Explore Nepal
About Nepal

Nepal News - Nepal Magic

Nepal trekkingNepal CulturePeople of NepalMap of NepalNepal Trevel

ThNepal Safe Destination, Says UK Journose World's Newest Republic

June 21, 2008

In his last act before leaving his palace last week, Nepal's former king, Gyanendra, tried something he never attempted during his disastrous experiment with autocratic rule.

He decided to call a press conference - and for dismayed royalists the ensuing scene encapsulated the fall of an ancient institution that had collapsed from within.

Excited journalists climbed on the palace furniture. They posed for pictures in the chair where Gyanendra would sit, flanked by two stuffed tigers. When the ex-king arrived they heckled him with the rudest words in the Nepali language.

Yet he gave his speech with dignity. Five years after sacking his first prime minister, three years after he used the army to seize absolute power, he was going quietly.

The king had seized power to defeat a powerful Maoist insurgency that was fuelled by the poverty and injustice of village life. But while the royal army floundered against the rebels in the hills, republican protests swelled on the streets of the capital. A peace process led to elections earlier this year.

The next government will be led by the Maoists, who have already abolished the monarchy. The king - seen as a living god, and worshipped as an incarnation of Lord Vishnu - became just another commoner.

And yet, in the manner of his departure, Gyanendra won sympathy from some unexpected quarters. On the day he left the palace a well-known commentator, not noted for his royalist sympathies, sent me an email. "It was a day full of thrill and tears," he wrote. "Some people are really sad today. His exit was a tragic day for an institution."

"Leaving the palace was the best thing he has done in two years," says Sirish Shumsher Rana, the king's former information minister. "What the king did [when he seized power] was necessary, but he failed."

Monarchists still cling to the hope that if Gyanendra's reputation is repaired, and if the next government fails as most Nepali governments do, some kind of royal revival might one day be possible. After all, abolishing an institution with such deep roots - Nepal was forged in war by the king's ancestors 239 years ago - is no small matter.

In some ways, nothing has changed. At the shine of Pashupatinath - Nepal's protector deity - the traditional rhythms of life and death continued this week.

A cremation was taking place on the river bank, observed by teary-eyed mourners.

Nearby, a woman sang devotional songs to the accompaniment of tabla drums and a harmonium. Young couples held hands and flirted in hidden corners.

The chief priest at the temple still recognises the king and still goes to him to make offerings, although he has been told that he must stop. Gyanendra was the nation's religious leader, as well as its would-be ruler. It was his duty to preside at the rituals which keep Nepal in harmony with its gods.

One of those gods is Chanira Bajracharya, the 13-year-old living goddess of Patan, who is worshipped as an incarnation of the goddess Telaju. Every year the king would come and make an offering of rice and coins at her feet.

"I think there should be a king in the country," said the precocious child, in fluent English, sitting amid her maths books. She is only allowed to leave her house a few times a year, so that the outside world cannot pollute her, and she receives tuition at home.

Every day she wears the elaborate eye make-up, special jewellery and red dress of a goddess.

"It's a great burden on me, because it is difficult to do the rituals without the king," she said stoically. "Last year, when he did not come to the festival, I felt sad. The prime minister came instead. That's not right. Who will come this year? I don't know."

In theory, it ought to be the president, but Nepal's political leaders are deadlocked in seemingly endless discussions over the formation of a new government, and no such figure has been appointed. The Maoists, who won the biggest vote in the recent elections, will lead the new administration when a deal between the many political parties is eventually reached.

Sitting in his government office, Krishna Bahadur Mahara, a senior figure in the Maoist party and spokesman for the outgoing coalition administration, outlined plans for the transformation of Nepal that go far beyond just the abolition of the monarchy. "Our kind of republicanism is not only a political change. It is a socio-economic and cultural change because we want to remove feudalism as a whole," the former school teacher said.

That means overcoming the "status-quo-ists" in the country's old political class, he said. "It also means changing the mode of production and economic relations by establishing industries and scientific agriculture," he explained. "If we change the mode of production, then automatically the social relations and the state of mind of the people will change."

It is no exaggeration to describe Nepal as feudal, and few people question that rapid reform is needed. During the conflict, when aristocratic landowners were in danger if they ventured into the countryside, the army was sometimes used to collect the harvest from the peasants.

In much of the country there is barely a trace of modern infrastructure. People live in poverty that has changed little in centuries.

Kathmandu is reeling under the pressure of rapid, unplanned growth and mass unemployment. Rising fuel and food prices are threatening to pull millions of ordinary people below the poverty line.

This week in the city tires were burnt and bricks were thrown in dozens of small protests over everything from the price of petrol to the lack of school textbooks. In a country full of social upheaval, such scenes have become commonplace.

Many people believe that the Maoists will be more pragmatic in power than their Communist rhetoric suggests, but it is doubtful that the new government will be able to solve these problems. For now the politicians are occupied in jostling for position and with tricky questions of procedure.

If a new government is to be formed, the current prime minister must resign - but without a head of state, to whom does he tender his resignation?

Such petty behaviour among their rulers infuriates the people, who are desperate for improvement in their lives. A few minutes' walk from the government ministries in the centre of Kathmandu, 300 families have built a new squatter settlement on the banks of the Bagmati river. It is Nepal's holiest river, but as the city has swollen it has become little more than an open sewer.

Living there under a plastic sheet in the monsoon rain is Hera Lal Paswan, a 35-year-old plasterer who migrated to Kathmandu with his wife and three children seven months ago. He's not the lowest of the low - as a semi-skilled worker he makes about £1.50 a day.

"A kilogram of rice costs 30p," he complained. "How can I feed these kids here and how can I build a house? If they are sick how can I buy medicine? I don't care about politics. The days are the same for me."

His greatest hope is that the government will allow him to permanently occupy his smelly and damp piece of ground. Seven times in the last seveb months the city council has come and torn down these illegal shacks.

A text message arrived, summoning The Daily Telegraph to a rare meeting with a member of the royal family, Gyanendra's son-in-law Avynes Shah. He wanted to put the family's point of view - above all their feeling of injustice at the way they have been treated.

"The decision made by the parliament [to abolish the monarchy] was not lawful," he says. "It was not fair. It was not done right. Although I believe in the democratic norms and values, the process of deciding the future of the monarchy was against the theory of constitutionalism."

Nevertheless, the king has accepted his fate. "Now he just wants to be a simple family man," said Mr Shah. "He likes to be with his family and friends, relax, that's it. For now, he has no intention to do any political game."

But Mr Shah did not rule out the possibility that the former king could one day return as a politician. In Nepal, it sometimes seems that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Nepal Information