The role of rituals in royalty

How rituals were used to legitimise Gyanendra’s reign after the palace massacre and in Nepal’s transition to republic

Nepali Times #46, 6-14 June 2001

The 240 year reign of the Shah dynasty in Nepal that ended in 2008 saw palace intrigues, coups, a revolution and massacres. And 16 years after it was abolished, there are calls to reinstate the monarchy.

After Nepal’s founding king Prithvi Narayan Shah died in 1775, there were a series of infant and/or weak kings with little to no involvement in government. The country was run by power brokers either from the royal family or its retainers. After Jang Bahadur’s coup in 1847, the kings were just puppets.

It was not until 1951 when the Rana regime ended that the Shah kings became more involved. Too involved, in fact. In 1960 King Mahendra staged a coup and dissolved an elected parliament for a 30-year experiment with the partyless system.

After the 1990 democracy movement, King Birendra gave up absolute powers to be a constitutional monarch, but the Maoists immediately launched their armed struggle to end the Hindu monarchy. However, the royal family itself imploded in the 2001 royal massacre, and it took just seven more years for Nepal to become a secular republic.

The political aspects of Nepal’s transition from monarchy to republic has been written about extensively, but Anne Taylor Mocko in her book Unraveling the Crown: Rituals, Politics and the Fall of Kingship in Nepal takes a more historical and anthropological approach. She examines the rituals that make a king a king, and why and how taking away those rituals interrupts the process.

Mocko, who is professor of religion at Concordia College in Minnesota, draws connections between ritual, politics and kingship.

She distinguishes between succession rituals (‘those which mark the end of one office-holder’s tenure and the beginning of a new office-holder’s tenure’) and reinforcement rituals (‘that permit the constant reproduction of a social office throughout the duration of the office holder’s tenure’). The reinforcement rituals appear to reflect rather than produce a social status.

Mocko expands on this by analysing the rituals following the royal massacre. The massacre left Gyanendra, King Birendra’s brother, as the only surviving royal family member eligible to rule.

The book delves into the government handling of the murder investigation. The two-member team was given three days to investigate. The investigation did not include any forensics and the final report did not have the results of the ballistics test. It then looks into the cremations and coronation of two kings (Dipendra was crowned in a coma).

Mocko concludes that the rituals were either highly problematic or incomplete, given the unusual circumstances. She draws from Ronald Grimes’ ‘ritual infelicity’, a concept that accounts for the many ways that a ritual can go wrong.

Given the loopholes in the massacre report, many shocked Nepalis concluded that Gyanendra himself was to be blamed for the killings. The response to his enthronement ritual was therefore unenthusiastic and controversial.

Mocko also brings up the incomplete ritual of katto for both Birendra and Dipendra, as both the brahmins who volunteered for the rituals did not leave the Valley as they were supposed to, given their dissatisfaction with the compensation and offerings, hence leaving the ritual unfinished.

With these and other shortcomings in the succession rituals, the book points out that the reinforcement rituals were more important for Gyanendra to solidify his kingship.

The bulk of the book deals with three annual events where the king plays a public role: the Bhoto Jatra, the Indra Jatra and the Dasain festival. The writer examines these rituals in the aftermath of 2006 people’s movement and 2007 when the political parties made moves to strip the palace of reinforcement rituals even though the king was still living in Narayanhiti.

Gyanendra at first tried to continue being involved: he attended Bhoto Jatra, received the blessings of the Kumari at the end of Indra Jatra and continued to put tika on the public at the palace in 2006. But by 2008, an elected Constituent Assembly voted to abolish the monarchy and Gyanendra left the palace.

When the Prime Minister took over these ex-royal rituals, the king ended up being just a regular citizen. The gradual demotion of the king showed how important these rituals were in giving the king legitimacy.

Mocko makes us wonder whether Gyanendra would have remained king even without any connection to the government if he had retained his royal ritualistic role.

This South Asian version of the book is slightly updated from its 2016 version Demoting Vishnu: Ritual, Politics and the Unraveling of Nepal’s Hindu Monarchy published by Oxford University Press in Europe and North America, and has new photographs and a new title.

This is a recommended resource for anyone interested in Nepal and its monarchy at a time when Gyanendra is once more in the political arena.

Unraveling the crown NT

Sahina Shrestha


Sahina Shrestha is a journalist interested in digital storytelling, product management, and audience development and engagement. She covers culture, heritage, and social justice. She has a Masters in Journalism from New York University.