From Nalapani to Kalapani

The forest around Khalanga fort in Nalapani, the site of the first major battle that pitted the Gorkhali troops against the East India Company in 1815. All photos: ALISHA SIJAPATI

Nepali Times reporter Alisha Sijapati spent a month earlier this year retracing the Gorkhali 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 in the Subcontinent.

This is the fifth and final part of the series that looks back at the bravery of the Gorkhali troops under its legendary generals to defend the newly-conquered territory, but also the historical memory among the local people of an oppressive rule.

The firstsecondthird and fourth episodes in this series are in the Nepali Times archives.

Malaun was certainly the fiercest battle fought in the Anglo-Gorkha War in which the defenders suffered heavy casualties, and the death of legendary general Bhakti Thapa.

The Gorkhalis were forced to cede all territory west of the Mahakali River to the British East India Company. Then on 2 December 1815, Nepal signed the Treaty of Sugauli, which effectively ended the war, but that did not mean an end to distrust between Calcutta and Kathmandu.

And to this day, the defeat and loss of so much territory continues to affect Nepal’s relations with independent India, as well as a territorial dispute over the Kalapani region on Nepal’s north-western tip.

Even before the war ended, British officers were in awe of the bravery in battle of their enemy. In fact, some of the troops in the Gorkhali army switched sides and joined the British forces even before the treaty was signed to end the war.

The tradition of recruiting Nepal’s ‘martial races’ into the British Army, and later also the Indian Army that started then continues to this day. Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw, former Chief of Indian Army, once famously said: “If a man says he is not afraid of dying, he is either lying or a Gorkha soldier.”

This fierce reputation can in fact be traced back to the first major battle fought between the Gorkhali and the East India forces in Khalanga outpost of Nalapani near Dehradun in present-day Uttarakhand state in India.

It was in Nalapani that the defenders under command of Capt Balbhadra Kunwar, the Gorkhali commander of Garhwal, despite a siege, held out for a month against the British at the start of the war in 1814.

To the west of Nalapani, the Gorkhalis had already fought and lost the fort at Kangra to Sansar Chand and Maharaja Ranjit Singh in 1809, but Khalanga was the first major battle that pitted them against the East India Company.

The siege of Khalanga hill lasted from 31 October to 30 November 1814 around a small base walled with bamboo stockades. Today the road up the hill is an easy drive, but 200 years ago there were thick forests on the steep slopes, and the Gorkhali base seemed impregnable.

The memorial to Capt Balbhadra Kunwar at Khalanga

Like the Gurkha forts of Jaithak, Subathu and Malaun, here too the leaves whisper in the wind as if the place is still haunted by the ghosts of hundreds of Gorkhali soldiers their women and children who perished. The wind rustling in the trees sounds to visitors like their cries for water “Pani, pani”.

As the siege dragged on, the British had cut off the water supply to the fort, and unable to take the hunger and thirst anymore, the defenders made a dash for it, and were cut down.

A place of such great sacrifice and tragedy now lies forlorn and abandoned. There is a tall column that rises above the overgrown ruins of the fort that is the memorial to Capt Balbhadra Kunwar, with trash littering its base.

The fort is now a popular selfie-spot for picnickers, who drive up to admire the view of Dehradun below. But the young Indians are oblivious of the history witnessed by these weathered stone slabs. It seems to hold symbolic significance only to the occasional Nepali visitor.

Not a drop to drink

Capt Balbhadra Kunwar was a proud commander of the Gorkhali forces here but was only 25 at the time of the battle of Khalanga. His father Chandrabir Kunwar was also once appointed the governor of Garhwal and Doti.

Capt Balbhadra was related to Gen Amar Singh Thapa and his descendent was Jang Bahadur Kunwar, who would later become the first Rana prime minister of Nepal after the Kot coup in Kathmandu.

Capt Balbhadra planned on taking a defensive position against the British to prolong the battle, awaiting reinforcements from Kathmandu. The Gorkhali defenders primarily consisted of 300 archers, sword and khukri fighters along with their families. They were heavily outnumbered and outgunned by the Company forces which had 5,000 troops and light artillery.

The source of water in Khalanga of Nalapani was a 15-minute walk below the outpost, and the Gorkhalis also had limited food supply. The fortifications were not strong enough, and Capt Balbhadra’s strategy depended largely on his thinly spread khukri-weilding troops to take the fight to the British lines, in surprise hit-and-run attacks in the forests.

On 21 October 1814, Colonel Sebright Mawby, who had arrived at Dehradun with 1,000 men from the King’s 53rd and native cavalry, wrote to Capt Balbhadra Kunwar at midnight, asking him to surrender. Balbhadra tore up the letter and sent a message back saying he did not receive correspondences so late at night.

The road to the fort today is seen strewn with trash. A place of such great sacrifice and tragedy now lies forlorn and abandoned.

Col Mawby then decided to wait for Lt Col Carpenter who joined him two days later with his troops of 1,300 infantry, 300 horses and five light guns. On the 24th, Col Mawby’s men tried to breach the fort with cannon fire from two 6-pounders but failed.

Then on the 26th, he was joined also by Maj-Gen Sir Hugh Robert Rollo Gillespie who, annoyed at Mawby’s failure, arrived with two brass 12-pounders, two 6-pounders, howitzers and mortars, and more men.

On 31 October, Gillespie led the second assault. Amidst a fusillade of cannon fire and clash of swords, Gillespie then tried to follow the Gorkhalis back into the fort with a dismounted party of the 8th Dragoons.

When that failed, he renewed the attack with companies of the 53rd Foot, shouting as he charged: "One shot more for the honour of Down.” A Gorkhali sharpshooter then put a bullet through his heart, and he was instantly killed. The next senior officer had no choice but to call a retreat.

Gillespie’s death eased the pressure on the fort, and was a feather in Balbhadra’s cap. But the Gorkhalis knew that it was only a question of time before the British would return, and the worst was yet to come.

On 27 November, the British, under the command of Col Mawby, located the hidden water supply to the fort and cut it off. Nalapani was now completely surrounded, and the Gorkhalis did not have a drop to drink. There were women and children inside the fort since it was the custom then for the Gorkhali soldiers to bring their families along.

The number of the wounded and dead inside the fort rose with each passing day, but Balbhadra and his forces decided to hold their ground and fight till death with khukris in their hands

The British were getting impatient with the stubbornness of the defenders. So, they intensified the bombardment with cannons and the condition inside the fort became even more dire for the Gorkhalis and their families. The children cried for water, and morale was dwindling.

Balbhadra and the Gorkhalis knew that the reinforcements would not arrive in time and were determined to fight on. But hope was dwindling. And so, with heavy hearts, Balbhadra and the remaining troops decided to leave behind the dead and the injured, retreat and live to fight another day.

Historians say that when Capt Balbhadra rode out of Nalapani in the cover of night, he shouted to the British, pledging to come back and fight them: "Go capture the fort that you could not win by war, we have left it of our own free will.”

When the British finally entered the destroyed fort, they found only death and suffering. They had lanterns, and from the darkness of the ruins came faint whispers calling for water, and the stench of corpses was unbearable.

While the biggest and most ruthless battles in the war were fought further west in Malaun, the first big blow to Gorkhali morale was in Nalapani.

Jyoti Thapa Mani, the author of The Khukri Braves, describes in her book the deadly scene at Khalanga forest of Nalapani where, as the Company fired cannon rounds at the weak ramparts of the fort, many Gorkhali soldiers, children and families died of thirst and their corpses lay all over the hilltop.

Later, Col Mawby ordered the Khalanga fort to be razed to the ground, leaving no trace, and that is how the ruins have remained to this day. Only 70 Gorkhalis and their commander survived the battle for Khalanga fort in Nalapani by abandoning the fort.

Balabhadra Kunwar and about 300 Gorkhalis joined the army of King Ranjit Singh of Punjab, and the famous captain was killed in action during the Afghan-Punjab War in 1879 in what is now Pakistan  .

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The streets of Almora resemble those of any Nepali city. Many Nepali daily wage labourers, descendants of the region's erstwhile conquerors, mill about the intersections looking for work.

Harsh Dev Joshi: the missing link?

The Kumaon region that the Gorkhalis had conquered, and is now a part of India’s Uttarakhand state, was ruled by the Katyuri (Chand) dynasty since the 11th century. By the late 1700s, the dynasty’s power had diminished as two political factions – the Phartyals and the Joshis – were engaged in a power struggle for the throne. Lal Singh Phartyal sidelined the Joshis and placed his son, Mohan Singh, renaming him as Mohan Chand, as the King of Kumaon.

Things turned ugly when Diwan Sib Dev Joshi lost his life, which led to his entire family being imprisoned. Diwan Sib Dev Joshi’s son Harsh Dev Joshi, bitter about his father’s death and imprisonment, spent all his life conspiring to gain power to exact revenge on the Phartyals. Harsh Dev’s personal tragedy cost Gorkhalis the most in the two decades that would follow.

Joshi devoted his life to oust the Phartyals from Kumaon. He plotted to kill Mohan Chand in 1789, only to be disappointed that Mohan Chand’s nephew Mahendra was placed on the throne. Well aware of the growing power of the advancing Gorkhalis, Joshi sought their help in 1789. He had a much larger plan to also annex Garhwal for himself.

On the insistence of Harsh Dev Joshi, ‘Sano Kaji’ Amar Singh Thapa (father of Bhimsen Thapa, not the Amar Singh Thapa who commanded the Gorkhali force in Malaun), crossed the Mahakali River with Gorkhali soldiers in 1790 to Kumaon to capture its capital, Almora.

King Mahendra Chand was then killed and Kumaon was annexed. After Harsh Dev successfully managed to overthrow the Phartyals, he wanted to be ceremoniously appointed governor of Kumaon by the Gorkhalis, but this had to be cancelled as war broke out on another front after China had come to Tibet’s aid against Nepal. The Gorkha forces had to return from Kumaon to defend Kathmandu from the Chinese.

Harsh Dev Joshi then tried to forge an alliance with various principalities in Garhwal, Kumaon and further west, against the Gorkhali occupation and regain political power in the Himalayan foothills under the guardianship of the East India Company.

While Nepal’s history books speak volumes of the loyalty and valour of the Gorkhalis in the conquered territories, the collective memory of the people of Kumaon and Garhwal is different to this day. The Gorkhali occupation is remembered as being cruel, even barbaric. The people of Garhwal, Kumaon and Himachal Pradesh have historical memory of Gorkhali brutality and plunder.

When a trader in Dehradun found out that this reporter was from Nepal, he was not diplomatic. “You Nepalis gave a lot of pain to our ancestors, we will never forget that,” he said in an even voice.

Ironically, the streets of Almora and Dehradun are full of Nepali porters and menial daily wage earners who say they are from Doti, Achham and Bajhang districts in Nepal. It is a great reversal of history that the descendants of the former conquerors are migrant workers at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder here.

The dejected Harsh Dev Joshi felt double-crossed by the Gorkhalis and was embittered with them right till the end of the Anglo-Gorkha war. Joshi was in fact the mastermind behind the alliance with the East India Company against the Gorkhali invaders, a fact that has been largely brushed off in the history of the period.

In fact, the consensus among Nepali historians is that the Gorkhali expansion in the west was a result of Bahadur Shah’s ambition to continue his father, King Prithvi Narayan Shah’s legacy of annexation. On the other hand, historians in India claim that it was Harsh Dev Joshi who had a great role in sparking off the Anglo-Gorkha War.

“Harsh Dev Joshi does not figure prominently in Nepal’s history books, but it would be safe to say that it was he who initially brought the Gorkhalis to the west of the Mahakali River, and eventually it was also he who sent the Gorkhalis back,” historian Dinesh Raj Panta told Nepali Times in Kathmandu.

Joshi’s ego was bruised by the Gorkhalis, and he found the perfect opportunity when they signed a diplomatic treaty with Pradyumna Shah, the King of Garhwal.

In her book, Jyoti Thapa Mani explains that Harsh Dev Joshi was already ill disposed towards the Garhwalis for turning their back against him to fight a war against the Phartyals. So, he began to actively sow hatred against the Gorkhalis in the region.

The vibrantly coloured windows in present-day Almora, the cultural capital of Kumaon.

Kumaoni writer Shekhar Pathak, however, does not agree with this interpretation of history. “The Anglo-Gorkha war and the loss of Kumaon and Garhwal were monumental setbacks for the Gorkhalis,” he told Nepali Times in an interview in Nainital. “However, it wasn’t just at Harsh Dev Joshi’s instigation and alliance with the Company, it was due to the ruthlessness of the Gorkhali rulers. Their heavy-handed rule had cost them public support, and the Gorkhali cruelty is a part of Garhwali and Kumaoni folklore to this day.”

While Kumaonis already disliked the Gorkhali governors, the tipping point for the Garhwalis came with the great 1803 earthquake. In the aftermath, Pradyumna Shah could not pay his annual revenue to the conquerors, so Gorkhalis attacked Garhwal in what is known today as the brutal Battle of Khurbura.

“The attack happened during the most vulnerable time for Garhwalis as many had lost their lives, families and their homes in the earthquake, it wasn’t the right time to wage a war,” says Pathak.

After the war, the histories of the rise and fall of the Gorkhali territories have been written differently in Nepal, in Britain, and later India. In Nepal, it is all about bravery, patriotism, and sacrifice. In India, to this day, it is about the ruthlessness, greed, and corruption of the Gorkhali governors.

Nepali historian Mahesh Regmi often cites in his research paper the Garhwali historian and writer Shiv Dabrawal who has written about the history of Uttarakhand in his series, Gorkhayani. In it, he depicts the behaviour of Gorkhali rulers as being the reason why the people harboured such resentment against the invaders, and preferred their own Chand dynasty which had been ruling the region since the 11th century.

The Gorkhali governors (Subbas and Jagirdars) were transferred every year as per the system followed in Kathmandu, but the governors in these regions were brothers and often close relatives. There were many small military camps in Kumaon which were in charge of collecting taxes from villagers.

Among the governors was Nara Shah, notorious for his oppressive ways, who led the massacre of the Nagarkotis and an unnecessary coup, resulting in more animosity against the Gorkhalis among the people of Kumaon-Garhwal.

Dabrawal suggests in his book that Gorkhali administrators took full advantage of the power and exercised judicial authority since the royal court in Kathmandu was too far away. They were known not just for imposing hefty fines but also for inflicting harsh, corporal punishment – all of which have been burned into the memory of the descendants of Kumaon and Garhwal today.

There was no standard penal code, these governors and military officials could do inflict any arbitrary punishment. Says Shekhar Pathak: “If there was a theft, a person's innocence was tested by candle fire. If the hands of the accused were unburnt, they were innocent, otherwise they were sentenced to death.”

The royal court and nobility in Kathmandu were too embroiled in their own intrigue and infighting to care much about what was happening in the western front, so the Gorkhali governors did pretty much what they pleased, including forcing local villagers into slavery, and trading them like livestock.

While historians have mentioned Gen Amar Singh Thapa’s loyalty to the throne in Kathmandu, his spirituality, and his respect for women and children, Shiv Dabrawal has a different take on the man.

In Gorkhayani, Dabrawal writes that Amar Singh’s rule in Kumaon and Garhwal along with the governors and the military administrators was in fact cruel, tyrannical, and ignored local sentiments.

Shekhar Pathak also mentions that in the region, the ‘Kaji’ governors were brutal whereas the Gorkhali ‘Chautariya’ administrators behaved better. “People talk about the bravery of the Gorkhalis, but history should also acknowledge their brutish ways. Nepal’s history books should also mention this side of the story,” Pathak adds.

Also unpopular for his harsh rule was Bam Shah, the Gorkhali governor of Kumaon. It was he who prompted Harsh Dev Joshi to get Lt Col Gardner to bring the unrest in Kumaon-Garhwal to the attention of Lord Francis Edward Rawdon-Hastings in Calcutta.

When the British forces attacked in 1815, Bam Shah had only 750 Gorkhali troops and 750 Kumaonis to defend himself. Meanwhile, Harsh Dev also influenced many Kumaonis to desert the Gorkhali army, and over 300 from the Gorkhali army joined the British side to fight against their former side  when the East India Company marched in.

The Gorkha Empire at its peak in 1815. Coloured area is present-day Nepal, the grey areas were ceded to British India after the Sugauli Treat of 1816.

The Company had now brought the Gorkha expansion to a grinding halt, just as Gen Ochterlony was engaged against Gen Amar Singh Thapa in Malaun. When Malaun fell, Hastings took the chance to humiliate Amar Singh further by playing up Bam Shah and asked the latter to mediate between the Company and Amar Singh Thapa.

Hastings sent a draft of a treaty following the battle of Malaun to Bam Shah, who was then to communicate it to Bhimsen Thapa in Kathmandu with the news that Kumaon had been lost, and that it was better for Nepal to surrender and agree to the Treaty.

The supply and communication lines with Kathmandu 1,500kms away was so long that messages were often intercepted. The Company gathered vital information through letters sent to Kathmandu from the western front. The British therefore had prior knowledge of Gorkhali strategy and battle plans.

Swords clashed with wits in this war, and the Gorkhalis were outnumbered on both counts. It is a testament to their loyalty and courage that despite this they continued to fight until they ran out of men, weapons and supplies.

When the war ended the Gorkhali rule in Kumaon and Garhwal, the people there were in general happier to be protected by the East India Company.

Meanwhile, in Kathmandu

The death of Prithvi Narayan Shah was followed by continuous squabbling in the royal court among the regent rulers and the courtiers. Immediately after the death of Pratap Singh Shah, Prithvi Narayan’s son and successor, Bahadur Shah and the regent queen, Rajendra Rajya Lakshmi Devi, mother of Rana Bahadur, were embroiled in a bitter power struggle.

At this time, the powerful Thapas, Pandes and Basnyats courtier families were also at loggerheads with each other, and the Shahs. The annexation of Kumaon, Garhwal and regions to the west may have begun in the 1790s but it was also a result of the political infighting, conspiracies and betrayals in the Court.

In fact, one of the reasons Gen Amar Singh Thapa and his loyal troops were sent so far to the west as the governors was also so the ambitious military men would not pose a threat in Kathmandu.

More fuel was added to the fire when Rana Bahadur Shah, who had previously abdicated in favour of his infant son Girvan Yuddha, returned once more to Kathmandu from exile in Banaras, and took up regency. His murder in 1806 by his stepbrother Sher Bahadur Shah paved way for Bhimsen Thapa to take full control of the administrative powers and become the Mukhtiyar General (Prime Minister) and the de facto ruler of Nepal.

As historian Dinesh Raj Panta suggests, Bhimsen Thapa was an accomplished man. He had a very strong personality but was also exceedingly arrogant. Equally ambitious, he married off his young niece Lalita Tripura Sundari (daughter of Nain Singh Thapa who was killed in Kangra Fort) to King Rana Bahadur Shah. When Rana Bahadur died, she became the regent to the infant king Girvan Yuddha, and Bhimsen Thapa successfully centralised the power in his own family.

Panta also says that while many believe that fighting a war against the British was the best decision Bhimsen could have taken, he was also short-sighted. After losing the Anglo-Gorkha War in 1816, the Treaty of Sugauli in 1816, and ceding ⅓ of the country’s territory to the Company, there was a sudden shift in Bhimsen Thapa’s personality. After all, he was held responsible for the death of thousands of Gorkhali soldiers, widows and orphans by many in the court.

King Girvan Yuddha died in 1816, succeeded by his son Rajendra. Bhimsen Thapa and King Rajendra did not get along, as Rajendra was distrustful of the Thapa clan and its ambitions. Eventually, The Pandes were able to sway royal favour away from Bhimsen Thapa onto themselves, leading to Bhimsen Thapa’s downfall and attempted suicide in custody on 28 July 1839.

Bhimsen Thapa

His blood-soaked, unconscious body was taken from his jail cell to be dumped on the banks of the Bishnumati River in Kathmandu where he died nine days later. Bhimsen Thapa's  ignominious death happened on the very spot where three decades previously he had himself thrown 45 corpses of people he had killed in the Bhandarkhal massacre to rise to power.

Historian Dinesh Raj Panta says Bhimsen Thapa had both good and bad qualities, adding: “There was definitely the guilt of the dead, guilt of almost losing the country to the East India Company and losing respect. But it was because of him that Nepal did not wholly submit itself to the Company after the war.”

The Treaty of Sugauli

On 2 December 1815, the Treaty of Sugauli was signed between the East India Company and Raj Guru Gajaraj Mishra with Chandra Shekhar Upadhyaya on behalf of Nepal. It was then ratified by 4 March 1816, but not before the British had to send another expeditionary force to threaten Makwanpur Fort 30km to the south of Kathmandu to convince Nepal's rulers to sign the treaty.

Under the Sugauli Treaty, Nepal ceded all its territory west of the Mahakali to the British, and the river formed the boundary between British India and Nepal.

The original copy of the treaty is now lost, but the dispute over Kalapani on the border between Garhwal and Nepal continues to affect Nepal’s relations with India to this day. Although the people of the east bank of the Mahakali in Kalapani and Limpiyadhura paid land taxes to Nepal, and took part in national censuses and the 1980 referendum, India is now occupying this strategic valley that offers access to the Tibetan region of China.

Nepal and India share a 1,800km long open border, which is managed under the bilateral Treaty of Peace and Friendship, signed in 1950 (the original of which is also missing). This border had been agreed upon in the Treaty of Sugauli, which states in Article 5 that the King of Nepal 'renounces for himself, his heirs, and successors, all claim to or connection with the countries lying to the west of the River Kali’.

In June 2020, Nepal’s Prime Minister K P Oli to stave off a mutiny within his own Nepal Communist Party, unveiled a new map which included the Limpiyadhura region. A month previously, Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh had virtually inaugurated an 80km road to the Chinese border along the east bank of the Mahakali.

Entrance to the Khalanga War Memorial.

Nepali geographers Mangal Siddhi Manandhar and Hriday Lal Koirala in their work, Nepal-India Boundary Issue: River Kali as International Boundary, claim that all maps produced by British cartographers up until the year 1857 suggest that the origins of the Kali river lies in the Limpiyadhura pass.

“But in the period between 1857 and 1881, a subtle but deliberate attempt to misname the river Kali took place,” write Manandhar and Koirala.

The Nepal government first raised its concern over the actual main flow of the Mahakali, and consequently of Kalapani, only in 1998. On the other hand, Indian officials claim that revenue records show that Kalapani area has traditionally been administered as part of the Pithoragarh district of Garhwal in India, dating as far back as the 1830s.

The issue of Kalapani continues to cloud Kathmandu’s relations with New Delhi.

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