History on canvas

Depicting through paintings the unification of Kathmandu Valley before Prithvi Narayan Shah

Artist: Shreejan Rajbhandari. From the private collection of the Museum of Nepali Arts.

Contrary to popular belief, Nepal as a nation with different boundaries was founded way before the unification by Prithvi Narayan Shah. From the time of the Gopal dynasty before the birth of Buddha and after, Nepal has seen many dynastic rulers including Kirat, Licchavi, Verma, Thakuri, and Malla, each with their significant contributions to nation-building.

Unfortunately, much of history before the Shah dynasty is not talked about. Discounting the Shahs, the Malla era is perhaps the best recorded. But even then, not much is known of its rulers before Pratap Malla.

Historians credit Jayasthiti Malla of establishing this dynasty with the unification of Kathmandu Valley. However, our documentation and archaeological research of the early Malla period is scant, and thus a king whose great deeds have created a legacy of Nepal’s culture and socio-economic foundations, is not given his due recognition.

This painting by artist Shreejan Rajbhandari is based on the research of the late historian Dilli Raman Regmi and the event is noted in Gopal Raj Vamsavali, a 14th-century hand-written manuscript of Nepal. It is an artistic tribute to a king who established the longest reigning dynasty which is still integral to Nepal’s identity today.

Jayasthiti Malla was a man of noble but obscure lineage who came from Simraongadh, Tirhut in present-day Tarai. His rise to power indicates the strong historical ties between Kathmandu Valley and the southern plains at the time.

When the Muslim sultanate of Bengal invaded Tirhut, King Harshinga Deva of Simraongadh died while trying to escape. His queen Devala Devi, who had ties with the Bhaktapur royalty, fled along with her son Jagat Singh and took refuge at the Bhaktapur palace under the protection of King Rudra Malla. But Rudra Malla died shortly after without a male hei and his infant daughter Nayak Devi was declared heir to the throne.

The young queen was married to a prince from Banaras, but he too soon died, after which Devala Devi seized the opportunity to marry her son Jagat Singh to the widowed queen, and thus became part of the Bhaktapur royal family. Nayak Devi later gave birth to a daughter, Rajala Devi, who became a full claimant to the throne.

With a son who was prince consort and an infant granddaughter who was heir apparent, the future of Bhaktapur was fragile with no strong leadership. Nepal with its many small warring kingdoms was in constant strife.

Moreover, in 1349, Kathmandu faced the first Muslim invasion by Shamsuddin Ilyas, the Sultan of Bengal. The valley was brutally attacked, looted and destroyed. The city was ransacked and temples and monuments were plundered including Swayambhu and Pashupati. The Sultan’s invasion lasted seven days and the only temple spared was Changunarayan because the invaders could not locate it.

Amidst all this chaos, Devala Devi was looking for someone with the right traits to lead and bring stability to the kingdom. She found Jayasthiti Malla and brought him to Bhaktapur after being impressed by his insight and dynamic personality.

Devala Devi then betrothed her eight-year-old granddaughter to Jayasthiti Malla in 1354. This union led to Jayasthiti Malla declaring himself the king consort of Bhaktapur after the death of Devala Devi. Eventually, he defeated the Raja of Patan, Jayarajuna and took control of the city. A stone inscription (1392) at the completion of the Kubeswor temple in Patan shows his sovereign status in the city.

The painting portrays the Tilapatra Daan puja that took place in Pashupati to celebrate the union of Kathmandu with Patan and Bhaktapur (1375). It took much effort on the part of Jayasthiti Malla to convince the leader of Kathmandu, Jayarasimha to join the union. This first-ever unification of the three kingdoms was a watershed moment in history.

Artist Shreejan Rajbhandari has done his best to portray medieval 14th-century Nepal, and is one of few depicting Jayasthiti Malla, and is a significant documentation on canvas of his reign. Jayasthiti Malla is seen performing the puja with his wife while Jayarasimha looks on with a sense of defeat. The contemporary landscape was difficult to pinpoint, so the artist had to rely on influences of the period.

The Pashupat temple being the main backdrop was drawn with some historical evidence that it was ornamented time and again by Licchavi and Thakuri kings before the Mallas. King Shivadeva III (11th century CE) was the first to have covered the roof in gold. The roof, however, has been shown bare keeping in mind the invasion of Shamsuddin Ilyas in 1349 who had stripped off all the gold. The doorway, however, is given its silver adornment assuming it was renovated as per Vamsavali III, which states that the temple was repaired and a ceremony was performed in April-May 1360.

All the women are portrayed to be of Mithila origin as most noble Mallas had wives from the Tarai. Their jewelry and clothing are of Mithila style. The men’s attire was believed to have been influenced by the Rajasthani style as the Thakuri dynasty before the Mallas were Rajputs. Which is why we see much Rajasthani influence during the Malla era as well. The musicians too are wearing Rajasthani dress, and the puja utensils are Kathmandu Valley style assuming the temple as having both Hindu and Buddhist influences. 

The reign of king Jayasthiti Malla saw stability, unification and strength after a long period of chaos. The Malla dynasty, which had begun with King Ari Malla in the 1200s was firmly established under Jayasthiti Malla. He was king of Kathmandu Valley and its environs from 1382-1395 CE. The three cities remained united until the reign of his grandson Yaksha Malla (1482) following which the Valley was divided again. The three kingdoms were in constant strife until Prithvi Narayan Shah conglomerated a greater Nepal in 1768. 

Besides his efforts in uniting the Valley, Jayasthiti Malla is also credited with the earliest constitution and codifying the law – Jayasthiti Paddati. This legendary compilation of traditional laws was seen as the source for Mulki Ain, in the 19th century. He also started the Gopal Raj Vamshawali, which is considered the first historically documented evidence of the Nepali state.

He instituted a job-based caste system to bring order and economic stability which is still practiced by the indigenous Newa people in Kathmandu Valley. Further economic reforms through a uniform system of weights and measurement was also established.

Also a builder of numerous temples and a promoter of art, literature and music, the nation owes much to Jayasthiti Malla, and this painting is an attempt to capture an important event in his life and in Nepal’s history.

Shaguni Singh Sakya is the Director of KGH Group and Museum of Nepali Arts (MONA) in Kathmandu where Shreejan Rajbhandari's painting will soon be on display.