The End of a Monarchy
On Sunday, October 17, 2010, I was leaning against a vine-covered brick wall in downtown Kathmandu trying to keep out of the rain. I had wrapped the edge of my sari over my head, but was still very grateful when a friend pulled up on a motorcycle bringing an umbrella. The friend didn't stay though—it was Vijayadasami, one of the most important holidays of the Nepali Hindu calendar, and besides, he may have felt funny being seen with me. I was standing with several hundred royalists outside the private residence of Gyanendra Shah, the former king of Nepal.
It was the last week of my research year in Nepal, and my last opportunity to make contact with the former monarch before I had to return to Chicago. I waited four hours, making small talk with the people around me (a crowd dominated by elderly men in traditional daura suruwal tunics and jackets), being pushed by overenthusiastic young men in Hindu saffron, being photographed by strangers, waving to people I had met in the course of my research.
As it got dark, I finally made it up to the doorway of the former king's house. The former king and queen were seated on formal chairs, beaming at the crowds of people gathered for their blessings. Turn by turn, they would each dip their right thumb into a dish of red powder, and then make a smudge on each person’s forehead. As I approached the former king, I began talking in the fastest, most formal Nepali I could muster, reminding him of the letters that I had sent and requesting he consider granting me an interview.
But Gyanendra cut me off, and asked me in rich, clear English, “Are you still working on that thesis?”
I have known Gyanendra for quite a long time now. Which is to say, I hadn’t met him, but I had watched and thought about him for years—had looked at his pictures, thought about his motivations. He had been an important piece of my intellectual and imaginative universe for years—specifically, since 2001.
King Gyanendra: During and After the Monarchy
In June 2001, I was coming to the end of my first time living in Nepal when nearly a dozen members of Nepal’s royal family—including King Birendra and both his sons and heirs – were shot to death at a dinner party. For two traumatic and chaotic days, Crown Prince Dipendra had lingered in a coma, nominally the king of the country but also named the shooter in the incident; finally he too passed away and the crown passed to King Birendra’s younger brother, Gyanendra. Riveted right along with the rest of the shocked nation, I watched on live television as the Honorable Guru to the King solemnly placed the feathered, jeweled, helmet-like crown of the Shah dynasty onto the head of His Royal Highness Gyanendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev.
Fascinated by the ornate, sometimes bewildering, apparently archaic religious ritual that sprang into action upon the deaths of the royals, I watched with fascination as over the next few months King Gyanendra took on the full annual ritual cycle that his brother and father before him had assiduously kept—rituals that I had never paid attention to in the months leading up to the massacre. Now I tuned in as King Gyanendra observed Rato Machhendranath’s sacred vest, received blessings from the Living Goddess Kumari, presided over the horse festival that annually tames the goddess under the Tundikhel field, and offered animal sacrifices to Dakshinkali.
And I applied to the Divinity School’s PhD program with the intention to write my dissertation about the role of royal ritual in constructing a monarchy that in most respects tried to represent itself as modern.
2006 Democratic Movement in Nepal
I didn’t write that dissertation, because something much more interesting intervened. In 2006, there was a nationwide uprising against King Gyanendra’s direct rule over the government, and when the king stepped down he was immediately suspended. Over the course of the next two years, the new interim government systematically stripped the king of all his former privileges and duties, and by 2007 the battle over the very existence of the monarchy had moved to the king’s royal ritual responsibilities: beginning in July of that year, the king was replaced at every ritual by the Prime Minister.
This became the subject of my dissertation instead: the conflict over who would participate in royal rituals, and the way in which replacing the king helped to end the very existence of the monarchy.
I was fortunate enough to receive a Fulbright grant which enabled me to spend the year 2009–2010 in Nepal, researching the transitions of the past few years. I was able to meet many of the main participants in the dismantling of the monarchy, and was able to gain a clear, detailed picture of how the interim government planned and then implemented their new anti-monarchy policy. I also observed over the course of the year the ways in which formerly royal rituals have been modified and adapted to the present context.
Now it’s not the king but the president who observes sacred vests and horse festivals, gets blessed by the Living Goddess and worships Lord Krishna. But Gyanendra is gradually coming back into Nepali public life—though it’s still unclear what his ultimate role will be—and when he offered to open his doors at Vijaya Dasami to offer their blessings to the people of Nepal, hundreds—or perhaps thousands of people—showed up, from the confirmed royalists to the merely curious.
While Vijaya Dasami offered me an ideal research opportunity—a moment to make a personal request for an interview—there was also something simply viscerally exciting about being face to face with Gyanendra himself: the secretive, controversial man whose strange and brief kingship has become the object of so much of my time and energy.
And the moment was everything for which I could have hoped. While Gyanendra still hasn’t offered an interview, the fact that he instantly recognized me felt like a victory in itself.
It turns out that I am known (in some small way) by someone I have known so long and, oddly, so well.
By Anne Mocko, PhD candidate, Divinity School