Shah in Kathmandu presided over rival Thapa, Basnyat, and Pande clans who were constantly vying for power. 

The war on the western front was to figure prominently in this competition between the families, with one blaming the other for defeat, some taking all the credit for conquests, and all of them waiting to exact revenge on the others. 

In 1799, when he was only one-and-half years old, Girvan Yuddha's father, Rana Bahadur Shah, had been forced to abdicate the throne in his favour to become an ascetic. 

But in 1804, egged on by the British, he returned to the court and became regent for Girvan Yuddha. After his reinstatement, Rana Bahadur began to exact revenge on those who had tried to keep him in exile. 

On 25 April 1806, he was beheaded by his half-brother Sher Bahadur Thapa. Dowager Queen Lalit Tripura Sundari took over the regency, while her uncle Bhimsen Thapa became the Muykhtiyar General (Prime Minister). He remained the de facto ruler of Nepal till 1837. 

Lalit Tripura Sundari was the daughter of Nain Singh Thapa, hailed a martyr after his death at the Kangra Fort. The temple she built in Kathmandu was damaged in the 2015 earthquake and has been renovated.

Girvan Yuddha was a teenage king when the Anglo-Nepal War took place in 1814-16, and he died soon after, aged 19. Bhimsen Thapa himself started falling from grace after the Sugauli Treaty, was imprisoned, and died by suicide in his jail cell in 1839. 

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