Inside story of Nepal’s Rana dynasty

Singha Durbar was built by Chandra Shumsher Rana in 1924 and was once the largest palace in Asia. After the fall of the Ranas, it became the seat of government, the front façade that survived a devastating fire in 1972 was badly damaged in the 2015 earthquake.

When Sagar Rana launched his book, Singha Durbar: Rise and Fall of the Rana Regime of Nepal three years ago, I asked him what made him and his two brothers Bharat and Jadgish so liberal-minded compared to other members of his clan that ruled Nepal for over a century.

He said it was because he and his brothers grew up within the comforts and luxury of a Rana palace, and they were keenly aware of the poverty and social injustice in Nepali society.

I said, wait a minute, there were other Ranas of that era who also grew up in luxury and saw the country’s pervasive poverty first hand. What made him and his brothers different? Sagar Rana thought that over, and said it was probably his father’s emphasis on education. Indeed, Mrigendra Shumsher was Education Minister under the Ranas and the family lived under strict discipline and in a relatively frugal lifestyle.

At age 12 in 1951, Sagar was sent to boarding school in Indore followed by five years in Leighton Park School in Reading in England, where he did his A Level and went on to Oxford for a Masters in Law.

He returned to Nepal during the tumultuous years after the royal coup of 1961 that put Nepali Congress leaders, including his brother Bharat as leader of the opposition, in jail. Later, he was with Bharat in Delhi in 1962 when he announced the merger of his Gorkha Parishad with the Nepali Congress.

On return to Nepal, Sagar Rana became a member of the Nepali Congress during the years it was banned. There were few other Ranas who took the risk. He was detained several times, his house was often searched, and his family’s Baber Mahal property was confiscated. He suffered the social boycott of the ruling elite, including relatives.

Sagar Rana was also a member of the Congress Working Committee and Head of the Department of International Relations during the crucial years leading to and during the 12-point agreement with the Maoists of November 2005.

There was perhaps no one better placed to pen the history of the rise and fall of the Ranas than Sagar Rana. He was a family insider and political outsider during the great changes after 1950, the great grandson of Prime Minister Chandra Shumsher, grandson of hardliner Gen Baber Shumsher, son of educationist Mrigendra Shumsher. His son, Udaya, is the Nepali Congress MP from Lalitpur.

It is this inter-generational involvement of a Rana family in Nepal’s political transition that makes Singha Durbar such a compelling and credible account of the clan’s rule from 1847-1951.

Sagar Rana has delved into archival material, memoirs in Nepali written by historical figures, interviews with members of the extended family, and an unpublished diary of his father. The book is academic in scope and flows well from one Rana prime minister to the next.  

It begins with the intrigue and ambition that led to the events at the Hanuman Dhoka Palace in 1847 that made the word ‘Kot’ synonymous with ‘massacre’ in the Nepali language. The bloodshed led to the rise of Jung Bahadur Kunwar – the ancestor of all the Ranas to follow.

Jung Bahadur rose to pre-eminence because the Shahs bickered, and the courtier families of the Pandes, Thapas and Basnyats carried on their feuds. Although the Kot massacre was gory, Sagar Rana reminds us that it was not as bloody as Bhimsen Thapa’s purge 30 years previously, after Nepal’s defeat in the war with the East India Company, in which more than a hundred members of the nobility were culled.

Jung Bahadur has earned a deserved reputation for being ruthless, but he was also a strategic thinker and had the survival of the recently emasculated Gorkha Empire foremost in mind. This is why he made a trip to England in 1850 – an elaborate espionage mission to gauge Britain’s military might and to see if it was wise to risk going to war with the Empire to regain territory lost in 1816.

He toured England’s ammunition and cannon factories, the naval yards, visited the military academy and at the end of it all, needed no convincing that it was better to be friends with Britain. His dynasty remained staunch allies of the British, and it was also why Rana rule would come to an end after India gained independence in 1947.

For the British, this was a strategically useful alliance. When they were nearly defeated in the 1857 mutiny, it was Jung himself who led troops to rescue them, but not before pre-negotiating the return of the Tarai plains and compensation for revenue lost since 1816.

Gurkha recruitment was the other reason Britain valued its personal rapport with successive Rana prime ministers. Nepal’s young men served in the Afghan Campaign, during World War I and World War II. At least 50,000 Nepalis laid down their lives for Britain in those two wars at a time when Nepal’s population was barely 2 million. This nearly emptied Nepal’s mountain villages of two generations of young men.

Like Jung Bahadur, Chandra Shumsher knew how to cash in on Britain’s goodwill. He hosted Lord Kitchener, invited King George VI and Prince Edward on tiger hunts in Chitwan, softening the British establishment to sign the Anglo-Nepal Friendship Treaty of 1923 that firmly established Nepal as a sovereign nation, unlike the semi-autonomous princely states in India.  

Chandra Shumsher should not be judged by today’s standards. He was ruthless, no doubt, but he and some of the other Ranas were always aware that their personal and family fortunes were tied with a strong and independent nation state. And unlike some famous Rana rulers, Chandra was not as openly promiscuous, and after his own visit to England, had a broader geopolitical perspective about Nepal’s place in the world.

Singha Durbar contains intriguing revelations of how the Ranas tried desperately to preserve their rule as the democracy movement gathered pace. Nepali students educated in India had been influenced by the quit-India movement against the British. But there were also liberal Ranas who felt their clan’s feudalism was outdated.

Mahavir Shumsher, the flamboyant businessman and once one of Calcutta’s richest men, and Subarna Shumsher with his education, thought it was time to let go. The dynasty was also imploding because of the brewing rebellion among B and C Class Ranas, classified according to the caste and ethnic hierarchy of the wives and concubines who begat them.

The second half of Singha Durbar is a blow-by-blow account of how the anti-Rana resistance took shape, the rise and fall of the Koiralas, the story of Biratnagar, the freedom movement in exile in Calcutta and Banaras and how it brought together a disparate group of democratic-minded young Nepalis with Rana dissidents.

Ultimately it was the home-grown revolt led by martyrs like Shukra Raj, Dashrath Chand, Ganga Lal and Dharma Bhakta that fired the resistance. Other activists, Tanka Prasad Acharya, Ganesh Man Singh, Ramhari Sharma waged an underground movement at considerable personal risk.  

As the pressure from within Nepal and outside grew, half-hearted reforms by successive Rana prime ministers Bhim, Juddha, Padma and finally Mohan were too little too late to turn the tide of history. The Ranas had hoped that Gurkha recruitment would work again to cushion them against Indian pressure, but times had changed. India’s independence had already put the dynasty on the wrong side of its tryst with destiny.

Sagar Rana’s sequel to Singha Durbar is with the publishers, and it traces the trajectories of some of the cast of characters from this book into the period between 1951 to the present – a time of wasted opportunities and sacrifices, of historical lessons not learnt, and of freedoms fought for and squandered over and over again.

Here are some random notes taken while reading the book:

  • Singha Durbar is replete with references that show us how little things have changed in the way the British and independent India deal with Nepal, how Lainchaur still looms large in Nepal’s domestic politics, and how we seem to have underestimated the role played by the 200-year-old tradition of Gurkha recruitment in Nepal’s relations, first with the British and then with India. It can be said that Nepal’s independence came not just at the cost of Nepali blood spilt from Kangra to Makwanpur in 1814-16, but also in the trenches of Flanders Fields in 1917 and the jungles of Burma in 1944.
  • Indian politician Karan Singh writes in the Foreword about how his ancestors’ Dogra kingdom and the Rana regime were both established in 1847, his father Maharaja Hari Singh of Kashmir and Mohan Shumsher both stepped down around 1950, how he married Yasho Rajya Laksmi, the grand-daughter of Mohan Shumsher, and was sent by Indian Prime Minister Man Mohan Singh in 2006 to convince King Gyanendrato restore parliament. If Gyanendra had listened earlier, perhaps Nepal would still be a monarchy.
  • After Jung’s death in 1877, despite a clear succession roll, the brothers bickered so much that the British resident Col Wylie wrote to Calcutta about the ascendance of Bir Shumsher: ‘It doesn’t matter which side of cut-throats has the upper hand … as long as they render services to us.’ Which immediately brings to mind words later ascribed to various U.S. presidents: ‘He may be a son of a bitch, but he is our son of a bitch.’
  • As Chandra Shumsher conspires to unseat Dev Shumsher in 1901, he uses a hunting trip in Chitwan by Governor General Lord Curzon to get a tacit nod from the British for his planned family coup, much in the same way Nepali politicians today jet to Delhi before toppling governments to seek blessings.
  • Chandra Shumsher tried to ban animal sacrifices, but was over-ruled by his priests. So, he brought a revered Indian swami to a public debate in Kathmandu which the pro-sacrifice clergy won. The debate goes on today with the mass slaughter at Gadimai.
  • Chandra built Singha Durbar, the palace from which the book gets its title. It had 1,400 rooms, but no toilets. When asked why, Chandra is said to have replied: “We don’t go to the toilet, here the toilet comes to us.”
  • As Britain prepared to go to war against Germany in 1939 the Ranas debated whether to offer troops. Padma Shumsher argued that the Nazis were more likely to emerge victorious and Nepal should “back the winning horse, or remain neutral”. Nepal sent 200,000 troops to Europe, Malaya and Burma anyway to back the Allies, and one in ten did not come back.
  • Mahavir and Subarna Shumsher, despite being Ranas, favoured a militant approach to overthrowing the oligarchy, even setting up the Jana Mukti Sena — the exact same name given by the Maoists 40 years later to their People’s Liberation Army.
  • B P Koirala was inspired by Gandhi and initially opposed the use of violence. Koirala even met Gandhi to ask him to talk some sense into the Rana rulers in Kathmandu so he would not have to take up arms against them. Gandhi’s sad reply: ‘I cannot help you. When my own people do not heed me, why will the Ranas listen to me?’
  • J P then helped B P get arms from his social democrat friend U Nu in Burma, and Mahavir Shumsher sent two of his Himalayan Airways DC-3s to Rangoon to fly the weapons to a disused WWII airfield near Patna. On board was journalist Bhola Chatterjee, and Thir Bam Malla.
  • A pall of gloom descended in Singha Durbar and the palaces of the Ranas in Kathmandu on the day the British decided to leave India. What happens in India, then and since, has always had a direct impact on Nepal.
  • To evade Mohan Shumsher’s spies, the role of intermediary between King Tribhuvanand the Indians was played by German physiotherapist Erika Leuchtag. The two had a code word for Mohan: ‘Goebbels’.
  • Indian Ambassador C P N Singh had an even better channel of communication with Tribhuvan: confectioner B L Sharma, who used to carry messages back-and-forth slipped inside boxes of ladoo. Singh once took Tribhuvan for a sightseeing flight over Kathmandu so he could have a face-to-face conversation away from Rana surveillance.
  • Boris Lissanevitch of the 300 Club in Calcutta (and later Royal Hotel in Kathmandu) facilitated Tribhuvan evading his Rana guards during a visit to Calcutta to deliver a letter to Nehru agreeing to overthrow the Ranas.
  • In Patna, B P’s group was preparing for a military campaign when he eavesdropped on an Indian Embassy radio transmission from Kathmandu that said King Tribhuvan had sought refuge in the mission. Sagar Rana quotes B P’s memoir: ‘The matter has now gone out of our hands … the King is under Indian Embassy control.’
  • Mohan Shumsher made a last-ditch attempt to garner Indian support by signing the 1950 Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation that addressed India’s security concerns vis-a-vis China. The treaty is seen to have been forced on Nepal and remains controversial to this day.
  • Mohan sent SOSs to Washington and London to recognise Gyanendra as the new kingafter Mohan Shumsher left for Delhi, but Nehru ‘persuaded the Anglo-American lobby to refrain from any hasty step’. In 2006, the Anglo-Americans abandoned Gyanendra again.
  • When the British dispatched a delegation to Kathmandu to assess the situation, the Indian Embassy in Kathmandu got B L Sharma and others to organise a protest at Gauchar airport that turned into a full-scale riot. That airport is now named after Tribhuvan.
  • Anti-Rana forces found out that Tribhuvan was under ‘guest house arrest’ at Hyderabad House in Delhi, and they launched armed attacks in Nepal capturing Birganj. Nehru was furious, and again pressured the British and Americans to follow ‘the middle path’, much in the same way India got them to back its ‘twin pillar’ doctrine in 2005.
  • The 5-point Delhi Compromise of 1950 itself seems to have been a harbinger of the 12-point agreement between the seven political parties and the Maoists in Delhi in November 2006, establishing a tradition whereby every big crisis in Nepal is resolved with Indian mediation.

The Rana legacy still casts a long shadow over Nepal. In the palaces that have been converted into government buildings, in the rusting hulks of Nepal’s first ropeway, the first hydropower reservoir in Pharping that still functions as a water supply system.

And there are Ranas in public life like Pashupati Shumsher, Gautam Rana and the late Prabhakar Rana who brought out the illustrated coffee table book, The Ranas of Nepal in 2002 – still a useful reference tool, elegantly produced. It documents the life and times of the former rulers of Nepal – their history, culture, lifestyle and even cuisine. And who better to tell, and show, it than these three illustrious Ranas.

One of the authors, Gautam Rana, reconstructed the stables and cowsheds of his ancestral palace to develop the upmarket commercial space for boutiques, art galleries, restaurants and hotel, called Baber Mahal Revisited. It was Gautam who roped in Prabhakar Rana of the Soaltee Group and RPP politician, Pashupati Rana for the book. He did the background research and the result is a well-crafted time capsule taking readers back to the extravagance, intrigue, hopes and achievements of those 104 years. Surprisingly, the content is still current, 20 years after it was published.

The authors have tried not to gloss over the raw ambition, greed, and, yes, lust that drove the power struggles in the extended Rana clan. But the overall impression is still of a somewhat sanitised retrospective of those years. Even the decadence is photogenic.

"Some Ranas of my generation feel very apologetic, but there is nothing to feel guilty about. We have an eclectic and cultured past, and that should inspire us to help build the country today, and conserve our heritage," Gautam told Nepali Times in 2003.

The history chapters in The Ranas of Nepal are a surprisingly objective assessment of the period for an account written by insiders whose direct ancestors are protagonists.

Co-author Prabhakar Rana, was the great-grandson of Judha Shumsher, and actually lived in Singha Darbar until the age of 11. Pashupati Rana, is the grandson of the last Rana prime minister, Mohan Shumsher, and was present as a boy of four at the first coronation of King Gyanendra in 1950. Both contributed chapters on history, architecture, and lifestyle.

Gautam also tracked down rare photos, paintings and artifacts from private collections, and wrote the chapter on Rana jewellery. The book's lavish visuals with early sepia photographs, period portraits from private collections bring this history alive.

The book begins with the royal rivalries among the Rajput rulers of Udaipur that drove one particular family of courtiers to the Himalaya, fleeing all the way up to Jumla. From there they migrated eastward to Kaski and on to Gorkha. The Kunwars helped King Prithvi Narayan in his conquests, and Bal Narsingh Kunwar was made governor of Jumla.

But in the purges that followed the downfall of Bhimsen Thapa in 1840, Bal Narsingh's son Jung Bahadur emerged as a master manipulator who, through sheer charisma, craftiness and courage, wormed his way upwards taking full advantage of the savage power struggles among the descendants of Prithvi Narayan Shah and their consorts.

Jung Bahadur is at the centre of this swirling tale of back-stabbing, intrigue, conspiracies, alliances, finding himself right in the middle of vicious infighting between a powerful queen and her paramour, the king, and the crown prince. At gunpoint, Jung is forced to shoot his own uncle, the prime minister, and is then caught up in two massacres at the Kot and at Bhandarkhal. He sends the queen and king into exile, installs the crown prince on the throne and makes himself prime minister.

Thus, at age 29, Jung Bahadur Kunwar launches the Rana century in 1847. Three years later, he became the first Subcontinental royal to visit Britain and France, driven by a desire to bypass the obstructive diktats of Calcutta by dealing directly with London. Once there, he received royal treatment.

One gets the feeling reading in these two books about massacres, assassinations and chronic infighting, that contemporary Nepali rulers are just following in the footsteps of their ancestors -- maybe they are hardwired to be divisive and selfish. A paragraph from the The Ranas of Nepal, describing the conspiracies of the royal court could very well have been written about today's Nepal: ‘He (Jung Bahadur) brought order to a Nepal on the brink of anarchy. Nobody can condone the means he used to achieve this end. However, it begs the question: could it have been achieved by any other means?’

It was inevitable that when Jung died during a hunting trip in Chitwan in 1877, his brothers immediately started squabbling for power. Jung's brother, Dhir, installed Jung's brother Rana Udip Singh as successor, while he manoeuvred to take over. Suspecting a plot, he beheaded two dozen courtiers and managed to carve out a place for himself and his 17 sons in the succession. The clan was thus effectively split between the Jung Ranas and the Shumsher Ranas. By 1885, matters reached a head again and Dhir had his six sons kill their uncle, Rana Udip Singh and remove all the descendants of Jung Bahadur's other brothers from succession.

Rana power transitions were messy affairs, and watching all this from the background was the British regent at Lazimpat. We see how British India tried to influence events in Kathmandu, and this has familiar echoes today. When Bir Shumsher sidelined Jagat Jung and exiled him to India, the British refused for five months to recognise Bir as leader. And when Jagat Jung began preparations to overthrow Bir Shumsher from Indian soil, the British arrested him while he was planning to march into Nepal with his armed followers.

Bir Shumsher built Nepal's first hospital as well as the Darbar School, for which he imported teachers from England. He was succeeded by the flashy Dev Shumsher who in turn was replaced by the shrewd and astute Chandra Shumsher, whose 29-year reign was marked by uncharacteristic stability and development. He established Nepal's first college, streamlined administration, built suspension bridges all over the country, installed Nepal's first hydropower plant in 1911 (from domestic coffers, without foreign aid) and named the light powered by electricity generated by it after himself (‘Chandra Jyoti’).

He sent architects to Europe and horticulturists to Japan for training. He also built a 1,400-room palace for himself, which ended up being a contribution to the nation -- it is now Singha Darbar. On the diplomatic front, Chandra Shumsher managed to convince the British to officially agree to Nepal's independent status and got them to put it in writing in the 1923 Anglo-Nepal Treaty of Friendship.

Chandra was succeeded by Bhim Shumsher, Judhha Shumsher, Padma Shumsher and finally, Mohan Shumsher. But time was running out, and as Sagar Rana also writes in his own book, the end of Empire was near. Although they tried to modernise Nepal with industrialisation, banking, railways, urban water supply, and even a liberal constitution, it was too little too late. Mohan Shumsher had to deal with newly-independent India and grapple with democracy-minded Nepalis.

The book also delves into other massacres: that of tigers, rhinos, leopards crocodiles, bears and pheasants in hunting expeditions in honour of visiting British royalty. There is a dramatic picture of Juddha Shumsher posing in front of pelts of a hundred or so tigers. Good thing many Ranas have now moved away from hunting towards nature conservation.

The rest of the book looks at Rana architecture, and mentions unsung Nepali engineers like Kishore Narsing and the legendary Joglal Sthapit, known more popularly as Bhajuman.

However incongruous Kathmandu Valley’s wedding cake Rana palaces may have looked when they were built, the authors argue that the neo-classical structure ‘seem to have achieved their own particular balance with the environment’ with their use of local construction material and the incorporation of Nepali features such as courtyards, verandahs, and south-facing balconies.

The chapter on Rana jewellery traces the history of the Rana crown and how it evolved and bulged with gems and diamonds in 104 years (only to be sold to a Parisian jeweller in the mid-1950s). Many of these gems, precious stones and ornaments were spoils from Lucknow after the Mutiny of 1857, or by Indian royalty fleeing Mughal invasions.

The book has more: Rana cuisine, Rana lifestyle, Rana fashion, Rana art, and short biographies of some prominent living Ranas. The book’s abridged family tree is still useful to track Ranas from Jung Bahadur's father to Siddhartha Rana, Prabhakar's son, so readers can navigate through the book's confusing genealogy, and untangle the complex web of Rana intermarriages with the Shah dynasty.

Singha Durbar

Rise and Fall of the Rana Regime of Nepal

Sagar S.J.B. Rana

Rupa, New Delhi 2017

426 pages 

INR 495

The Ranas of Nepal

by Prabhakar SJB Rana, Pashupati SJB Rana, Gautam SJB Rana

 First edition Naef Kister S S Editeur, Geneva, 2002

262 pages, Rs10,000

Kunda Dixit


Kunda Dixit is the former editor and publisher of Nepali Times. He is the author of 'Dateline Earth: Journalism As If the Planet Mattered' and 'A People War' trilogy of the Nepal conflict. He has a Masters in Journalism from Columbia University and is Visiting Faculty at New York University (Abu Dhabi Campus).

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